David Furnish lived a double life during his 20s in Toronto, saying good-night to his girlfriend before running off to Church Street in “the village.” Though he grew up in a Scarborough home where he knew “only happiness and stability,” he didn’t trust that gay life in Canada would work out for him. “I look back and know I was running away,” says Furnish, now a 52-year-old film and theatre producer and chair of the Elton John AIDS Foundation.
But the Prodigal Son is back, this time to lead Toronto’s 2015 Pride Parade as Grand Marshal.
Commanding the spotlight can’t come easy when you’re married to one of the most famous people on the planet.
Furnish and Elton John, 68, have been together since 1993, a relationship sealed by a 2005 civil union (what the U.K. offered same-sex couples at the time) and a star-studded wedding last December at their home in Windsor, England. (It was John’s second marriage; his first, to a woman, ended in 1988.) Their two children, Zachary, 4, and Elijah, 2, were conceived by in vitro fertilization (IVF) with a donor egg and mixture of the couple’s sperm, prompting Furnish and John to call for a boycott of Dolce & Gabbana earlier this year when the Italian designers suggested that IVF children were “synthetic.”
What kind of personality is required to be husband and business partner with one of the world’s most flamboyant celebrities? Judging by IN’s one-on-one with Furnish, it takes quiet confidence, unflappability, an understated sense of style and a decidedly team-player attitude.
IN What was your gut reaction when you were invited to be Pride Toronto’s grand marshal?
DAVID FURNISH It didn’t take me very long to think about it. I was very honoured. I grew up in Toronto and was largely based here until I was 27, then I kind of ran away. Sometimes you need a little distance to appreciate things fully. I’ve seen Canada go through amazing political and social change. I didn’t think Canada was very cool when I left. It got much cooler while I was away.
IN What’s your marshalling strategy?
DF I’ve never been in a parade before. I haven’t picked out my wardrobe, though a few people have offered to make me an outfit. I’ll try to be me, really. A lot of my friends from the States and the U.K. are coming to support me.
IN Is there a particular message you’d like to get across?
DF What I would most like to draw attention to is the 81 countries in the world where lesbians and gays are criminalized. On a human-rights level, I’m appalled by that. And then when you put these homophobic laws in place, they create a culture of fear, stigmatizing people on the basis of their sexuality. What happens is HIV/AIDS is associated with being a “gay disease.” People don’t feel confident to present for an AIDS test, to reveal their status, to pick up their medication or adhere to it. Not only is it wrong from a civil-rights perspective, it’s killing people. Elton and I met in the Oval Office with President Barack Obama [last month], and that was the first thing we brought up with him.
IN Do you consider yourself a role model?
DF I guess I am, yeah. [Laughs.]
IN Do you feel like a celebrity?
DF I was just up and down on the subway to see my parents, who live in a retirement home in North York. I sit on the subway, and I’m absolutely, perfectly fine. People don’t come up and ask for a selfie. People don’t run down the street asking for my autograph. I don’t have that kind of celebrity, and I really don’t want that kind of celebrity.
IN I’ve seen paparazzi photos of you.
DF A paparazzi photo of David Furnish walking down the street is not worth very much money. A paparazzi photo of David Furnish with Elton or with his children or with another celebrity or in what they may judge to be an incriminating or embarrassing situation, the price goes up. But my value? I just think I’m kind of a by-product. Elton is a global icon and a musical legend. I have a lot of profile from my marriage to him and my association with him. Where I have an opportunity to do something good with that, I’m very grateful for it.
IN How do you make time for family?
DF The golden rule for us is, unless we’re out of town, that we never, ever miss the boys’ bath time and story time and putting them to bed at night. When we travel, we’ve been fortunate that we can take the children with us. You keep the routine consistent. When Elton was doing his show at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, we took an anteroom off his dressing room and converted it into a bath and bedtime area with an inflatable duck tub, a rocker-glider and some storybooks. They put on their pyjamas, they say good-night to Daddy, and then Daddy goes on stage and does his show.
IN Are you the good cop dad or the bad cop?
DF I’m probably a tiny bit more practical in my approach with the children. There are certain things with them that it’s very difficult for Elton to do, out in public, without it turning into a circus show. I’m the one who gets down on the ground and gets really rough and tumble, kicking the football.
IN Have you forgiven Dolce & Gabbana for their “synthetic” comments?
DF The reason they stung—and I’m not going to wade into a debate with anybody on traditional families, because if you want to make those judgements, history is going to prove you wrong—is that they were branding any child born of IVF as being synthetic. It is a crime to stick a label on a child the same way it’s wrong to stigmatize someone by their sexuality or the colour of their skin, by their work, by their family background, by their income. I would welcome the opportunity to sit down with them and clear the air.
IN Did your marriage last December change anything between you and Elton?
DF The  civil partnership sure changed things. We had no idea how the world was going to respond to that. We didn’t know if we were going to get picketed or flour bombed, but we had a real outpouring of support. The marriage this time around was less profound. It was just so funny for me to wake up the morning after, because when you’ve been together with someone for 21 years, you don’t wake up and think, “Oh God, I hope I married the right person.”
IN At least you can officially call each other “husband.”
DF It still feels a little funny. I didn’t want to be disrespectful when I was a civil partner by referring to myself as a “husband,” because I didn’t want to suggest it was total equality when it was not. But now I am his husband and Elton is mine. Elton was onstage the other night. He said, “I have a wonderful life with my partner-husband.” When he came offstage I told him, “You can drop the ‘partner’ part now.”