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Even after the selection of Kathleen Wynne as premier, LGBT activists argue that there’s much more pink politicking left to do in Ontario

The selection of an openly lesbian premier in Ontario may have marked a victory in one battle, but for many in the LGBT community, the political struggle continues.

When the Ontario Liberal party voted for Kathleen Wynne as their new leader in January — making her Canada’s first openly LGBT premier — it marked the culmination of a series of wins for the province’s queer community. Same-sex marriage, human rights protection for trans people, anti-bullying legislation… and now a lesbian premier.

But for LGBT activists, including those who are members of mainstream political parties, a lot still remains to be done, and Wynne’s accession to the premiership is, as yet, little more than a symbolic gesture.
“We are not easily moved by the fact that we have a premier who is out,” says Nick Mulé, chair of the activist group Queer Ontario. “I’m not sure she’s had enough time to demonstrate whether it’s an advantage to the community. There’s a lot of wait and see to this. But she also made the comment that she’s not a gay activist. I think that sent a real message to the community. I understand she had to put people, especially the 905ers, at ease. But it sent a very cautioning message, ‘Don’t expect a lot from me. I’m not carrying your agenda.’”

As long-time trans activist Susan Gapka points out, Wynne has yet to win an election as premier. “It all reminds me of George Bush, and his ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner. This premier has not been elected by the people of Ontario,” says Gapka, who sits on the executive of the provincial NDP as a member of the party’s LGBT committee. “We have to ask, ‘Do we need more women in politics or do we need feminist policies?’”
Even members of the Queer Liberals, an unofficial group for LGBT members of both national and provincial Liberal parties, admit that having a lesbian premier doesn’t mean the end of the fight.

“The Wynne win shows that the times are changing,” says Jules Kerlinger, president of the Queer Liberals. “Even 10 years ago, that wouldn’t have happened. We have made a lot of progress, but there’s still a lot to be done. Just because we’ve sort of crossed the horizon doesn’t mean everything’s resolved. Just the lack of visible gay, lesbian or trans MPPs, there’s still a problem.”

The last year has undeniably seen a number of positive developments for LGBT Ontarians. The passage of what is popularly known as “Toby’s Law” ensured trans people are entitled to protection under the province’s human rights legislation. The legislature passed anti-bullying legislation in Bill 13. Laws were changed to make it easier for trans people to change gender on legal identity documents, such as drivers’ licenses or birth certificates, although a doctor’s signature is still required.

But those both inside and outside the mainstream political process agree that many battles remain to be won. Mulé points to ongoing problems with Ontario’s education system when it comes to queer issues. In particular, he refers to a failure to reform the sex education curriculum for schools to include more gay-positive content; to include more queer content in teacher training; and to end the funding of Ontario’s Catholic school system.

Mulé points the finger at Wynne’s predecessor as premier, Dalton McGuinty, for his willingness to back off curriculum change when updated proposals faced a backlash from the religious right. “Here we are in 2013 and there’s no mention of when this’ll get off the ground. A lot of us make the connection between how outdated this is and bullying in schools.”

Kerlinger blames the Liberal retreat on curriculum on the Conservatives, but says he, too, doesn’t know when, or if, a revised curriculum will be brought forward. “There was a huge backlash from the PCs, insisting that little kids would be forced to experiment with homosexuality. Wynne has promised to reintroduce the curriculum, but we’re not sure when.”

Mulé also would like to see Wynne address the issue of Catholic school funding, and the reluctance of the separate school system to accept LGBT students or gay-straight alliances. “One thing we’d like to see for sure would be to go after the pastoral guidelines, which call us ‘intrinsically disordered.’ It’s a modern-day blatant form of discrimination. But I also know the government won’t touch that, it’s too controversial.”

Christin Milloy, a trans woman who ran for the Libertarian party in the last provincial election, also points to lack of action on Catholic school funding as a priority. “After Bill 13, it’s been made very clear that the publicly-funded Catholic system has no right to insist that freedom of expression and association can be denied by groups  seeking to persecute queer students.”

All these activists agree that trans issues might be the area that most needs to be addressed by our political parties.

Milloy says that while she’s pleased that it’s easier for trans individuals to change the gender on identification documents, she thinks the government has no business being involved at all in how people self-identify. Gapka, too, thinks the process needs to be easier and less bureaucratic, and should be available to those under 18.

Gapka also points to the need to make transitioning easier for all. While the Liberal government restored funding for sex-reassignment surgery five years ago, procedures like electrolysis and chest construction for trans men are still not covered.

And Mulé says that services for trans people, or for gay and lesbian people, are not easily accessible to all in Ontario. “We can sometimes forget in our bubble in Toronto that we do exist outside the city. If you’re living in Timmins, for example, you don’t have access to those services. What we’re really concerned about is the redistribution of services to the trans community.”

Mulé also says that legislative changes tend to focus on gender identity alone. The recent federal bill to include trans people in human rights protection does not address gender expression, for example, and the Ontario bill to allow document changes still requires medical approval.

“It does recognize trans people, does allow them to change gender identity, but does so in a very traditional way. The formal political system needs to start looking beyond binary definitions of gender,” says Mulé. “But it speaks to how complicated these issues are. The queer community hasn’t even resolved them yet.”


Apart from questions of policy, does having a lesbian premier mark the high point of queer involvement in politics? Does it mean that gays are now fully a part of the political process?

Milloy says she ran for the Libertarians not because she felt unwelcome in other parties, but because theyreflected her beliefs about personal freedoms. “I never experienced any discrimination during the election. I had more doors closed on me because I was running for one of the smaller parties than because I was trans. I think in this day and age it would do more harm than good to a party’s reputation to discriminate.”

Kerlinger notes, however, that even with a lesbian leader, the Liberals aren’t all welcoming to LGBT  members. “We’re a big tent party and there are going to be people who just aren’t going to be very accepting of homosexuality. At the leadership convention, we were wearing our Queer Liberals shirts, and there were some people who were clearly disturbed by that.”

The Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario did not provide anybody to be interviewed for this story. “We don’t actually ask anybody’s sexual orientation when they join the party,” says Alan Sakach, the party’s director of communications. “It’s just not something we put on the questionnaire.”

Gapka refers to the homophobic reaction that some openly gay candidates have received in elections, like George Smitherman’s mayoral campaign in Toronto and openly gay NDP candidate Paul Ferreira’s provincial run in York South-Weston, as well as to reaction to legislation like Toby’s Law and Bill 13.

“Some candidates got targetted by homophobic literature. And around Toby’s Law, there was some very offensive language, calling it the bathroom bill. There was story-telling and fear-mongering around what this would mean.”

That’s why it’s important to Gapka to have openly gay politicians, and why she hopes to see a trans politician elected one day. “Wynne and Smitherman are leaders. It’s important that young people grow up with role models.”

Milloy, however, says that while she intends to run again in the next provincial election, she also understands why many young people — queer or not — would feel alienated from politics. “I believe it’s a reflection on the system itself. They know they’re unlikely to see the degree of change they want to see.”

For Mulé, who feels Queer Ontario should maintain its outsider status, activism needs to happen both within and outside the system.

“We don’t take the assimilationist approach that many groups in our community unfortunately do. We’re not seeking mainstream acceptance. But I do believe that we also need to apply pressure from within. I think if you have these pressure points, it really does escalate things. But I would say that say if someone’s going to run for office, they should never compromise the principles of the community.”

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