Ontario’s provincial election is over and Kathleen Wynne will be sworn in as the province’s new premier on Monday.
By this point, her win has been saddled with all the tired rhetoric that we used to describe electoral firsts. It was “groundbreaking,” “historic” and “revolutionary,” for not only is Wynne the first female premier of Ontario, she is the first Canadian premier to openly identify as gay.
Aside from a few rote sentences about her sexuality, however, most of the national coverage has focused on the exhilarating closeness of the race and the difficult road ahead of Wynne as she attempts to improve the Liberals’ relationship with Ontario teachers, as well as the minority government’s opposition. We are, at the end of the day, more interested in her policies and goals than her sexuality — which is as it should be.
Still, for those of us outside Ontario, the main thing we know about Wynne is that she’s gay. Despite my complaints about overused rhetoric, Wynne’s election is historic, and that’s exciting.
Many Canadians — especially those who are proud to think of themselves as people who don’t care about a person’s colour, gender, sexuality or religion — are taking Wynne’s election as proof of our accepting and tolerant society.
In fact, some people are so on board with the idea of a gay premier that they’re asking why we’re bothering to talk about her sexuality at all. Why does it even matter?
While I approve of the sentiment that fuels this sort of talk — because it’s absolutely the case that a candidate’s sexuality doesn’t provide a litmus test for her or his abilities or politics — I don’t think this means that it doesn’t matter.
In fact, I’d argue that it matters a great deal.
Representation is important. What we see and what we read affects what we can imagine. For LGBQT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer or transgendered) youth, it’s incredibly valuable to have people that they can look up to, people who are like them.
It’s for the same reason that geek girls are fighting to see female characters in their comic books who are more than just sexualized blow-up dolls with swords. It’s why people are petitioning to have Idris Elba be the next James Bond.
When we see a gay woman become premier, that changes the way we understand what it means to be gay. And this is important, especially when the phrase “that’s gay” is still used in schoolyards, casual conversation and even workplace situations to mean something negative.
Homosexuality still provides the punchline for our jokes. Gay men and transgender men are frequently perceived as less than “real” men (whatever that means). Lesbian women’s perceived lack of desirability to straight men is mocked while straight women’s homosexual experimentation is performance for straight-male consumption. This is oppressive and damaging, and our society is full of it.
When people who are currently beneficiaries of the status quo — straight people, white people, men — ask “Why are we still talking about this?” they are speaking from a place of kindness, but it is privileged kindness nonetheless, because they do not understand or even recognize the barriers to equality that many members of our society continue to face. Instead of working to solve the problem, this kind of attitude insists that there isn’t a problem at all. It’s the worst kind of silencing, because it is well-meaning.
So if you can’t understand why Wynne’s victory is a big deal, and why it is worth talking about, think on the fact that LGBQT (especially T) youth are at much higher risk of bullying, sexualized violence and suicide than their peers. When we tell our children that they’re all equal, and then deny them the representation that reflects that equality, they know we don’t mean it. Children are smart. They learn homophobia and they replicate it, because we teach our children every day that gay people’s lives are slightly less valuable than straight people’s.
This is not because our laws are bigoted, but because our society is. Better representation is one way to counteract that.
Ontario has now chosen a gay premier. And though it’s easy to get frustrated with the hackneyed language of electoral firsts, it is a first, it is historic and it does matter. And we should absolutely be talking about it.
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