In a move that comes as something of a surprise for a party that has long been associated with a hostile attitude toward the queer community, the Ontario Progressive Conservatives are running three out gay men on their slate in this election — and at least one of them stands a serious chance of being elected.

Only two out LGBT candidates have run for the PC Party in its history: Toronto Sun columnist Sue-Ann Levy ran and lost in a 2009 by-election, and former cabinet minister Keith Norton ran and lost after coming out in 1990. But now Norton’s former cabinet colleague Phil Gillies — who came out after leaving politics in 1987 — is seeking a return to Queen’s Park in the southwestern Ontario riding of Brant. And as the PCs lost Brant in 2011 by fewer than 1,000 votes, they think it’s one of their strongest chances for a pick-up.

Since leaving office, Gillies has continued to be involved in politics, serving as an advisor to the PCs in a number of campaigns, working on environmental and endangered-species issues, and sitting on the advisory council of ProudPolitics, a non-partisan organization that encourages LGBT people to run for office in Canada.

Although he was still in the closet, Gillies is best remembered in the queer community as being one of just four members of the PC caucus to vote in favour of Bill 7 in 1986, which expanded human rights law in the province to cover sexual orientation. He describes the experience as “bruising.”

“I campaigned quite aggressively for the first gay-rights bill. It was a very acrimonious and contentious debate,” he says. “It was really quite remarkable that when the trans rights bill went to the house, it passed unanimously. I thought that was great, the contrast with the first gay-rights bill.”

He says there’s been a strong change in attitude across the province, which is being reflected in the PC Party.

“For a lot of us who were from ridings particularly outside of the big urban centres, [coming out] just wasn’t an option if you wanted to go anywhere in politics,” he says. “What a difference the last 20-odd years has made.

“[PC leader Tim Hudak] was well aware of my role in working with MPPs that brought gay rights to Ontario in the ’80s. He’s actually told me this is one of the reasons he wanted me on the team. The more of us who are working at the very centre of Queen’s Park, the further it goes to improving attitudes,” he says. And in the wake of a 2011 election that ended on a sour note when a number of PC candidates distributed homophobic campaign flyers and were backed up by Hudak, Gillies says the party is actively reaching out to the LGBT community.

“I was running the campaign in Brant, and I was very upset and concerned, and I certainly made my displeasure known,” he says of the 2011 campaign flyers. “But in terms of my involvement in the last couple of years, I accompanied Tim Hudak and his wife, Debbie, and a number of other gay conservatives, both two years ago and last year, to the Starry Night Gala [at Pride]. I was delighted to see how well Tim was received by the community.”

One of the issues Gillies says he’d like to push for is improved health and mental-health services for LGBT people outside the province’s major urban centres, citing the Rainbow Program at CAMH as an example.

“A lot of people may not realize how important this is . . . When you face discrimination or tension in the family, all of these things that can arise out of a young person coming out as gay, it can put pressures on people that lead to any number of problems,” he says. “I’m not saying for a minute that there should be brick-and-mortar facilities in all the smaller communities. That’s not feasible. But there should be people in the field who are trained in these issues.”

Meanwhile, hoping to establish a toehold for the PCs in downtown Toronto is Jamie Ellerton, who’s running in the west-end riding of Parkdale–High Park. It’s a constituency the PCs have never won, but Ellerton wants to bring the party’s message to the riding.

“LGBT people, like the rest of Ontarians, are tired of getting a bad deal from their government. Young LGBTs are looking for job opportunities; they want to get ahead, but they can’t get into this job market,” he says. “Just because you happen to be gay or lesbian doesn’t mean you have to be a tax-and-spend socialist who wants government to manage your life.”

Ellerton lives in the Junction neighbourhood, runs his own communications business and has served as an executive assistant to PC Leader Tim Hudak and Jason Kenney, the federal minister of employment and minister for multiculturalism. He is also a spokesperson for the lobby group Ethical Oil, which advocates for increased production of the Alberta oil sands, and sits on the board of the Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees.

Ellerton says the PCs are allies of the queer community. “Tim Hudak and the whole caucus voted en masse to have the pride flag fly at Queen’s Park to show solidarity with LGBT people during the Sochi Olympics,” he says.

In the Liberal stronghold of Ottawa Vanier, the PCs are running Martin Forget, who is perhaps best known in political circles as the longtime partner of former Liberal MP Mario Silva. Forget says that he and Silva maintain domestic harmony despite disagreeing on some political issues.

“We live together and we’re happy . . . but there are some concerns we don’t share about the economic agenda in the province of Ontario,” he says. “I think that’s very indicative that I disagree with the Liberal agenda.”

Forget says that agenda will turn Ontario’s economy into one resembling the ruined economies of Spain and Greece. “The bottom line is the way to change this is putting people back to work. We need to stop the waste; we need to bring back the hydro bills at the right level, so that the people from the LGBT community . . . have the power to start small businesses and thrive,” he says.

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