Toronto
2 min

A mayor’s prerogative

Markham's Don Cousens likes homos, but disses gay billboard

KISSING COUSENS. Marilyn Byers raises the PFLAG. Credit: Mark Bogdanovic

Markham Mayor Don Cousens, portrayed as a bigot during the fight for same-sex spousal rights back in 1994, is back in the news over calling for gay-positive billboards be torn down from an area highway.



“He made a mess of it,” says Marilyn Byers, founder of the York Region chapter of Parents, Families And Friends Of Lesbians And Gays.



“He says the signs are too big. They’re in your face. Well I hope so.”



Cousens had originally backed the PFLAG project, where a billboard reading “Someone you know and love is gay” was erected Jan 25 on Woodbine Ave north of John.



Cousens said his views had softened on the issue since his days as an MPP at Queen’s Park. He was the Tory representing Markham when (the unsuccessful) Bill 167 came up.



He voted against, saying it dealt only with one special interest group out of many who need protection.



And late last year, Byers got letters and plaques of support for PFLAG’s birthday and mission from all but one of the nine municipalities in York Region – Markham.



At the time, Byers said: “The only one who absolutely declined was, of course, Don Cousens from Markham. His executive secretary said that, ‘They’re not criticizing, but they’re not supporting.’ In other words, they’re half pregnant.”



Cousens did not return calls. But he told Markham media in the run-up to the billboards: “I have renewed my sense of judgment, I don’t think I am threatened by what gays are all about. Today I know in my heart that I am more accepting.”



A few days after the complaints started to come in, and Cousens quickly withdrew his backing, asking PFLAG to replace them with something less controversial.



This about-face comes as a disappointment to Byers. “We would like his endorsement because obviously it’s very sad when you have one mayor who is not supportive.”



But Byers also says Cousens has guaranteed the success of the billboards.



“He’s helped us because he’s brought awareness. It’s brought it into the media. We’ve gotten much more mileage out of our billboards than we ever expected. But I’m not surprised.”



And she says the fuss proves that the signs are necessary. “Don [Cousens] had said that a father drove by [the sign] and his 10-year-old asked, ‘What does that mean?’ and he didn’t know what to say. Well that’s proof that we need the signs. Because if they don’t know what to say, they’re not educated about this issue.”



The billboard, along with another reading “It’s not a choice, it’s okay to be gay,” will be up for four weeks (the other is at Warden and 14th Ave).



The billboards cost $3,000 each, paid for through fundraising and grants. But Markham donated nothing.



In a month, PFLAG will look for other locations, perhaps further north. Each additional sign will cost $1,800.



“The billboard was there to generate controversy, to spur dialogue and gain hope and acceptance for gays and lesbians. And to eventually turn it into a non-issue. So it’s done its job, so we’re really, really glad and we need to do more. We’re glad with what’s happened,” says Byers.