Like a lot of Canadian-politics watchers, I spent the night of the last federal election glued to the live results on television, furiously refreshing elections.ca on my laptop, tweeting on my phone and arguing with friends about the meaning of the numbers on my various screens.
The mood in the room at the queer non-partisan results party I was at was decidedly mixed: revulsion at the Harper majority, elation at the incredible NDP and Green breakthroughs, humiliation about the Liberal defeats.
Amid the confusion, I cast out a tweet noting that three new openly gay men won seats in Parliament, and two openly gay incumbents were defeated, leaving a total “queer caucus” of five MPs — down from six after the last election, including two retirements.
I thought the tweet innocuous, and possibly helpful to LGBT readers, but the first response I got was from a journalist at a daily paper, questioning why on earth anyone would care about who the new gay MPs were, given that the headline news was Harper’s majority win.
Leaving aside that my tweet wasn’t quite Mrs Lincoln gushing about Our American Cousin, it’s a question I’ve thought on several times over the past four years, covering two provincial elections, three leadership races, a municipal election and too many by-elections: what good are queer politicians, anyway?
Certainly the last four years have not seen the federal government take a noticeable interest in LGBT issues. But the governing Conservatives didn’t have a single elected LGBT person in their caucus — if they did, would their record have been more positive? Would other Conservative MPs have at least felt shame in arguing against human rights protections for trans people or continuing the gay blood donor ban if they counted some LGBT people among their colleagues? A queer MP on the government benches might have been a voice for the community.
Or maybe they wouldn’t. I’ve interviewed dozens of queer politicians over the years, and while they tend to welcome the publicity that comes with being “out,” the vast majority bristle at being referred to as a gay or lesbian politician. Almost always, they say they’re motivated by loftier or broader issues than LGBT rights.
After all, even if an MP happens to be queer, they aren’t elected to represent the queer community. An MP represents the people who happen to live and vote in his or her particular riding.
If you look at the legislative records of our gay and lesbian MPs, you’ll find they’re dominated by submissions of private member bills and motions that either deal with hyper-local, riding-level issues, like calls for increased environmental protection of local waterways, or that represent national issues of concern to the party. For example, Toronto-Danforth MP Craig Scott is best known for his bill to make it easier for Quebec to separate in the event of a referendum, an issue that in a decade as a queer reporter, I have never once heard queer activists campaign for, but is central to the NDP’s messaging in Quebec.
But Scott has also tabled a bill to equalize the current discriminatory ages of consent for anal and vaginal intercourse, and a motion to clear the service records of military personnel who were discharged for being gay or lesbian. Other gay MPs have tabled bills and motions to strike the criminal records of gay men convicted under Canada’s old sodomy laws (Philip Toone, Gaspésie–Îles-de-la-Madeleine), deal with cyberbullying (Dany Morin, Chicoutimi—Le Fjord), end the blood donor ban, include trans people in human rights and hate crime legislation, and protect civil marriages entered into in Canada by foreigners (Randall Garrison, Esquimalt—Juan de Fuca).
Which is not to say straight MPs don’t respond to their LGBT constituents. Vancouver Centre MP Hedy Fry spent much of the last Parliament pushing her own bills on trans rights and cyberbullying, and advocating for sex workers. Fry has demonstrably been a higher-profile advocate for queer issues than any of the openly gay Liberal MPs she’s served with.
But Fry may be the exception that proves the rule: she represents one of the largest queer communities in Canada and has had to go head-to-head against gay activists in successive elections. Straight allies are great, but they need to be prodded by loud and organized LGBT communities.
That they were unable to deliver results from the opposition benches is no knock on them; it’s the nature of our democracy.
And though they may still be afraid to take truly progressive stances on sex work, drug policy and other scary queer issues, queer politicians are pushing parts of an LGBT agenda forward in Parliament. They’re helping move public opinion and priming these issues for the next government to deal with.
But there’s a more esoteric reason why LGBT politicians matter. Even in 2015, openly gay politicians serve as role models — not only for young queer people, but for straight Canadians who can use the reminder that queer people exist and that we can be leaders. And not only that: we are part of Canadian society everywhere, not just in the gentrifying parts of our big cities.
At least 21 openly LGBT candidates are seeking office as members of five parties, and in places as diverse as Vancouver, Toronto, Edmonton, Montreal, Red Deer, Regina, Saskatoon, and St. John’s, and rural areas in BC, Quebec, Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. A trans person will be on the ballot for the first time.
Win or lose — and many of them are poised for wins — LGBT people standing for office are sending a message. And the out LGBT politicians who’ve actually been brought into power have demonstrated that access to power will deliver benefits for our community.
Does it matter if a politician is queer?
(Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the number of LGBT incumbents in previous years who were defeated or retired.)