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3 min

Glass closet

The strange case of Tory minister John Baird

Conservative cabinet minister John Baird (left) smiles for the camera at Ottawa's Pride celebration in 2009. Credit: Remi Theriault

Now that the National Post has declared the ruling Conservatives the new best friends of the gay community, it raises the question: if these people are such warriors for lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans rights, why hasn’t even one of their MPs stood up and come out?

We know there may be a few, though Xtra’s policy on outing has always been clear: we don’t do it. But the media’s handling of Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, in particular, highlights the struggle mainstream journalists have in handling the public profiles of politicians and their supposedly private lives.

Just to set the record straight, it was not some nasty commie queer activist who outed Baird. It was another Tory. On Feb 2, 2010, Conservative candidate Pamela Taylor, who was then running for Ontario provincial office in a by-election, was asked, while on a morning radio chat show, if she could name a single gay Tory. “Openly gay? John Baird,” she responded.

Baird had long been identified as gay in the blogosphere, where, it seems, such things dare speak their name. Up until that point, the mainstream media had avoided the issue.

The response to the outing was odd. Xtra ran it as a lead story online, eliciting a steady stream of reader comments. According to a 2010 Google traffic report, it was xtra.ca’s most-read story of the year. But the mainstream media, perhaps once again inadvertently proving their dinosaur status, chose not to touch the story.

Aside from one article that detailed the outing in La Presse, all the mainstream dailies and radio and TV stations steered clear. (According to the mainstream media, Baird’s is a linguistically lopsided outing; apparently he’s gay in only one official language.) In fact, reporting on the high-profile Baird is hilarious — I haven’t seen this much coded language for “he’s gay but we can’t say it” since I read what gossip columnists wrote about Rock Hudson in the 1950s. When Baird was named Parliamentarian of the Year by Maclean’s in 2010, reporter Aaron Wherry called him “the charming Conservative” (a phrase some might consider a contradiction in terms). Wherry pointed out that some MPs consider Baird “an enigma of sorts.” The article hints at a split personality, quoting Liberal MP Rob Oliphant, who asks, “Who is the real John Baird? Is he the charming, boyish kind of person who is trying to win over the hearts of people? Or is he the pit bull?” Why, he’s the Talented Mr Ripley!

In their defence, Canadian journalists have attempted to maintain a certain ethic on the private lives of politicians. In order to avoid a Clinton/Lewinsky-esque carnival atmosphere, journalists have (for the most part rightly) deemed such issues unnecessary to cover. The emphasis, they point out, should be on the job performances of politicians, not on their personal lives. It could be seen as a twist on the famous Trudeau-ism: the nation has no place in the bedrooms of the state.

But proponents of outing — that is, the act of pushing public figures out of the closet against their will — have long suggested that such acts are entirely justifiable where hypocrisy is involved. Simply put, if you’re working against the rights of queer people, you’ve abdicated your right to remain in the closet.

This question becomes more complicated with Baird, seeing as he is now criticizing governments in other parts of the world for their homophobic policies. Since fighting homophobic laws abroad seems to be part of his agenda, isn’t it then fair to bring up his sexual orientation? To ask Baird how he works within the Conservative Party, given that we know many of its MPs and supporters are hostile to queer rights?

If we had a government that was known to be anti-Semitic, for example, wouldn’t it be fair to ask a prominent Jewish member of that government how he or she managed to make sense of such an apparent contradiction? These are questions that seem imperative.

Not so, apparently. In August, The Globe and Mail’s Campbell Clark wrote what the paper touted as “the definitive profile of Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister,” dubbing it “Baird’s New World.”

But Baird’s new world turned out to be remarkably old school. The article documented details as minute as Baird’s eating habits (he’s a fish-eating vegetarian), to his role models (he worships Margaret Thatcher and even named his cat after her), to his various policy initiatives. Yet there’s no mention of Baird’s sexuality, even though he proudly discusses his international lobbying efforts on behalf of gay rights. At best, it seems a ludicrously glaring omission in a “definitive” profile.

I felt compelled to ask Clark if he was respecting someone’s privacy — given that Baird’s sexual orientation was no longer in any way private — or helping the Conservative government drag the country back into the 19th century.

“This isn’t up to journalists,” Clark told me, when I called him. “Baird doesn’t want to talk about it, so our policy is not to mention it.” When pressed, Clark — who is a highly respected political reporter — acknowledged, “I won’t disagree that the piece is not complete in some ways.” But, he insisted that the policy of not outing is a historical one that continues to stand at most newspapers.

Then, finally, came an admission that the archaic rule that ensures journalists keep sexuality a closeted secret is indeed melting away: “I’m really not sure this policy will last another decade.”