8 min

‘It’s a bit of a milestone for us’

An interview with Jenn McGinn, the first out lesbian in the BC legislature


When new NDP MLA Jenn McGinn was sworn in Nov 19, she became the first out lesbian to take her seat in BC’s provincial legislature.

McGinn defeated the former president of the BC Medical Association, Liberal Margaret McDiarmid, to win the Vancouver-Fairview riding in one of two by-elections held Oct 29. Fellow NDP-er Spencer Herbert, also queer, prevailed over his Liberal counterpart Arthur Griffiths in the other by-election in the Vancouver-Burrard riding.

McGinn ran for the Vancouver-Fairview slot after Gregor Robertson gave up the seat to run successfully for mayor in last month’s civic elections.

McGinn will now have about six months to make an impact in her new role as opposition critic for community living before facing the polls again in the next general provincial election in May.

Xtra West recently sat down with McGinn to talk about her by-election win, being the first out lesbian in the BC legislature, and what it all means for the queer community. Here’s an excerpt from that interview.

Xtra West: To my knowledge, you are the first out lesbian in the BC legislature. Is that true?

Jenn McGinn: You know, it’s hard to know. Certainly, that’s what everyone’s saying. There might have been other lesbians who were closeted, but as far as we know, I was the first, out, public lesbian to be elected. So it’s a bit of a milestone for us. And these by-elections for both Spencer and I to be two out queers, to get elected —it was fantastic.

One of the people that attended our swearing-in ceremony was Jim Deva, and Jim was quite emotional (see page 17). He said this is just such an important day for our community to have both of you here as out, elected queers representing the constituents.

XW: Why do you think it has taken this long to have this kind of representation?

JM: I think, particularly for women, there are so many barriers still to politics. Let’s face it, it’s a boys’ game.

I was looking around the legislature —our own caucus included —I’m the eighth woman in our caucus of 34.

So it’s very much a man’s game, and there are a lot of barriers to women, especially women who have children, or women who are looking after aging parents, or financially too. A lot of women just don’t have the kinds of political connections, or business connections or whatever, to get the money. You have to raise a lot of money, put yourself out there.

And then for a lot of queers, or a lot of people who might have been working a little bit more at the margins of the community, those connections are a little bit harder.

I guess, you’re just trying to appeal to the masses as much as possible. I think for a lot of people, especially in a riding like Fairview, where it’s not really expressly a queer riding —I have a great number of friends in Fairview and know a number of queer people there —you can’t just be going on about queer issues all the time. You need to appeal to the other issues that affect the majority of the constituents there.

XW: How do you feel about being in this role as the only out lesbian in the BC legislature?

JM: Honestly, I’m not sure if it’s totally sunk in yet. But it was a real honour to have my girlfriend Lisa [DeAbreu] there with me last Wednesday. And then we went to do family pictures, and again, to have our picture taken together and for her to be included with my parents in those pictures.

Our families got to sit down on the floor of the legislature where everyone else was sitting up in the gallery. And to have Lisa included in that, and have her down on the floor was pretty monumental, and like, wow, this is the first time that a woman had her female partner down on the floor. It was surreal.

I think it became surreal when the photographer was taking pictures —and he was like a total flaming queen and he was smiling; he was really into it.

I think big P politics has scared off a lot of people, especially people who might have a more grassroots approach to politics, because there’s a lot of bullshit involved, I will tell you very honestly. There’s a lot of posturing and a lot of backroom stuff that can get a little bit annoying.

So I’m hoping that with Spencer and I in there, and people recognizing the kind of people that we are —that we come from the grassroots and that we’ve done a lot of work in the queer community over the years —that they will say, okay, maybe this isn’t as scary as we think it might be, and we’ll get more queers involved in the political process because it’s important.

That’s where legislation is made, and that’s where decisions get made, and the more diversity that we have around the table —whether that’s queer folks, or younger people like Spencer, or people of colour, disabled people, aboriginal people —the better decisions get made, because then everyone’s voices get heard.

XW: You’re a queer representative in a riding that is not predominantly queer. Did the question of your sexuality come up as an issue as you campaigned in the Vancouver-Fairview riding?

JM: It actually didn’t come up at all, I can honestly say. Oh, one man, one older man —he was around 80-something, came into my office and he said one of my pictures was far too androgynous, and that perhaps I should get a pair of earrings, or maybe put on some lipstick or something like that. So I just laughed, and I said, ‘well, men wear earrings too.’

But he said honestly from this picture he couldn’t tell my gender identity. And then I said, ‘well, is that something that’s really important to you?’ And I started to delve into that a little bit. And he said, well, it was important to him. He said I had his vote anyway, but he said he would prefer someone who was a bit more gender identifiable. So that was interesting. That was really the only comment that I got on the campaign.

What I was hearing on the doorsteps and from people on the streets and from people who were working on the campaign was that they wanted a representative with a really strong voice —someone that was going to go to Victoria and stand up to Gordon Campbell around issues [like] affordable housing, around keeping public health care in public hands not private, lobbying for more affordable childcare.

XW: There’s been a lot of talk about by-elections being commonly seen as a referendum of sorts on a government, sending a warning to the government of the day. What message do you think your win sends?

JM: I think the message that we send is one, that people are just sick and tired of Gordon Campbell’s arrogance. There’s a tremendous feeling from people that I met on the doorsteps or on the streets that he was really out of touch with their lives and the lives of the people that they knew. These pay raises that he gave were a clear example of how completely out of touch he is with most people —a 43 percent pay hike to his top advisor and other pay hikes in the 20 percent, 30 percent [range] —where most people were lucky to get a two or three percent pay hike.

At the same time, the premier hasn’t raised the minimum wage in seven years, which is a complete assault on working people, and younger people in particular, [and] a lot of immigrants who are working in lower paid jobs. It was a fantastic message that we sent to him and his government.

XW: What do you think you can accomplish in five months before you face another election in May?

JM: It’s going to be tough. I’ll certainly acknowledge that.

But now that we have been assigned our critic areas, I think we’ll be able to expose the government —their missteps or broken promises around key issues. Mine is community living, and I’ll certainly be speaking out strongly on those issues for families who are being impacted by the cuts to Community Living British Columbia, and I know my colleague [Spencer Herbert] will be speaking out on cuts made to arts and culture.

It’s going to be hard to make a huge impact in the next five months but certainly one thing we’re going to be doing is just getting out there and meeting with our community, meeting with various stakeholders and interest groups and listening and just being responsive to their concerns and hoping that they’ll trust us enough to give us a nod again in May.

XW: I want to turn to the issue of violence against the queer community. In the wake of several incidents of alleged gaybashing, there has been a renewed call for the courts to take gaybashing seriously. Should the BC attorney general issue a memo to Crown Counsel instructing them to be more assertive in applying a hate crime designation at sentencing?

JM: Absolutely. Absolutely. I think that the courts really need to enforce the hate crime legislation to acts of violence against queers and acts of violence against other identifiable groups. And the attorney general, I agree that he really needs to take clear and decisive action on that.

There’s been so many cases in our community where acts of violence have happened and the sentencing has been so pathetic. With Aaron Webster’s murderers, that was just a slap in the face to the Webster family and to our community, and now this recent case with Jordan [Smith]. We need to push the courts very strongly on issues of hate crimes.

XW: Turning to the BC Human Rights Code. There is freedom from discrimination based on race, ancestry, place of origin, colour, citizenship, religion, political belief, sex, sexual orientation, age, marital status, family status or disability, criminal conviction and lawful source of income enshrined in the BC Human Rights Code. Gender identity is not explicitly included as a protected category.

Do you want to see gender identity added to the code as a protected category?

JM: Yes. Absolutely.

XW: Would an NDP government be supportive of such a move?

JM: I know we are federally. Bill Siksay has been just a tremendous advocate for trans people and for gender identity getting put into the federal code. So I can’t imagine any of our colleagues opposing it but certainly that would be something I would like to look at.

There needs to be protection for trans people. It seems like that’s the last bastion of real blatant discrimination out there is towards the trans population, so there needs to be some kind of legal protection for people whether it’s around employment or housing or any number of issues they can be discriminated against.

XW: The issue of queer leadership has come up on the 30th anniversary of Harvey Milk’s assassination. In light of your election and Spencer’s and the high profile of queers in the recently concluded city election, do we have our own Harvey Milks out there who are willing to be in the forefront?

JM: I think there’s so many leaders in various aspects of our queer community, whether it’s leaders in the arts and cultural community, or in education or health care or business. There’s a bit more of a collaborative approach.

I guess the closest thing to Harvey Milk —and he would probably be embarrassed if I said this —would be Jim Deva. Jim has just been an outstanding community leader and activist and passionate advocate of our community.

I think that these days too, we’ve evolved into a society where we want to try to let all of our lights shine. I see a lot more of a direction towards community collaboration. I would like to see more of that and more sharing of that power and of community connections.

XW: There is a feeling that with the sweeping change of government at the city level that queers will now have a greater voice at city hall. Do you think that an NDP government will provide a stronger voice at the provincial level for queers?

JM: Absolutely. I have no words to describe how delighted I am to have Gregor in there, and to have his councillors there, and people at the park and school level as well.

But definitely with the NDP government, we’ve always been at the forefront around queer issues. There’s now four of us in caucus who’re queer, which is not bad, out of a caucus of 34. I mean, it could be a lot better but there are four voices there. That’s a good start and we’ll be out there and listening.

And particularly with Spencer and I being in two very urban ridings in Vancouver —the two most urban ridings —and our backgrounds working in the queer community, we’ll be very much representatives in bringing those voices to the table at any opportunity we can. And Carole James, certainly, I know has been a very strong advocate around queer issues and I feel fully supported by her to bring anything forward.