John Baird, the Conservative member of Parliament and minister of foreign affairs who announced his resignation on Feb 3, will be remembered for many things, but he’ll also be remembered as the man who fuelled the debate over whether an MP’s sexuality matters.
The rumour mill has swirled for years about several Conservative politicians. If you believe the gossip, an alleged “gay mafia” made up of single, white, male politicians — Baird among them — runs the upper echelon of Canada’s ruling party.
But as political writer Justin Ling has pointed out repeatedly, the rumours are generally just that. A man can be single and friendly with other gay men, as many Conservatives are, but it’s not evidence that he is gay himself.
By that same logic, Jason Kenney, minister of employment and social development, should secretly be a welder, or Latvian — according to his social media accounts, he’s at the very least shaken hands with one of both in the last several months.
Baird’s circumstances go beyond simple speculation, however. In 2010, almost exactly four years before Baird resigned, Pamela Taylor, a Conservative then running in a provincial by-election, outed Baird, naming him as an openly gay MP when asked to name one during CBC Toronto’s Metro Morning radio show.
Baird has never broached the subject of his sexuality since the allegation was made public, and the story has not been widely reported outside LGBT media. But the statement did lend credence to the rumours about Baird, leading some to speculate that he lives in a glass closet.
Further compounding the rumours is that Baird has been the most outspoken Conservative Party member on LGBT rights. He was openly critical of laws in Uganda that criminalize homosexuality and spoke out against similar laws in Russia and Kenya. His position caused him to butt heads with REAL Women of Canada, a conservative group with close ties to the party. After he announced his resignation, members of both the NDP and the Liberal Party commended Baird’s record of defending gay rights worldwide.
Baird was also among the Conservative MPs who voted to include gender identity in the Canadian Human Rights Act and was against opening the debate on same-sex marriage, earning accolades from his Liberal colleagues in an op-ed in The Globe and Mail. And when a gay, 15-year-old Ottawa student committed suicide, Baird offered condolences in the House of Commons.
In 2010, Xtra editor Marcus McCann expressed his disappointment on Baird’s silence regarding his sexuality, especially in contrast to his reputation as an outspoken politician. And after Baird criticized homophobic Russian laws in 2013, Ontario NDP MPP Cheri DiNovo and activist Roy Mitchell asked him to come out publicly, saying the news would have international impact.
Mitchell told Xtra reporter Andrea Houston in 2013 that Baird’s sexuality was no longer personal — it was political. “Having a gay foreign minister should be a sign of how progressive we are,” he was quoted as saying, adding that he believed it sent mixed messages that Baird would support LGBT rights in other countries while not being out in Canada.
It’s true: had Baird publicly come out, he would have been the most prominent Conservative MP to do so. He would have been someone for LGBT conservatives, or any politicians-to-be, to look to for inspiration.
But his stance on LGBT rights isn’t lessened by his silence. He still stood up, in front of MPs he knew would probably be against his positions, and defended LGBT rights worldwide.
Baird won’t be remembered for being an out-and-proud politician, but he doesn’t have to be. That’s a choice people can make about their sexuality in 2015. But he did, unintentionally, begin a dialogue about what sexuality means for politics in a country where people are often unwilling to broach the topic.
It’s on all of us to continue the discussion.