4 min

Politics: How to get dykes into office

Municipal elections show it ain't easy

Credit: Nicola Betts photo

Helen Kennedy wishes she had talked more about being a lesbian in her campaign to be a city councillor.

In November Kennedy failed in her bid to replace her former boss Olivia Chow as the Toronto city councillor for Ward 20 Trinity-Spadina, finishing second to former political reporter Adam Vaughan.

“I didn’t hide it, but I will run a more open, out campaign next time,” says Kennedy. “There are important issues and they need to be raised. It was an important difference between me and the other candidates. It would have made a difference in terms of what we had to say. I look on that as a lost opportunity.”

But while Kennedy regrets missing the chance to raise gay and lesbian issues in the campaign, she doesn’t think her loss reflects widespread homophobia in the ward.

“It certainly was a contributing factor, but it wasn’t the main reason we lost. Among some circles it was a problem. But it was very subtle. I never experienced any homophobia from the voters and it never stopped me doing anything.”

Kennedy admits, though, that her sexual orientation did play some role, and she says Vaughan was very clever in making oblique references to it.

“Adam ran a campaign where he talked about family constantly, and his main opponent was a dyke with no children. It’s tougher being a butch lesbian than being a lipstick lesbian. If I was a high femme lesbian running, it wouldn’t present the same threat.”

Nicki Ward, who was the only other out lesbian municipal candidate Xtra found in the GTA, ran for election in the Milton region. She finished fourth in the race. Ward, too, feels that the issue of family played a role in her loss. Ward has two children, although they don’t live with her.

“I made a decision to keep my children out of the limelight. When every other candidate is putting pictures of their children everywhere, I can’t say I’m a family woman. One’s partner also plays a role. It’s always been the woman behind the man.”

But Ward says that her opponents didn’t dare to truly make her sexual orientation an election issue.

“Even in 905-land, knocking someone on the basis of their sexuality or colour is a dangerous game. For every vote you pick up on the basis of attacking sexuality, you can lose someone who doesn’t want to vote for a bigot.”

Indeed, Ward says that if she had stressed her business background & she’s a financial consultant in Toronto & she might have been able to take advantage of the stereotype of lesbians being self-sufficient and capable.

“A lesbian candidate is seen as coming to terms with herself as an individual so she won’t compromise her values. She’s faced adversity. I know that about a lesbian candidate before I go in. I don’t know whether I would have changed my campaign literature to include pictures of me wearing a toolbelt, but it would have helped if I could have come across as a businesswoman with two kids floating in the background. Those were mistakes.”

But despite such stereotypes, lesbians still face the same problems that women in general face in politics. In Toronto, for example, the number of women on the 45-member city council dropped to 10 from 15 after the election.

“I think it’s easier for men in general, a lot easier,” says Kennedy. “It’s a lot easier to raise money. Men are seen as leaders.”

Ward agrees, saying that in smaller towns, money and connections may be even more of an issue.

“I’m not saying municipal politics is controlled by the Freemasons. But the Rotary Club, the Lions, Kiwanis & there are fewer of these networking opportunities for women in a small town. The gentlemen in the race were far better capitalized than the women. In the 905 area, if you have enough money you can pick up a councillor’s seat.”

Ward also agrees with Kennedy that women, and perhaps lesbians in particular, are seen as less likely to be victorious.

“There’s a self-fulfilling prophecy in there. Politics is fear-driven. People want to vote for a winner. If you’re voting for someone to win, you’re probably not going to vote for a gay woman, even if you are a gay woman.”

In fact, Ward says that the lack of support from the queer community in her region may have played a role in her loss.

“If you’re a gay couple living in Campbellville, one of the reasons you’ve moved out there is to vanish into the wainscoting. I got the votes, but I didn’t get the gay turnout. The volunteers I had were all straight. There were no gay cash contributions or contributions of physical labour which would have been nice. With a larger gay turnout, we might be having a different result.”

Ward says lesbians could be elected in many GTA ridings if the queer community turned out in force.

“She’d be elected by a landslide. It’s highly doable.”

But first, both Ward and Kennedy agree that lesbians need more encouragement to take part in the political process, and need more advisors to call upon.

“We need more lesbians to run,” says Kennedy. “There are a lot of political lesbians in the community, but they don’t enter electoral politics. I think we need more people like myself and Chris Phibbs [who ran for council in Toronto in 2003, and currently works in the mayor’s office] and other people who have run. Hopefully, I’ve made it easier for someone else. Maybe there’s a young lesbian out there.”

“We need more networking, more help for gay candidates,” says Ward. “The gay chamber of commerce, for example, has a part to play in politics. [There’s a Canadian Gay And Lesbian Chamber Of Commerce, and one in Ontario, too.] I was my own campaign manager. I have experience in retail, but I had a fool for a client.”

Ward says she is moving from Milton to Toronto, and isn’t sure if she’ll run in the bigger city come 2010. But Kennedy says she will definitely run again, although not necessarily in the next municipal election in four years.

“I want to stay in politics. Of course, I’m going to keep an eye on Adam.”