8 min

Where are all the lesbians in federal politics?

Politicians, candidates and academics share their thoughts

Former federal Liberal candidate Catherine Meade, NDP MP Libby Davies and Conservative Senator Nancy Ruth.

It’s 2010 — where are all the out lesbians in federal politics? Currently, there are only two out lesbians in Parliament — NDP MP Libby Davies and Conservative Senator Nancy Ruth — while there are four out gay MPs and a number of others whose sexuality is an open secret on the Hill. Why so few lesbians?

“The issue isn’t lesbians,” says Ruth. “It is the difficulties of getting women in politics. Too much male culture, fighting to the death [and] not for the good for the country. Hierarchical command structure. No joint problem-solving. Kids. Time away from home.

“It’s a cultural problem, not a sexual one.”

The problems of increasing the number of elected women is complex one, but are there additional factors for lesbians looking to get into federal politics?

“I think we’re seeing constraints from both gender and sexual orientation,” says Sylvia Bashevkin, principal of University College at University of Toronto, and author of Women, Power, Politics: The Hidden Story of Canada’s Unfinished Democracy. “We may in fact have more demand for more diverse political leadership, but we don’t really have the supply of individuals who are willing to put themselves through that.”

So what are the barriers and factors that keep us from seeing more out lesbians in federal politics? A few emerged over several conversations with politicians, community leaders, candidates and academics.

Are lesbians turning to NGOs, not parties?

“I think that sometimes women who do gravitate towards NGOs feel that they can do more outside of the political system than inside of the political system, depending on which party they’re with,” says Helen Kennedy, executive director of Egale Canada.

Kennedy was elected to Toronto City Council in 1988 and served until 1991. She ran again unsuccessfully in 2006.

While Bashevkin is unaware of any research that looks at the sexuality of those engaged in extra-parliamentary versus parliamentary politics, she suggests that people generally seek political outlets that are comfortable for them.

“Many extra-parliamentary social organizations and interest groups would probably be much more welcoming and much less likely to attract media scrutiny than high-profile party politics,” Bashevkin says.

That comfort zone can be an issue for many queers. “Even though the parties like the NDP may be more progressive in some ways, it’s still quite a hostile environment for [queer] members to run,” says Kennedy.

“Even in the various caucuses there are different views on marriage and different views on adoption, and some of these environments are very hostile.”

Anita Vandenbeld says she has seen a shift toward greater NGO participation. She is the former manager of the International Knowledge Network of Women in Politics (I KNOW Politics), a New York-based organization dedicated to helping women in electoral politics around the world.

Young people feel that “if you’re in a political party, you can’t be activist, because there’s this view of politics that if you’re in a party, you have to conform,” says Vandenbeld, who is currently running for the federal Liberal nomination in Ottawa West-Nepean.

Davies says that lesbians are getting involved in politics, but that it tends to be at more local levels.

“I know that from my own experience in BC, there are lesbians who have run at all levels, whether it’s park board, school board, city council, the provincial legislature and federally as well,” Davies says.

“Maybe because there’s more engagement locally, and when [queer] folks are engaged in local issues, and community movements and so on, that their expression electorally is more manifested in a more local level — that’s possible.”

Few lesbian role models in politics

“If you asked someone, ‘What’s a politician?’ and they’re honest with you, their image is going to be a middle-aged white male,” says Vandenbeld. “Unless you have more people entering politics, and winning, and being in the media, and aren’t part of that image — and we’re doing quite well in Canada comparatively — that is a barrier.”

“There just aren’t enough lesbians out period — in politics or in the corporate world,” says Kennedy. “In the sports world as well — who do we look to?”

Kennedy says that both Ruth and Davies are great models, and on the international scene, she points to the new prime minister of Iceland, an out lesbian.

For Catherine Meade, a black lesbian who ran for the Liberals in Halifax Centre during the 2008 election, there is the added element of race when she looks for role models in politics. “As Canadians, we quite often look down on our neighbours to the south, but then you look at their Congress, and you look at our House of Commons, and you see there are so many more black Congress people than there are black Members. Before we even get to sexual orientation, from a race perspective, we’re so not there.”

“I think in part we in Canada shy away from celebrating heroes — it’s so American — but at a certain level, it means that young people don’t really identify role models,” says Bashevkin.

That lack of spotlight can be an issue for some.

“My biggest disappointment relating to the election and my sexual orientation was the absolute lack of coverage or interest by the [queer] media,” says Meade.

“I was a candidate who has a demonstrated history of activism in the [queer] community for over 20 years. Xtra actually did interview me, and gave my primary adversary [the NDP’s Megan Leslie] equal billing as a queer activist, only she, as a straight woman, was involved in a couple things in law school — that’s it…. In our local [queer] media, there was just a quick overview of all four candidates, and that was it.”

For her part, Davies tries to be as much of a role model as possible. “I try to mentor women in politics,” she says. “I spend quite a bit of time talking to women who are interested in running and explaining what it’s like, and the same for any queer candidates that are interested.” Davies says she had few role models when she entered politics, and they were all men.

Davies and fellow gay NDP MP Bill Siksay have done events together such as going to a queer youth camp in BC to talk about how to get involved in politics.

The barriers of fundraising and networking

“Men network differently than women do, [and] it’s harder for women to raise money,” says Kennedy. While networking and fundraising are seen as gender barriers, they are also barriers for lesbians looking to get into federal politics.

“I don’t think that money is the barrier that it is, for example, in the US,” Bashevkin says. “We are not talking about huge sums of money that people have to raise, particularly to run, let’s say, for a protest party like the NDP in many areas. If you’re running for a competitive nomination in a competitive party in an urban seat, then yes, it can cost a lot of money towards a nomination.”

Nomination battles can be especially challenging, as networking and fundraising are such important components. They have often been described as more gruelling than elections themselves.

Meade, who initially ran during a contested nomination and lost by 21 votes in 2007 but was later acclaimed before the 2008 election, says that it was as a result of her years of work with building networks within the party. Nevertheless, the networking itself can be difficult for some.

“There really is some sort of male bonding that takes place in front of one’s eyes, that I have almost a visceral reaction to, but again realizing, get used to it — if this is where you want to be, then you have to get used to this is the way it’s going to be,” Meade says.

Meade acknowledges that fundraising was an issue in her campaign, partially because they weren’t ready when the election was called. She also says that it’s interesting how a straight, white male candidate (such as the Liberal candidate for Halifax Centre in the next election) can attract money more easily.

Meade also talks about the mentality of fundraising, which is different for running for office than it is for other causes. She says it takes a certain comfort level to approach people for money.

Meade’s experiences are echoed by Davies’ own. “I’m not a very aggressive fundraiser,” she admits. “I’m not very good at going out and advocating for myself — I feel a bit embarrassed, a bit shy, like I don’t like to go out and ask for money. A lot of guys don’t have that problem — it’s like you want me to run, you give me money.”

Davies says that it’s an eye-opener for a lot of people, but it is a hurdle that needs to be conquered, which is where mentoring comes into play. One place Davies has found is the non-partisan BC Women’s Campaign School, where she has heard the experiences of other women, including lesbians, about how uncomfortable nomination battles were for them.

“Once they become the candidate, it’s a whole different ballgame because then the lines are clear — you’re the candidate, you’re there for your party, you’re there to put your position forward to challenge the others, and suddenly it’s a much clearer game.”

On top of simply fighting a nomination, there is the issue of running in winnable ridings. Not every riding is considered winnable by every party, but it has often been a complaint that many parties would put women candidates in ridings considered unwinnable, if only to improve their number of women candidates. But is this the same with lesbians?

The NDP has policies regarding affirmative action and ensures that in every nomination battle, there is someone from an equity-seeking group running as a candidate.

“If you’re queer and you’re running, no one’s going to push you to the back and fob you off on some unwinnable riding,” Davies says. “It just happens to be what’s available, what’s open, and where they live, and those kinds of considerations. And the likelihood is more that the queer candidates are living in urban areas — not totally, but it’s probably more likely, and that’s where the shot for the NDP to get in are more difficult.”

Scrutiny and the closet

Kennedy recounts that while she wasn’t out during her first time running for election in the late ’80s, she was very out in 2006. “I don’t think I lost because I’m queer — there were other reasons why I was defeated, but certainly there were things that we did at the time — my hair was too short, my photograph was too butch, you’ve got to soften it up. I had a couple of people tell me that they wouldn’t vote for me because I was queer, but that’s just part and parcel with canvassing and campaigns, and you have to have a very thick skin.”

For Bashevkin, a central point in her book is that the scrutiny faced by female candidates in the media is particularly intense for those who don’t fit the married, heterosexual norm. This dates back to Agnes Macphail, the first woman elected to the Commons in Canada, and extends to Belinda Stronach, Sheila Copps, and even Kim Campbell, all divorcees.

“If you look at a spectrum of married, heterosexual women, to divorced and sort of actively dating heterosexual women, it seems the spotlight gets even harsher,” Bashevkin says.

Meade speaks with experience when it comes to the scrutiny of her personal life during an election. “I happened to get married during the election — I always say we chose our date before Stephen Harper chose his, but there was a paper, Frank, that did an article on me.”

However, despite the added scrutiny, Meade says that not one person mentioned her sexuality at the door while she campaigned.

“My being a lesbian was a non-issue insofar as whatever was articulated to my face,” Meade says. “I have no idea what was happening at people’s dinner tables when they were discussing who to vote for, but certainly what happened to my face, or in print, that was not really an issue at all.”

“I do feel this double-marginalization — because you don’t see a lot of women who at least publicly say that they are lesbian, who are in politics, a lot of younger lesbian women might say, ‘It’s not for me,'” Vandenbeld says. “Because there aren’t a lot of lesbians, there are fewer running. I think this is a huge factor.”

“I really want to encourage queer people to think about running; it’s a fantastic experience,” Davies says.

“It’s something that we can take on, and we have a lot to contribute, both in terms of our own personal experiences, but what we also have to contribute to building a just society. We just need to work much harder to increase the level of representation, because it’s not good enough.”