Hamilton politics catches up: A new era of acceptance for gay candidates

Aidan Johnson is openly gay. He's also running for public office. Increasingly, experts say, voters don't even link the two.

20 years ago, gay candidates faced high-profile discrimination. But it's getting easier

Aidan Johnson is running for ward 1 councillor. Johnson is happily in a same-sex marriage and has written about queer issues in the local media. Increasingly, experts say, voters don't care about the sex orientation of political candidates. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Aidan Johnson’s first moment of political change was also the most humiliating of his life.

As an openly gay student at Westdale Secondary School, he was sitting on the school lawn with some of his friends, ready to take a law exam. Some students urinated in a cup, ran up behind him and poured it on his head.

The 16-year-old went into the washroom and cleaned himself off. Then he wrote his exam. And then he wrote an opinion piece about the experience that was published in the local newspaper, and it inspired the public school board’s zero tolerance for bullying policy.

Clearly Hamilton has not always been a place where a politician could be out.- Deirdre Pike

Johnson is now a 34-year-old lawyer and running to be a councillor in Ward 1. His bio mentions his husband, Stefan, and he has no plans to hide his sexuality. Even since he was 16, Johnson said, the political climate has changed to one where being gay is a non-issue.

“My experience in the gay rights movement matters,” he said. “I think my experience as an out gay teenager in Westdale taught me a lot of lessons that matter in terms of my qualification to be a councillor."

But in terms of electability, he said, "I don’t think my sexual orientation matters.”

Open electorate

By all accounts, that’s a recent occurrence. Like the rest of Ontario, Johnson watched as Premier Kathleen Wynne held hands with her same-sex spouse in her election victory when her Liberal party won a majority.

There are lots of theories as to why the electorate is more open to openly gay candidates than 20 years ago. Peter Graefe, a McMaster University political science professor, sees it partly as a generational dynamic.

He cites when Svend Robinson of Burnaby, B.C. came out 25 years ago as Canada’s first openly gay MP. It was a bumpy road for Robinson, “probably less popular than it was popular in terms of public opinion.” These days, many of Graefe’s students are unaware of Robinson’s struggle.

Increasingly, conservative candidates who come out against gay rights — and another candidate's sexual orientation — alienate more voters than they gain, he said.

“You still have a pretty large piece of the electorate that’s homophobic,” he said. And “there’s a way in which you can mobilize the homophobic electorate. But in doing so, you become toxic to the rest.

You still have a pretty large piece of the electorate that’s homophobic.- Peter Graefe, McMaster University political science professor

“If you do that too vocally, you look out of touch with the values of youth, and Canadian values.”

'That's life being gay'

Kyle Rae of Toronto was one of Canada’s first openly gay city councillors. He represented Toronto Centre-Rosedale, which included Toronto’s gay village at Church and Wellesley, until he retired from politics in 2010.

Rae first ran in 1991, when potential voters slammed doors in his face.

“That’s life being gay,” Rae said. “I was expecting it.”

Some fellow councillors called him “Kyle Rae” instead of “Coun. Rae,” a move he still interprets as subtle homophobia. He recalls female councillors forming a women’s caucus, but when Rae tried to join the male councillors at lunch meetings, “the guys didn’t want me either.”

Rae thinks the electorate is more open to gay candidates now because most of the contentious queer issues are settled. Same-sex marriage is legal. Same-sex couples received spousal benefits years ago. Much of the political battle is now with the transgender community, which is still fighting for basic rights.

Most controversial battles have been fought

“We’re not out with an agenda demanding equality rights or survivor pension rights,” he said. “The issues we fought for through the 70s, 80s and 90s are at rest. We were successful.

“That’s why Kathleen Wynne did so well. People couldn’t hook wedge issues onto her because we didn’t have any.”

Rae does think homophobia was a factor in why George Smitherman didn’t win his 2010 Toronto mayoralty bid. 

“There are members of some communities in Toronto that have a fundamentalist world view,” he said, “and they did not want an openly gay mayor.”

Deirdre Pike, co-chair of Hamilton's Positive Space Collaboration, is hesitant to label younger generations as less homophobic. But she agrees with Rae that the lack of contentious issues makes it easier for queer candidates to be elected.

“It hasn’t been that long in Hamilton,” she said. The city has had closeted politicians in the past, so “clearly Hamilton has not always been a place where a politician could be out.”

Every day brings more change

But through legislative and judicial victories such as same-sex marriage, “we have created a climate where Aidan can run.”

Johnson has been out since he was 15, so “it’s a bit late to go back into the closet now.” He has supporters from across Hamilton, he said, and they're of all ages, genders and income backgrounds. 

He kicked off his campaign last week with an event at McMaster Innovation Park. He’s a fan of complete streets and nature conservation. His slogan is “Ward 1 for Everyone.”

He’s wanted to run for politics since high school, but as a teenager, he thought being gay might interfere. He doesn’t think that anymore.

“Every single day of my life for the past 20 years, I’ve been observing the gradual shift,” he said. “So with every passing day — literally with every passing day — it becomes more and more possible. So tomorrow, it will be even more likely than today.” 


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