Why Canada needs to elect more LGBTQ politicians
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Why Canada Needs to Elect More LGBTQ politicians

Queer representation in government is necessary for community-minded policy outcomes.

In late September, I attended Toronto’s only leaders debate that addressed LGBTQ issues precluding the federal election. The event felt underwhelming: the openly gay Conservative candidate who was slated to attend did not show up (thanks to lack of instruction from CPC HQ), and in his absence, merely one of three of the other candidates on stage self-identified as LGBTQ. In a room full of queer people eager to have their issues addressed, three white, cisgender men (two of whom were straight) spewed campaign policy at the crowd for a few hours.

The gay MP hopeful who did show up, NDP incumbent Craig Scott, was not re-elected on October 19. In the crimson tide that overtook this year’s election, Scott and two other LGBTQ-identifying incumbents—former Gaspésie-Îles-de-la-Madeleine NDP MP Philip Toone and former Chicoutimi-Le Fjord NDP MP Dany Morin, both from Quebec—lost their seats. In their place, one new NDP candidate (Sheri Benson of Saskatoon West) and two Liberal candidates (Randy Boissonnault of Edmonton Centre and Seamus O’Regan of St. John’s-Mount Pearl) who identify as LGBTQ have been elected. That three LGBTQ incumbent losses were matched by three new LGBTQ candidates could be a cause for celebration.

But with Scott out of the picture, downtown Toronto is no longer represented federally by an openly queer MP.

More troubling is the fact that only six LGBTQ-identifying MPs have been elected this year, accounting for just 1.7 per cent in Parliament. If those numbers seem low, it’s because they are. In fact, those numbers have been unchanging since 2006—just one year after gay marriage was legalized across Canada. Only one of the elected MPs this year was a woman. Just 20 candidates across all four major parties were openly LGBTQ this election.

What gives?

The lack of queer representation in Canadian federal politics caught the attention of Andrew Reynolds, a professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Reynolds, who is the director of UNC’s LGBTQ Representation and Rights Research Initiative, recently released “LGBTQ Candidates in the 2015 Canadian Federal Election: Stalled Progress?,” a report that has tracked the lacklustre show of openly queer candidates this election.

The NDP boasted the most openly LGBTQ candidates (10 of 20); their downfall this election certainly factors into the stagnant, rather than increasing, number. Reynolds says it’s up to the majority and opposition parties—in this case, the Liberal and Conservative—to put up more LGBTQ candidates. They’re the parties that need to set the precedent, or “pull up their socks and make it a cross-party thing,” as he puts it.

Reynolds says the U.K. is the ideal—where Canada should be representatively. Of 650 MPs, 50 are openly LGBTQ; that’s about 8 per cent. There, any proposed anti-gay legislation would be gawked at—by the Tories, no less. By comparison, we live in a country where our Conservative Party’s platform still cites marriage as a union between one man and one woman.

Frighteningly, Reynolds says our country is closer to the U.S. by ways of representation.

Surely, rumours about Jason Kenney and John Baird’s life in the “glass closet” don’t do much to encourage LGBTQ candidates to come forward. Yet, “there is scant reason to believe that LGBTQ identifying Canadians struggle to be elected because of their identity,” Reynolds found in his research.

In their absence, Canada’s queer community remains without a strong voice at the top tiers of government. While allies in Parliament can certainly make an effort to bolster LGBTQ visibility when it comes to federal law-making, they still aren’t members of the community. Lived experience as an LGBTQ person brings about a perspective on community issues that perhaps a straight ally can’t understand in the same way.

Reynolds says it most eloquently: “You cannot make public policy without the voice of the LGBTQ community.”

The emotional connection and benefit of having openly queer politicians in government has made all the difference in Ontario. When NDP Parkdale-High Park MPP Cheri DiNovo, who identifies as queer, introduced a bill to ban LGBTQ conversion therapy, it passed with all-party support—despite the fact that it was a private members bill, which seldom become law. During the bill’s second reading, openly gay premier Kathleen Wynne, along with other queer MPPs, shared their own coming-out stories and the importance of making the bill law. It was a show of solidarity from those who understand its effects best.

It was the same show of solidarity that was lacking at the LGBTQ leaders debate. When asked about Bill C-279, Bill Morneau, the now newly elected Liberal MP for Toronto-Centre, was unable to articulate why Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was absent from the bill’s vote in the House of Commons back in March of 2013. He instead told the crowd that trans rights matter to the Liberal Party, that he attended Toronto’s trans marches. The answer wouldn’t suffice for an audience of those part of the transgender community. Turning up at a Pride event wouldn’t be enough.

The onus is now on those in the majority—especially the Liberals—to make change come next election. Just four more years of inadequate representation.