Kathleen Wynne’s status as the first lesbian premier of Ontario worked against her this election, just as her sexuality has throughout her career. But we cannot stop at sexuality when asking tough questions. Wynne’s tenure as premier might be called feminist, but homophobia may be less of a factor in her defeat than misogyny.
As cultural critics Rinaldo Walcott and Naomi Klein point out in the Toronto Star, Conservative leader Doug Ford’s taunting comments about Wynne’s smile served to remind us of the similarities between her treatment and that of Hillary Clinton, another widely hated (though straight) woman who was well-qualified for the job.
Women in politics (indeed, most women in the public sphere) in the West have always experienced gender-based discrimination in the form of punishment and policing for daring to step out of the domestic sphere.
This discrimination ranges from dismissal, especially of younger women, to the “bitch” stereotype for older women, who would merely be called “tough” if they were men, and, of course, these forms of discrimination extend to sexual harassment and assault.
For queer women, there is the added stereotype of being “man-hating” and they also face the threat of “corrective rape” in addition to slurs and other forms of homophobic harassment.
Despite what Canada believes about its tolerance, particularly with regard to gay marriage, the recent apology to queer people and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau marching in the annual Pride parade, we live in a homophobic society.
That means that all queer people are subject to implicit (and, far too often, explicit) bias. This happens to varying degrees, of course, but even in more supposedly liberal places like Toronto, where police didn’t believe the queer community when it spoke out about the disappearances of community members. Homophobia is alive and well across Canada.
With that said, though, Wynne has made some decisions that were unpopular and contributed to her party’s loss on Thursday (and her subsequent decision to resign as Liberal leader), though the reasons for the Liberals’ lack of popularity are contradictory.
A rise in inequality in Ontario?
There have been victories under Wynne, but also too many losses and too much maintenance of the status quo. As Walcott and Klein write: “Despite important victories for workers like the minimum wage hike, and despite election-year promises of new spending, Ontario under the Liberals has become a more unequal society, with the benefits of a long period of prosperity still stuck at the top.”
Ontarians have heavily criticized the sale of Hydro One, for example, for privatizing our energy and spurring rate increases for consumers.
Wynne’s legislating people back to work during a strike has received divergent responses: It has been both heavily criticized as an assault on labour rights, and also championed as necessary. Indeed, her anti-NDP statement that the striking York University employees ought to be legislated back to work shows her priorities are with maintaining the status quo.
The forefront of women’s rights
At the same time, people have taken issue with the sexual education curriculum the Wynne government introduced for being too left-leaning; in particular, people have responded badly to the inclusion of queer and transgender content as well as the curriculum’s challenges to heteronormativity. Some of that criticism focused on Wynne’s sexuality and the stereotype of “queer indoctrination.”
Aside from the changes to the curriculum, the closest the Wynne government has come to initiatives that explicitly benefit queer communities — though not very prominently — is with the Ontario Fertility Program, which names queer people among candidates for fertility treatment. This program has not received much criticism; it’s hard to argue with the facilitation of reproduction for people who struggle. But it is one place that her queerness might be made visible.
Significantly, these are all feminist issues: The economy, labour rights, knowledge about ourselves and our bodies and reproductive rights. And Wynne’s track record on these issues is divided.
Economically, Wynne’s policies have been right-leaning, while her more gender-focused work — while far from perfect — provide more protections than women have previously had in Ontario. Historically queer women have been at the forefront of most, if not all, feminist fights.
The other more explicit feminist initiative has been Wynne’s “It’s Never OK” program, which aims to combat sexual violence, and requires new workplace and campus sexual violence policies. It also includes funding for education initiatives.
Getting a seat at the table
It is notable, though, that these policy decisions do not tend to have a lot to do with queerness.
Wynne’s sexuality has not significantly informed her political choices because it can’t. Her career wouldn’t survive it, as no queer politician’s would in the current climate; queer people are stuck in a discourse that “we’re just like you,” making it nearly impossible to address issues that are specifically faced by queer people.
Wynne’s status as a lesbian is also evidence that a marginalized identity is not a guarantee of political investment. She is a queer woman who has experienced discrimination, but she is a white queer woman, and that makes a world of difference in her priorities, how she has been treated and how she is received and understood publicly.
Wynne’s right-leaning investments shore up her proximity to power in order to get a seat at the table. This is regardless of the consequences for the most vulnerable members of our society. She rarely mentions the issues that most affect, for example, racialized Ontarians. Her marginalized identity is potentially exploited, both by herself and others, in order to appear “diverse” without making substantive change.
The “leftist” issues that Wynne has focused on speak mainly to white women. Far too little attention is paid, for example, to the staggering numbers of missing and murdered Indigenous women. As is the case for the over-representation of racialized, poor, disabled women and transgender people who experience gender violence in the “It’s Never OK” policy. And where there is mention, the policy is vague, additive and police-centric, which does not address the needs of people who do not feel safe with the police.
A centrist is a centrist is a centrist
So when we think about Wynne’s sexuality, we simply cannot consider it outside of the rest of the social categories she occupies.
She is certainly hated for her sexuality, for being a woman and for being a feminist (even if she doesn’t take up that label herself). But despite these identifications, her whiteness protects her from the worst of the violence she might experience. Her privilege helps to shape her priorities.
Wynne’s willingness to take a “centrist” position (which are always conservative positions, despite how they are coded) harms people whose lives and well-being are put at risk by these policies or by the lack thereof.
Her alliances are clear when she calls the NDP and Andrea Horwath “radical.” Instead of fighting those systems that are so violent, she, like many white queer people, has shown that she will shore up too many of them.
She has been protected by her alliances with power structures and the ways she has sold out Ontarians, especially the most vulnerable. Being a lesbian has not changed that.