During a recent lunch in downtown Toronto, an active supporter of Kathleen Wynne’s campaign to become leader of the Ontario Liberals — and the province’s next premier — raised a question few people dare to ask: Is Ontario is ready to elect an openly gay premier?
It’s an important question because both Wynne and Glen Murray are openly gay politicians seeking to replace Dalton McGuinty as leader of the Liberals.
The winner immediately becomes Ontario’s premier.
It’s “the elephant in the room” that no one wants to discuss, the Wynne activist told me. “We know being a gay politician is an issue for some voters, we just don’t know how many. We call it the silent issue.”
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While obviously not a top-of-mind issue in the leadership race, the fact that organizers for both Wynne and Murray are concerned is a sign they are aware of its potential to affect the outcome in this contest and in the next general election, expected as early as May.
Across the country, acceptance of gay politicians is fairly strong. A survey in May of this year by the Environics Institute found 66 per cent of Ontarians strongly approved of gays running for public office, a figure virtually unchanged since a similar survey in 2006.
Still, some 20 per cent of Ontario residents surveyed opposed gays running for elected office. Among evangelical Christians, barely one-third supported gays in politics.
“To wish away the possibility that it (an openly gay candidate) would not influence even a small number of voters is just silly,” says David Rayside, a University of Toronto political scientist who for years has studied attitudes toward gay and lesbian politicians in Canada and abroad.