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Media Bites: She's Here, She's Queer -- Why Not Talk About It?

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If the Liberal Party of Ontario elects Canada's first openly gay premier next week you can be sure we'll never hear the end of it.

So why aren't we hearing more about it now?

Meet Kathleen Wynne, one of the half-dozen McGuinty-era cabinet ministers currently running to succeed the old man himself. A strong and competent campaigner, she's enjoyed steady support from politician and press alike, and last week finally nabbed the holiest title the media can bestow -- "front-runner."

Yup, ol' "front-runner Kathleen Wynne" declares Friday's Toronto Star. Look at her out there, front-running it up. You said it, agrees the Sun, GlobeWindsor Star, CBC, and, er, Sandra Pupatello.

And with good cause. Writing in the National Post, Scott Stinson notes that "clear front-runner" Wynne leads her rivals "in endorsements, in fundraising" and in the number of Ontario Liberal conventioneers "who have put themselves forward to be Wynne-supporting delegates on the first ballot." That might not mean much in an old-fashioned leadership contest where victory only comes after many long, painful rounds of desperate intra-candidate deal-making, but hey, it's still a lot more than you've done, gentle reader.

Now, Minister Wynne has never made any pretences about her lesbianism. Her campaign bio and Ontario Legislature profile both make clear mention of "her partner Jane," and Jane was given an explicit call-out in Wynne's inaugural campaign speech. She's given frank interviews to gay media and marched in Toronto's gay pride parade. This is not a woman even remotely near the closet.

But if the candidate herself has shown little fear about brandishing the L-word, the mainstream press has been considerably more cautious. Stinson's piece, for instance, despite its pretence of strategic analysis, notes Wynne's "centre-left" orientation but omits her sexual one. In the Globe, Adam Radwanski likewise makes much analytic hay of the fact that Wynne is "bookish" and a "relatively left-of-centre urbanite," but says nothing about Jane. Even when homosexuality's been a more obvious elephant in the room, as was the case following Wynne's endorsement from Glen Murray -- the first openly gay man elected to lead a major Canadian city -- the Post, Globe, and Citizen all held their collective tongues (largely thanks to the uninterested reporting of the CP's Keith Leslie).

Perhaps it's not a big deal. Perhaps we Canadians long ago stopped regarding homosexuality as threatening or deviant. Perhaps we are completely cool with the idea of a openly gay woman (or man) leading the nation's largest province. But it's also easy to be cool with something that's rarely in the headlines.

In any case, for those genuinely enamoured by the thought of a gay premier, next week's backdoor party appointment might be as good as it gets. If history is any indication, after all, the way Canadians traditionally respond to unconventional leaders is with swiftly vindictive action at the ballot box.

As the Star's Christina Blizzard notes in a rare, highly sexualized profile of Minister Wynne, it's now generally taken for granted that Ontarians elected Mike Harris rather than Lyn McLeod in 1995 partially because they weren't "ready" for a female premier, to use the preferred sexist euphemism. It wasn't until 2011 that any province larger than Prince Edward Island was ready to elect a female premier, in fact, and even now, when the country's full of 'em, Quebec's Pauline Marois remains the only woman elected to head a province who was a) not already the incumbent and b) faced a male opponent. The British Columbia Social Credit Party was rewarded for installing the country's first female premier with the largest landslide defeat in its history. And of course we all know what happened to poor Kim Campbell.

For what it's worth, a similarly grim fate befell the only other open homosexual to lead a Canadian provincial party -- Quebec separatist leader Andre Boisclair, who led the PQ into an unprecedentedly awful third place-showing in 2007 -- as well as Canada's only non-white premier, British Columbia's Ujjal Dosanjh, who, in 2001, oversaw the B.C. NDP's seat count dwindle from 39 to two.

With such inspiring precedents, it can hardly be taken for granted that Wynne's homosexuality is an irrelevant variable in her future electability -- especially when coupled with her (apparently) already problematic urbanity and leftism. At best, Wynne's installation may simply demonstrate a Liberal Party eager to celebrate a more tolerant Ontario than actually exists.

In that sense, the Dosanjh analogy may be most apt. As a British Columbian, I well remember the excitement and self-congratulation that swept NDP circles following his history-making appointment. The strategic implications of introducing yet another variable of bigotry to an electorate already significantly biased against the NDP were hardly mentioned, while politically-correct pride masked the unglamorous reality that Dosanjh was a dour and uncharismatic figure destined to lead a sad and uninspired campaign.

What makes Wynne's homosexuality distinct, however, is that it's much easier to conceal from a public whose reactionary impulses can't be be trusted.

Whether the press is deliberately downplaying Wynne's not-so-secret secret as a way to emphasize their own tolerance ("notice how we're not making it an issue?") or simply because they're loath to highlight trivial factoids that could "unfairly" jeopardize her campaign, it's a hard game to play for very long.

We may yet see another awkward, sad, and classically Canadian end to a brief reign of  progressive promise.

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