In the summer of 2011, I was working for Glen Murray, then Ontario’s research and innovation minister, when I got a call from his constituency office manager. “Someone delivered an envelope this morning,” she said. “It was full of white powder.” A few staffers had begun to develop respiratory symptoms.
The substance turned out not to be toxic, and our colleagues were soon safe. But what was, for us, a frightening false alarm was, for my boss, an unexceptional episode in a public career defined by personal risk.
We knew he had been the first openly gay mayor of a major city in North America. We knew he had first sought a seat on Winnipeg City Council just a few years after Harvey Milk had been assassinated in San Francisco for doing the same. When the death threats became too credible to ignore, he wore a bulletproof vest during his public appearances.
His sexual orientation had made him a target. His identity was a liability. When he succeeded in politics, it was as an outlier, an exception, an “activist” by default. There was an implicit ceiling on his ambitions.
When I came out to my parents, eleven Christmases ago, they worried that, at some point, I would find myself limited by who I was. None of their closest friends or co-workers was gay and the only out lawyer who ever appeared in our house was Eric McCormack’s character on Will & Grace—a TV show that I endured in silent terror, dreading discovery, throughout my entire childhood. When my mom and dad thought about what my future as an out gay man might look like, they couldn’t find a comforting real-life precedent to cite. Neither could I.
All of this came galloping to mind in the lead-up to Saturday’s Ontario Liberal leadership convention. As one newspaper editorialized, “the knock against [Kathleen] Wynne is that she is not ‘electable’—code, as she puts it herself, for being ‘a lesbian from Toronto.’ No one knows how that would play out in 2013.”
On the weekend’s third ballot, Wynne’s party gave its answer. She will be the first openly gay person ever to take the helm of a government anywhere in the Americas, the Commonwealth, or the English-speaking world.
It was impossible to experience Wynne’s victory without feeling the quiet hum of history turn into a roar. As her erstwhile rivals—first Eric Hoskins, then Charles Sousa, then Gerard Kennedy—crossed to her side of Maple Leaf Gardens, it was my fourteen-year-old self who stood there, on the convention floor, watching wide-eyed as my own universe expanded.
The moment was rich with invisible intensity; the crowd around me, I knew, wasn’t experiencing it the way I was. It’s a feeling that every gay person knows too well: the quiet loneliness of imperceptible difference. However gregarious, outgoing, and popular they appear, gay kids spend their adolescence on the wrong side of a one-way mirror, on the inside looking out.
Saturday wasn’t so different, but stealth self-loathing gave way to private pride. Victory brought vindication. After spending the last decade feigning confidence in front of my parents, promising them that there was no way that my identity would ever dictate what I could achieve in life, I finally had proof—not just for them, but also for myself.
That’s why Wynne matters. Her success makes others’ conceivable. As she took the stage for her victory speech, I got a text message from my parents, who were watching from Vancouver. “A gay premier!” is all it said.
Milestones invite overstatement, and this one is no different. Still, something must have shifted to make Wynne’s ascent possible. She said as much in her speech on Saturday morning: “There was a time, not that long ago, when most of us in this leadership race would not have been deemed suitable,” she said. “A Portuguese-Canadian, an Indo-Canadian, an Italian-Canadian, female, gay, Catholic. Most of us could not have hoped to stand on this stage. But the province has changed. Our party has changed.”
Wynne’s words forced nearly every Liberal delegate to walk a few steps in her shoes. By voting for her, they weren’t celebrating her identity; they were affirming their own. It was a powerful move, and it worked.
When Ontario voters next go to the polls, voters will judge Wynne’s government, as she acknowledged on Saturday, “on our merits, on our abilities, on our expertise, on our ideas.” The Liberals may yet come up short, but history has already been made. For families that have yet to go through what mine did, that will make all the difference.
When I left Glen Murray’s office to start law school, he gave me a hug, with tears in his eyes. He told me that he was proud of me. I was out and proud and pursuing a childhood dream, and for his generation—a generation whose parents struggled to love them again after they learned who their sons and daughters really were, and who watched their friends die of a disease they didn’t understand when they were no older than I am now—none of that could ever be taken for granted. What seemed ordinary to me was extraordinary to him.
Anachronisms are the echoes of progress, and understanding history is the only way to shape it. Someday, when I watch the video of Kathleen Wynne’s victory speech with my kids, there will be tears in my eyes. I can’t wait to tell them why.
Adam Goldenberg is a Kirby Simon Human Rights Fellow at Yale Law School, and a former Liberal staffer on Parliament Hill and at Queen’s Park. Follow him on Twitter.