It was a much different world for homosexuals back in 1993 when Alex Munter announced he was gay. Like Mayor Jim Watson did yesterday, Munter also made his public declaration in an op ed piece in the Citizen.
I knew I was gay, my friends knew I was gay, I had a life as a gay person, my colleagues at work knew. So I was in this weird space after I was elected that I obviously didn’t deny it, but is was sort of don’t ask, don’t tell. It was a really dishonest place, so ironically I wrote an op ed in the Ottawa Citizen, which seems to the the place of choice! It was a scary thing to do, nobody had ever done it in Ottawa and just eight or nine in the country. I remember the day before, driving around Kanata with copies of the op ed for folks I needed to see it. Some of them were folks who were either involved with religious communities. Without exception, the reaction was kind and affirmative and supporting form those folks. That was very touching affirmation and of a different time.
Asked what he thinks of Watson’s announcement, given that it’s taken him 40 years of keeping a secret to come out. As always, Munter handles his answers with both honesty and grace.
“I’m not super comfortable with the comparison. Everyone follows their own path. And I would say everyone follows the same process but in a different timeline. Some get there faster, people do it when they’re ready. It’s different for different people. I think everybody who is a gay, lesbian or any LGBT person, that for their own happiness should come out as soon as they’re ready, follow their own timeline but don’t wait 40 years.
And that’s pretty much what you can extrapolate from reading Watson’s piece. I think many of us hope that part of the push in the mayor’s timing is that he might be in love, and no longer wants to hide that. That is pure speculation on my part, but I don’t believe as some are suggesting that someone had something over him, questioning the rush to come out. Rush? A 40-year rush? Why can’t people just be happy for Watson who has chosen to love openly.
After a couple of negative blogs, Watson stopped returning my calls. Am I cynical enough to believe he wouldn’t have turned his back on me if I was still writing for a daily? Yes, absolutely. But while I may differ with him and differ often on his politics, I really am overwhelmed with the prospect of the happiness that he’s chosen to embrace.
“Every time people come out, it changes hearts,” Munter said.
Of course, when Munter came out, the world wasn’t as forgiving. And he acknowledges his parents had difficulty when he told them.
“I was a teenager, I was just barely a teenager. It was hard for them, it wasn’t what they expected or what they hoped for. Their first response was, “We love you” but it took a few years before they were comfortable with it, but I always knew their feelings were rooted in love and I never doubted that,” he said.
That doesn’t surprise me. Everything Munter has said to me about his parents has lead me to believe they are strong and supportive parents. I remember one story he told me about going to school, really not speaking English, (his parents spoke German at home) and his first teacher called him stupid. He had no idea what the word meant, but went home and asked his mother about the conversation and what the word stupid meant. She told him it meant she had to have a talk with his teacher!
“I absolutely believed my chances in life would be a limited because I was gay, that’s a painful thing to experience,” Munter said. But a quick look at his extensive resume makes that clear that on this one point, Munter was wrong. Doesn’t happen often. Of the changes made over the years in public acceptance of gays, and the success of openly gay people, these would have been “science fiction to my teenaged brain,” Munter said.
Now the president of the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, Munter first made his mark on this city as the 14-year-old whiz kid who started up the Kanata Kourier, publishing it out of his basement. Within four years, the paper had a staff of seven and a circulation of 10,000 in the town of 27,000 and he eventually sold it for somewhere around $300,000. He was a much-beloved Kanata councillor for years and ran a successful campaign for mayor of Ottawa, coming second to Larry O’Brien. And those are just a few highlights.
“I think it’s a whole other world. We’re still in the world of firsts. Jim Watson is still the first openly gay mayor of Ottawa. I think the legal protections that were absent in 1993 for gay and lesbian people have been secured, social attitudes have changed and have evolved. I remember talking to you years ago, it’s better than it was 10 years ago, not as good as it will be 10 years from now.” The virus of homophobia, it takes different forms. But there are still gay bashings, lots of horrible stuff online and there’s still lots of people who just are not at a place where they feel comfortable enough to come out,” Munter said. “I think for Jim, first and foremost, this will change his own life for the better and for that reason alone, it’s an important thing to do. We’ve all been there and all understand what a difficult step it is, every time someone comes out, it changes the hearts and minds around you. When you’re the mayor, this will change other peoples lives for the positive.”