June 1, 2015 — Our President & Chief Executive Officer Deborah Gillis is the fourth President in Catalyst’s 52-year history. In honor of LGBT Pride Month, we are using June’s column to share Deborah’s personal experience with LGBT advocacy and her advice on how to be an ally in this critical area.
The early part of my career was spent in policy roles for the Government of Ontario. In 1994, one of my files was the Equality Rights Statute Amendment Act (Bill 167), a law that would have provided same-sex couples with rights and obligations similar to those of opposite-sex couples. It was groundbreaking legislation, controversial at the time, and ultimately failed to pass.
I have two strong memories of that time. One is of crying in my office as I watched the legislation go down to defeat in the legislature. The second is of how proud I felt of having worked for the then-Premier, Bob Rae, who had the courage to advocate for a progressive social policy agenda that put him on the right side of history. As disappointed as I was that the bill didn’t pass, I felt a profound sense of pride that my boss had tried to do the right thing. And when I think back on it today, I marvel at how far we’ve come.
Just over a week ago Ireland, which is 84% Catholic, became the first country in the world to enshrine marriage equality in its constitution by popular mandate. Today Ontario is led by Kathleen Wynne, Canada’s first openly gay woman premier—something I would have thought impossible only 20 years ago. Same-sex couples have had the right to marry throughout my native Canada for a decade. They also have the right to marry in 17 other countries around the world, as well as in 37 of the United States and counting.
Many social realities we take for granted today were hugely divisive once upon a time.
One of my Catalyst colleagues had a white male teacher in high school who married a black woman in 1967. Their relationship wasn’t legal in a number of US states before then—and at the time of their marriage over 80% of US citizens disapproved of their union.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: inclusive leadership requires courage. Your commitment to equality is only as good as your willingness to fight for it when you don’t have the support of the majority.
What Bob Rae showed back then was true leadership: the kind that involves taking a stand—often at great personal and professional risk—before public opinion has caught up with you. What’s right isn’t always what’s popular, and leading people often means showing them that a better world is possible.
That’s how real change happens, and that’s the kind of leadership we should all aspire to. This June I am calling on each of us to stand up for LGBT rights in every context—not just when doing so is comfortable or popular.