Ottawa’s LGBTQ+ Pride parade was a glittery welcome wagon for Mayor Jim Watson on Sunday.
Although Watson has marched in the parade before, the mayor of Canada’s capital city had never done so as an out gay man. In an August 19 op-ed for the Ottawa Citizen newspaper, the 58-year-old said that what had stopped him from being open about his sexual orientation for “almost four decades” was fear about how it might impact his career and his relationship with constituents.
“Better late than never,” he wrote.
But as Watson greeted voters in a black t-shirt with a horizontal rainbow on the front, Ottawa residents appear to have taken the news in stride.
“I’m getting a lot more hugs today than I did in years gone by and that feels great,” he told Canada’s Global News, adding that “95 percent” of the reactions to his coming out have been “kind” and “thoughtful.” He added: “There’s always that five percent that aren’t so warm and fuzzy, but it’s been quite an experience for me.”
Watson has served as mayor of Ottawa since 2010 and was first elected as a city councilman in 1991. He claimed in the op-ed that his sexuality has been a nonissue for most of his career but that he regrets “not coming out sooner.”
“Most of my friends through the years got married and had kids, and they travelled down a separate road filled with family, soccer practices and their careers,” he wrote. “Most of my friends who are gay are quite open about it, and many are in wonderful relationships or, in several cases, married. That leaves someone like me, who, while closeted, doesn’t fit either of these groups.”
As he struggled in the closet, Watson said a few incidents reminded him of the importance of being visible.
When Watson announced in 2014 that he would fly the Pride flag over city hall in solidarity with Russia’s LGBTQ+ community, one of the mayor’s constituents remarked on Twitter that the gesture is a “waste of time.” “You’ve lost my vote,” he said. Although it would be another five years before his official coming out, Watson responded: “If you have that point of view, I really don’t want your vote.”
A few years later Watson was walking in the park when a man approached him and warned him against going to “that fag parade.” The mayor replied, “I’m looking forward to marching in the Pride Parade, and I plan on doing so again, so why don’t you join me?’’
“He was left speechless and quickly walked away,” Watson wrote.
According to Ottawa residents, Watson’s coming out letter will continue to combat anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment and change hearts and minds across Canada. One local who spoke to Global News said, “For a huge figure like the mayor of the capital city of our country to be able to do that, I thought it was an amazing thing.”
“I think it’s really important that such a strong, important person can come out of the closet whenever they feel comfortable,” another told the broadcaster. “Forty years — sure.”
Watson is one of at least seven out LGBTQ+ people to serve as mayor in Canada. Others include Glen Murray of Winnipeg, Manitoba; Maurice Richard of Bécancour, Quebec; and Julie Lemieux of Très-Saint-Rédempteur, Quebec. Lemieux, who was sworn in two years ago, is the first and only transgender woman elected as chief executive of a Canadian city.