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My Coming Out Story, 40 Years In The Making: Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson

... as they say, "Better late than never."

I’m gay.

There – I said it; or rather, wrote it. Those two words took me almost four decades to utter, but as they say, “Better late than never.”

As I look back over the years, there were some telltale signs that I wasn’t straight.

As a Grade 7 student, I remember some older boys on my school bus always taunting me and calling me ‘’Jim Fairy.’’ And growing up, I was always much more attracted to male TV and movie stars, such as Rob Lowe and Brad Pitt, rather than Julia Roberts or Sharon Stone.

Unlike today, back when I was a teenager in the 1970s, there were virtually no resources to seek for guidance or help, or just to talk. No LGBTQ clubs or gay-straight alliances.

One of my challenges was that I attended four high schools in five years because of my father’s work transfers. That made making friends really tough, especially moving midway through a school year. And throughout high school, I honestly can’t recall meeting or befriending one openly gay student.

Most residents of Ottawa reading this will find it hard to believe, but growing up, I was very shy and a bit of a loner, and very socially awkward. Even if I thought or knew that I was gay back then, making it known publicly would have been pretty daunting and lonely for a teenager in a new school.

Fast-forward to university, and the environment was much more liberal and open to those who were or thought they were gay, lesbian or transgender. Still, I was completely in the closet — too shy or reluctant to come to grips with my own sexuality.

Following graduation, I found myself thrust into my career, and for me, my job was my life.

My various jobs — both in and out of the political world — became my passion and were all-consuming.

I was elected to Ottawa city council when I was 30, and for most of my public life, my sexuality was not an issue. It came up just once at an all-candidates meeting.

Jim Watson, seen in 1999, was the youngest mayor in Ottawa's history.
Jim Watson/Facebook
Jim Watson, seen in 1999, was the youngest mayor in Ottawa's history.

I was running for the provincial legislature in 2003 and a known homophobic activist stood up and asked me if I was gay. There were jeers and shouts, and before I could answer, my NDP opponent snapped at the questioner and told them that anyone’s sexual preference had nothing to do with being a good MPP.

To this day, I’m not sure how I would have answered that question, but I am grateful to the NDP’s Marlene Rivier for her gutsy intervention.

As I look back over my life, and in hindsight, not coming out sooner was a big mistake on my part.

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.

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.

How would my family and friends react?

Over the years, I told only two (gay) friends that I was gay, although I suspect most of my family and friends just assumed I was, but respected my privacy and never broached the subject.

Over the last few years, I’ve struggled often about whether or not to come out.

Swirling around my mind were thoughts like how my family and friends would react. Would it affect my relationship with my constituents?

There was not really one Eureka moment when I decided to write this.

There were some great pioneers in the political world who I would consider positive role models — locally councillors such as Stéphane Émard-Chabot, Alex Munter and Catherine McKenney; provincially people such as George Smitherman, Kathleen Wynne and Glen Murray; and federally Svend Robinson, Libby Davies, Scott Brison and Rob Oliphant.

Finally, let me conclude with two events that helped convince me to write this message.

During the 2014 Olympic Games in Russia, stories emerged about the fear gay athletes and spectators felt due to the homophobic attitude of the Russian government. I tweeted that in solidarity with the LGBTQ community, and our athletes in particular, I would fly the rainbow flag at City Hall for the duration of the Games.

I received thousands of supportive tweets, but one tweet and my response went viral.

One person wrote and said: “This is a stupid waste of time. You’ve lost my vote.”

I replied: “If you have that point of view, I really don’t want your vote.”

The second incident was two years ago when I was walking through Confederation Park after lunch and a middle-aged man approached me and said: “I hope you’re not going in that fag parade,” meaning the upcoming Pride Parade.

I told him: “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.

I’m proud of my track record on LGBTQ issues, from voting in favour of a motion on same-sex marriage to being the first Ottawa mayor to march in the Pride Parade during my first term.

But if I can be so bold as to offer one bit of advice to those still in the closet: Don’t feel pressured or rushed to come out, but don’t wait 40 years either.

My reluctance has not allowed me to live my life as full of love and adventure as my gay friends who were bolder and braver than I ever was.

So there it is, my coming out story, 40 years in the making.

This was originally published in the Ottawa Citizen on Aug. 17, 2019, and has been republished with permission.

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