“I was elected to Ottawa City Council when I was 30, and for most of my public life, my sexuality was not an issue,” Watson wrote in the Ottawa Citizen.
“But in hindsight, not coming out sooner was a big mistake.”
A former city councillor, Liberal MPP and provincial cabinet minister, Watson is currently serving his third consecutive term as mayor of Ottawa, after winning re-election in October last year. He became the youngest mayor in Ottawa’s history when he was first elected to the post in the late 1990s.
Watson’s personal op-ed was published a day before the Capital Pride festival kicks off in Ottawa.
In his op-ed, Watson recalled being taunted in school. He said there were no resources back in the 1970s, when he was a “very shy” and “very socially awkward” teenager growing up.
He moved high schools frequently due to his father’s work, which made it difficult to make friends with his peers: “Throughout high school, I honestly can’t recall meeting or befriending one openly gay student.”
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“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,” he wrote.
And while his surroundings in university were “much more liberal,” he remained “too shy or reluctant to come to grips with my own sexuality.”
His life has mostly revolved around his work, he added. “My various jobs — both in and out of the political world — became my passion and were all-consuming.”
His sexuality “came up just once,” at an all-candidates meeting when he was running for Ontario’s legislature in 2003.
“A known homophobic activist stood up and asked me if I was gay,” Watson wrote. “There were jeers and shouts.”
But before he could formulate a response, his NDP opponent at the time — Marlene Rivier — came to his defense and “snapped” at the person posting the question, telling the person that “anyone’s sexual preference had nothing to do with being a good MPP.”
Citing openly LGBTQ elected officials — such as Ottawa Coun. Catherine McKenney and former Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne — Watson noted that he has wrestled with coming out for the last few years and that there was no specific turning point for his decision to come out publicly.
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Two events, though, persuaded him that it was time to tell his story.
In 2014, Watson went viral after tweeting about flying the Pride flag at Ottawa City Hall during the Olympic Games held in Russia at the time.
He also drew heavy attention for shutting down a Twitter user who said Watson had lost his vote after raising the flag.
“If you have that point of view, I really don’t want your vote,” Watson responded, in a tweet that was liked over 1,000 times.
In 2017, he recalled a man using a homophobic slur in reference to the city’s Pride parade while Watson was strolling through an Ottawa park.
The mayor wrote he replied that he looked forward to marching in the parade, rendering the man “speechless.”
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He ended his op-ed with some words of advice: “Don’t feel pressured or rushed to come out, but don’t wait 40 years either.”