Scott Brison speaks candidly about sexuality, fear and finding himself

Scott Brison speaks candidly about sexuality, fear and finding himself

Scott Brison spent years wrestling with his sexuality and what it would mean for his future. In his teen years, the Nova Scotia MP for Kings-Hants and president of the Treasury Board said he was borderline suicidal as he tried to be anything but gay.

Even after accepting his sexual orientation and pursuing his career in politics, Brison delayed coming out publicly for a few years, thinking it wasn't necessary because his friends and family knew. But eventually he decided he needed to officially come out as gay to inspire others. Now Brison is Canada's first openly gay cabinet minister.

This is Scott Briston's story in his own words — from an interview he did with Portia Clark, host of CBC's Information Morning. It has been edited for length and clarity.     

Did people around you know you were gay when you were growing up? 

No. I didn't actually know it myself and I struggled with it as a teenager. So I don't think people knew. It would be hard for them to know when I was really struggling with it into my 20s. It was very difficult.

So did you have girlfriends? Did you sort of explore the other side before discovering yourself?        

Yes, yes, absolutely. When I was growing up I would have done just about anything to not be gay. It was really tough and I remember in my teens and even in my early 20s, struggling with it to an extent I would say in my early 20s I had times when I was borderline suicidal around this. I would have done anything to escape that. I thought that everything that I associated with my life and my future would not happen because of my sexual orientation. It was a very tough time.

I'm so proud of my country in so many ways and I feel so lucky to be a Canadian and also to be part of a very lucky generation. So much has happened in such a short period of time. I pinch myself sometimes thinking about it. 

I watched the first Halifax Pride Parade in 1988 and that was a time that I was not out. I was at university at Dalhousie struggling with this. And I watched the parade and there were only about 70 or 80 people in it and a good number of them wore paper bags over their heads with the eyes cut out so that they could see.

They wanted to make a statement that there was indeed a gay community in Halifax. But they did not feel comfortable in identifying exactly who they were because at that time the fact was that even if you were in the military you could have lost your job.

And for you as a politician, what did you have to wrestle with when you decided to come out when your life is so dependent on public opinion?

Actually by the time I ran in 1997 I had totally embraced my sexual orientation. I didn't come out officially until 2003, but I really never was really in, as it were, because anyone who asked or anyone who knew me knew I was gay. I think my first election, immediately after the nomination I was outed by Frank Magazine, which for all intents and purposes in Nova Scotia politics is pretty much out there.

People didn't talk about it, but I never hid it or anything like that, and for some politicians who are gay they think that is good enough. I guess I didn't realize how important it was to come out officially until I did so in 2003.  

Young people or their parents have come up to me and said, "You don't know what a difference it has made in the life of my child or my son or my daughter." That is something that has been rewarding to me, to think that I can help in the lives of young people who are struggling.

Still, you do operate in a context where many people assume that most people are straight and you have children. Do you get the question about your wife you know, who is your wife? Or the mother of your children? 

It happens quite a bit sometimes in fact.

If I'm in the U.S. meeting with American politicians, it does happen from time to time. I was meeting with a governor recently and he said to me, "I read where you have twins," he said, "I have twin daughters." And I said yes. [He asked] "What does your wife think about all of this political stuff?" I said, "Well my husband met me when I was politician, so it's not a big."

He said, "Husband! Well isn't that great, that's terrific." So the next thing we were talking about he wanted to bring his wife and twin daughters in Nova Scotia some time.

My experience has been when you give people an opportunity to be progressive, almost without exception people will rise to the occasion. People are inherently good. 

Now there are times even today, even after all these years, something will happen from time to time that will hurt you, that will hurt your feelings. Somebody refusing to shake your hand, lawn signs being defaced in an election — including in 2011 the lawn sign on the lot of my parent's home.

My father is 94 now and it hurt me that someone defaced his lawn sign with homophobic graffiti. But that doesn't happen very often and overwhelmingly I feel very lucky. 

But it's a reminder that government matters and politics matters. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982 was an act of a government that was a game-changer for Canada and a life-changer for me. When I speak to young people I talk to them about government matters and politics matters. Decisions made by politicians can have an amazing effect on your life, for better or for worse.

Brison lives in Cheverie, N.S., on the shores of the Minas Basin with his husband and children.