OTTAWA – Moments after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized on behalf of Ottawa for decades of discrimination against the LGBTQ community, Veterans Affairs Minister Seamus O’Regan emerged from the House of Commons.
In a dark navy suit, tie and a crisp white shirt, he looked down solemnly and paused.
The others cabinet ministers around him fell silent as O’Regan delivered remarks far more personal than some had on offer that November day.
The apology was about more than prejudice and discrimination, he said.
“This is about shame,” he said. “Being made to feel shame for being different. Growing up terrified of being ostracized, growing up, keeping some of the most beautiful, intimate parts of your life a secret, wondering if there was something twisted in you.”
O’Regan, 46, said he is now reflecting on how he internalized shame over his sexuality — something he did not embrace until about a decade ago, when he met the man who became his husband, Steve Doussis.
“When the time came when I fully realized I’m gay … I went ‘OK, this is not in question anymore,” O’Regan said in a recent interview. “This is not an exercise in fluidity … I realized I was in love and there was no question.”
It wasn’t until after he became an MP and went through rehab for alcohol addiction in late 2015, however, that O’Regan realized his sexuality was connected to his substance abuse.
He describes this is an emotional holdover.
“This is what happens often,” O’Regan said. “Men who were struggling with their sexuality often turn to alcohol to deal with the anxieties of it and I did. I am very typical.”
O’Regan said he now hopes he can help reframe the discussion around discrimination toward LGBTQ people in Canada.
“There’s the battle that is fought on ‘This is my identity, this is who I am,'” O’Regan said. “There is also the battle of ‘Who the hell is the government to tell me who to love? Who the hell is the government to tell me who I can’t love?”
As part of its apology, the Liberal government earmarked $110 million to compensate members of the military and other federal agencies whose careers were sidelined or ended due to their sexual orientation — the centrepiece of a class-action settlement with employees who were investigated, sanctioned and sometimes fired as part of the so-called “gay purge.”
Ottawa also said it will pay $20 million for legal fees and administration and devote at least $15 million more for projects to “promote collective reconciliation and remembrance,” including museum exhibits, a national monument and possible archival projects as part of the settlement.
The government also introduced legislation proposing the expungement of criminal records for people convicted of consensual sexual activity with same-sex partners.
For his part, O’Regan said he is appreciative of those who fought “lonely, lonely battles” to facilitate Trudeau’s historic apology — those who endured being beat up at school and being called “gay”, “fag” and “queer.”
He said he was never the subject of violence but witnessed people who were.
“That kind of guilt weighs on you,” he said. “I wasn’t self aware enough. I wasn’t ready.”
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