Dominic Agostino supported same-sex spousal benefits and partied at fly. So…
Why did he die a straight man? - by Eleanor Brown
Hamilton East MPP Dominic Agostino died March 24 and was eulogized in the media as a married heterosexual man.
The Canadian Press wire service sent a story across the country memorializing Agostino, and noting that “he leaves behind his wife Rose, mother Theresa, brother Ralph, sister Mary and several nieces and nephews.” The error appears to have come from an awkwardly worded statement released by Premier Dalton McGuinty that allowed reporters to confuse Rose’s identity – she is in fact Agostino’s brother’s wife.
The death of a loved one is horrible enough without the media making a mockery of the obituary. But that’s all we officially know. His personal life was off limits. Even his friend and fellow Liberal MPP, Health Minister George Smitherman, won’t discuss Agostino’s personal life. Both men have strong personalities, and Smitherman, the province’s only out MPP, says the two clashed a bit when they first met in 1986 (Smitherman was then a Liberal field organizer). But they later became good friends, once hosting duelling football-themed hospitality suites at a Liberal convention. Smitherman hyped the Argos, while Agostino promoted his beloved Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
Agostino “was a fighter and had passion. He always reflected his roots – that gritty, working-class Hamilton where houses are small and everybody knows their neighbour,” says Smitherman. Agostino would be greeted warmly by mammas on doorsteps across his riding. And Smitherman says Agostino managed to make his political points while still maintaining friendships across the political spectrum. (Ottawa Tory John Baird once yelled at Agostino during a debate: “You give drunken sailors a bad name.” Agostino laughed back, and Baird delivered Agostino’s eulogy on behalf of the Conservatives when the premier announced his death in the legislature.)
Smitherman also says that Agostino was committed to his constituents and commuted a lot. But certainly, Agostino was also known in the Toronto gay club scene (he was a fan of fly and was often seen there with beautiful men). He was once teased in the satirical Frank Magazine for always wearing the same outfit to Colby’s. At the time, Agostino responded that his personal life was his own. “As long as you are consistent, your private life should remain private.”
By the time Agostino reached his political maturity as an MPP, he seemed to have found that consistency. “I’m proud to stand here and support this bill along with Dalton McGuinty, my leader, and my caucus,” Agostino said in Queen’s Park on Oct. 27, 1999, championing the imminent passing of a bill that would legislate same-sex spousal benefits. “In my view, tonight will be one of the proudest moments in the history of this legislature and one we can build on and work on, and ensure that every single Ontarian is treated with dignity and respect. Once again, thank you to those heroes who have risked everything over the years to get us here tonight.”
Agostino was a career politician. Smitherman notes that when his friend arrived in Canada from Italy at the age of 11, he barely spoke English. Agostino earned a social work diploma from Mohawk College, and by the age of 20 had a seat on the Hamilton separate school board. He went on to sit on Hamilton city council and become the MPP for Hamilton East in 1995. His constituents gave him their third vote of confidence last year even though he spent most of the last election race bedridden with pneumonia. Hospital officials say Agostino died of liver cancer. He was 44 years old.
Agostino was called up to the stage during 1997’s Gay Day at Canada’s Wonderland, and joked to the crowd: “I’ve been with someone for an hour, and I only have another hour left.” But he later told a reporter he was only kidding about attending with a boyfriend: “It was not my intent to go up there and make a public proclamation. If there was going to be any coming out of anything, I don’t think Wonderland would be the place.”
According to Dave Flynn, a close friend of Agostino’s, at a memorial service the Premier hugged Agostino’s partner of several years. The lover was also a pallbearer at the funeral.
I hope, with all my heart, that every person with an ounce of power or influence over the Canadian public will come out. In a world where homophobia exists, influential role models have a duty to be out. Nonetheless, I believe that coming out is a personal decision – just as staying in the closet is a personal decision. I may not agree with it, but I will abide by it. Given my beliefs, writing this column has been difficult. But the reality is that in reporting on Agostino’s death, Canadian Press perpetrated a lie. And even if it was inadvertent, it cannot stand. The dead can no longer be hurt. The living can be. It is not my intention to hurt the living, though I know some will be. To community members who knew Agostino, and especially to his lover, please accept the entire community’s sincere condolences. I hope you, the readers, will forgive me for presuming to speak on your behalf.
• Eleanor Brown is a Montreal-based writer.