Sue-Ann Levy is a columnist and investigative reporter at the Toronto Sun. She previously spent more than a decade reporting from Toronto City Hall and Queen’s Park. Her new memoir, Underdog: Confessions of a Right-Wing Gay Jewish Muckraker, was published this month by McLelland & Stewart.
What made you want to write a memoir?
I felt I grew up not having a voice. I lived in the closet. I felt like an outsider. When I found my voice, I wanted to make sure it was loud and proud. I think a lot of people don’t feel they have a voice or that they can change, for example, the political system. I wrote the book partly to tell people about what I’d gone through and partly to inspire people to speak up more, to agitate about what politicians have done to them, that kind of thing.
Who do you mean by “people” here?
I’m referring to a range of people. Whether you’re afraid to come out, you’re the object of anti-Semitism or you’re an underdog.
I always felt like an underdog growing up. I couldn’t come out of the closet, I was bullied, I was chubby, I wore glasses. That inspired me to become a champion of the underdog. I’ve made my career trying to advocate for people who don’t feel they have a voice – be it people living in Toronto Community Housing, people who haven’t gotten a fair shake in the health-care system, who don’t have a family doctor, etc. When people approach me and say, “I’ve had trouble dealing with my MPP or city councillor,” I say, “That’s a story for me.”
In what ways do you consider yourself an outsider nowadays?
Well, more recently, for example, when I worked as a reporter at City Hall, I didn’t run with the pack. I covered three mayors, from Mel Lastman to Rob Ford, and felt that other journalists were content with just covering the party line. I didn’t want to do that. I love digging into stories. So I immediately became branded as an outsider. I did the stories no one else wanted.
I grew up as an outsider in Hamilton. I was bullied, I battled my weight, I was a browner and I wasn’t athletic. I have a story in the book about how when I was in Sunday Hebrew school, a teacher decided to play amateur shrink. He put us in a circle and went around analyzing us. It was a total abuse of power. He said I was the outsider in the group, which gave my peers license to bully and mock me. That was when I realized I couldn’t necessarily respect people in power.
You’re often criticized for being outspoken and combative. Is that a kind of defence mechanism that you’ve developed because you feel like an underdog?
I don’t consider myself combative in the slightest. I consider myself another voice in a sea of media who are, well, sheep. They absorb the party line. I always do my homework. I don’t just spew my opinions. I research every story. That’s how I ended up doing investigative work. I say what my readers would love to say if they had a voice. I consider myself a voice for the silent majority in many ways.
You’ve complained in past about the “liberal left.” What’s your main beef with them?
I’m not afraid to roll up my sleeves and go places a lot of my colleagues won’t go, like bedbug- and roach-infested apartments in Toronto Community Housing units, or a crack den, which I did a couple months ago. Or sitting down with former Goodwill employees and discussing what’s next for them. My beef with the left is that they talk a good game about being champions of the downtrodden, about being tolerant and inclusive. And I’ve found them to be the exact opposite.
When I came out in 2007 on the front page of the Sun, all the journalists on the left at City Hall totally ignored it. I got emails, calls and messages from right-wingers. John Tory was the first person to write to me. The left ignored me. I was like, “I’m one of you!” I’ve lived in pain for so many years. And they ignored it. Why? Maybe because I criticize them, maybe because they’re petulant, maybe because I’m not supposed to be gay and conservative.
The Conservative Party of Canada has only recently supported same-sex marriage. How do you reconcile being gay and politically conservative?
That’s not entirely accurate. Former prime minister Stephen Harper was smart enough to know he wasn’t going to reopen the same-sex marriage debate. There were people in his party who were a bit out there – Reform Party-minded people, just as there are Tea Partiers in the United States. Same-sex marriage has been legal in Canada since 2002, correct me if I’m wrong. [Editor’s note: Same-sex marriage was legalized in Canada nationwide in 2005. After Harper was elected in 2006 with a minority government, he allowed a free vote in Parliament on the question of whether to restore the traditional definition of marriage.]
I think it’s a myth that there aren’t gay conservatives or that conservatives are intolerant of homosexuality. That’s another reason I wanted to put this book out.
But it seems that people with right-of-centre politics are less tolerant of marginalized communities.
I think that’s also a myth, one I want to explode in this book.
I give so many examples, such as how I’ve taken on Toronto Community Housing as my own personal crusade in a way no other journalist has.
The tenants there love me.
At the public housing agency, the board allowed all kinds of spending abuses, which took money away from much-needed repairs. There were management “bonding sessions,” manicure/pedicure sessions, etc. This was all revealed in the auditor general’s 2011 report.
How has being Jewish affected your politics?
Well, I’m a Zionist. I’ve taken on fighting anti-Semitism. I also fought to get QuAIA out of the Toronto Pride Parade. And I should note that when I write about anything gay, I never get the kind of pushback as when I write about anti-Semitism, BDS [the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel] or Holocaust denial. Then I get all kinds of hate mail. I’m very proud of being Jewish and of my ties to Israel.
In 2012, you wrote a controversial tweet that was widely believed to imply that U.S. President Barack Obama is Muslim. You used the hashtag #MuslimBS. Why did you do that?
I address this, hopefully with some humour, in the book. I made the mistake of going to a presidential debate in Florida with Denise, my wife, and Obama was talking about foreign policy. I just feel he doesn’t have strong ties to Israel. In his first term, he visited every other country and was seen posing with despots and dictators, but hadn’t visited Israel. I think he’s been horrid to Israel and to [Israeli Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu. I saw him respond to questions on Israel at the debate and, well, I get very passionate and I shouldn’t have had my BlackBerry. I was on holiday. That was stupid of me, I tweeted the #MuslimBS thing. And it got out of control. What I meant was that Obama has ties to the Muslim world, not that Obama is Muslim. I didn’t even know what “birther” meant. I had the chance to get on air on the John Oakley radio show [on AM640 in Toronto] two days later and explain myself.
But here’s what I mean about the left-wing media. It was a chance for them to go great guns on me and say, “We gotcha.”
You’re sensitive to anti-Semitism and presumably homophobia. Do you see Islamophobia as an issue?
I see the potential for it to be an issue, but I think people are going overboard about political correctness. For example, [Toronto] Mayor John Tory just gave $90,000 for this campaign to tell people not to say nasty things about Syrian refugees, as though we can’t be trusted to respectful of people. They put ads up in bus shelters. I find that repugnant. You don’t see ads in bus shelters about anti-Semitism on the rise.
What made you stay in the closet for so many years?
I came from a very traditional, patriarchal family. My grandfather was a successful entrepreneur who owned a chain of grocery stores in Hamilton. I felt he didn’t approve. When I came to the Sun in 1989, I thought it would be career-limiting, but things have changed considerably. The Sun has evolved.
I have to ask about your thoughts on Donald Trump.
Let’s put it this way: I’m enjoying watching the liberal media go hysterical in the United States over his ascendancy. The “Clinton News Network,” for example, as I call it, a.k.a. CNN, tries every which way to savage him and to ignore Hillary Clinton’s baggage.
Would you vote for him?
Oh God, that’s a loaded question. I don’t know, and I can’t vote because I’m not American. I don’t like some of the things he’s said. I think he’s not a politician, but a reality television personality, a businessman. I like his outspokenness, and that he’s responsive to what people are looking for. I understand the phenomenon.