Photo by Michael Peake/Toronto Sun
Sue-Ann Levy doesn’t sound like the devil, which a 2012 headline in a Toronto publication, The Grid, suggested she might be.
In fact, the woman who picked up the phone to chat with the Forward’s Michael Kaminer has a sweet, chirpy voice and an endearingly cheery manner. But these qualities belie the Toronto Sun investigative columnist’s steel spine. An out lesbian and relentless advocate for Israel, Levy’s also a dogged reporter whose scoops on municipal corruption and cronyism have made her both an idol and a punching bag.
Detractors have pounced on her more outrageous actions, like her 2012 tweet implying Barack Obama may be Muslim. Enemies have called her “an Internet troll, but in real life.” But those jabs just seem to stoke her. “Either you love me or you hate me,” she told the Forward from the home she shares with her wife, interior designer Denise Alexander, and dachshunds Kishka and Flora.
Michael Kaminer: That headline was severe. What is it about you that provokes such strong reactions?
Sue-Anny Levy: What provokes strong reactions is that I say it how I see it. There’s no BS about me. I’m outspoken, and I don’t fit into any molds. I’m right of center politically, fiscally conservative, socially aware, and openly gay. I’m not afraid to tackle the status quo. I love exposing waste and corruption. And I always do my homework. They can never tackle me on my facts. My scorn has been heaped on what I call the intolerant lib left here in Toronto, who say one thing and do another. Few people in my profession have the guts to do it.
You’ve just completed an autobiography set for release by Random House in 2015. Can you give us a sneak peek?
It’ll either be called “Underdog” or “Scoop” — we’re not sure. It’s very cheeky, and talks about the sacred cows I’ve tackled. It’s also a very raw tell-all about my life, how I wrestled with being gay and lived in the closet. There’s also a chapter about the fact that I’ve been assaulted twice in my life. I’ve never written about it this much. I walked around in anger for 20 years because I never got help. Then I get into causes I’ve taken on, [Toronto mayor] Rob Ford and why I think he’s an underdog, the lies of the liberal left about me.
I was reading the Sun at a coffee shop in a heavily gay neighborhood in Toronto; a guy actually came up to me and said, “I can’t believe you’re reading that.” Does that happen often?
People try to discredit the paper. They say things like, “You’re a hack, you’re writing for a tabloid.” But we’re cheeky, we’re still alive after 42 years, and we are the other voice — a voice that’s needed in this city. The Sun has never tried to rein me in. I wouldn’t have that voice at another paper.
You’ve covered the ongoing controversy around Queers Against Israeli Apartheid’s participation in Toronto’s Gay Pride parade. Israel supporters and Toronto legislators tried excluding the group, claiming its “Israeli Apartheid” slogan constituted discrimination. This year, the group marched in the WorldPride procession. How would you characterize the city’s handling of the whole thing?
I would say it was despicable. There’s another chapter in my book all about our fight, which went on for five years. The city kowtowed to bullying and intimidating tactics of QUAIA. They didn’t want to break a sweat. There was also a very nefarious thing at City Hall. The diversity person, Uzma Shakir, had written a report that QUAIA had not violated the city’s discrimination policy. But I broke the story that this woman had written for Rabble.ca, a virulently anti-Israel site. I chased her boss down the hallway — “Doesn’t she have conflict of interest?” She looked at me like I was one of those pushy Jews — how dare I ask this question? It’s political correctness gone mad.
You’ve also covered Israel frequently and vocally. With Canadian criticism of Israel apparently on the rise, especially in the shadow of the current conflict, what kinds of responses do you get?
It never surprises me but I always find it disturbing how my writings either in favor of Israel or against QUAIA seem to bring the anti-Semites out from under their rocks. Last week when I interviewed the Israeli Consul-General to Canada, I received e-mails that were not only aggressively pro-Palestinian but threatening in tone — that I would get my “just desserts.” I look at it the unfortunate by-product of being passionately pro-Israel and proud of my heritage.
Toronto’s Jewish organizations, for the most part, are extremely fragmented and don’t or won’t work together for a common purpose. Aside from a few exceptions — the Simon Wiesenthal Centre being one and B’nai Brith another — their activism is often weak, as if they are afraid to speak up for what’s right. But what then, is their purpose? And more often than not, they are not nimble in terms to responding to breaking events on a timely basis. I often wonder if they are too busy discussing and debating their strategy to actually implement anything of value.
You came out on the front page of the Toronto Sun during Pride Week in 2007. What kind of response did that bring?
I came out in response to a column that had run in the paper the previous Friday. A colleague — he’s a little crazed, but we’re friends now — wrote that it’s great to be gay, it’s trendy, we’ve got it made in the shade. I thought, no way. I’ve lived in the closet for 20 years. I got very upset. I went to my editor and said, “I think it’s time.” I wrote the column with the blessing of my now-wife, Denise. I told my parents. And after writing it, I thought, “My God, what have I done?”
The e-mails started on Sunday. Mostly they were “I had no idea, but I don’t care, I love what you do.” Some said “Good, you have courage,” and told me their own stories. There were some wingnuts, but they were few and far between.
Then you wrote another personal column when you married Denise in 2009. What kinds of reactions did that get?
Denise and I were married under a chuppah Denise designed with the seven fruits of Israel. [Toronto Reform] Rabbi Debra Landsberg married us; coincidentally, she was on the Coalition of Canadian Rabbis for Same Sex Marriage. When we came to see her, she just said she was happy we were creating a loving Jewish home. Aside from a few Jesus freaks, the column got mostly positive reactions. The big surprise was an ultra-Orthodox rabbi. He said, “I’m the real deal, black hat, payess, everything. Don’t blow my cover, but I’m very proud you’d do this and I wish you all the naches in the world.” I was so touched.
Over your career, what scoop has made you proudest?
Back in 2012, I won Sun Media’s investigative journalism award. There was a billion-dollar plan to revitalize Regent Park, Toronto’s largest social-housing project. They were going to create some market-rate condos so people of all income levels could live there. I called it the ”socialist utopia.” Then I found out the developer was buying up condo after condo while poor people were getting turfed out or sent to other projects. The councilor for that area bought herself a wonderful condo, too. I wrote that she could look over her poor peons like Marie Antoinette. The story caused a real maelstrom. I was attacked by other journalists working out of City Hall. But it brought accountability to that project, and exposed that these poor people got duped and kicked out of their homes.
And now you and Denise are very visible. She even came to the Pride parade with you this year for the first time.
We’re not your typical lesbians. We’re very girly. We love dressing up. Also, that’s part of why I was able to stay in closet so long. I fooled everybody.