TORONTO — When speaking of her three beloved dachshunds, veteran Toronto journalist Sue-Ann Levy describes them as “feisty.” It’s an attribute her many fans and detractors would readily associate with the outspoken reporter and columnist who has long taken pride in the controversy she generates.
Feistiness is clearly evident in Levy’s just-published memoir, “Underdog: Confessions of a Right-Wing Gay Jewish Muckraker.” True to form, she comes out swinging in the book, naming names and settling scores. She repeatedly lambastes public figures, journalists, teachers, bureaucrats, activists and union leaders for assorted failings and transgressions.
Levy’s scorn for politicians, especially those on the left, makes for lively reading. Among the epithets she uses — some multiple times — to castigate elected officials are “weak, arrogant, narcissistic, hypocritical, egotistical, lacking in moral fiber, lazy, self-indulgent and given to foolish grandstanding.” That’s just a sampling.
In “Underdog,” echoing her work in the Toronto Sun, Levy targets what she considers political correctness gone amok, government waste and mismanagement, bloated public salaries and financial shenanigans.
When it comes to anti-Semites and radical opponents of Israel, Levy is ferocious.
“I’m like a mother bear, very protective of my homeland,” says Levy, over a black coffee at a midtown Toronto location of Aroma.
She chose it as a meeting place, saying she likes to support Israel-related businesses or products in Toronto, especially since the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement started.
In person, contrary to how her adversaries often depict her, Levy is personable and upbeat.
“I hear it all the time that I’m nothing like the persona I present in print,” says Levy. “That also speaks to the stereotypes of strong, outspoken women. Being strong and unafraid to express one’s opinion as a female doesn’t necessarily make one the many things I’ve been called like ‘bitch’ and ‘vile.'”
Often wearing her heart on her sleeve, Levy also sports a Star of David around her neck.
“I bought it in Jerusalem two years ago,” says Levy, who recently turned 60. “I felt it was important to buy it and wear wherever I go. I never take it off. I’ve always been tightly tied to my Jewish roots but after seeing what happened in Israel in 2014 [referring to the war against Hamas] and after I started covering the rise in BDS and the growth in anti-Semitism, I felt I had to be really out there about my Jewish identity and not apologize about it.”
Apologies are scarce in Levy’s tell-all book whose title resonates strongly with her.
“Throughout the book, I talk about underdogs,” says Levy. “I talk about covering the plight of people who don’t have a voice in government, or can’t stand up to changes. I talk about Israel and if there was ever an underdog it’s Israel. The book is also me growing up an underdog, overcoming obstacles — living in the closet, dealing with trauma, two assaults, one very serious, weight issues, being bullied when I grew up which really started when a Sunday school teacher labeled me an outsider.”
‘Throughout the book I talk about underdogs, and if there was ever an underdog it’s Israel’
In the book, she devotes a chapter to disgraced former Toronto mayor Rob Ford and his scandal-plagued reign that ended in 2014. She related to Ford’s policies (especially his anti-mismanagement crusade) and considered him an underdog for being overweight and unsophisticated. While critical of his crack-cocaine use, alcoholism, crude outbursts and homophobic stance, she refused to join what she condemns as the media’s cruel takedown of Ford, who died last March.
For the past 27 years, Levy has worked at the Toronto Sun, the city’s scrappy daily tabloid. Her main beats have been City Hall and provincial politics, but she’s also written extensively about the justice system, health care, BDS, Israel and other Jewish-related issues. She’s exposed numerous scandals involving public officials engaged in corruption, conflict of interest and egregious waste and mismanagement. She’s also a regular municipal affairs commentator on local radio and TV.
“I state with a certain amount of pride that I’m a shit disturber,” Levy writes early in the book. “I was and am an outsider. I wear it like a badge of honor now. I’m proud to be a salmon swimming upstream. I was born an outsider.”
Hailing from Hamilton, a city of 500,000 people 70 km southwest of Toronto, Levy showed political proclivities at a young age. She was a member of her high school’s student council and served on Hamilton’s junior city council. She studied journalism at Carleton University in Ottawa during which she suffered a viscous assault by a stranger that almost killed her.
‘I’m a shit disturber, I wear it like a badge of honor now’
Soon after graduating, at age 22, she became press secretary to a cabinet minister in Conservative Prime Minister Joe Clark’s short-lived government. With Clark’s defeat in the 1980 election, Levy left Ottawa for Toronto where she studied for her MBA and worked in PR and communications.
Levy began her journalism career age 32 at a small-town weekly two hours north of Toronto before joining the Sun in 1989.
Since then, fancying herself a champion for the underdog, she’s always wanted her writing to help those in need who don’t have a voice. She attributes that largely to her family upbringing and the Jewish tradition of pursuing social justice.
In recent years, Levy’s Jewish identity and unabashed Zionism have figured more prominently in her work, earning her the ire and abuse of anti-Semites.
‘I feel more comfortable being openly gay in Toronto than being openly Jewish’
“People have asked me which of the four self-defining things in my book title — being right-wing, muckraker, Jewish and gay — gives me the most trouble,” says Levy. “The one that causes me the most problems is being right-wing but it’s followed closely by being openly Jewish. Whenever I write about a Jewish topic, Holocaust deniers, BDS or Israel, the anti-Semites come out of the woodwork. It’s scary how many there are out there. You’d be shocked at some of the really odious emails I receive. People in Toronto’s Jewish community are fooling themselves if they think anti-Semitism isn’t growing. There’s no question I feel more comfortable being openly gay in Toronto than being openly Jewish.”
That wasn’t always the case. It’s only nine years ago that Levy came out as a lesbian — on the Sun’s front-page — after hiding it from family, friends and colleagues for decades. In “Underdog,” referring to herself as a “lipstick lesbian,” she’s extremely candid about her personal life including her relationship with Denise Alexander, an interior designer and event planner she married in 2009 in a Jewish wedding in Toronto.
Levy has been to Israel four times in her life, first at age 15 when she toured the country for three weeks and then lived on Kibbutz Revivim in the Negev for a month, picking olives and peaches and working in the kitchen. Her most recent trip was in 2014 just after the Gaza war which she wrote about in the Sun.
“In recent years, I’ve increased my advocacy for Israel and against those who try to harm it,” says Levy, a few hours before she was to speak about her book at a local synagogue. “It really started with the Gay Pride Parade in 2009 when I learned that this group called Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA) had infiltrated the event. They were beating up on Israel with very little information and a lot of ignorance about what happens there. It became one of the causes I took on.”
Levy was aghast that at an event funded by City Hall and intended as a celebration of gay rights, QuAIA was allowed to spew its vitriol only against gay-tolerant Israel while ignoring the many countries, especially in the Middle East, where homosexuals are persecuted.
Thanks in no small part to the activism of Levy, her wife and others, QuAIA faced growing ostracism at City Hall and in the media and disbanded in 2015.
A passionate runner, Levy plans to be in Israel in mid-March to participate in the Jerusalem marathon. She’s currently training for her 11th half-marathon in October in Toronto.
‘I would be lying if I said I didn’t love attention’
“I would be lying if I said I didn’t love attention,” Levy writes in the book. “My shit disturbing comes from a deep disdain for and despair over the kind of political correctness that leaves people walking on eggshells, censoring themselves from saying or doing what they feel is the right thing for fear of offending.”
For all her contempt for politicians, she aspires to be one. In 2009, she ran unsuccessfully for Ontario’s provincial legislature as a member of the Conservative Party.
“I don’t foreclose the possibility of running again,” says Levy. “But if I do, it’ll be for the right reasons. As a journalist, I’m so used to being the outsider, that if I were ever to be elected, I wouldn’t care if I got backlash for standing up for my principles. Who knows? Other politicians might just follow my lead.”
Something to look forward to.