NOH8: The Real Housewives of Vancouver's Mary Zilba tackles homophobia with her passion for compassion
Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the biggest hearted of them all?
Well, in the case of the five women from The Real Housewives of Vancouver, that would probably be Mary Zilba, a businesswoman and mother of three boys depicted relaunching her singing career on the show.
Her screentime unfortunately doesn't convey how much of a humanitarian Zilba is. She's been on the national board of directors for Tuberous Sclerosis Canada for four years (her son was diagnosed with it at age six) and is also their national spokesperson. She's also on the board of directors for Epilepsy and Seizure Education in British Columbia. What's more, she's participated in campaigns for PETA, Battered Women's Support Services, Angkor Hospital for Children (in Siam Reap, Cambodia), and Friends Without Borders. Phew!
But as if that's not enough, she's also a passionate supporter of NOH8, the American-based visual protest sparked by Prop 8, which banned gay marriage in California.
At the first NOH8 event held in Vancouver (at the Renaissance Vancouver Harbourside Hotel on May 8), Zilba spoke with the Georgia Straight about her passion for charity work and generous support for social causes.
"I’m a pay-it-forward kind of person," she explained. "I have been my whole life. I was raised that way. So I've kinda passed that on to my children as well. As much as life can give some wonderful things, it's always, I think, the best to give it back. I think it's a part of being a good human being and I think as well as karma, it's always great to give back."
She admitted she is compassionate "almost to a fault...because I don't say no to anything". But while she's been criticized for not standing up for herself on the show, she clearly knows how to advocate for others.
Zilba, who has dual Canadian-American citizenship, said she lived in California for many years and, as a native American, has always kept tabs on gay rights in the U.S. She has longstanding ties with the gay community, having worked in the arts all her life. What's more, her best friend of 16 years, who is also the godfather of two of her children, happens to be gay.
She went to California in January to do a NOH8 photo shoot with two girlfriends. Then she and her RHOV castmate Reiko Mackenzie helped to bring the campaign to Vancouver, the second one to be held in Canada after Montreal.
Equality is something Zilba feels very strongly about. In fact, she feels so strongly about gay rights that homophobic views "seriously infuriate" her. (Warning to homophobes: don't get her started.)
"I've had discussions with people who believe that I've been wrong in my attitude towards gay rights, and I'm very strongly convinced that every human being has the right to do whatever they chose to do in life. The religious groups will speak out against that. I'm a Catholic…I believe that everyone is born equally and I really get upset with who oppose it. And I think they're not open enough to being human….I'm spiritual, I believe in God…and I believe that a good God, or whoever your God might be, has created every human being, and every human being has the right to live and be happy in their life. That's what I believe. And that would be my argument. I think people have the right to be happy. And that a lot of the things we believe today have been manmade and doctrines passed on thousands of years."
Accordingly, she's also a staunch supporter of queer parents.
"I say to my kids, 'It's about loving someone.' It doesn't matter if two males, two females, want to adopt a baby, and people are out there screaming about how bad it is. Why is that bad?...There are so many children who don't have love, who don't have anything, and yet there's two people of the same gender who want to love and nurture and bring up a child, go for it. I think it's amazing. Look at how many children are in foster care and who are just lonely and have no one. I mean, the people who are naysayers should be ashamed of themselves really."
And as a parent herself, if one of her own children came out as gay, she obviously wouldn't have a problem with it.
"For me personally, it wouldn't matter at all to me. I love my children. I would never be judgemental, and I would be very accepting of whatever they chose to do in life, as long as they're not in jail and in trouble. [laughs]…But something as simple as sexual preference, hey, you know what? I practice what I preach."
Zilba reflects the change that has been taking place within straight communities over the last few decades, from a time when straight people wouldn't dare to be associated with gay rights to events like NOH8 being hosted by straight allies.
"It's incredible the strides that we make and it shows that human beings can move forward in life," she said of how much the gay rights movement has achieved. "And I think we're always tied to these old doctrines, these archaic doctrines of life. Life changes and evolves and we have to evolve with it."
Speaking of which, a day after the NOH8 event in Vancouver, U.S. president Barack Obama had his own coming out, by becoming the first U.S. president to publicly support gay marriage.
While gay marriage is legal in Canada, our nation remains only one of ten countries that allow same-sex marriage. What's more, homosexuality remains illegal in numerous countries and regions around the world, with queer citizens facing penalties ranging from fines to imprisonment and even death sentences.
"I think we need to wake up," Zilba said. "And maybe the world would be a nicer place to live if people just accepted the other human beings, who are not doing anything to cause havoc around the world. Just because of your sexual preference doesn't mean that you're causing any havoc in the world, right? You're just loving each other. There's nothing wrong with that…"
Even within our own country, gay issues remain controversial. In our own city and province, antihomophobia policies in schools have been an ongoing hot-button issue that has riled up opposition.
And of course, bullying has become a major issue in both Canada and the U.S. over the past decade. It's something Zilba has experienced in her personal life, most recently on her TV show. On RHOV, Zilba is frequently depicted coming under verbal attack from or being excluded by her castmates, with the blame often placed on her.
"I've never heard the word bully as much as I have since I started this show," she said. "It's interesting how you go through phases of your life, where you're bullied as a child, you watch other children be bullied, then as a mother, I witnessed my child being bullied. And then as an adult, I'm being bullied by other adult women. It is absolutely mind-boggling…. Children, in some ways, I understand that they're somewhat innocent....They don't know any better. But adults know better."
Yet in spite of her experiences, whether it's bullies, homophobes, or critics, Zilba's heart remains as admirably open as her mind.
"Haters need love too, I guess," she said. "It even is moreso that the haters need love. It shows what their true colours are that they need love and they need someone to give them a big hug in the morning and let them know that they're loved because then they wouldn't be spending time hating."