Friday, October 28, 2011

Rick Mercer, the Globe, Bullying and Gay Visibility

This post is my response to the recent public debate about Rick Mercer’s Rant and the subsequent Globe and Mail editorial attacking his position on the need for gay adults to come out as part of the answer to fighting homophobia and bullying. If you already know the history of this issue, jump ahead to paragraph six.

I was somewhat surprised to discover that it has now been over a year since Dan Savage launched the It Gets Better campaign, a YouTube-hosted group outreach project where people share their personal experiences and try to offer GLBT youth the message that although it can be very difficult for them right now, their lives can and will get better. In the months that followed, the campaign has attracted a tremendous amount of media and public attention, and there have been productive debates (some of which I discussed in this post last year) over how the campaign could and should go further to not only express a message of hope, but also lead to more direct action about issues such as bullying and depression that can contribute to the plight of queer youth. Savage himself has come out on numerous occasions to strongly support these calls for additional action, beyond the initial awareness-raising outreach efforts of the IGB campaign.

Of course, despite this, there have still been countless numbers of gay youth who continue to be isolated, and some have taken their own lives. Indeed, in recent months, there have been gay youth who have explicitly referenced the IGB campaign, and even made their own videos, but still committed suicide. In a number of these cases, other issues such as depression have been a contributing factor. The result of these incidents, though, has been a revival of the issue in the eyes of the media (with some interesting consequences, like actor Zachary Quinto’s recent coming out).

Over the past weeks, the suicide of a gay youth in Ottawa prompted a group of Conservative MPs to record their own IGB video, with an emphasis on anti-bullying efforts. Some critics derided this effort, citing the vicious anti-gay stance that had been taken by many of these MPs, such as Vic Toews, over the past decade. Others viewed this video in a more positive light, pointing out that this was still a small step in the right direction from individuals who have amends to make. On Tuesday night, comedian Rick Mercer stepped into the fray once again, dedicating his Rant to a call for authorities to take action against these bullies, but also for gay and lesbian adults to step up, come out, and provide much needed role models for gay youth. Although Mercer did not explicitly include himself among that cohort of gay adults in the rant (and I was critical of him at the time for failing to include that important nuance), he subsequently did so on the Thursday morning edition of CBC’s The Current, and discussed how the process of coming out and being out is an ongoing, recurrent one, and that he himself often overestimates the degree to which he is out in public life, given that he has been out to friends and coworkers for a long time now, although many of his viewers remain unaware of his sexual orientation.

This morning, the Globe and Mail attacked Mercer’s position in its lead editorial, which cited a number of reasons why individuals might choose to remain in the closet and not disclose their sexual orientations for personal reasons. The editorialist equated Mercer’s position to a burden being placed on all gay and lesbian public figures, rhetorically asking “Would every gay person now need to hold a news conference?” Calling his position “wrong, terribly wrong,” the editorialist claimed that Mercer was arguing that “it falls to successful gay adults to protect vulnerable gay teens from the problems associated with being different” and argued that instead “the job of protecting gay teens or anyone else from bullying falls to everyone.”

I found myself getting very upset at the dismissive, holier-than-thou stance taken by the Globe’s editorial this morning, and its protestations of outrage of “how dare he” impose a moral obligation on gay men and lesbians, forcing them out of the closet when they have so recently won the right to live their lives without discrimination. As I gave this issue more thought over the course of the day, I realized that the source of my concerns is how this issue has been dealt with by politicians and some media outlets. At issue is the question of linkages. The reason why the IGB campaign got as much coverage as it did is because of the tragedies that have resulted from the plight of gay youth – particularly the suicides of the summer of 2010, and those recently in Canada and the United States. And so, while there was an initial flurry of YouTube videos from gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered adults, this was soon followed by liberal-minded politicians and media personalities.

But along the way, the emphasis of the media message shifted, and it has continued to shift. Because the focal issue became less about a systemic culture that is not gay positive (or to get jargon-y, is homophobic and/or heteronormative), into a focus on the supposed proximate causes of the suicides – bullying and depression, although this latter issue shows up much less in the speeches and videos. And so it has become possible for those who want to appear sensitive to recent events to put most of their efforts on the more universally accepted issue of fighting bullying, while avoiding the particular challenges of gay youth that are rooted in the broader culture of North America (and elsewhere) which is often one that teaches that their sexual orientation is abnormal, deviant, a sin, and the list goes on. So, in the minds and messages of many politicians and public figures, the challenge became how to fight the symptom of bullying, and create safer schools. This has had the positive effect of creating a dialogue about how to foster safer schools for all who are bullied, and serving as a call for all adults, both gay and straight, to take direct action rather than just espousing a message that change will come. And this is the zone in which the Globe’s editorialist has positioned their contribution – a message that “bullying is bad, and all people have a responsibility to fight it”.

But where Mercer’s Rant is aimed is at a different core issue, which is the particular combination of challenges facing GLBT youth. They do not just have to face a climate of bullying in high schools (which many other youth so as well), but a society that still has some pretty deeply entrenched anti-gay attitudes, and shockingly few high profile gay public figures. It is a society in which it is well-known that Hollywood is chock-a-block with gay actors who are told to remain the closet to protect their careers, and that the halls of Parliament and Congress are littered with closeted gay politicians, who only seem to come out when forced to do so by an affair (a slight exaggeration admittedly, and less true in Canada). It is a society where, as the Globe dodges, but implicitly admits, it might be harder to live your life if you are open about your sexual orientation and your career prospects might be hindered because of the prejudice of others. Mercer’s rant argues that more gay and lesbian adults need to come out – and keep coming out, rather than just doing it once to friends and family – in order to normalize homosexuality, to make it part of the common fabric, and to make it part and parcel of what it means to be a public figure. He knows, as so many gay men and lesbians do, that our governments, media and businesses are filled with high-powered gay men and lesbians who are not “publicly” out, although many may be to their close acquaintances. But this does little to demonstrate to those struggling with their sexuality and feeling isolated in high school that our society is thoroughly permeated by the presence of gay men and lesbians at all levels.

Mercer is not calling for a press conference for all of these individuals. Although it might not hurt if a few more highly placed individuals in Canada did make a point of doing so. But coming out publicly can take different forms. It can be a matter of a politician, when speaking on the campaign trail, of casually referring to their partner (or wife, or husband) by name – just as any heterosexual politician does all the time – rather than letting it be thought that they are single and straight. It could be openly attending public events with one’s same-sex partner. There are numerous ways in which straight politicians and public figures “come out” as straight all the time by virtue of who they are seen with, how they speak about their relationships and the mere fact that they do speak about their relationships. What Mercer is calling for, if I understand his message correctly, is for gay adults to do more of this. Because while the issue of bullying can be fought by all adults, only gay men and lesbians can take steps to provide visibility of gay individuals in public life to combat the assumption that everyone in the adult world is straight.

And in case you’re wondering, I do try to walk the walk on this issue, in my semi-public life as a professor. I don’t just blog about issues related to my sexuality where those “in the know” will find out. I try to be visible within the university, but without being aggressive about it. So if I’m chatting with students on a break partway through class, I will make reference to “my husband”. Because many of my courses do deal with recent political history, I can incorporate references to gay and lesbian rights in Canada in a fairly natural way, and I’ve often picked those classes as an opportunity to make a casual reference to how those social movements made it possible for me to marry my husband (prompting a flurry of Google searches of “matthew hayday gay” that land on this blog). I don’t jump up and down in my students’ faces making all my courses about my personal life and my politics, but nor do I shy away from making references to my personal life if it is appropriate – just as many, many other straight colleagues of mine do all the time when they illustrate contemporary issues, or make a casual, conversational aside in the middle of their lectures. It is surprising how often one’s personal life does come up in casual conversation, if you let it. But as many gay men and lesbians will tell you, if they are honest about it, they also clam up or evade the specific details on a regular basis, depending on their audience. A good first step to changing that, and being more out, is to stop self-censoring as often. That alone will start a broader process of raising the visibility of gay adults, and hopefully have trickle-down impacts to allow others to take the bolder step of the public declaration, should they wish.

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At 6:50 pm, Blogger Kilometres said...

Great read. Thanks for posting.

As a quick note, your "coming out" link didn't work for me.

At 8:59 pm, Anonymous Eamon said...


Just so I understand, are you suggesting that the IGB campaign was co-opted by the anti-bullying movement? Before I finished your post I was close to commenting that I agree with the Globe in that the fight against bullying is something that all adults should be partaking in. Many kids who are not LGBT are bullied - as you noted.

I do think that you and Mercer both make a point - the IGB campaign, which was a response to a number of suicides in the LGBT community(often caused by bullying and depression), seemed to be more about providing a positive message: It Gets Better. While many people showed support for this campaign, I think that you are right to note that more support should be shown by those who openly identify as LGBT. I mean, Spock being gay is important (I know it is Zachary Quinto who is gay, but the association between Quinto and Spock is automatic). Dumbledore (one of the most beloved characters in the Harry Potter series) is also gay. I could be wrong, but I think that Neil Patrick Harris' portrayal of Barney Stinson on How I Met Your Mother is a huge step for the perception of homosexuality in Hollywood - he plays perhaps the biggest womanizer on TV, and he is gay in real life.

Now maybe some other significant leaders can not just come out, but as you said, not hide the fact that they happen to be LGBT. I mean, does Scott Brison bring his partner on campaigns like Steve brings Laureen? How many other politicians keep their sexuality quiet to remain politically viable? What about CEOs? Or Canadian television personalities (besides Mercer, who is there?)?

At 11:13 pm, Blogger Matt said...

Sorry about that, Kilometres. I've fixed the links - slight html error there!

At 11:24 pm, Blogger Matt said...


I wouldn't necessarily use the word "co-opt". But I do think that there are a number of politicians (in particular) who feel safe talking about bullying, but who aren't ready or willing to confront head-on the specific issue of why gay youth in particular are bullied, and why they face depression and isolation. I agree that all adults can and should help fight against bullying. But I also think that the IGB campaign was particularly interested in some of the more specific challenges faced by gay youth that are more deeply entrenched in our culture, and require solutions above and beyond an generic anti-bullying strategy - which is where gay adults may have a particular role to play.

Many people commenting on stories related to this issue have made a point of using lines of argumentation like "bullying affects everyone" or "high school is hell for most people", which doesn't really address, and even denies, the existence of the deep rooted anti-gay sentiments faced by gay youth, not only from their peers, but from adults as well (perhaps even their families). Part of IGB is about recognizing that eventually these teens will not only leave the specific context of high school, but also financial dependency on families that may also be homophobic, and be able to build their own supportive adult networks.

I'm getting long-winded here, but my central point is that the media debate seems to have become mostly concentrated on the bullying issue, and leaving aside the other broader forms of societal isolation faced by GLBT youth that also require solutions.

At 10:35 am, Anonymous Eamon said...


Thanks for the clarification. That's what I thought you were saying.

That was a great post, by the way.


At 9:59 am, Blogger Luke Stocking said...

I remember reading the original column where Savage launched IGB. The only problem I can see with it is there is a sort of "We're here waiting for you at the end of the Gauntlet, at the end of the tunnel" tone that while offering encouragement still leaves youth to suffer until 'it gets better.' You are absolutely right that if leaders etc. were more open about their sexual orientation the result could only be positive for these youth by challenging those wider societal norms that go beyond bullying.


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