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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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

New Directions in Political History - Post-Conference Observations

Last week, I attended a great conference on Canadian political history, held at York University (full disclosure, I was one of the organizers). About a hundred participants discussed a truly dazzling array of topics, ranging from the new citizenship guide to the welfare state, from gender to food policy, from the civil service to nationalism, from gun control to taxation. The participants approached the concept of Canadian political history from a very wide array of perspectives, ranging what might be considered "top down" studies of politicians and government mandarins to gendered and cultural analyses of political movements and state policy.

I'm sure that not all of what was covered at that conference would be considered "political history" by some people's definition, but I'm pleased to see a broadening of the field, and the interactions between different types of scholars. It was really refreshing to see people who consider themselves to be social historians, cultural historians or women's historians engaging with the foreign policy and constitutional scholars thanks to a shared interest in the functioning of the state. I also think it is important to see how there is an increasing dovetailing between the approaches taken by scholars in different fields, so that a person like myself might incorporate some analysis of gender in my studies of language policy, or a scholar of gender might spend more time considering how social policy and government action played a role in the cultural phenomena they are analyzing.

One observation struck me in particular though, which is the issue of the extent to which academic historians, as a profession, feel qualified to comment on contemporary public policy, or are even invited to do so. The two roundtables that bookended the conference really drove this home for me. The opening session, which centered around the perceived politicization of the Discover Canada citizenship guide, featured five scholars who were all eager to comment on the content of this very contemporary government document, which led to a stimulating discussion (with very ideological perspectives). Conversely, the five panellists on the concluding roundtable on the study of the welfare state expressed a certain reluctance to comment on contemporary issues, when the question was posed to them explicitly by Craig Heron. I'm not sure whether this was simply a reflection of the particular panellists, or an issue connected to the subfield (which generally hasn't tackled much post-1960s history so far, with some key exceptions). I'd really like to see more engagement by academic scholars on the whole in public life, particularly on important political topics like welfare state development. I understand the fears of being misrepresented by media outlets or quoted out of context by journalists or having one's complex analysis oversimplified. But I think that Canadian historians do have a public duty to think about the contemporary ramifications of their research, especially if they study relatively recent history. This is not to say that historical topics cannot be studied for their own sake. But if there are aspects of one's research that can and should inform contemporary discussions, it would seem to me that as good citizens we should be engaging in these debates and at least trying to put our knowledge to good use.

I think that this conference might serve as a great kick-starting to an ongoing series of thematic conferences about the history of the state and Canadian political history more broadly. Here's hoping we can build on this momentum.

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Thursday, October 06, 2011

Ontario Election 2011 - Tight Races, Bedtime for Me

As I head to bed at 11 PM, the Liberals are one seat shy of a majority government in Ontario, with a handful of seats still teetering in the balance. I'm extremely pleased that the Conservatives failed to capture the government. As I see it, one way or the other the McGuinty Liberals will need to come to terms with Horvath's NDP (or at least a handful of Conservatives). Even if they take that cherished 54th seat tonight, there will doubtless be recounts, and then the Speaker's election could well pull things back to an even split. And in the long-term, you know that at least one or two or more MPPs will leave politics, and the ensuing by-elections will throw the whole situation into flux again. So better to govern as if it is actually a minority and come to workable arrangements with the opposition parties, so as to provide this province with some stability. I'm content with this election result - it is far better than what I had been fearing over the past year, and as recently as the summer.

It's a bittersweet night for me though. This is the first election where I haven't been able to share thoughts and opinions with my Dad, which we had done for every provincial and federal election either in person or over the phone since I was a kid. I'm sure he would have been satisfied though, both that the Conservatives lost, and that my riding (Guelph) and his (Oakville) stayed Liberal red.

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Canadian Political History Prizes / Prix en histoire politique canadienne

A few years ago, I helped organize and launch a Political History Group within the Canadian Historical Association. One of the group's initial objectives was to promote the recognition of excellent scholarship in Canadian political history, and so last year we launched a series of three prizes - best book, best English-language article, and best French-language article. We were short of nominations for the French-language article prize, but had numerous submissions for the other two prizes, which were won by Ivana Caccia for her book Managing the Canadian Mosaic in Wartime: Shaping Citizenship Policy, 1939-1945, published by McGill-Queen’s University Press, and Bradley Miller, for his article “‘A carnival of crime on our border’: International Law, Imperial Power, and Extradition in Canada, 1865-1883,” which appeared in the Canadian Historical Review.

I'm pleased to announce the competitions for the 2012 prizes. Details may be found at the Political History Group's website in English and French.

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Sunday, October 02, 2011

Chess, the Cold War and Musical Theatre

So... I know this blog is supposed to be about things political and historical in nature, but allow me a brief diversion into the world of theatre. If you insist, I can make the connection to the themes of the blog relevant. I want to encourage theatre-goers in the greater Toronto area to go and see the production of the musical Chess, currently playing at the Princess of Wales theatre.

How can I make this relevant? Well, despite its title, and despite the fact that the chorus features cast members decked out in costumes inspired by bishops, rooks and knights, Chess is at its core both a romance and a historical period piece inspired by the Cold War. With lyrics by Tim Rice and music by Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson (of ABBA fame), it was inspired by the Cold War era world chess championship which pitted American Bobby Fischer against Russian Boris Spassky, with the resultant political posturing that accompanied any such East-West clash (and indeed several decades of Olympic competitions). In addition to some truly great love songs (I Know Him So Well), pop classics (One Night in Bangkok) and power anthems (Nobody's Side), there are wonderfully subtle politically-tinged lyrics and songs designed to evoke the tensions of the Cold War. The concept album for the musical was first released in 1984, and I've been listening to it since I was a little boy (and chess player), longing for the chance to see it in person. Yesterday I finally did.

The current incarnation of the musical is not without its minor flaws, but the producers have done a great job of staging a wonderful production, maintaining the core human and political stories that drive it. What I did find interesting is that to a certain extent, the musical has been sexed up (not that I'm complaining), and some of the chill of the Cold War atmosphere has been reduced, favoring instead a more boisterous (and comical, to some extent) interpretation of the Soviet diplomats who are constantly on the fringes of the action. In the original concept album, there was something substantially more sinister about the Soviet agents, and more austere about the Arbiter overseeing the conflicts. Part of me is wondering if this has been done to appeal to an audience that no longer viscerally relates to the tensions of Cold War, or views the Soviet Union as a chilling menace.

Indeed, this is a question that is starting to preoccupy me as a young(-ish) historian. Until I was a teenager, the Cold War was an omnipresent fact of life, running through all aspects of political and popular culture. I was weaned on spy novels, Bond movies and even songs by Sting that reflected the omnipresent threat of nuclear war and the communist menace. And then the Berlin Wall fell, the Soviet Union collapsed, and the world shifted. Suddenly, what had seemed like an ageless conflict, certain to last indefinitely, had time parameters that (conservatively at least) were limited to less than half a century. I already know that I can no longer assume that my students will know that the Ukraine had been part of the Soviet Union and that this fact strongly coloured Ukrainian-Canadian politics. It makes me wonder how significant the Cold War will be by the time I am delivering history lectures at the end of my teaching career. Will the period from 1945-89 (or 91) seem as significant as an era thirty years from now? Will I be able to convey how that era felt to my students in a way that will do it justice? I'm not entirely certain.

In any case, if you like musicals, go and see Chess. The score and songs are spectacular, and the orchestration is lush. But make a point of reading the plot description in your playbill before the curtain rises. The plot is filled with twists and turns and complications - much like the diplomacy of the era!

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