Last Tuesday, as Rick Mercer got into the swing of his rant about our collective need to make things better for gay teens who increasingly see suicide as the only solution to their struggles, I thought to myself, “Yes, wonderful, spit it out then, Rick.”
But by the end of “Rick’s Rant,” in which Mercer called for gay public figures to be more visible so they might serve as role models to gay teens, he hadn’t outed himself. Hypocrite! I thought. But his words were powerful, and I went to YouTube to rewatch the video clip the next day. Commenters there, I noticed, shared my feeling that Rick had stopped a bit short, that if he was calling on other gay public figures to come out, he should have said he was gay, too. But a response to one of those comments shed some light on the matter (in what was the first and will likely be the last instance of YouTube feedback enlightening me — or anyone, ever). “You know he’s gay. I know he’s gay. Guess he’s not that discreet.”
And that’s exactly the point that Mercer was making in his rant: no one needs to go around waving flags if they don’t want to, but gay teens, and their bullies, need to be more aware of gay public figures going about their lives, happily and successfully. Still, his words have since been picked apart by various media outlets, including the Globe and Mail, whose editorial on Friday accused Mercer of wrongly placing the burden of responsibility squarely on the shoulders of closeted gay public figures.
Said the Globe: “With the best of intentions, Mr. Mercer would impose a burden on gay people that is on no one else in our society. And anyone who did not bear up under that burden would be, by implication, a moral failure — a coward. That is a very big burden, indeed.”
Whoa, whoa, whoa, WHOA. What? First of all, no, Mercer clearly said it’s up to everyone to do something about this ongoing tragedy. ”That’s every single one of us,” he said. “Every teacher, every student, every adult has to step up to the plate, and that’s gay adults, too.”
Second, why is this a “burden”? When Anna Maria Tremonti chatted with Mercer on CBC Radio’s The Current two days after his rant aired, she described his cri de coeur as a challenge being put to gay public figures like him, not as “a burden.” To dress up this call to action as a burden is to propagate the issue at the root of all of this — the implication that being gay is something that is normally hidden. It equates being openly gay not only with not the norm, but also with negative consequences.
Of course, sometimes there are negative consequences to coming out, unfortunately, but to the many for whom there are not, or to the many for whom the negative potential is outweighed by the positive, Mercer’s rallying cry illuminates an opportunity, not a burden. While the responsibility to make life better for others falls to everyone, there are some people in this country who are better suited to maximize that opportunity than others, because their life experiences put them in that position. A gay police officer, for example, serves as a better role model to a gay teenager than does a straight adult out of the public eye.
It would be fantastic if we lived in a society, in a country, where the potential for negative consequences associated with coming out had been eliminated, but we don’t, and meanwhile kids are killing themselves because of it. Those two realities co-exist, and the latter needs to be addressed without conceding to the former.
The best role model is someone who is not only where you want to be one day, but has also been where you are right now. This lends authenticity to the assurances that everything will be okay, that success, however it’s measured, is achievable. Empathy has always had a one-up on sympathy. If that pool of empathy and genuine understanding and guidance is limited because it’s easier and more comfortable for those who can fill it to stay hidden, then the people who need it most suffer.
When those role models come out from the shadows, they serve to normalize what has long been marginalized. In this case they serve a dual purpose. Power in numbers and visibility proves to gay teens that they’re normal and far from alone. At the same time, it disempowers the bullies, and sabotages the potency of their slurs.
This has long been the modus operandi among other marginalized groups in society. Rosa Parks took her stand as just one woman, but she inspired many, and when that kind of willingness to publicly, boldly demand that life be different for you and others like you happens, its momentum inspires a movement that will make life better. Critical mass is achieved. Not overnight, not because of one person, and not without its obstacles, but slowly, surely, and collectively.
No one should (and I imagine few do) feel compelled to out themselves because a political satirist from Newfoundland says they should. They should feel compelled to come out because it’s an opportunity to make life better for a lot of people whose lives depend on knowing it’s possible.