Rich Mercer's challenge heartfelt but unfair
// Jonty Davies

On Oct. 14, 2011 Ottawan Jamie Hubley was found dead by his own hand. He was 15 years old and openly gay. Lately, a great deal of public awareness has been devoted to the phenomenon of teen suicide and its invariable link to bullying. Kids have always found ways to torment each other – it stands as a means of self-affirmation. At an age where knowledge of self is fraught with uncertainty, group identification can be among the only means of identity, and sexual orientation can be visible and divisive. According to many, Jamie Hubley was a victim of such ostracizing torment.

Driven by the news of Hubley’s death, political satirist and television personality Rick Mercer delivered a “rant” in a segment of his CBC-TV program Rick Mercer Report.

“It’s no longer good enough for us to tell kids who are different that it’s going to get better … Every teacher, every student, every adult has to step up to the plate … I know gay cops, soldiers, athletes, [and] cabinet ministers … So if you’re gay and you’re in public life, you can’t be invisible. Not anymore,” Mercer proclaimed.

Mercer is an openly gay figure and was justifiably moved by the tragedy. Though his desire to end the injustices and embrace our differences is appropriately shared by many, it was his challenge to all public figures that has instigated debate. It is of immense comfort to vulnerable young people that cultural leaders and social figureheads acknowledge their right to be who they are; moreover, for kids to look up to the admired and see themselves can be a beacon of reassurance. However, it’s not Mercer’s encouragement that’s being interpreted and questioned, but his challenge – a challenge to all public figures to identify their private selves publicly.

Later that week, the Globe and Mail published an editorial disputing Mercer’s assertion that all public figures bear a responsibility to outwardly announce and identify themselves. The Globe suggests that such an imposition falls exclusively on gay people, creating an ironic twist on the sanctity of a person’s right to privacy and openness. In years past, gay people have been compelled to keep their lives secret in the face of cultural expectations; should they now be forced to reveal themselves? Even more substantially, by issuing such a challenge, Mercer is burdening all privately gay figures with a staggering moral responsibility – he is burdening them with the lives of gay youths.

Advocacy for the recognition of gay rights (legally, socially and culturally) has swelled as of late, most notably with the growing fight for legal recognition of same-sex marriage. The growth and pervasion of liberalism in the developed world has lowered public resistance to outwardly acknowledged homosexuality: even being repulsed by homosexuality can be seen as ignorant. Already, many public figures have used their status to elevate the awareness and acceptance of the LGBT lifestyle, and have come out proudly and shown that it’s all good.

However, the forced outing of anybody, regardless of his or her visibility, is unethical. Coming out is very significant milestone in a gay person’s life and as individuals everyone is entitled to choosing when and the manner with which it happens. It is important that public figures continue to use their standing to further positive cause, but in no way should they bear the onus of a movement’s losses. If an individual’s coming-out is being prevented due to what that person perceives as “circumstance”, that can be changed. For example, if a politician is reticent to publicly acknowledge who they are because of the party with which they are affiliated, maybe they should rethink their registration. Everyone deserves their right to privacy, but they should never immerse themselves in a world that doesn’t embrace who they are.

Mercer’s comments must be considered in their context. First of all, he’s impassioned. He no doubt feels sincere empathy, and the annual cost of young lives deeply troubling – according to a Parliamentary Research Report, nearly 300 youth in Canada choose to take their own life every year (though it must be noted that for every suicide completed, there are between ten and 100 attempted). Due to the very personal nature of bullying, it’s impossible to link every circumstance with sexual orientation, but as we have seen, the issue is of considerable presence.

We must also consider that Mercer is a comedian and a satirist. It’s not that his words have no meaning – quite the opposite – it’s that he’s liberal with them. Perhaps he is using a grandly-drawn perspective to illustrate the subtleties of what really matters: that it is upon all of us to create a better world of understanding, encouragement and inclusion.

Ideally, one’s sexual orientation shouldn’t be seen as a defining characteristic; it should be a non-issue. And as well-intentioned as this debate may be, it still perpetuates the status of sexual identity as a talking point. Though until it’s no longer a talking point, we’re doing the best thing we can – talking about it.

// Jonty Davies, Writer
// Illustration by Kira Campbell

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