Do public figures have a responsibility to come out?

Jer’s Vision Youth Advisory Committee Co-Chair, Ben Marmer, & Jer’s Vision Director, Jeremy Dias, were featured in this great article that was printed in the Vancouver Sun (and other Postmedia publications: 

Do gay public figures–as role models for youth–have a responsibility to out themselves?
by Thandi Fletcher, (reposted from Postmedia News

When Glen Murray told his mother he was gay, she collapsed on the living room floor of their Montreal home in a flood of tears and begged him not to tell his father.

It was the 1970s, and homophobia was commonplace. 

Murray knew his father — who once told him that he used to beat up gay people — wouldn’t react well to the news, but the then-17-year-old said he never expected to be disowned.

“He didn’t speak to me for almost three years,” said Murray. “I was very young and frightened, and I was still dependent on my parents for financial support for school. There was a lot on the table.

“I felt terrible.”

Today, Murray is a Liberal member of the Ontario legislature for the riding of Toronto Centre and a former mayor of Winnipeg and, since starting his political career in 1989, has been openly gay.

He is, some would say, an exception.

The recent suicide of Jamie Hubley, a gay Ottawa teenager who had been bullied, has renewed a fierce and politically charged debate: Do public figures, as role models for youth, have a responsibility to out themselves?

Moreover, do teens struggling with their sexuality really want or need politicians more than 20 years their senior as their role models? Who matters more to a teenager, an openly gay MP or Lady Gaga?

In show business, there are plenty of publicly gay and lesbian figures — Hollywood personalities Ellen DeGeneres, Portia DeRossi, and Neil Patrick Harris, and singers such as Ricky Martin, k.d. lang, and Elton John, to name a few.

Yet, in politics, there are comparatively few “out” elected officials — even though it’s well known in the nation’s capital that some Parliament Hill politicians are gay.

Recently, as friends and family of Hubley were laying the 15-year-old to rest in Ottawa, a group of Conservative MPs, including Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird and Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose, created a YouTube video offering bullied teenagers a message of support.

It was their contribution to the It Gets Better viral video movement created by Seattle sex advice columnist Dan Savage in September 2010.

Although seemingly well-intentioned, the Conservatives’ effort drew cries of hypocrisy from some, including Savage, who cited the party’s track record on gay and lesbian rights.

In an online column, Savage pointed the finger at some participating MPs for sending a message of support to gay youth when they had once voted against same-sex marriage in the House.

Comedian Rick Mercer joined the fray with his own video rant, calling MPs to task. He failed, in the same rant, to mention that he himself, is gay.

“If you’re gay and you’re in public life, I’m sorry, you don’t have to run around with a pride flag and bore everyone, but you can’t be invisible, not anymore,” Mercer said in his viral video.

In an interview with Postmedia News, Mercer said he’s not looking to “out” anybody.

“I know everyone’s circumstances are different,” he said. “There are reasons why people are quiet about their sexuality — like they could be fired, for God’s sakes.”

However, Mercer said it certainly would help gay youth who are feeling vulnerable, to have more role models.

“One of the advantages of being public is that you are visible, and that certainly is noticed by young people,” he said.

The criticism, though, cuts both ways, as Mercer quickly found out after his rant, with some accusing him of hypocrisy.

“Why didn’t Rick Mercer mention that he’s gay while he was pontificating about how public folk should come out of the closet? Musta forgot,” wrote one Twitter user from Frank Magazine, a news and satire magazine in Halifax.

Although he said he’s never hidden the fact that he is gay — and his family and colleagues knew — Mercer admitted it’s something he could have been more open about in the past.

He said he had professional concerns discussing his sexual orientation in the media could affect his career as a political commentator, that viewers would assume he was a “leftie.”

“I guess I had one foot in the closet and one foot out of the closet,” he said.

As he gradually became more open about it, Mercer said he had a lot of positive feedback from gay teens. Hubley’s death brought the issue to the forefront again, he said.

Savage, who grew up in Chicago, said it would have been easier for him to come out if he had had more gay role models.

“I would sometimes see gay people on the subway or in line at the movies,” he recalled. “For me, that was kind of my It Gets Better project, to see that, they’re happy, they made it, that one’s got a boyfriend, maybe I’ll be OK, too.”‘

Savage said today’s gay adult community owes it to early gay rights activists — “the people who made it possible for us to be out”— to pay it forward to gay teens.

But a moral obligation doesn’t give others permission to grab a “crow bar to pry open the closet doors,” he said.

“People still have to make the choice to walk out,” he said.

However, Murray said there’s no reason why gay politicians should feel the need to remain closeted in 2011.

With so many well-known gay celebrities on TV, he said few people pay attention when a public figure comes out of the closet today.

“What is the big deal?” he asked. “Even people in Podunk, Kansas, have seen Ellen, or Will and Grace.”

In the 1970s, when he came out, Murray said it was much more difficult to be openly gay. It became more difficult to hide during the height of the AIDS epidemic, during which the gay community was severely affected, in the 1980s.

At the time, many gays were involuntarily outed when diagnosed with the terminal disease, said Murray.

“And they were confronting their own mortality at the time,” he added. “Talk about personal courage.”

Conservative MP Shelly Glover, who appeared in her party’s It Gets Better video, said the truth is discrimination is still too widespread to expect everyone to feel comfortable revealing their sexual orientation.

“I would be very happy if every Canadian was proud of every aspect of their lives, whether it be their gender, the colour of their skin, how much they weighed . . . that would be a wonderful utopia, wouldn’t it?” she said. “But we cannot force people to stand up. . . . I think that is bullying.”

Glover, who has participated in many gay pride parades and whose daughter’s godparents are a gay couple, said politicians have a right to privacy that shouldn’t be forfeited after they are elected.

That notion of a right to privacy in public life seems, in some ways, a uniquely Canadian expectation.

Compared to their U.S. counterparts, the personal lives of Canadian politicians are still hidden — save for the odd scandal from time to time — behind closed doors.

Paparazzi photos of U.S. President Barack Obama’s family holiday in Hawaii are plastered across American tabloid magazines, yet ask the average Canadian how Prime Minister Stephen Harper prefers his eggs and you’ll likely get a blank stare.

The discrepancy boils down to a combination of factors: a U.S. public eager for information about their presidents’ private lives, competitive reporters eager to dig up dirt, and, in some cases, politicians inviting coverage in order to cultivate a certain public image, said Jonathan Malloy, political science professor at Carleton University in Ottawa.

“There is more media ar
ound (in the United States) and more competition between media outlets to get sensational things out there,” he explained. “Canadian politics generally, is much more gentle than American politics. It’s less morally charged and, even today, is still less aggressive.”

Still, even in the relatively quiet halls of Parliament Hill’s Centre Block, homophobia does rear its ugly head from time to time.

Although he had been open about being gay since his early 20s, Liberal MP Scott Brison said he felt it was important to come out again officially as a politician in 2002 when he announced his bid for leadership of the Conservative party.

“I felt that at that time . . . my sexual orientation was being used against me politically at that time,” he said.

Brison said he does believe it’s a private choice how and when someone decides to come out of the closet, but closeted gay public figures should keep in mind “it sends a very strange message to young people who are struggling.”

It is Brison’s experience with even subtle discrimination on Parliament Hill that speaks to why there are so few openly gay politicians, some say.

Jeremy Dias is the founder of Jer’s Vision, a youth-led group working to end homophobic bullying through workshops and conferences.

“Homophobic bullying doesn’t end when you leave high school,” said Dias. “People can be just as homophobic or transphobic in the House of Commons or in professional sports or in the classroom.”

When Dias, now 28, was in high school in northern Ontario, he said, he was viciously bullied for being gay.

At 17, he launched a human-rights complaint against his high school and school board on the grounds of discrimination for rejecting his proposal of a campaign, called Positive Space, to advocate a school environment that welcomed sexual diversity and tolerance.

School officials eventually offered Dias a financial settlement, which he used to create Jer’s Vision.

Unlike some others his age, 17-year-old Benjamin Marmer, a youth volunteer for Jer’s Vision, is politically engaged.

While he said it wouldn’t hurt to have more out and proud gay politicians to look up to, knowing how much courage it takes, Marmer said no one, famous or otherwise, should feel pressured to open the closet doors.

“Nobody has a responsibility to come out,” he said. “That’s a decision that somebody needs to make for themselves. It’s a personal choice.”

The Ottawa teen, who says he’s bisexual, started coming out to a “select few” friends and family starting early last year.

“It was like a great weight had been lifted off my shoulders. It was a great feeling,” he said, describing the moment he first broke the news to a close gay friend.

Marmer said it still takes months to gather the nerve to tell new friends. He first sends subtle messages to gauge their reaction before deciding whether he trusts them with the information.

“It wasn’t like I’m just going to go shout it from the rooftops now,” said Marmer.

There is still a deep-seated connection between homophobia and bullying, said openly gay politician George Smitherman.

Smitherman, who recently ran against current Toronto Mayor Rob Ford in that city’s municipal election, said he and his partner, Christopher Peloso, soon will be welcoming a new addition into their home — an adopted daughter. The couple already has an adopted son, Michael, who soon will be turning three.

As a family man, Smitherman said he’s all the more concerned about the “crisis” of homophobia in schools. Until it is tackled, homophobic bullying will continue to instil a fear of rejection for closeted gays toying with the idea of come out, he said.

“There are a lot of words that are verboten on the playground. ‘Faggot,’ ‘gay.’ . . . It’s like the nuclear missile of bullying,” he said.

Smitherman said gay adults at every level have a duty to step up and help gay teens struggling with discrimination in schools.

“Gay people can’t do that alone, but it’s our obligation . . . to do what we can and to offer protection to our community,” said Smitherman.

Charlie David, an openly gay Canadian actor who has starred in the popular lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual TV show Dante’s Cove, said the gay rights movement is in many ways similar to the African-American civil rights movement.

“If there weren’t motivated and brave individuals, people willing to stand up and demand that they be treated as equals in that movement, we wouldn’t be where we are today,” he said.

“With each celebrity, with each athlete and politician that does come out, there are massive ripples that happen,” he said. “You don’t know all those people that you might be reaching. It just goes and goes and goes.

“We’re almost coming into a post-gay era. To be considering coming out now, it’s like, my gosh, if you’re not doing it now, what are you waiting for?”