The Secrets We Keep

Monday, November 14, 2011

Almost two years ago, we held a conference at uOttawa commemorating the tenth anniversary of the Jane Doe decision on sexual assault. After two long, draining days talking about rape, I sat with a group of weary feminists in an emotionally-charged conversation about where to go next. We were depleted and demoralized, tired of fighting the same battles. One of our feminist icons, raging against the continued stereotyping of raped women, insisted that those amongst us who have experienced sexual violence say so, just like women came forward with their stories of abortion and domestic violence in other eras. She was angry that women still bear the stigma and shame of rape. She argued we could fight it, and remind everyone that rape affects us all, if we only went public. Stop being academic about it she said: make it personal. Tell our stories. Don’t keep rape a secret.

A few weeks ago, Rick Mercer’s usually comic one-minute weekly rant on “This Hour Has Twenty-Two Minutes” turned serious in a way that reminded me of that moment. Mercer reacted to the suicide of Ottawa teen Jamie Hubley with a challenge to those in the public eye. Mercer argued it is an obligation for gay and lesbian public figures to “come out” and to stand as role models for gay youth. The queer community has a special responsibility to confrontthe bullying and homophobia that causes so much heartache, and that contributed to Jamie Hubley’s despair. Mercer was immediately lauded and lambasted. Kate Heartfield’s column agreed with him that “Gay people have one powerful weapon straight people do not: the power of their example.” Others argued he was wrong to shame public figures into coming out by implying they are cowardly if they do not. An editorial in the “Globe and Mail” on October 28th stated it pretty bluntly: Mercer is “wrong, terribly wrong, about the moral obligation he would put on gay people in public life.” The editorial recognized that it may “spread tolerance” if gay athletes and soldiers, police officers and politicians “made their orientation known far and wide” but condemned Mercer for placing a special burden on those individuals, a burden “that is on no one else in our society”.

Two days after the Globe editorial, feminist writer and activist Shari Graydon posted a blog with the subject header “Do feminists have an obligation to ‘out’ themselves?”. Like me, Graydon admires those who do come out of the closet, believing it helps to counter stereotypes. She then linked to an article by ForbesWoman contributor Victoria Pynchon about what Graydon described as a “related dilemma”. Pynchon posted on the subject “Will Feminism Hurt Your Career” and described how she disassociated herself from the feminist movement in her first week of law school when she decided, “I just want to be a law student, not a woman, law student. I want to be a lawyer, not a woman lawyer.” And so she laments, “that was the end of my involvement with women’s organizations for thirty years.” She insisted feminists have a more limited job market if their political opinions are public. There are people who won’t hire or retain feminist lawyers. Going public as a feminist, she equivocated, “is a personal, moral decision—one only you can make”.

In early October, 85 year old Harriet Hills Stinson, a prominent member of the Hills Bros. coffee clan, revealed a long-held personal secret: she had in illegal abortion when she was in her 20’s. She told her secret in response to Republican plans to cut funding for family planning and abortion services. She “came out” so to speak at a pro-choice fundraising lunch, and she urged other women who have had abortions to come forward.

What is fair when it comes to private burdens and public declarations? How many of our secrets deserve to be kept, and what are appropriate public expectations when we take on roles as politicians, writers, entertainers or even educators? Would young women fight harder against misogynist laws and practices if more of us told our stories of rape, abortion, domestic violence and sexual harassment? I reacted with overwhelming support for Mercer’s call to the queer community. But it is easier, I realize, to support the telling of other people’s stories. Many of us carry secrets that diminish our own spirits, reinforcing the shame and stigma of being gay, raped, or choosing an abortion. The Globe editorial was wrong about one thing: many of us face special burdens, and Mercer may just have prompted a much wider challenge. The recent disclosures of sexual harassment suffered by female RCMP officers, threw into stark light a culture of abuse and misogyny within the force. Those women are role models to the rest of us who stay silent in the face of discriminatory practices.

Daphne Gilbert is an Associate Professor at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law.
Designed by Rachel Gold.