3 min

Activism’s dirty secret

Only hearing part of the story

When did wanting to change the world become such a bad thing?

Sure, most people are lazy and act primarily out of self interest. You certainly don’t see many hockey-watching straight guys saying to themselves, “Hey, it’s a waste of resources for cops to be busting gay guys having sex behind bushes in parks, so I’m going to write a letter to a politician!”

Non-drug users don’t care about legalizing recreational drugs. Young people don’t care about what kind of health care old people get. Old people only care about young people when they want them locked up in jails or in chastity belts.

So it’s often (though thankfully not always) self-interest that lures people into the public arena through politics, lobbying, court challenges or grassroots activism. Would BC assisted-suicide advocate Sue Rodriguez have been brave enough to raise a stink if she weren’t considering assisted suicide herself? Likely not.

But, though her own needs might have planted the seeds of her activism, Rodriguez said again and again that she wanted to change how this country deals with dying. She wanted others to benefit from what she was doing.

Two recent stories have made me think that any kind of altruism is now frowned upon. When entering the public domain, you have to be selfish – period. If there are any positive societal spin-offs from your self-advocacy, it would be a liability to take credit for them.

Last summer Nova Scotia allowed gay and lesbian couples to register themselves as domestic partners. It was widely reported that Kim Vance and Samantha Meehan were the first couple to register.

What was not widely reported was that Vance is the president of Egale Canada, Canada’s national queer lobby group. It wasn’t like reporters didn’t know who she was. Most of them had interviewed Vance as Egale president in the weeks prior to her happy registration. They just didn’t include that information in their stories and by doing so, made her merely a woman who wanted to register her relationship. Which is fine, but only part of the story.

The mainstream media, obviously warm to gay marriage issues, decided the Nova Scotia story would play better to the public if Vance was an everywoman rather than a woman who spends much of her time lobbying governments to treat gay and lesbian people fairly. What would seem admirable was deemed bad PR.

A friend pointed out to me how the media has treated Marc Hall. Again and again, the Canadian public was reminded that all Hall wanted to do was go to his prom with his boyfriend.

This is true and perfectly admirable. I don’t think Hall ever suspected that his personal grievance would end up in court and on the front pages of the national newspapers. But why is it important? Would the public think less of Hall if he wasn’t a good Catholic boy? Would it diminish his case if, say, he had for years been trying to start a gay group at his school?

Strangely, we live in a climate where it would. Gay activists and the sympathetic media are concerned that the rightwing would use the gay community’s organizational skills and world-changing aspirations against us. To admit to wanting social change fosters a sense of conspiracy: He says he just wants to go to the prom, but what he really wants is to force religious institutions in Canada to stop discriminating – those homos are trying to circumvent God’s law again!

The public is seen to only understand or care about personal struggles, not systemic problems. To talk about how religious institutions or marriage laws discriminate would be to lose the sympathy of Canadians. Better not to raise the issue at all.

Though Hall’s been portrayed as merely a self-advocate, it’s starting to look as if he’s more than that. “I am going to fight this at a trial so no other kid will have to go through what I have gone through,” Hall told the reporters the day after his prom.

Of course, this also means challenging the role of the Catholic church in Ontario’s education system and questioning the protection organized religions get in Canada’s Constitution.

But people, I guess, would rather hear about more wronged teenagers.

* Paul Gallant is Xtra’s features editor and acting news editor.