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Do feminists have an obligation to “out” themselves?

by Shari Graydon

Last week Rick Mercer inspired a welcome debate about whether or not gays and lesbians who survived the hell that high school often is for them to become successful leaders in their field have an obligation to own their sexual orientation in a public way.  Although sympathetic to queer teachers and politicians, business leaders and entertainers, who just want to be known for their capabilities and actions, rather than their sex lives, I deeply admire those who do come out of the closet. Their willingness to publicly claim this aspect of their identity helps counter reductive stereotypes, challenge prejudices and make the world an easier, safer place for gays and lesbians of all ages.

Then yesterday, ForbesWoman contributor, Victoria Pynchon blogged about a related dilemma. In her post, “Will Feminism Hurt Your Career?” she makes a compelling case for why this, too, is a critically important act. Responding to a reader wanting to know if her aspirations as a lawyer would be negatively affected if she applied the “f” word to herself, Pynchon wrote:

If you have something important to say about the status of women in the law and you don’t say it, it might not get said. And women who need support, whose spirits are flagging because they don’t hear your voice in the desert, might suffer a spiritual death from thirst.

She went on to remind readers that:

I grew up in a culture that actively discouraged and permissibly discriminated against women in the labor force. Then women raised their voices up on their own behalves and everything changed. The language changed. Women entered the professions and the police forces and fire departments, the skilled trades, journalism, politics, sports! in droves.

We changed the world and our place in it. Once there, many of us stifled ourselves like Archie Bunker famously told his T.V. wife Edith to do… It was a joke but we were stifling ourselves. And our participation in the higher ranks of American business, politics, religious life, and the professions remains depressingly, intractably, unacceptably low.

In addition to being effective in the relatively small world of our jobs, don’t most of us also want to be effective and made a difference in the broader world of our society? — the arena that determines not just whether we succeed, but whether those without our privileges have the opportunity to as well?

Claiming yourself as a feminist — male or female — does come with risks. Notwithstanding the definition of the word as one who supports gender equality, it has baggage, it’s negatively viewed by many. But as long as 300 gay teens are committing suicide in this country, skilled immigrants are wasting their education driving taxis, and date rape remains a problem, speaking up for equitable treatment — not just of women, but of gays and lesbians, racialized and religious minorities, Aboriginal peoples, those living with mental and physical disabilities — remains necessary.