Photo: Terry Rice
It’s early morning in Cape Spear, N.L. A van heads toward the area’s iconic lighthouse as the sun climbs out of the Atlantic. The vehicle is full, but not with eager tourists hoping for a sunrise selfie. It’s packed with photographers and crewmembers on their way to meet mermen. “MerB’ys,” actually. The water dwellers are ready for their close-ups. And they look flipping fantastic.
This marks the second year that a group of bearded Newfoundlanders have shed their shirts and pulled on tails to pose as misters March, December and company. Their mission: making a sassy calendar to support a worthy cause. The first edition, in 2017–18, sold more than 14,000 copies and raised $300,000 for Spirit Horse NL, an organization that uses equine-assisted therapy to support people living with mental-health issues.
The tidal wave of interest in the calendar still surprises organizer Hasan Hai. “This all started when a friend posted a photo of a bearded merman on my Facebook page and wrote, ‘You should do a thing,’” says Hai, who also founded the Newfoundland and Labrador Beard and Moustache Club, a social group. “When I put out an open call, I just thought it’d be me and a few random guys.” But 40 people followed up, and two months later there was a calendar.
The funds donated to Spirit Horse NL help people like Jennifer Mercer, who contacted the charity’s founder, Erin Gallant, while struggling with deep depression. “I couldn’t motivate myself to get out of bed,” she says. “At first, I was afraid of horses, but then you connect with them and they make you feel so comfortable. I don’t know where I’d be without them and my work with Erin. I give thanks every day.”
With this year’s calendar, Hai wants to raise even more money and further challenge people’s notions of what constitutes masculinity: “There’s a very narrow slot in which it’s deemed okay to be a man, and that’s so harmful,” he says. The 2019 MerB’ys are a bigger gang—38 in total—and they’re more diverse, with different gender identities, sexual orientations, body types, abilities and backgrounds.
The group has also expanded its reach. Hai and some of his crew drove their “Mermob’ile” from St. John’s to the west coast of Newfoundland, then flew to central Labrador to connect with men across the province. In Twillingate, they met Mark. “He broke down in tears talking about growing up in rural Newfoundland, where men had to act a certain way,” remembers Hai. “He said he was doing this for his seven-year-old son, to show him that men could be different, that they can be emotional. And his son said, ‘Dad, I’m so proud that you’re a MerB’y.’”
Using a mythological creature to challenge myths about masculinity has proven to be a powerful idea. Money raised this year will kick-start Deconstructing Masculinity: Engaging Men in Violence Prevention, a new program led by Violence Prevention NL, a coalition of 10 Newfoundland and Labrador-based organizations.
“Violence prevention has often been seen as a women’s issue, and I don’t think that’s the right way to look at it,” says Kevin O’Shea, the executive director of the Public Legal Information Association of NL, who is involved in the new initiative. “The only way we’re going to be effective at prevention is to look at the mindset and culture that causes violence, to involve men and boys and to work collaboratively toward change.”
Hai is eager to continue playing a role in changing attitudes and encourages others to get involved in their communities: “Positive change starts with the tiniest thing—literally saying a kind word to someone,” he says. “Just do something different, just keep pushing forward, and eventually you’ll realize you’ve done something really grand.”
For more heartwarming stories, read about the calendar designed to help Canadian veterans.