This story is painful and difficult to write. It’s the first time most of the world will hear the words that I’m about to write, including my longest-term friends, siblings, and parents.
Growing up I knew from a very young age that I was gay. It’s actually my second memory, besides getting a red and white tricycle for my third birthday and riding it around the halls of my mom’s condo.
I had a maternal uncle who was gay. We knew him as Uncle Bob or Mickey. He was a terrible person, who committed fraud, stole from his family, and was just generally not a nice person. My dad didn’t like Uncle Bob at all.
Growing up, I would constantly hear, “you better not turn out to be a fat faggot like your uncle Mickey,” and “No faggots will live under this roof,” from my father. Obviously, as a child, those words sunk in deep and stayed with me.
Being the first born, I was always one who wanted to impress and sought approval. Those words were always in the back of my mind. I watched every action, was careful about every move.
I wasn’t athletically inclined, but fortunately, I was academically gifted. While this endeared me to my teachers, and to my mom, it made me a lot of enemies. I completed my first four years of school in three years, and upon “skipping” grade four, found myself in an annexed part of the school I attended separated from the friends I had managed to cultivate after years of effort. I found myself being bullied and ostracized, and it took me several years to learn to cope and adapt.
By grade seven I had finally started to make friends again, when my grandmother who owned the house we lived in, passed away. My dad had been working in Alberta for a couple of years, and with our residence being put up for sale in the estate liquidation, it no longer made sense to stay in British Columbia.
Once again, having adapted and forging new friendships, I found myself uprooted again. Well into puberty by the time we moved to a rural town in Alberta, with only about 5,000 people, I knew no one that I could relate to.
Starting grade 8 in my new home was awful. I was 1.5-2 years younger than most of my classmates and had no one I could relate to or connect with. My school was a thesis project for our principal – testing “learning pods” where 90 students would share a classroom with three core teachers who would teach in a university lecture format.
Academically, I continued to excel, but socially I regressed. Attempting to fit in, I lied to myself and others about who I was, and what I was interested in, making a desperate attempt to fit in. It would become an ongoing theme in the next decade of my life.
Sexual education was awkward, most of my peers were interested in and fascinated by the information, but it did nothing to appeal to or educate me. I didn’t see any representation or reflection of my sexuality in the content. It was as if I didn’t exist.
Throughout my grade 8 and 9 years, I was bullied relentlessly. I wasn’t athletic enough to fit in with the jocks, wasn’t old enough to fit in with the other students, wasn’t established enough to click with the other academics, was too country for the metalheads, wasn’t country enough for the rural crowd. I was a square peg trying to fit into a round hole.
I would get shoved into lockers. I would get tripped. I would be hit. I would be chased after when walking to the senior high school for options classes. I had a knife pulled on me by another student. All of this went mostly unnoticed by my teachers until I started to fight back, at which point I faced suspensions and further escalations.
On Mother’s Day when I was 14 I ruptured my spleen after a less than graceful dismount from my trampoline. After spending about a month in the hospital between diagnosis, surgery, and recovery – the decision was made that I would have to quit attending a brick and mortar school. The risks of having my over foot-long incision come open if I were shoved into a locker or attacked couldn’t be taken.
After making a full recovery, I did return to school five months later at the high school. There appeared to be some maturation, both on the part of myself and my peers, and school became a lot more tolerable. I joined the band, air cadets, and got my first job, and started to finally find my social bearings in my school and life.
I continued to have to walk on eggshells though, pretending to be someone I wasn’t. Never having a (serious) girlfriend, but always facing pressure to, I started to cut the “Sunshine Girl” out of the newspaper and pretend that I was into girls. I would periodically “date girls” but find a way to sabotage the relationship the moment things escalated.
When I was 16, at work one day, a co-worker that was a bit younger than me grabbed my butt while I was phoning my mom for a ride home from work. I don’t remember having seen or met this person before, but when I turned around in shock she yelled into the phone, “I want your son Mrs Smith!”
For a couple of weeks following this incident, I endured a sustained and relentless campaign by co-workers and management to start dating this girl. In November of my grade 12 year, one of my managers cornered me in our staff room and told me that if I didn’t start dating her, he’d “tell everyone I was gay.”
And with that, I had a girlfriend.
This added a huge deal of stress to a difficult year, in which my mom got into a major accident and had a grand-maul seizure, spending weeks in a coma and recovery, getting ready for graduation, completing my studies with Air Cadets, and managing my tense relationship with my father.
Despite a lot of positives going on in my life, including having a beautiful girlfriend, receiving a promotion and employee of the year award at work, being selected as the top provincial candidate for a prestigious technical training program with Air Cadets, and graduating near the top of my class with honours – I had never felt more isolated in my life.
There was non-stop tension between my father, a functional alcoholic, and myself that would sometimes escalate into bouts of physical violence. His constant homophobic comments weighed on me. The pressure to retain an intimate relationship with my girlfriend. It was all so much to bear.
At the end of that summer, my girlfriend, who had become one of my closest friends moved away. School had ended, and I found myself again isolated and alone. Having finished my graduation requirements at the age of 16, I wasn’t prepared to go to university, and my family wasn’t in a financial position to send me. Working full time, but still reliant on my family for shelter, I was in a dark place.
Late that summer, I attempted to kill myself. I took a very large dose of pills that I had hoped would end my life after a bitter fight with my father. The pills caused me to have several seizures in the shower, leaving scars that mark my back to this day. Unbeknownst to my family to this day, those seizures were caused by my own attempt on my life.
Growing up, I had no support network. No allies. No one that I felt I could truly be myself with. I grew up in a system that barely acknowledged my existence, much less embrace it. I grew up with the weight of a paternal figure in my life who told me I wasn’t good enough, and I didn’t belong (even though he didn’t realize he was speaking to me that entire time), and with reinforcement of that message all around me. I was forced to learn “on the job” and on the internet about my sexuality. I put myself into risky situations because while I was book smart, I wasn’t street smart. I made decisions that impacted my health and wellbeing, and to this day I fight the demons in my head from a lifetime of not fitting in or being enough.
The generation below me has it better, but it’s not perfect, and it’s under attack.
Having a Gay-Straight Alliance when I was growing up would have given me the time and space to discover myself and come to terms with my sexuality in an environment where I might have been able to have peer support. I might have had an opportunity to see myself represented in real life, instead of just in stereotypes and chat rooms where shady characters had less than altruistic intentions. I might have had the ability to share my struggles with an ally, or a parent, with the comfort that I had a safety net. I might have had access to mental health resources, and not been forced to shame myself into playing the role of someone that I wasn’t. I might not have attempted to end my life, desperate not for attention, but for relief from the weight of a world that had become too much to carry.
I’m fortunate that at the age of 21 when I was no longer reliant on parental support, I found the courage to come out. My dad didn’t speak to me about it for about six months, only cracking a joke when my youngest brother had a girl come on to him in a similar fashion to my experience, that “he better be careful, or he’ll turn out like me.”
As it turned out my youngest brother did come out at the age of 18. That forced my father to re-evaluate his life choices and how his relationship with his sons looked. While he did irreparable harm through his decades of conduct, he has made every effort to make amends and be a good parent in our adulthood.
As bad as I felt that I had it, many LGBTQ youths have it far worse. They face emotional, sexual, and physical abuse. They are rejected by their families and find themselves on the streets. They often turn to substance abuse, self-harm, and are sexually exploited as they attempt to find shelter and a safe space.
GSAs help to pre-empt much of this from happening. They literally save lives. With as much as 40% of homeless youth identifying as LGBTQ, and LGBTQ youth who are rejected by their families being 7-8 times more likely than their straight peers to attempt self-harm, the statistics are clear, that they reduce harm and save lives, and prevent youth from becoming a statistic, as I nearly did.
We have a “Premier in waiting” that yesterday committed to rolling back protections to youth who could be saved from experiences like I had. I don’t know what motivates Jason Kenney to constantly attack LGBTQ people, but his commitment to harm vulnerable youth is reprehensible and can’t be accepted.
One youth who dies or winds up on the streets because of a zealot pandering to ideologues is too many.
Attempts to justify this being done in the name of parental rights are a betrayal of a civil society’s duty to its most vulnerable. People will argue that there needs to be a middle ground between a parent having control over their children and children’s rights.
The middle ground is this; a parent who supports their students/children will find a way to have a conversation with their child about their sexuality and how they can support them. A parent that doesn’t will rely on an administrator to tell them before they’re ready.
I just don’t see any other way when it comes to 40% or so of homeless youth being LGBTQ who were rejected by their families and them being 7-8 times more likely to attempt suicide.
Our youth deserve better.
Categories: Alberta Politics