I didn’t have the standard super-faggy little kid narrative. I was pretty much a full-on nerd, which at that point was practically its own gender. I didn’t have either GI Joes or Barbies; I had stuffed animals, books, and Legos. Both the war toy and doll commercials on Saturday morning cartoons weirded me out – I identified them right away as weird, fake plastic shit that I couldn’t imagine anyone finding the least bit entertaining, and watching the commercials for them was just cringe-making and embarrassing.
Not that there weren’t certain signs of what was coming. There was that odd affection for rainbows, and at one point I had a dollhouse, but no dolls – just furniture, which I would rearrange. That’s right, interior decorating at age 6. There was also the music teacher who introduced me to musicals in grade 6, where I promptly went bananas for The Phantom of the Opera, and all those obscure operas to which my dad received free tickets that he gave to me and Mom. (I’m pretty sure I was one of the few 12-year-old boys to have seen both The Pearl Fishers and Dialogues of the Carmelites.)
Although rarely out-and-out gender ambiguous, I passive-resistanced my way around all overt signs of masculinity. I was also quite fat, which did not help. I managed to read through a surprising number of gym classes and became a past master at doing almost anything other than the sweaty, loud, boisterous activity we were assigned and into which all the other boys had thrown themselves with the homicidal good spirits for which pubertal males are renowned. (One of my proudest achievements was taking an entire gym class to do up my hockey pads.) Phys ed was torture and for the longest time afterwards I did not do anything remotely physical if I could possibly help it. (I now enjoy yoga and long-distance bike riding.)
Naturally, I was a target the size of all outdoors, but I really don’t remember much of the tormenting I underwent. I spent my childhood in a weird sort of daze, not really registering or remembering much of what was going on around me. This is probably fortunate for my present mental stability. Once, though, cleaning out my filing cabinet, I found a two-page stream of consciousness rant about the unfairness of it all that must have dated to grade 7. I have no memory at all of writing it.
We moved to Montreal when I was 13 and about to start Grade 10. (I had skipped a grade in addition to everything else.) This of course meant starting a new school with only two years left (high school in Quebec ends with grade 11, a.k.a. Secondary V). I basically just put my head down, kept strictly to myself, and bee-lined through my homophobic, misogynistic all-boys school as fast as my little feet could take me.
The weird sort of daze I’ve described continued through until graduation, so I only remember little vignettes here and there – like the boys who would flex spoons at lunch time to heat them up to burning, then push them against my arm so I’d yell – so I can’t give a complex account of my emerging gayness or femmeness.
I realized I was gay during the Christmas break of the last year of high school. Mercifully, I was spared the period of self-denial that so many of my peers have described. I spent no time trying to make myself straight or telling myself it was just a phase; I skipped right from “I’m gay” to “well, that’s fine, let’s just keep this one under our hat until we graduate, shall we?” I think that this has a lot to do with my having retained whatever self-esteem I currently enjoy.
During that time my English teacher, to whom I came out shortly afterwards in a journal we kept for her, showed an anti-homophobia video. One of the gay youth in it was beautifully effeminate, with graceful features and speech even as he described being attacked for it. He lived in rural Ontario and wanted to be a fashion designer; we saw him working on dress patterns. The class mocked him, but even my spacey ass took notice.
After an interminable wait (including my prom, the last time in my life I ever pretended to be straight), I graduated, and was able to devote myself full-time to working out the gay stuff. I joined a mailing list for gay youth on this fancy new “Internet” thing that was just becoming popular, started going to a queer youth group, and got involved in the queer group at my cégep (junior college – equivalent to grade 12 and the frosh year at university), which I would end up running in my second year.
It was around this time that I met my first real live femme gay men: Jon, at my school, a soft-spoken but very visibly effeminate young man; Brian, a marvellous English teacher who had us deconstruct Madonna videos and drew caricatures of Wonder Woman on the marks pages of particularly good essays; and “Scotty,” from the youth group, a charming, personable, and unapologetically flaming queen. In one memorable incident on my 17th birthday, Scotty showed up at my house in a straitlaced suburb wearing a translucent pink teddy with little pom-poms all around the hem, visible nipple rings, pleather pants, a septum pierce, a rhinestone tiara in his magenta hair, and a friend or boyfriend in full Goth. “Oh, my god!” Scotty gushed. “You must be [my] dad! It’s so nice to meet you!” My dad’s jaw dropped about six feet. They stayed less than an hour but it was unforgettable.
(Discussing it later, my dad asked why he “felt the need” to dress and act like that, and my friend James explained that Scotty saw himself as an artist and his appearance and demeanour as his canvas. “Well, so do I!” my dad protested, whereupon my straight 15-year-old little brother deadpanned, “Yeah, Dad, but the difference is that he’s Picasso and you’re Norman Rockwell.” We just about killed ourselves laughing.)
Femme or not, I finally had friends – my coming out was accompanied by a sudden intense desire I had never felt before for sociability and community, and I accumulated friends and acquaintances at an unprecedented rate among the different queer groups I was taking part in. At the same time, my own femmeness was emerging more and more; I took on some Valley-Girl-like mannerisms learned from somewhere (don’t ask me where; I watched little TV and knew no one from that demographic). I started to dress in “Goth lite” – we would probably call it emo today; lots of black clothes and nail polish – and listen to lots of Tori Amos, Pet Shop Boys and Mylène Farmer, where previously my entire knowledge of popular music began and ended with They Might Be Giants. I also started to hook up with other boys – the second one, though, was a cub who, although not especially macho himself, rejected me for being too femme (an odd reason, considering I had also been as awkward as all-get-out when I approached him).
Visibly, my femme characteristics disturbed my father substantially more than my coming out had; he became far more preoccupied about my lack of masculinity after I came out than he ever had up until that point. When I decided to get my ears pierced, it led to a long and awkward conversation about “how this will make people perceive you, as a homosexual.” (I compromised and only got the left – “straight” – ear pierced to begin with, then later went ahead and pierced the right ear twice anyway.) More than once he snapped at me about minor femme presentations; for example, for carrying my umbrella hooked over my arm rather than held in my hand. (“That’s how ladies carry their umbrellas!”)
In one revelatory occasion, I had been congratulated for some minor thing, and I breathlessly vamped, “I’d like to thank the Academy…” “Stop that!” my dad snapped. “That isn’t who you really are.” I was rather taken aback. Who was he, I retorted, to inform me who I was? Surely I was the expert on that subject, and if who I was was effeminate that day, well, there we are. It was the first in a long string of experiences being informed that femininity was merely an “act,” a sort of objectionable falsehood that was not and did not even reflect anything “real” about me, where more traditional masculine behaviour would not have elicited such a response. (More on this later.)
I started to have more conviction about my queerness, both orientation-wise and gender-wise. In cégep I wrote a swingeing poem called “Intentionally Untitled” in which I assailed traditional masculinity and proclaimed that I would never be “manly.” At the same time, I was becoming involved in Paganism, having read Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance with special emphasis on its call for alternative ways of being for men.
(to be continued!)
This week’s fabulousness: (yes, more Glee. Hush.)