I must have been 14, when my friend June informed me that there were boys who preferred boys instead of girls.
“They’re called ‘queer’”, she said. I still remember some of my mixed reactions: weird; interesting; and concern that this would mean there were fewer guys to go around for us gals.
In my first job at 19, in my ‘steno pool’ at CPR, I became friends with quietly gentle Brian, another stenographer, and Ellie, who had the desk next to him. Ellie had a little crush on Brian. One day the three of us went out together after work. A friend of Brian joined us.
I had not yet developed gay radar, or even ‘common sense’ about relationships, so my naïve interpretation of the situation was that we had a potential pairing-up here. Brian’s friend was sweet, very feminine, and had Rosy Cheeks. Had I been more conscious, I could have said the same about Brian.
We got together a few times – the same foursome – and it wasn’t until perhaps the third get-together that it dawned on me that any pairing up was not going to be between Rosy Cheeks and me. It was going to be between Brian and Rosy Cheeks.
I adjusted, and Brian and I became good enough friends that he invited me to be his date at a family wedding in Ottawa. We never actually discussed his orientation, but I understood that his family didn’t ‘know’. In the end, Brian and Rosy Cheeks were the beginning of my slow development of gay radar.
After I left the railroad business, I lost touch with Brian – keeping in touch not yet being one of my values – or skills. I moved on to the airline business – what was then ‘T.C.A.” or Trans-Canada Air Lines, in the Public Relations department.
There I eventually became friendly with charming, thoughtful Gerard, a French-Canadian with whom I practiced the language and had open, spontaneous conversations. He was one of those precious people with whom no subject was too sacred and I didn’t need to carefully censor myself with him. Self-censorship – in those conservative times – was basically considered ‘civilized’. There were certain things that simply were not talked about. Even with him, we never discussed his being gay – but I knew that he knew that I knew, and he knew I appreciated him. I still treasure a bracelet he brought me from Mexico. I wish that I had been free to let him know how much I wished he could be freely, openly gay. But he died of Aids in the 80s – while the world was still trying to figure it out. And before it became an open topic.
I don’t know why I felt comfortable with ‘homosexuality’ relatively early – perhaps because I had known what it was like to be ‘different’, to feel less accepted than others. Who knows? But I often had gay friends.
Like Karsten at the Ontario Arts Council. One day we went for a drink together after work, and for no particular reason I said, “By the way, my assumption has been that you’re gay”. He was so startled he sank down into his seat, temporarily speechless. He had believed that his orientation was not obvious, and didn’t know what anyone thought. Karsten eventually became one of the founders of the Aids Committee of Toronto – or “ACT”, so those were still early days.
Mark became a friend some time before he became a Unitarian minister, or married his partner Jim. We raised more than a few glasses of wine together over dinner, and I have a tape recording of him telling an ‘Abeyoyo’ bedtime story to my then 6-year-old daughter. We knew by then that he had Aids, which is why I deliberately recorded the event. Mark was such a sharp thinker, and articulate speaker and writer, that it seemed natural that he became a Unitarian minister. It was certainly the only church I could have joined, and he was nourished by its accepting philosophy of the “interdependent web of all existence”. We were lucky enough to end up in his congregation, and when he died, needless to say we were all devastated. I still have copies of several of his brilliant sermons and papers.
For me, if I hadn’t really thought about it before, that relationship made it obvious that there was no reason why same-sex couples shouldn’t have the right to publicly declare their love as well as the legalities the rest of us were entitled to. By this time, it was hard to understand people who didn’t see gay love as just another kind of love. When I explained to my little girl that two men were marrying each other, her only concern was, “Who gets to wear the wedding dress?”
I was later lucky enough to be friends with a lesbian couple who held one of the first gay weddings in Toronto. It was a memorable event, and in my life, a joyful symbol of how far we had come as a society.
When I see the horrible state of gay life in some cultures and countries, I could weep. The love that “dare not speak its name” is still in the shadows, still sometimes results in hatred, pain or death. How terrifying it must be for a young person to realize for the first time that he is attracted to someone of the same sex. Like the beginning of a life-long nightmare, instead of a ‘dream come true’.