It's Gay Pride Day, I have a rainbow painted on my forehead. I'd like to share with you the email I am sending to Vita Staff later on today.
To My Fellow Staff:
It's Gay Pride day today. Yesterday Joe and I wandered down Church Street in Toronto and enjoyed the carnival atmosphere. We shopped at a couple of booths, ran into a couple of friends, saw a couple of gay dogs. This Toronto, this day, is a far cry from one that was etched into my brain with Trauma's sharp pen. It was Hallowe'en, years and years ago, and three of us were going to go for a beer at the Saint Charles tavern. The Saint Charles was one of the few places where gay people could go, experience both welcome and an odd form of solidarity.
We did not know, and could not imagine what would greet us that night. We could get no where near the door of the bar. There were crowds upon crowds of people. Young and old, drunken teen standing next to a woman with Jesus on her tee-shirt, they were all there and armed. They had sticks and stones and eggs. They pelted them at anyone with the courage to walk to the front door of the bar. The police stopped people from rioting at the sight of gays, but they didn't stop or even discourage the throwing of weapons. There was cheering when some hapless drag queen was struck, there was jeering at someone trying simply to slip into the front door.
I felt physically sick. I felt that I was not a citizen of this country, of any country. I felt that I lived solely in the land of the different and the hidden. Straight people and their anger frightened me. Christian people and their condemnation hurt me. I picked up and moved, emotionally, to the margins of our society.
It seemed there were few safe places. Families either misunderstood or outright condemned. Friends preferred the lie to the truth. Churches preached hate. Newspapers called names. It was a very, very difficult time. What alliances we made were made carefully, fearfully.
I worked in an industry, human services, where gay people were particularly not welcomed. Even a hint of the rumour of homosexuality would cause panic, fear of exposure, of loss of job, of income, of one's chosen path. I did what we all did back then, I learned to speak of my life without mentioning gender of others, I learned to hold back the truth while not out right lying, I would attend parties with a female friend on my arm. I passed. But passing was killing me.
We were all having lunch. I was working as a behaviour therapist and one of my co-workers, in front of my boss, turned to me and asked, 'So are you a queer.' My heart leapt from my chest. My mouth dried. I had worked so hard to get where I was in that job. I had worked as a vocational instructor, a residential counselor and a classroom assistant, all with an eye to one day doing consultation. I had only seconds to make the decision. I decided to lie, I openned my mouth and was shocked to hear myself say, 'Yes, I am.'
From that day forth I have never again pretended to be someone I'm not, who and what I am isn't much, but at least it's authentic. By then I was doing training for a variety of agencies. The word got out and suddenly I was no longer invited to train, no longer invited to consult. But the world was calling and what I lost in Ontario I gained in the rest of Canada, eventually the United States and finally the world. I didn't know it would be ok, but I had to live with the fact that I might lose all in gaining self respect.
During the first wave of deinstitutionalization we worked with a number of men and women with intellectual disabilities who were lesbian or gay. I worked with one of the local agencies to develop a protocol of welcome rather than the practice of punishment. We ran what may have been for it's time the very first series of trainings aimed at decreasing homophobia in staff of a Community Living agency. I wrote and published the very first journal article in the world about supporting lesbians and gays with intellectual disabilities. I lost more work. I got hate mail. Friends found me too controversial to acknowledge.
At one of the big Ontario conferences regarding intellectual disabilities, I did my very first presentation, and maybe the first in the world, on supporting people with intellectual disabilities who are LGBT. I asked my gay friends in human services to come and support me. They all promised they would. None did, they were too afraid. I have never been more frightened than I was that day standing up and giving that presenation. I got through it through grit, determination, and yes, it may surprise you, prayer.
The world has changed greatly. But still not enough. I know from my travels that I still meet lesbians and gays who are terrified to come out in their organizations for fear of reprisals. I know that fear, it chills me still. It was less than a year ago that someone threatened to start a boycott of my blog unless I agreed to take out all gay content and no longer mention Joe and my relationship with him. That threat, though it was empty, brought back to mind that night, that horrible night were rocks were thrown while cops laughed.
You all know that I believe that it's possible to create safe places for people with disabilities. You know the journey we have been on here at Vita for the last three years. Well, I want you to know that it is my hope and passion that in creating a safe place for our members, we also create a safe place for ourselves. A place where 'welcome' is in the air. Where we all work together towards establishing a mind with absence of prejudice and a heart full of pride.
To support people with disabilites, we know, is to support diversity. Disability touches every race, every faith, every sexuality ... to accept those we serve we are asked paradoxically to accept ourselves. The diversity within scares us more than that without. We are challenged to rise above ourselves, and thus see ourselves and God sees us. Whole, finished, perfect.
Yes, we are gifted with the job of making the world a better place for others. We are gifted with the discovery that every victory against prejudice is a victory for us all. We are gifted with the opportunity to come to know, respect and value difference. We are gifted with each other.
On this pride day I tell you I am proud to work here with you. I am proud of what we have accomplished, not only as an agency but as a movement. I am proud that who I am and who you are ... our differences, our similarities, our joint strengths and our shared weaknesses ... have managed to craft a freer province and a more just world.
I want to thank each of you who has made me welcome. Who wave at me in the parking lot, who come to the trainings I offer, who drop by my office for a chat - thank you, I value each of those interactions. I also want to thank you all for making Joe, the guy who pushes me around and who makes it possible for me to do what I do, recognized and welcomed. I do not understand all of your beliefs and you do not understand all of mine, I know that. I like that. What matters is that lack of understanding does not lead to rudderless fear and rampant hatred.
We continue onwards towards safety for all and welcome for everyone. There is comfort in knowing that here at Vita we believe that 'All means all'. And that I am part of 'all' and so are you.