Yesterday I spoke at the "Sexuality Unplugged" conference near home in Oshawa. I arrived fairly early and sat up front watching people file in. The room slowly filled and there was that 'buzz' in the air as people settled. It struck me how young so many of those queuing and registering were. Very, very, young. I don't like remembering being that young very much. I push some of my past out of my mind in order to be able to do things in the present. But, I couldn't help but remember ...
Learning the art of speaking without mentioning gender. Those were dangerous times, being hidden in plain view takes work, takes a degree of vigilance that is horribly tiring, takes the kind of courage that no one should ever have to have. Working with others, also young, chattering about their lives and their relationships in the blissful ignorance that their blissful ignorance kept me in silence, turned me into a listener, into a passive participant in conversations about the weekend. My life looked colourless to them, I'm sure. My life looked anything but it was - gay. But the illusion was important, I needed work. I loved doing what I was doing, being with and working for people with intellectual disabilities was becoming what it finally became - a passion. To do what I wanted to do, I had to learn to step carefully through a landscape of attitudes that had been littered with landmines. It could all blow up in my face in a moment.
Learning that friendly co-workers wanted deception, not truth. The massive amounts of reinforcement that came my way when showing up at a work function with a woman, a kind friend who would come on these occasions, was astonishing to me. The sheer volume of the approval took me aback. I didn't realize that the heterosexual 'team' cheered and applauded each other so often and so loudly. From dating to marriage and every tiny step in between, the break ups and the make ups, all are fodder for such long and such deep and such constant constant constant constant constant constant chatter. I'd sometimes dive deep back into the darkness of the closet just for some silence. It was a shock, a bucket of ice cold water thrown on me the first time I showed at a party with a woman friend, to be the recipient of that vast amount of social approval and personal interest that goes with being 'mainstream,' I guess that's why they call it the 'party' line.
Learning silence. No, not total silence. That breeds suspicion and curiosity. But learning the ability to have a conversation that makes 'life' silent and 'artiface' interesting. Being a conversationalist about movies and books ... turning interests into passions. Always having something to say about cooking, or about restaurants, or about funny things that happened in the day. That's a terrific way to hide - be a conversationalist without ever really conversing. Hiding in volumes of words is a trick that serves well.
Yes, I learned how to be 'gay' in a world that used different words to describe me. Hurtful words. Words that come with violence intended. I learned that.
And yet I was in 'human' services. I was in a place where 'humanity' was supposed to be honoured. It wasn't. Gay people were routinely fired from their jobs, not for performance, but because of discovery. Someone seen coming out of a place 'haunted' by gay people - could lose their job in days, days! And we, the rest of us would stay silent, would crawl back further into hiding, would become so familiar with fear that it became like an invisible friend.
Over time, I would come to write one of the first articles ever published about supporting people with intellectual disabilities who were lesbian or gay, I would come to give one of the first presentations in Ontario at a major conference on Lesbian and Gay issues in supporting people. (We were at a time in history that the BT part of LGBT was simply not acknowledged. as to all the letters yet to come - miles and miles away.) The reaction was swift. I was speaking at small conferences by then. Much of my opportunities were taken from me. Invitations were rescinded. Friendships ended. People didn't want to know me, be associated with me, didn't want to be 'tarred by the same brush'. And I was OK with that.
Years and years and years passed. The world began to change. My career, in the end, wasn't hurt by the stands that I took and the battles that I fought. And then, I was asked to speak at this conference and they sent me the flyer with the rainbow flag on it. I saw that I would open the conference and sprOUT, a group supporting people with intellectual disabilities who are LGBTQ ... astonishingly supported by agencies such as Griffin Center, Community Living Toronto and Vita Community Living Services, would close it. It amazed me.
So, I sat watching people coming in and wondered what they understood about 'coming out'. It was interesting to look at these people, from the community of my work, taking their seats and feeling, no fear. To be a gay man, at work, without concerns about being 'discovered'. To have Joe at the back of the room, setting up a book table and chatting with people who knew him and me - to have friends in the room, women who weren't part of pretense, just friends. Living honestly, living freely, shouldn't feel like a privilege but it did right then.
So I began the conference by mentioning this, or a little bit of this, and thanked them for allowing me to have the experience of speaking out, as an openly gay man, without fear.