A Long Path to Pride
From a young age, I was keenly aware of my attraction to all things feminine. Some of my earliest memories are of my fabulous performances to songs from pop divas of the 80’s and 90’s. In the privacy provided to me by the closed door of my bedroom, my imagination transformed my surroundings. Out of the view of my family, my sister’s hairbrush turned into my microphone, my bedroom morphed into my stage, and the numerous stuffed animals I had became my audience. Once the scene was set and the music ready, I sashayed around my room mouthing the words to “Believe” into my glamourous mic, pretending that Cher’s overly auto-tuned voice projecting from the radio was my own. It was secrecy that allowed me to be myself in these moments, but it was secrecy that would wage a war in my mind in years to come.
Long before I would even hear the word “gay”, and longer still until I came to understand what it meant, I knew there was something different about me. The gender binary imposed on me while I was growing up never felt right. While it was enforced that men were dominant and assertive, I found myself relating more to the nurturing and tranquil qualities of women. Activities that other boys enjoyed bore no interest to me. For the life of me I couldn't understand why anyone would willingly play in a puddle of mud; the thought of jumping about with the sole goal of getting my clothes dirty was as foreign to me as mediocrity is to Beyoncé. I much preferred spending my free time trying to convince my sister to play “house” with me just so I could use her Easy-Bake Oven. I mean, warm cookies in under five minutes… Need I say more?
But my general expression and interests were met with opposition. Efforts on the part of my parents and teachers pushed me to conform to what society expected of boys; girl toys weren’t meant for me, I wasn’t supposed to cry, and I should be playing with other boys. While their intentions may have been innocently rooted in trying to protect me from the potential criticisms of my peers, what I internalized from their efforts was that my desires – and by extension myself – weren’t normal. As I grew older, I began to fear that this might be true.
It was in the second grade that I first became aware of my attraction to other boys. To this day, it remains one of the loneliest points in my life. I literally thought that there was no other person on the planet like me. Queer representation wasn’t nearly like it is today; as far I as I knew, I was the only boy in the world who was attracted to other boys. Something about me obviously wasn’t right and I didn't know how to fix it. I was deeply confused and afraid of what these feelings meant. Was this normal? Was I broken? Could this somehow be fixed? I had no idea how to solve this problem.
I couldn’t simply ask for help. Boys weren’t the ones who asked for help after all, we were supposed to provide it. With a lack of tools to cope with these thoughts and feelings, I had no other viable options other than to suppress them. I buried them in the deepest parts of my mind, hidden away from the light of day until I was finally forced to deal with them.
I was 8 the first time someone called me gay. Maybe it was the tap dancing routine my sister and I did to Shania Twain’s musical masterpiece “Don’t Be Stupid” at the school talent show that prompted this assault, but really, who can be sure? (It was totally the tap routine… We brought our own props). While I’d heard the word before, I didn’t really know what it meant. I knew from the tone of the kid’s voice though that it definitely wasn’t something I wanted to be. Searching for an answer, I asked the kids in my class with older siblings. When you're 8 you really think this is the best source of information. These kids were truly the personification of Wikipedia – a pool of knowledge contributed to mostly by 13 year olds. What I gathered from them was that it meant stupid, disgusting, a boy who acts like a girl, or any combination of the aforementioned. A feeling of unease settled over me as I worried that what had been said about me might be true.
Hoping to disprove them, I sought the expertise of my teacher. When I asked her, she promptly sat me down and questioned why I wanted to know the meaning of such a word – we were in a Catholic school after all. Not wanting to draw attention to myself, I told her it was because I heard an older kid using it in an argument and didn't know what it meant. With a serious tone and disdain dripping from her voice, she explained to me that it was when boys had feelings for other boys. I avoided showing the panic I felt as she had confirmed my fear. I thanked her for the explanation, kept my composure until I was out of her sight, then ran to the bathroom.
When I got there, I locked myself in a stall. The feelings I’d felt had finally been given a name. Thoughts raced through my head as I grappled to understand what it all meant. Was this what I was? Was I gay? If so, I couldn’t let anyone find out. Apparently being gay was disgusting. Surely if word got out about the nature of who I was, my parents would stop loving me, my friends would abandon me, and I would be completely and utterly alone. I had to do something so people wouldn't catch on.
Maybe I couldn’t change the way that I felt, but I could certainly change the way that I acted. I began policing my mannerisms: limp wrists were made firm, the inflection of my voice was muted and my gait became more masculine. I might not have felt like other boys, but I knew exactly how they were supposed to act. Like a chameleon trying to avoid predation, I blended into my surroundings. I killed off who I was and became the boy I was repeatedly told I was supposed to be.
I kept up my act throughout my childhood and into my adolescence. Vying for the love and validation of those closest to me, I excelled in school. I hoped that maybe if I focused hard on something, I wouldn’t have to think about my attraction to other guys. But as the years passed, not only were my feelings not disappearing, they were getting stronger. So I bargained with myself – maybe I was bisexual? There was that Herbal Essence commercial with Nicole Scherzinger in it that had made me feeling something. I played these feelings off as sexual attraction – really I just loved the Pussy Cat Dolls and was living for Nicole’s voluminous hair, but I lied to myself. I was in complete and utter denial that I was gay.
While my contrived attraction to women may have been a total fallacy, the toll that lying to myself was taking on me was very real. Living in secrecy and denial wreaked havoc on my mind; shame festered inside of me and with it came self-hatred. I didn't believe I was worthy of anything and this internal narrative was reaffirmed to me almost daily by the insults that echoed in the halls of my high school: “What a queer”, “Stupid homo”, and “Go kill yourself faggot” could be heard at any given time. I lived in constant fear that one day, someone would find me out.
I was 16 when I accepted the fact that I was gay. I was walking back to work after picking up lunch from the mall across the street. Thoughts about my identity had been plaguing my mind all morning and with them, a toxic cocktail of shame and loathing. A barrage of thoughts occupied my brain. I barely had time to process the first thought before the next came rushing in. And then something happened. Owing perhaps to my favourite Gaga song coming on on shuffle, but more likely to complete and total mental exhaustion, my thoughts stopped. I’d felt a stillness in my mind that I hadn’t experienced in months. It was then, in that moment of beautiful silence, that the words “I’m gay” slipped out of my mouth for the very first time. Never in my life had two words felt so foreign on my tongue, and yet, so familiar.
A wave of emotions came flooding in. Contentment rushed in first. For the first time in my life I had stopped denying who I really was. I was at home within myself. I was gay. I was me. But this moment of peace was fleeting, and a sense of sadness and despair came crashing down soon after. If I was gay, then everything I’d feared most about myself was true. If I was gay, I was repugnant. If I was gay, I was a disgrace. If I was gay, I wasn’t worthy of love and belonging.
I can’t count the number of nights I laid crying in my bed, begging and pleading to God to fix me. Tears streamed down my face as I prayed to Him to make me straight. But to my disappointment, I woke up every morning and found that I was still gay. For months, I would ritually do this before going to sleep. I convinced myself that if I prayed harder I could be changed. The only thing that was changing about me, however, was a deepening sense of helplessness. If God wasn’t going to do anything about this, I decided I would just have to take things into my own hands.
Desperate for a way out of my situation, I saw no other solution than to end my life. I had a bottle of OxyContin from a previous surgery tucked away in my parents’ medicine cabinet and their fully stocked bar at my disposal. I knew I had an hour between the time I got back from school and the time my mom usually arrived home from work. And so, after a particularly bad day after school, I got home, grabbed the pills and a bottle of vodka and sat in my bed.
I don't think words can ever do justice to the emotional state that I was in. Unless you’ve ever been in that circumstance, I don't think it can properly be understood. I was simultaneously hopeless yet blissfully tranquil. Consumed by sadness but enthralled in joy. I was in the deepest emotional pain of my life, yet completely numb. I felt everything. I felt nothing. While I might have been in an emotional paradox, I consciously understood the realities of the situation.
A part of me regretted what I was about to do: I knew that this was going to hurt my parents. But in the depths of my depression, I truly believed that them finding me lying dead in my bed would hurt them less than finding out I was gay. Aside from this, I hated myself. Not only did I not think I deserved to live, frankly I didn’t want to anymore. The years of emotional turmoil I suffered through in silence had crushed my spirit. I knew there was no going back from this and I was at peace with that. I was finally going to put an end to the agony I’d been in for so long, and for that I was grateful.
So I took a swig of vodka to muster up a bit of courage. As I felt the alcohol coursing through my body, I opened the bottle of pills and stared at them, and counted to 3. At the end of my count, I held the bottle up to my lips, closed my eyes and took a deep breath. But just as I was about to down the bottle, my mom walked in the front door. I have no idea why she came home early that day, but had it not been for this act of providence I may have not been here today. Terrified of her walking in on this scene, I threw the pills in my nightstand and hid the vodka under my bed before she came in my room. I planned on going through with it the next day, but when I opened my drawer the pills were gone.
A month later I found myself sitting in a psychiatrist’s office. I’m not sure if my mom knew what had happened that day, but my parents were aware that something was wrong. During my session, the topic of sexuality and self-harm came up. I cried an uglier cry than the one that earned Viola Davis her Academy Award for Fences. Through the tears, I told him everything. At the end of my appointment, I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder, prescribed antidepressants and had arrangements to see a counsellor.
Soon after I began treatment, I had graduated high school and moved to Montreal. I made the conscious decision that once I got here, I would live as an out gay person. Coming out to my parents couldn't have been better. When I told them I was gay, my mom simply asked if that’s why I had so much pink underwear. I don't think I’d ever loved her more in my life than I did in that moment. We sat and cried together as she held me in her arms and assured me that this wouldn’t change the love she felt for me.
Rather naïvely I thought that coming out would make all of my troubles disappear, but my internalized self-hatred and feelings of unworthiness took longer to deconstruct. For the past 5 years, I’ve been doing the emotional work and self-discovery that a lot of people are able to do in high school, but those years weren’t mine to live. Therapy has been a big part of this journey, though I truly owe most of my progress to the love and support of the many amazing people in my life.
So here I am now: a 22-year old flaming homosexual who’s excited to see what life has in store. I won’t lie and say that things are perfect; this is by no means a fairy tale ending. I’m still dealing with the residual trauma of growing up gay in a heteronormative world. Clinical depression is something I continue to grapple with. Truthfully, I have days that I can’t get out of bed and suicidal ideation in moments of deep shame does still occur. But I’ve grown to love who I am. When I think back to all those nights I begged God to change me, my heart aches because what I didn't know then is that there is such beauty and magic in being gay. A certain joie de vivre exists within the queer community that I don’t think you can find anywhere else. Honestly, being gay is the best gift I’ve ever received and I wouldn't give it up for the world. And while I certainly still have worries in my life, I no longer hide in secret when I sing along to Cher.