What happens when 12 queer and trans Torontonians—young and old, activists and introverts—share their experiences? We found out.
When you come of age as a gay or lesbian or queer or transgender kid, you have to work mighty hard to connect with your roots. Even in the era of Glee and gay marriage, even in a progressive mecca like Toronto, there aren’t a ton of opportunities to learn about the history of pioneering queers—or even hear stories of clandestine makeouts from people who remember what same-sex relationships were like pre-Stonewall. The divide between young and old is especially pronounced in the LGBTQ community, where—unless you lead a very charmed life—it’s unlikely you grew up hearing about the gay old glory days from your lesbian granny. And that’s a bummer, because it’s hard to build a strong culture if you don’t know your history. With that in mind, and with Pride just around the corner, we brought together some LGBTQ folks from both ends of the age spectrum—the youngest participant is 18, the oldest 81—and paired them up discuss the issues that were most important to them. Here’s what they had to say.
Kim Chee Lee
Identifies as: Gay. Chapbook writer; tap-dancer; volunteer; gardener; former time-study analyst.
Identifies as Queer. Twin; badass poet; storyteller; lip-syncer; chocolate-covered almond aficionado.
Aisha: There’s not a lot of queer Muslim visibility, and if there’s one less person hating themselves for being queer and Muslim because of seeing someone else out there, then that’d be really great. It’s not that I necessarily want to be that role model, I just want to be, like, “Hey, don’t hate yourself! There is a community! You’ll reach it eventually.”
Kim Chee: I have some friends who are Muslim, but they’re in the closet, and they don’t go to any gay things or activities.
A: Not many of us can be out. There’s a risk of homelessness, a risk of rejection, a risk of bullying. It’s a safety thing. You risk so much more if you come out. With a lot of queer youth, [I’ve heard], “I came out when I wasn’t ready,” or “I was really pressured to come out.” [People say] you should be out, because that’s one less thing you have to hide or lie about, but being out is much more complex.
K: I came out when I was seven or eight. My adoptive father had four wives, and one of them couldn’t have children, so they gave me to her as a gift, and she took care of me from the ages of four to 12. One day, [I told her], “When I look at boys, at men, I have kind of a fuzzy feeling, and I don’t know what that means.” She said, “You just like men, that’s all. You’re gay!” She was very supportive. That’s why I say I’m one of the luckiest old guys in the world. I was schooled in China, lived in Winnipeg, and came to Toronto when I was 24. To make a long story short, the first day I arrived at my job, I got picked up by this guy who’d just arrived from England. I lived at the YMCA, because in those days the YMCA had rooms. “Oh,” he said, “maybe we should get a place together.” And that was my first husband, at 24.
A: When you first arrived here in Toronto, what was the queer scene like?
K: Well, everything was underground, all the dance places, the St. Charles [Tavern], the bars. My friends would go to the gay dances on Friday nights and Saturdays, and they’d always look to their left and their right before they went in. I asked why they were doing that, and they said, “Just in case someone sees us.” They were hiding. They didn’t want people to know they were going to these places.
A: Homophobia hurts. It’s part of you that’s being attacked. And it’s not so easy to just let it go. First, you try to come to terms with your identity, and then you’re trying to accept yourself, and then you’re trying to be out in front of other people. For the longest time, I used to—not hate, but I used to get a little mad when I’d see butch girls. Upset. I’d be, like, “Why are you so loud about your sexuality? I don’t need to hear about it.” I realized later that I was only mad because I couldn’t be butch, and I wasn’t given room to express my identity. [Even] queer people have some internalized homophobia to work through.
K: Just two weeks ago, I was reading Xtra!, and this guy comes over and says, “Aren’t you brave to read this kind of paper on the subway?” I said, “What kind of paper is that?” He said, “This is a gay paper.” I said, “Really? I hadn’t realized it was gay. It’s just a paper to me. There are a lot of interesting stories.” I don’t know if they’d call that discrimination. It doesn’t bother me. I’m way over that now. Don’t forget, when you get to eightysomething, you’ve had all these experiences and you’ve learned to accept a lot of things.
Rachel M. Lewis
Identifies as: Transwoman. Founder of a support group for mature transwomen; short-story writer; activist; survivor.
Identifies as: Gay. English lit Master’s student; competitive swimmer; animé geek; Spider-Man fan.
Rachel: I grew up in Malta, a very Catholic country in the Mediterranean. My father was in the Royal Navy. There was no exposure to what trans is, or even what gay is, for that matter. We talked about homosexuality as something very, very wrong, a big no-no. So I didn’t know how to identify or express my difference. I got married at 21, had children, and got on with my career, but by the time I was in my 30s, I was beginning to struggle. By the time I was 40, I was in crisis, and then I finally transitioned [to become female] full time about a year ago.
Ferdinand: I was fairly lucky in my coming-out experiences. I just told people privately, one by one. I’d say 90 per cent of the time they were very supportive, which I thought was surprising. Every time I was going to come out, I expected the worst, and I almost wished for the worst, because it would justify the way I felt about myself. There was a lot of shame.
R: I have stories about different reactions. Women always want to know if I fancy men or women, and guys always want to know if I’ve had them chopped off. Young people are cool with it unless they’re my children.
F: There’s a difference [in people’s reactions,] especially if we’re talking about acceptance of gay, lesbian, and bisexual identities versus acceptance of trans identities. My grandmother had a brother, who I didn’t know existed, because when I met him, he was no longer Charles, he was Aunt Cece. I went to a funeral up north, where my mother’s from, and [Aunt Cece] was there, which was a big deal because she had never been allowed back into the family.
R: My ex-spouse knew from [the time] we got together. She knew the struggle, she knew it was about an inherent way of being, but when I went on hormones, she said, “That’s it, I’ve had enough. I can’t be seen as a lesbian, I can’t be seen as the partner of a trans woman.” Two years ago, I made my choice. I’d contemplated suicide, and something weird happened when I prepared for that. I stopped fearing what people would say. [I realized if I died], they’d find out anyway, so instead of my brothers and sisters finding out after the fact, I told them. And my spouse left me. Suddenly, because there was no future, I was living in the now, and it was not so frightening. It’s been fantastic ever since.
F: I can’t speak for trans people, but I have friends who are trans, and you have to have huge strength to go out and be in a place where people can [attack you] just by looking at you, because you don’t have the defence of [an identity] that’s more internal.
R: I find young trans people to be incredible. Their courage, their self-awareness, their attitude. I remember being in a group where people were talking about their fear of being recognized [as transgender], and this 17-year-old trans male said, “If people want to waste their time having an opinion about me, then they can go ahead.” He didn’t care. The older trans people, our jaws were dropping. I lived most of my life terrified that someone was going to ridicule me. I was just mortified that someone would say anything or look at me the wrong way or use the wrong pronouns. Not that that should mortify me, but it did.
Identifies as: Human being, lesbian. Writer; social worker; mother; grandmother; wife; free spirit.
Identifies as Queer, femme. Performer; zine-maker; writer; feminist; fashionista.
Megan: I’m a lesbian, but that’s not how I identify myself first. I’m a human being, a woman, a mother, a grandmother. And I happen to live with a woman. We’ve been together almost 28 years.
Pandora: Wow. I’ve always heard stereotypes about lesbian women, that we meet and, like, a week later, we’re moving in together…and then it falls apart. So for me, [your story is] great to hear. I’m like, “Yay, there’s hope out there after all!”
M: I was never attracted to men, ever. But I decided to get married, and I did, to [someone] who was as feminine a man as I could find. It wasn’t what I wanted, but I knew I wanted children and back then there were people who were brave enough to find other ways to have children, but I didn’t come from a place where that was an option. I was married for 12 years and had two kids and a very unhappy marriage. One day, I was sitting with my husband in Stanley Park in Vancouver, watching women, and he said, “I think you’re gay.” And I said, “I think so, too.”
P: I was 11 when I came here from India. When I was younger, my best friend and I used to kiss and hold hands. We were fooling around one time and saw her brother approaching, and we freaked out and ran. After that we stopped because she was scared, and I think that’s the first time I felt the stigma of what it might be like to be a woman and to like women. Back there they didn’t have any of the labels [I’m familiar with now]. Like, I was familiar with the label “hijra,” which is [used] for trans people in India. But I didn’t have any idea of what it meant to be queer or to identify as anything. Because of my gender presentation, people don’t assume that I’m queer, and [being seen] is something that I have to fight for.
M: Why is that important to you? I don’t want to be identified by my sexuality, because that’s not who I am. I’m not obviously gay. I’m a feminine woman. If we want to fit in, and we want to be accepted, then I think that should be our goal. I don’t want to stand out, and it’s not that I’m ashamed of being gay. So what, I’m gay? Big deal.
P: See, I had an all-white community when I was coming out in high school, and I think I did feel the pressure to fit in. But I’ve come to this place where I’m not going to change who I am to appear more aesthetically queer. Because I love who I am: I grew up in India, I grew up watching Bollywood. I love being a girl. I love fancy outfits and dancing and singing. I love those parts [of myself] and I’m not going to change that.
RELATED READING: A selected history of LGBTQ Toronto
Identifies as: Pansexual. Burlingtonian; Sociology student; volunteer; writer.
Identifies as: Lesbian.Tomboy; forester; wife; mother; partner; widow; writer.
Jabez: I grew up in a really strong-willed Christian family. My mom is very religious and so’s my father, so when I came out to them, they had a hard time with it. But then, eventually, eventually…they’re sort of on the fence about it still.
Janice: How old were you when you told them?
Janice: That’s amazing self-awareness.
Jabez: My mom, she really wanted me to go out and start dating. That’s a really young age to start dating, but my mom met her husband at 16.
Janice: I was actually married to a man for about 20 years. I have two wonderful children—my daughter is 23, and my son’s 18. It wasn’t until I was 40 that I kind of figured out I was gay. That’s one thing I admire in young people, that you figured it out a lot quicker. [When I came out], I had two young kids and a marriage. For me, the crush that I had was so extreme that I realized it was more than a crush. It never came to anything, but [it brought] self-realization, and I realized my marriage was over. So I came about things in a different, less happy way. And I also got really, really depressed, because I didn’t know if being a divorced dyke mother was better for my kids than being dead, frankly. Which I think is a very sad state, but that’s how I really felt. I had a really conservative life; I didn’t know anyone who was gay, except for maybe Ellen.
Jabez: [In high school], I’d nudge my best friend and be, like, “I have this crush on this really cute girl!” I’m glad that I had her to lean on, or else I don’t know what would’ve happened.
Janice: How do you resolve your Christianity and your queerness? Can I ask you that?
Jabez: Um, sure. To me, there’s no either/or, like either you’re a Christian or a lesbian. I’m both, like I’m a lesbian and a writer. For some people, it’s either/or. I still go to church with my mom and my dad. I look forward to it. I don’t advertise [my sexuality there], but I won’t deny it.
Identifies as: Gay, gender-fluid. Singer; multiracial; human-rights activist; Triangle Program student.
Identifies as: Two-spirit. French, Cree; activist; poet; musician; social-services worker.
Nicole: I’m a two-spirited person. I tend not to identify either way, because I don’t believe in this whole gender paradigm of male-female.
Dwight: I identify as a gay, gender-fluid male. I feel male most of the time, but there are times when I feel that I don’t need a gender to identify myself, or sometimes I feel especially female. I really like it, because there is a lot of fluidity in the gender spectrum.
N: That’s really cool. How did your parents feel about that? Or are you out to your parents?
D: I’m out to them as gay. When I first came out, I came out to a trans friend of mine. I felt like he was the only one in my school who I could trust with that, so I did. He kind of rushed me into the decision to tell everyone else in the school, basically. I started getting bullied a lot. It was a pretty dark time in my existence. I started speaking to the social worker who was in my school, and she ended up introducing me to the Triangle Program [an alternative school for LGBTQ youth in the TDSB], [which is where] I met my first boyfriend. He gave me the courage to come out to my mom, because I knew she would be accepting. My grandma’s bisexual, and my mom had grown up with that. There were many different phases of coming out.
N: I sort of knew when I was nine. I went to a summer camp for foster kids, and there was a counsellor that I had a mad crush on. All I could think about was kissing her. And then, I sort of pushed it back because I knew that if I had come out where I was growing up, it would have been suicide, because I grew up in a very small town of less than 200 people in rural B.C.
D: I know with my grandma, and her being a bisexual in the ’80s, it was something that could tear my family apart back then. It was scandalous, you know? Now somebody comes out as bisexual and I feel it’s more like, “Oh, okay.”
N: The first real queer bar I went into, in the ’70s, I walked down the stairs, got stopped, and was asked, “What are you?” The woman looked me up and down, and went, “You don’t wear dresses, do you? You’re butch.” I had my identity handed to me—it’s just how things were done back then. If I could do it all over again, I would want to come out now, because there’s way more support, there’s more understanding.
Identifies as: Gay. Gaysian; performer; Filipino; Mississaugan; singer; theatre dynamo.
Identifies as: Gay. Chorister; activist; volunteer; AIDS hospice worker; husband; chef.
Ramon: Although I didn’t grow up in the Philippines, my family here watches a lot of Filipino television, so I see what popular TV is like there, and there are so many queers on TV. There are so many drag queens. Every other host is a gay guy, and it’s obvious. The flip side of it is that Filipinos are also very Catholic. I’m not out to my parents. I’m out to my older sister and my younger brother, and I’m basically out to everyone else. I grew up in the church, and I see how my mom is. If you walk into my house, there’s Jesus paraphernalia everywhere, even in my room. I have total respect for them and their beliefs, but she’s one of those Jesus freaks. I’m wary of that, and I honestly feel like if I don’t come out to her and she happens to pass away or something, I’ll be okay with that. I’ve already accepted that she won’t get it or something.
Neil: I really did not want to be gay. I didn’t know what it was. I have seven brothers, and none of them are gay. I had a very, very rigid and very religious family. It was such a battle within myself. It took me years and years. I went to psychotherapy, I had a psychiatrist. They said, “You know, there are many people like you; perhaps it would be good to accept the way you are instead of fighting it.” At that time, I just couldn’t. It wasn’t that I wasn’t fooling around with people, but every time I did…it was terrible. The guilt, you just have no idea.
R: May I ask how old you were when you came to accept it?
N: Probably 42, 43.
N: Yeah. So for about 20, 25 years, I was in, out, in, out. It was a hell of a time. I got involved in drugs, got involved in alcohol. What else are you going to do? I am so glad that those days are gone. I’ve been writing a lot, and it’s helping me. But I still can get easily depressed. To go back [to those thoughts] is not very pleasant. I’m from the era when, on Halloween, you would go to St. Charles and there would be people lined up across the street throwing rotten tomatoes and all kinds of stuff.
R: I’ve met a few older queers, and the ones I’ve spoken to, I feel like they feel as if we just take it for granted. I know me and my friends, we know some of the history and stuff, so we know we’re very fortunate. But do you feel that way as well? That it’s just so easy for us?
N: Yeah. I don’t begrudge the fact—I think it’s great that young people today have this. I wouldn’t want them to go through [what we went through]. Once I was [dressed] as a Roman, in a beautiful toga, red velvet, oh God! A wreath on my head and my hair all done. And this bloody tomato came crashing on my outfit. And the things they would call you: “Fucking faggot, get the fuck out.” But I can see that there is this train of thought where people say, “We’ve done it all, they’ve got it so easy.” I do think young people could be a little more involved.
R: I was part of the first Mississauga Pride Parade, six years ago.
N: How many people?
R: Oh, god, there were maybe like 80 people. We just walked down the main streets of Mississauga. I felt vulnerable, but it was awesome. Cars were honking.
N: So you sense how invigorating it can be, and scary, to be out in the street. You know, when there’s only 80 of you around and there’s all of them out there…. I’ve been settled down for 30 years. Do you see that in your future?
R: I would hope so. I’d like that. The longest I’ve ever dated someone was two months, and that’s nothing. It’s something I’ve always really wanted, but I feel like I haven’t found the right person to experience that with. You lived together for 30 years? What? May I ask how old you are?
N: I’m 73, going on 74.
N: I was born in 1939, toots!
R: So you met when you were around 40? I’m so scared. I don’t know why, but I feel a lot of pressure to find somebody.
N: Like time is running out? You’re better off to wait for the right one than to get caught with the wrong one.
What was your experience like growing up and coming out in Toronto? Share your stories in the comments section below.