Assorted Nonsense Episode VIII: My brother-in-law (and fellow author) Brian Wyvill and I visit the Blue Shank Road outside Summerside PEI, where Barnabus J. Wildebear and Doctor Peter Humphrey first return to Prince Edward Island following their trip through the gate in my novel A Time and a Place.
Got up this morning, ate my usual English Muffin with peanut butter and jam accompanied by a banana, an orange, and a glass of water, opened the Toronto Star, and was immediately confronted with hatred.
There was an article about a man who, along with his family and several hundred others, was rounded up in 1941 and marched at gunpoint to a pit in the forest where they were all murdered and buried in the pit for the crime of being Jews. The man survived to tell the tale so that I, in the comfort of my peaceful, middle class home seventy-two years later, could learn about the capacity of the human race to hate. And not just hate, but HATE.
This depressed me. It probably depressed many decent people. How is such hate possible?
Later I was listening to CBC Radio’s DNTO which today is about the elasticity of gender, where I was confronted with my own capacity for hatred.
I grew up in Prince Edward Island where I encountered to my knowledge two gay men and no gay women that I’m aware of. I know now that there were many more but at this time only two were out of the closet. I did not hate the two that I knew, in fact one of them was a favourite teacher, a drama teacher, who cast me in one of his plays, and the truth is I didn’t think much, if ever, about the fact that he was gay.
It was only later when I was in university in Nova Scotia and in the company of many shallow youth such as myself that I began to contribute to the culture of intolerance and, yes, hatred for homosexuality. I did not understand it, I thought it was wrong, I was surrounded by like-minded people who affirmed this kind of wrong-headed thinking. Thinking created by not thinking with any kind of intellectual rigour about homosexuality, thinking manufactured by fundamentalist religious views, thinking promoted by wanting to fit in, to become that much more accepted by your peers by generating a few laughs about an easy-to-target demographic that you think has nothing to do with you, really.
I moved to Toronto to attend university there. I got a job as a security guard at 77 Carleton Place. My first boss was George, a World War Two vet who went abroad to fight against exactly the kind of hate that I started this post with. “We’re not allowed to carry weapons,” he told me when I started. “We are allowed to carry keys, though.” And he produced a key attached to a long wooden stick that I hope to God he never actually had to hit anyone with.
George also talked to me about one of the other security guards, a handsome, fit man in his early forties who also worked as an underwear model. I can’t remember George’s exact words about this gentleman, but it was clear what George thought his sexual orientation was, and that George did not entirely approve.
George got sick and the handsome man became my boss. One night myself, the handsome man and another security guard happened to be working together and the subject of homosexuality came up. This was not as random as it might seem because there was a tenant in the building dying of Aids at the time. He looked terrible and was the first person I’d ever met who I was aware suffered from Aids. I do not believe he survived long after I met him.
Anyway, in a moment of candour I wish I could erase from my life (along with the attitude that produced it), I told my new boss (conveniently pretending that I suspected nothing about his sexual orientation) what I thought of male homosexuality.
I never worked as a security guard again.
My next job was working for a private production company. One of the biggest jobs I worked on for this company was producing a documentary on Aids. It was about a young man dying of Aids and the struggle of his family to come to terms with both his sexual orientation and the fact that he was terminally ill. Before the father (a tough, grizzled autoworker) learned of his son’s illness he was every bit as prejudiced as I was at the time. He’d never really thought about the subject before. But, he told us on camera, choking back tears, nothing mattered to him now but his love for his son.
This was just one brick in the wall of my own education on the matter. After that I went to work for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. My first year there I fell in love with a woman who never loved me back, at least the same way, because she was gay. I won’t write any more about that for reasons of discretion except to say that this was the emotional juggernaut that prompted me for the first time to really think about the subject. I talked to people, visited bookstores in which I spent hours reading about homosexuality, trying to understand. I started from the position that homosexuality was a choice, a bad choice. I seriously thought I could get this woman to change her mind. I actually told people that I thought a crime had been committed, as if someone had corrupted her in some way. I would get her to come around, I thought.
But the crime was mine, of not understanding.
My feelings on the matter were further complicated when I moved in with two women who, two days before I moved in with them, informed me that they were gay. I had guessed because of a certain lack of bedrooms. They were going to tell me the day I moved in. I lived with them for six months during which they treated me abominably, ignoring me, not speaking to me. It was a terrible, emotionally damaging experience, and one of the happiest days of my life was the day I moved out.
You would think that experience might have deepened my prejudices, but in fact I was already starting to come around. I had friends by this time who were clearly gay and I would defy anybody to truly be friends with someone either gay, Jewish, black, animal, alien or otherwise and remain intolerant. Or at least I hope so.
To this day I don’t think I have any true comprehension of what it’s like to be gay or the subject of any real intolerance, prejudice or hatred. I’m a straight white male who in many ways has it easy. But I hope, I hope to God, that I have eradicated as much hate and intolerance from my being as possible. I attended a church for a while, full of people that I like, but who adhered to a certain fundamentalist perspective such as an intolerance for homosexuality that after a while I couldn’t look past, that to me amounted to just a different kind of hate. So I stopped attending.
After a while of living I realized that my true religion was people. People over ideals. My idea is that as long as I place people first, whether gay, black, pink, purple or what have you, I can’t go wrong. I don’t care what you believe, if it places any kind of people anything other than first, you wind up with hate.
Author Iain Banks summed it up nicely: “F*** every cause that ends in murder and children crying.”
Happy Pride Week.