A New World in Birth
I have a clear memory of visiting my grandparents. They lived in Orillia, Ontario, a mid-sized town about twenty-five miles from the little village of Beaverton, where I grew up, in cottage country north of Toronto. I must have been four or so. It was spring. For some reason I ran upstairs and darted into my grandfather’s bedroom, where I found myself face to face with a young man in my grandfather’s bed.
Dappled sunlight was coming in the window through the fresh leaves on the trees. He was sitting up, reading a book, the sheet pulled up to his belly button. He wasn’t wearing pajama tops. He had bright eyes, muscles on his arms, and his chest was covered with thick black curly hair. Transfixed by his chest, I wondered what it would be like to climb up on the bed and touch it, to feel the hair between my fingers.
He said, “Hello, Timmy. How are you?”
My mother rushed into the room behind me and took me by the hand. She explained that John was boarding with my grandparents now and that I couldn’t just run into people’s bedrooms without knocking. She told John she was sorry. By this point, he had pulled the covers up to his neck. He just smiled again and said, “No harm done, Mrs. McCaskell. How are you?”
“Fine, thank you,” she replied, and then hustled me back downstairs.
Louis was skinny and pale with wavy blond hair. His voice was high, like a girl’s, and he always walked as if he was wearing high-heeled shoes. Everyone said he acted just like a girl. He would have played with the girls, too, except that the schoolyard was divided into boys’ and girls’ sides, each with a separate entrance and separate playground. The invisible line that divided the two was not to be crossed. At first, when we were both in grade one, Louis would try to sneak over to the girls’ side, but the teacher on duty always caught him and sent him back. Then the boys would punish him for crossing the line. A new term entered our vocabulary: “sissy.”
There was great speculation about why Louis was a sissy. The rumour was that his parents had really wanted a girl and, when he was young, dressed him like one and let his hair grow. It “turned him that way.” Then they sent him away to live with his grandparents, “’cause who’d want to have a kid like that?”
Before class, at recess or after school, the rough boys would sometimes gather around Louis and call him “Louise” and other names. Louis didn’t know how to fight. He would get red in the face and pick up little stones to throw at his tormentors, but he threw like a girl and the stones would go up in the air and fall harmlessly on the ground. Then the boys would split their sides laughing and Louis would turn red to the roots of his blond curly hair. He would start to cry and run home with his funny wiggling run.
As he got older, it got worse. Louis’s voice got even higher, his walk even wigglier. He didn’t play with boys his own age at all, only with the little kids in grade one who didn’t know better.
I generally kept as far away from Louis as I could. Sissy was a dangerous word. It could be contagious.
A Shy Boy
I was shy. And I hated hockey. Every winter all the boys in Beaverton Public School were supposed to play hockey in a league at the rink. I devised schemes to get out of it. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that a bunch of boys with sticks slashing away at a lump of plastic on a hard, slippery surface would not end well. I’d rather stay home and read a book. I didn’t even like watching hockey on TV.
My father was a hockey fan. He was disappointed. I felt guilty.
I also wasn’t any good at baseball. Sometimes there would be after-school baseball games. Everyone would have to participate. Captains would pick their teams in class. Once I was the second-last picked. There was just me and Louis left. It was humiliating.
Soccer was okay. It was mostly just running around and tripping people. Since my feet stuck out, I was good at tripping, so people wanted me on their team. I was suspect as a boy, but not hopeless.
The morning of June 6, 1962, decorated war veteran Major Herbert Sutcliffe went to his Ottawa office. It was to be his last day before moving to Washington, DC, to take up a prestigious posting at the Pentagon. But as he sat down at his desk, he received a call asking him to report immediately to the director of military intelligence.
Sutcliffe walked down the hall to his superior’s office. He was told, “You are not going to Washington, there will be no luncheon for you. The RCMP
has advised us that you are a homosexual. You’ll be out of the military in three days. Return to your apartment and wait for me to contact you.”1
It was the end of his military career. Sutcliffe considered suicide that afternoon, but finally decided that he wasn’t going to let “the bastards” kill him.
That same spring morning I would have been riding my bike to my grade six class at Beaverton Public School, looking forward to summer holidays. I had no idea of a massive national security campaign to purge homosexuals from the army and the civil service. I had no idea what a homosexual was. I was unaware that police and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police were entrapping and blackmailing hundreds of gay men and lesbians and demanding they give up their friends and contacts.
It would be another twenty years before I met Herb Sutcliffe.
One night during my first year in high school, I went to Beaverton’s only movie house to see Shenandoah, a movie about a large family in a border state during the American Civil War. There were a few slaves, but they were more like family, and the youngest son, a thin blond boy, was best friends with a slave boy about his age.
Although they didn’t care about the war, it soon wrecked their lives. The family was split up. Several of the sons ended up fighting or killed. The daughters were raped and murdered. The youngest son somehow ended up in the Confederate army. Near the end it looked like he, too, would be killed in battle.
But in the climactic scene, back on the homestead, as the gruff father was trying to say a thanksgiving prayer with what remained of the family, the door opened. At the threshold stood the young former slave in a Union uniform. In his arms he carried his wounded young former master/friend. He had saved him.
In the dark of the theatre, I realized I was crying.
I walked back home over the bridge across the river. There was a skiff of snow on the ground. I felt so lonely. I wanted a friendship like that. A friend that I could have adventures with, who would save my life and whose life I could save. A friend I could hold in my arms. A friendship that would withstand anything, even war.
John Diefenbaker was the head of the Progressive Conservative party. My father was a Conservative, and our next-door neighbour was a bigwig in the party. So when there was a leadership convention at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens in September 1967, he got observer passes for my friend Bob and me. We would take the train to Toronto and stay in the YMCA. It was my first overnight trip on my own.
Bob got good marks in school, like I did. He did better in math and science, and I was better in English and history. He was quiet like me, and didn’t have a girlfriend or play a lot of sports. So we were a good match.
I was packed and ready to go when my mother took me aside. She seemed upset. She said she had been talking to a friend who told her that homosexuals sometimes lurked in the YMCA showers. I was shocked. I had never heard her use the term before. When she said the word, her voice dropped to a whisper and she glanced around as if she was afraid someone might hear her swearing. A friend of dad’s had actually been attacked by a homosexual in Toronto. That kind of thing happened down there. He was lucky and had managed to escape. But who could have ever imagined that they might be in a Christian association of all places. She told me to be very careful, and made me promise not to go to the showers, just to wash in the sink in the room.
At night in our little room in the YMCA I lay awake in the dark, wondering about the showers. I got a hard-on. Bob was breathing quietly in his bed beside mine. I wondered if he was awake and if he had a hard-on, too.
In 1968 the world was changing. Rebellion was in the air. So was Trudeaumania.
At Brock District High School, except for the diehard Tories, we thought that Pierre Trudeau was cool. He was different from other politicians. He spoke his mind. He made jokes. He travelled the world and had been to Red China. He even wore sandals and turtlenecks.
As minister of justice he introduced a bill to reform the Criminal Code to liberalize laws on divorce and abortion, and to decriminalize homosexuality. He said the state had no place in the bedrooms of the nation. This was all about sex, and as teenagers, we were all interested in sex—especially since it seemed to scare the wits out of our parents.
It was the decriminalization of homosexuality that drew the most heat. Even in high school most of us weren’t completely sure what it was. It had to do with sissies, certainly, or as they were now called, queers. Some said it was a sin, and they would all go to hell. Some said it was dangerous for society and children, and they should be put in jail. Others said they were sick and needed treatment. Still others said that they didn’t care what they did as long as they kept it to themselves and weren’t obvious. That seemed to be the most liberal point of view. The bottom line was that it was really creepy. A couple of times one had actually been interviewed on TV, on the edgy adult news program This Hour Has Seven Days. The voices were distorted and they were always backlit so you couldn’t see their faces. Certainly “homosexual” was not something anyone in their right mind would want to be.
Normally, I was very engaged in politics and always ready to argue an opinion. But whenever the discussion about homosexuality came up, I got nervous and didn’t say much. I wasn’t sure why.
Nineteen sixty-nine was my first year away from home at Carleton University. I was eighteen. I joined the university’s Young Socialist Club. We protested the Vietnam War, called for lower tuition, and argued with the Maoists about Stalin. It was great fun. One afternoon I went to help out on a picket line to support the local strike célèbre. There was a guy taking pictures for the student paper. He was the most beautiful man I had ever seen in my life.
It turned out we lived in the same residence building. When I rode up the elevator with him afterwards, I felt indescribably happy. We were soon friends. I wanted to spend as much time with him as I could. I thought about him all the time. I wanted him to be that friend that I had always longed for.
When Stephen didn’t have his shirt on, his muscles moved like oil under his velvet skin. I found myself imagining what he would look like, naked, in a forest, with dappled sunlight playing on his chest. Then, in a flash, I thought to myself, oh shit! This is what love is supposed to feel like. There was a ball of fear in my stomach. What did this mean? All my life I had worked at not being a sissy. I wasn’t one of those faceless homosexuals that couldn’t be shown on television. I wasn’t one of those mincing, preening, bitter creatures with a cigarette dangling from a limp wrist that I’d seen in the movies. I didn’t even smoke. I was normal. But I was in love with a man.
Saturday, August 17, 1974, was a bright sunny afternoon. I was walking towards Allan Gardens, a park in downtown Toronto. My stomach was in a knot. I saw a handful of people on the north side of the park and a pile of placards.
I was just back in Toronto after two years in South America. I had followed Stephen there, like a needy puppy. I even screwed up the courage to tell him I loved him one night. We were both stoned. He said he loved me too and gave me a hug. We were learning Spanish, but in English, we were obviously not speaking the same language. Soon his girlfriend came to join us. I finally left them in Cali, Colombia, where we had been teaching English, and continued south.
After hitchhiking around South America for a year, I had come back to Canada knowing I had two options: deal with this shit, or jump off a bridge.
The Boys in the Band, a 1969 movie about self-hating homosexuals, was playing at a local rep cinema. I sat in the back of the theatre, in the dark, watching the drama unfold. It was not a pretty picture. But as the movie let out, I noticed two young men who had also been in the audience. They were talking happily and for a minute, one took the other’s hand. I felt a flood of warmth in my heart. I followed them for several blocks.
I had heard about a newspaper called The Body Politic. It was about gay liberation. The word “gay” seemed to be a slightly effeminate term that served to take the edge off “homosexual.” But liberation had been my stock-in-trade in the Young Socialists, so I was into that.
I screwed up my courage, went into a store, bought a stack of magazines including a copy of TBP, and took them to Riverdale Park. The park spans both sides of the southern end of the Don Valley divided by a highway. The floor of the valley is flat and treeless, with a running track on the east side. I sat in the middle of the track. There, I could see anyone coming within a quarter mile. I figured if someone came too close to where I was sitting, I could stuff the paper in my bag and run away.
The front cover of that issue displayed a line drawing of two young men lounging naked on a carpet, staring into each other’s eyes against a romantic background of gladiolas, ferns, and snapdragons. It was beautiful.
I opened the pages tentatively and stepped into an ongoing conversation. Letter writers were upset about articles in previous issues. One attacked a piece that had claimed “personal solutions and alternative lifestyles” had no place in the gay movement. The writer asserted that one of the most crucial messages of the feminist and gay movements had been that the personal is political. Someone from Calgary wrote his thanks for an article about rural gay youth. Another called for gays to abandon the small towns and congregate in...