I was born in 1961 in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and brought up within a typical middle class environment, attending schools, good public schools, that taught us the typical civic values of the day, while belonging to cliques that believed what everybody else believed, hewing to the conventional wisdom; and as such, I was, pretty much as a matter of course, the sort of guy who harboured an unspoken, and often not unspoken, contempt for homosexuals.
That’s just the way you were back then. There was nothing to debate, and nothing much to think about.
As I grew up, sheltered and lily white, enjoying all the benefits that kids like me enjoyed back then, it was never something that mattered much, you understand. Nobody I knew was openly gay, you couldn’t be, and words like “homo” and “faggot” were just vile insults, like “dumb-ass”, or “shit head”. By the time I got to high school, there were maybe a few guys we all thought were probably gay, and we weren’t pigs about it, nobody abused them, taunted them, or ever conceived of doing anything active to harm them – except of course we did harm them. To crush a kid at that point in his life, all you had to do was shun him. Snicker, behind his back, but not totally behind his back. Make him feel alone, different, deviant, and unwelcome. Signal that you knew his terrible secret, and how sick and disgusting that made him. You could disapprove in a thousand little ways, all of them subtle but bullying. That was us, and that was normal.
I was a bullied child myself, yet I had no pity. It always seems that those who are abused seek not to mitigate the abuse of others, but to join in, so that they can have someone to look down upon too.
It all started to change for me at Domus, of all places. At Domus, when I first began to frequent the place, was a fellow who tended bar on Fridays, I think, I’m not really sure, but he tended bar. His name was Ernie. I’ve been changing the names of all the characters that I write about in my Domus chronicles, but Ernie was his actual name, if my memory can be trusted, and I’m happy to identify him because nothing I could say could in any way be derogatory, or hurtful to anyone who knew him and cared about him.
Ernie was obviously gay. He was pretty, actually, the way Brad Pitt and Robert Redford are pretty, and he was obviously a gentle, decent young man. It was the smallest of gestures from him that Made me think. I was, at that point, a newcomer to the law student bar, I was there only because the people I loved the most, my brother Mike and his BFF Kevin, had become law students, and I didn’t belong, I wasn’t a member, I wasn’t a law student. I wasn’t even a drinker, back then! I asked Ernie for a cup of Coke, and he obliged with a big 12 ounce serving from the fountain, with ice, and Thirsty as I was, it was so good. I moved to pay, but Ernie held up his palm, and shook his head. No need to pay. Bartender’s prerogative. It was just a cup of Coke. Drink up. Enjoy.
I’ve often wondered – did Ernie see something in me that he liked? Or was he just being his usual kind and gentle self? Probably the latter, but it would be nice to believe the former. Such a small thing! Yet that free 12-ounce cup of Coke was some sort of catylist. Here I am, 35 years on, and I still remember.
From that point on it was settled, I was Team Ernie. Other law students made vicious fun of his homosexuality, and that did even more to seal the deal, because those guys were assholes. I hated them on principle, on a dozen other grounds, and their disdain for Ernie was just further evidence in the case against them. Decent, harmless Ernie was so much better than all of them.
Memory is unreliable, and I’m not sure about this, but as I recall it, Ernie was one of the casualties in the initial wave of AIDS, back when it was the “gay plague” and we didn’t even know what it was. As I remember it, poor Ernie died young. Maybe somebody who reads this, and knows, can fact-check me on that. I’d love to think that Ernie’s demise is just a melodramatic embellishment that my mind has cooked up for the purposes of compelling narrative.
By the time I’d moved to Toronto, in 1985, I was still, at least partly, an unreconstructed homophobic git from the Maritimes, but living in a place like this can break you of such nonsensical ideas. I lived in a flat above a greasy spoon at the corner of Carleton and Bleecker, downtown. Gentrification, via Cabbagetown development and the furious efforts of yuppies just East of the place, was creeping ever closer, but my corner of the neighbourhood was still a seedy, disreputable locale where nasty whores, run by a bike gang called the “Pair O’Dice Riders”, were active 24/7. They were, sadly, rather ugly, and the situation was ugly. Famed Nazi-sympathizer Ernst Zundel occupied a house just half a block down the street. Desperate men in sedans cruised by, looking to score drugs and prostitutes. Hookers we gave names like “Rat Scabies” did clients in the alley beneath our sun deck.
Yet, just a block or so away was the neighbourhood of Church and Wellesley, a gay enclave, and I used to cut through it daily on my way to and from my place at Carleton and Bleecker. At first, I must confess, I thought about it as if it was territory occupied by the enemy, like a sort of gay East Germany. It wasn’t long, though, before the neighbourhood became something more like Switzerland, a foreign country, sure, but a nice one, full of people whose values I understood. You couldn’t help but notice how very pleasant everything was, it was all well-tended gardens and nice shops and welcoming pubs and such, and you felt safe there, it was both a relief and an aesthetic delight just to pass through, especially when you did a mental compare-and-contrast with the shit-hole of bikers and whores where you lived, just a couple of blocks away.
It wasn’t very long until you realized that every time you passed through there, the same instinctive thought occurred: man, I wish there were more gay people in this town.
Such a revelation! The reader may find it silly and trite, like hearing a guy exclaim “Hey! Chocolate is tasty!!”, but at the time it seemed like a Really Deep Insight to realize that somebody’s sexual orientation could never be threatening, that it didn’t matter at all, save to the extent that gay people seemed to have better taste, and live in better neighbourhoods, than we hetero slobs. Probably that’s an offensive stereotype too, though it was hard to think otherwise as you crossed what amounted to a Berlin Wall between Carleton and Bleecker and Church and Wellesley. Their neighbourhood was different. Better. By extension, they were better, too, and that’s what Toronto taught me. Everything I knew, on this subject at least, was wrong.
What else did I know for sure that was actually complete horse shit?
I’ve never liked Toronto, really. I’ve never felt at home here. But Toronto taught me something special and true, and for that, I have to appreciate the place.
And Ernie, whatever became of you, I’d feel very warm and happy if you knew that simply by being who you were, you changed somebody’s mind.