Mark Tewksbury recalls the June afternoon in the early 1980s that he sauntered down the hallway to his locker at St. Cyril Junior High School in Calgary and instinctively knew something was not right: his locker wasn't shut the way he'd left it. He felt sick the second he opened the door. The word fag, scrawled in large black pen across one of his binders, leapt out at him. "One little word, but one that was loaded with enough hate that it brought my entire world tumbling down," says the guy who would go on to make Canada proud when he brought home a gold medal in swimming at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992.
Sadly, some of the abhorrence that gripped the frightened Grade 8 student was self-directed. He would later write in his candid autobiography, Inside Out: Straight Talk from a Gay Jock: "I hated myself so much in that moment. I wished I could be different than this. I was tired of being alone. I was tired of feeling like a freak. A fag. The easiest target in school."
Awareness and education
Fast-forward 25 years and Mark, recipient of the 2007 Fight Against Homophobia Award (Prix Lutte Contre L'Homophobie) by the rights group Fondation Émergence, has spent much of his time and energy raising awareness and educating teachers, students, parents and business folks about same-sex issues so that today’s lesbian and gay youth don't experience such hate, and if they do, that they're not left to struggle alone.
Weekdays frequently find Cherie MacLeod in various New Brunswick schools talking to students about a rainbow of diversity issues, including what it’s like to be gay, though she herself is not. What has landed Cherie in these Maritime classrooms is her resolve to stamp out homophobia, which she knows, when left unchecked, can ruin families and lives. She watched one of her relatives experience the worst form of rejection for being gay: rejection from his own family. Though Cherie and her parents accepted the young man's sexuality, his own parents did not. He died of cancer in 2004 without any reconciliation with his mother and father.
'The huge need for education around gay issues'
"It wasn’t just homophobia," says Cherie, who was by then married with two children and living in Moncton, N.B. "It was ignorance." In her grief, Cherie turned to the local chapter of PFLAG Canada, the support group formerly known as Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. She is now the executive director of the organization, which has 70 chapters across Canada. "It was an intense period of grieving, and I found PFLAG Canada to be a very supportive place to deal with my sadness, but also some of my anger. I quickly became aware of the huge need for education around gay issues and diversity in general."
Page 1 of 6
Support for the family
Cherie got involved in PFLAG Canada's community education committee and later helped develop a diversity training curriculum that has been introduced to several local school boards throughout the Maritimes. She also facilitates support group meetings often attended by parents who've just learned their child is gay. What drives Cherie is best summed up by something her husband said last year when she took up the helm of PFLAG Canada: "If you can prevent just one family from experiencing a similar loss, it will all be worth it."
Times do change, but slowly, it seems, for a good portion of gay youth in Canada. While anecdotal evidence suggests that young lesbians and gays in large cities often – though certainly not always – have an easier time of it (plentiful support groups, visible gay communities, a general acceptance of diversity), huge gaps still remain when it comes to awareness, services, phone help lines and safe places to just be yourself for gay and lesbian youth in smaller cities, suburbs and rural areas. Ditto for resources for parents of such youth.
'Despair and loneliness'
I recall the despair and loneliness of growing up gay in rural Ontario in the mid-1970s. Looking back, it was a double-edged sword that I cottoned on to my true sexual identity so early in my teens. Talk about isolation! We didn’t have a "Will & Grace" on the tube back then. (Though I developed an intense obsession with John Boy from "The Waltons," only to turn my TV-time affections to Omar Sharif when the CBC aired "Lawrence of Arabia." And let’s not talk about "Starsky & Hutch," but I digress.)
With nowhere to turn, and no one to confide in, I cushioned myself from the
all-consuming pain of my daily nightmare – and white-knuckle fear of my dark secret being revealed – with escapist literature, hours of fanciful daydreaming and fistfuls of Mars bars. By the end of high school my tummy had ballooned in direct proportion to the burgeoning pain within.
Half-joking to one of my cousins some years ago, I described my adolescence and teenage years, in a really bad Marilyn Monroe voice, as The Seven-Year Itch that Became the Ten-Year Ache. In short, it was bleak, and it’s with a certain melancholy that I heard these same experiences echoed by many of the teens I interviewed for this story 30 years later.
Page 2 of 6
'The confusion and anxiety of being gay'
The energy, enthusiasm and attention that most youth typically devote to the everyday matters of friends, homework, hobbies, wangling concert tickets, dating, planning for the future and just being happy can get siphoned off if you're a youth caught up in the confusion and anxiety of being gay. Your focus is often diverted into hours of agonizing brooding or unhealthy acting-out accompanied by a battered self-esteem – hardly the best raw material for nurturing adolescence.
Tewksbury, who's candid about his formative years spent in hiding – from himself as well as family and friends – hits upon an important developmental issue when he says that "accepting and embracing my sexuality enabled me, as a competitor in sports, to finally tap into myself. In order to give absolutely everything, you have to know yourself. Because I was repressing the real me, I couldn't grow to my potential. I wasn't all there. I didn’t know myself," says the three-time Olympic medallist. "Coming to terms with my sexuality, who I really was, allowed me to perform at my best."
And isn't that what we truly want for all of our youth, regardless of their sexual orientation?
Ann and Edgar knew something was up when their son Robert sent an e-mail before coming home from university to Moncton for Thanksgiving in 2005. "He said he wanted a family meeting as he had something to tell us," recalls Ann. He sat everyone down and told them he was gay. "It was somewhat shocking to hear my son say it," says Ann. "I think my husband and I were both so overwhelmed at first we didn't know what to think. Looking back at his childhood and teens, I think perhaps there were signs, but you never really know until someone comes out and tells you."
Thus began Ann and Edgar's journey to understand and accept their son's sexuality. They lived with the news for a month before approaching their minister, who offered to accompany them to their first PFLAG Canada meeting the following January.
Looking for support
Ann says she was terrified before going to the first meeting, afraid who she'd see. "I was so worked up I truly thought I was going to be sick," says Ann. "The first meeting showed us that we weren't alone, but most importantly, we came to understand that our son Robert wasn't alone, and that was a huge relief. As a parent, you worry about your children."
Their son accompanied them to one meeting and shared his own story about his years of struggling with his sexuality, how he had sought counselling and support before coming out to his parents. "I think he really wanted to be sure of himself before he said anything to us," says Ann.
Page 3 of 6
There were heartbreaking moments for Ann and Edgar during those initial PFLAG meetings, especially when they listened to gays and lesbians recount how they were asked – or told – to leave home upon coming out to their parents. Hearing those stories prompted the soft-spoken Ann to speak up. "I said that I have a hard time understanding parents who tell their kids to get out and never come back. I don't understand parents who do that. I just don't get it. No parent should ever do that."
After the meeting a woman came up and complimented her: "Wouldn’t it be amazing if every parent thought the same way. They should rent out mothers like you." Ann was moved, so much so that she and her husband launched and now host a monthly social night at their church for gays and lesbians who simply want a friendly, laid-back, welcoming place to socialize. "We first approached PFLAG Canada looking for support and to find answers to some of our questions, and now this is our way of giving back."
And there can a lengthy list of questions for parents upon learning their child is gay.
• "How does my child really know for sure she's lesbian?"
• "What's the best thing I can do to help my gay teen now that he has come out?"
• "I accept my child being gay, but my wife doesn't. What do I do?"
• "How did this happen? What will my child's life be like?"
Parents and youth are not alone
"Any and all questions are valid at our meetings," says Cherie. "Chances are someone sitting in that circle of chairs on any given night has already grappled with the burning, soul-searching issue that's on your mind." Cherie talks about the "miracle moment" she’s seen many parents of lesbian and gay youth experience during a monthly PFLAG meeting. "Sometimes it happens on their first night, or perhaps later on, but I've seen it in their eyes and facial expressions when they fully realize: I am not alone. There are other parents just like me with a kid just like mine and who are going through the same roller- coaster."
Sometimes it's coupled with another realization: "I've also seen that magical look on parents' faces when they acknowledge, My child is not alone either. She's one of a million just like her. And suddenly the world's a much better place."
Let's talk: Parent to parent
Ann has learned a lot since her son Robert came out two years ago. Here, she generously shares her advice to parents of a gay or lesbian child, or one who is questioning his or her sexuality.
• "Tell your child you love him or her. It's important he or she knows that right away. Whatever you talk about after that, your child must know right off that your love for him or her hasn't changed."
• "Don’t blame yourself. You're not responsible for your child being gay – nor is there anything for anyone to be blamed for."
• "Take time with the information. Your child has likely dealt with and struggled with being gay for a long time. You've only just found out. Go easy on yourself. Don't rush it. Take the time you need."
• "Seek counselling, if necessary; if you find it incredibly difficult, consider sharing your journey with a professional or an expert counsellor."
• "Confide in someone you feel safe with. It's important that you are not alone. Talk to family and friends so you are not isolated."
Page 4 of 6The conversation
Olympic medallist Mark Tewksbury offers candid tips on coming out to parents, family and friends.
1. Choose the right time. "Don't pick Christmas Day! Such gatherings can often be loaded with all kinds of other emotions and stress. Choose a time when you won't be interrupted and there's no other family drama."
2. Gather a support circle. "No matter what happens, have a supportive friend on standby regardless of how well the coming-out conversation goes. It's good to have someone there for you."
3. Expect the best, prepare for the worst. "You must be optimistic and realistic. For the most part, I've met with acceptance and compassion when coming out to family and friends – though there have been exceptions. Some people require more time to process new information. Be positive but be ready in case the reaction isn't as embracing as you hope."
4. Try to be comfortable. "How do you start? How about, 'I'm gay,'" Mark jokes. "It doesn't help to set up the conversation in an ominous tone, so that it sounds like you're going to deliver bad news. Don't give it unnecessary extra weight."
5. Choose your medium. "There's a lot of discussion about sending a letter or e-mail as a way of coming out to family and friends. To each his own. Personally, I find tone of voice and body language can help soften the message, but really, it depends on the individual."
6. Be completely sure you know what you're doing. "You must be ready to live with the consequences, whatever you decide to say. Once you've told someone you're gay, you've set something in motion – there's no going back. Understand that you will have to live with the outcome of that coming-out conversation."
7. Be confident. "If you're feeling good and looking relaxed, that will help. The coming-out conversation doesn't have to be a bomb-dropping."
8. Don't hesitate to ask for support. 'If you're talking to family members or perhaps a group of buddies on a sports team, don't be shy about saying, 'I know some of you might not be comfortable right now, but this is what I really need. I need to be me.'"
Page 5 of 6Out at school: Gay and straight students together
It's a Thursday afternoon and classes are done for the day at Applewood Heights Secondary School in Mississauga, Ont. A group of 10 students are sitting around in a classroom kibitzing. No, it's not detention hour; the teens have convened for their twice-monthly Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) meeting with teacher-representative Charlie Pullen.
It's a mixed bag of students – male, female, from grades 9, 10, 11 and 12, some gay, some straight and some who don't declare their sexuality and that's fine. The GSA is not a dating service. "It's intended to be a safe place where students of any sexual orientation can express themselves easily, without fear, and just be themselves," says Pullen. "And that's very important, perhaps more so if you do happen to be gay."
It's why Kevin*, 16, has joined, though he jokes that the free pizza is mighty fine; but truthfully, it’s the safe-place element that appeals to him. "I've not talked about my sexuality with my family, and this is a safe place to be myself and talk about being gay with other students who are supportive," he says. "We also get to talk about diversity and other issues."
He says the meetings and discussions in this setting have given him confidence, which is particularly helpful when he hears antigay slurs in the hallway or cafeteria. Where Kevin lives in the suburbs, there really isn't any other kind of centre where questioning gay youth can go.
Crystal, 17, who's straight, has been part of the GSA in the same school for two years. She joined when her best friend came out to her and Crystal realized she had little understanding of what it meant to be a lesbian or the challenges her friend was facing. "I've come to realize it's important to fight homophobia and nasty stereotypes. I first joined to support my friend, but now I'm active as it helps me understand discrimination of all kinds."
Some GSAs host debates, discussions, group activities, diversity training, and occasionally create anti-homophobia and diversity displays for public spaces in the school.
• For more information on support groups and safe spaces for gay and lesbian students, go to www.gaystraightalliance.org; click on “Canada” from the “Select a Place” menu.
• Talk to your teen about forming a GSA at school: the Alberta Teachers' AssociationGay and Lesbian Educators of British Columbia and the have downloadable guidelines on establishing GSAs. While the running of the GSA is typically up to the students, most school boards require administrator approval and the support of a teacher-representative.
* Pseudonyms have been used to protect privacy of youth.
PFLAG: Family-friendly support
PFLAG Canada maintains 70 chapters and contacts across Canada, from Miramichi, N.B., to Cranbrook, B.C., whose goal is to provide a safe, nonthreatening environment for people of all ages who are grappling with sexual orientation and gender identity issues, either with respect to themselves or someone they love.
"The strength of PFLAG Canada is that the people sitting around the room or answering the phone line totally relate to the confusion, fear, isolation – as well as the hope, joy and relief – you're experiencing because we've all been there," says Cherie MacLeod, executive director of PFLAG Canada.
Some people choose PFLAG Canada as a safe place to start their coming-out process, while others are trying to understand their gay or lesbian child. Some folks come for the discussion groups, and others are simply there to listen to and support you.
• To find the chapter nearest you, visit www.pflagcanada.ca.
• Support for lesbian, gay and bisexual youth, parents and their friends is a phone call away: 1-888-530-6777.
Not sure how to talk to your teens about sex? Read teen sexuality for helpful hints on how to approach your kids.
Page 6 of 6