Notes from Pride in a small city

For a moment, I want to mourn.

A stonefaced crowd is shoulder to shoulder, marching behind a leather-clad woman standing on the back of a pick up truck that is blaring techno hits. A few try to shuffle up enough excitement to mimic a dance move.

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This is how Adelaide, Australia, a city of 1.2 million on the southern coast, kick off their pride parade.

It’s too serious, I want to shout from the street side. Liven up a bit!

Pride parades are meant to be a celebration, a way to uplift, a joyous occasion.

Yet, Adelaide’s pride parade serves a stark reminder. We need solidarity among the oppressed.

Adelaide is not exactly a rainbow lovin’ city. Yes, there are a couple of clubs designed for LGBT clientele open on the weekends and there is enough of a community to host a parade and 2-week celebration, but there is still fear.

Everyone knows everyone here, or so I’ve been told. Too many people are still half-way in the closet, acting straight with their families or at workplaces. Being out and proud here is a big step here.

On the city bus, in restaurants and other public spaces, people still make comments that are offensive and homophobic. Same-sex marriage is still debated at parties, in workplaces. At the parade, there are protesters with microphones and a speaker dooming the rainbow-lovers to hell.

The city administration itself, while professing to be gay friendly, keep traffic going along the parade route, the marchers only allowed to occupy a single lane. Cars drive past, drivers shielding their face, embarrassed to be caught alongside the march.

This certainly isn’t Toronto’s pride, the only other frame of reference I’ve got for a pride parade.

(Check out Burke Campbell’s photos to get a sense of Toronto’s event)

In Adelaide, there are no crowds of onlookers here roaring with applause of dancing to the beats. There are extravagant floats or scantily clad bodies. The Australian Prime Minister is certainly not here.

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And just as I’m about to tear-up, the flag bearers, the men dressed as nuns, the teenagers wrapped in rainbow flags turn the corner, the people carrying placards calling for equal marriage round the corner.

The mood lightens. I wave at a few friendly faces. I feel hopeful.

But more than that, I am reminded why these parades need to exist.

They are a response to social conditions that needs to change. They are a movement, a call to action. They are reminder that we’re here, we’re queer, and gosh, we need the broader society to do better. We don’t just want acceptance or people to say “I have gay friends…” before they justify something awful.

We want to feel free.

We don’t want to be the subject of debate. We want to hold hands, and not feel apprehensive. We want to be free to act however we feel like, and not monitor our action in case they might be too gay. We don’t want to worry what you’ll think, or what you’ll do.

We want to be loved and accepted.
We want to be free to be.

 

Surprising attitude shift?

You’d think that their brother had been stabbed.
They are so outraged, so disgusted, so ready to start a revolt.

In between wine and forkfuls of mashed potatoes, they’re a group of straight expats raging against workplace injustices waged against people who love people of the same sex.

Laying the table

There are five of us around the kitchen table. We represent North America, Australia, Europe. We’re all in our 30s. Three of them are married. Another is single, and regularly bemoans her choice in men.

I don’t offer anything in terms of sexual preference, but there is already a conversation about me finding a nice Lao girl.

“She’ll teach you the language,” one of the women say.  I laugh. I should probably correct her. I don’t.

This is the first time we’re meeting. The single woman has welcomed us into her home, she’s the most established.

We all here for work; foreigners in a far off land.

Where is this going?

We are discussing the one thing that unites us – office politics. We’ve moved beyond the good, the bad and now are talking about the ugly.

Out of no where, the European drops a bomb.

“In the US, gays got fired…”

The rest of the table explodes.
I am beyond silent. In the past, I might have blushed.

But tonight I’ve secretly infiltrated. Tonight I’m an investigator.

The fall out is dramatic.
An Australian woman runs her hand to her head, holds it heavily.
“I think I’m going to look for another job,” she declares.

The horror, the others agree, the humanity.

“This goes against all my ethical beliefs,” another one says.

How we’ve moved

A slight smile crosses my face.

Not too long ago, a table filled with people in their 30s would have all nodded their heads in agreement. Get rid of the gays? Of course, that’s what you do.

I have sat through too many of those conversations. Blame the church, the countryside, the old women I had to work with and the coleslaw they served at our weekly staff potlucks. Hating da gays and mayonnaise – that was their favourite dish.

But we’ve moved. Our generation has shifted. I have proof!

A lot of straight people in North America, in western Europe, in Australia have grew up with gay characters in the media, have danced in a gay club, have celebrated gay pride with their friends.

They all know someone, a sibling, a cousin, a teacher or a friend who they love who is not straight. They recognize the value of a person beyond their sexual preference. Discrimination is abhorrent, they all agree.

“We’re the new generation. We have to change this. This isn’t okay anymore,” the single woman says.

The allies are obvious, and there seems to be so many more.
I save my revelation for a later time. But I’m filled with hope.

Shifting from single-mindedness

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First dates – I’ve had my fair share.

I can brag about forking my way through endless meals, slurping 30 cups of coffee or more. I’ve learned to small talk my way through any awkward situation, to ask questions endlessly.

Most times though, it ends with a congratulatory hug – yay, we made it through this – at the door of the restaurant, the coffee shop.

The array of characters has been eye opening – from the dude who freaked out when a flock of birds came too near – to the guy who, at 40, continued to talk about the fraternity he’d been in during university. “Does that make you hot?” he asked as I burst into a fit of laughter.

There have been interesting guys too, a night debating the existence of God, another learning about queer theory and a night of listening of how genetics work from a PhD student. They were guys who I’d be friends with, if I didn’t have a crew of amazing people in my life already.

A few times, there’s been a little more. Potential. Guys who seemed to fall out of the sky. Like the Weather Girls song. It rained, and there was someone amazing.

Those guys, the good ones, didn’t last. It’s complicated.

I searched, kept looking. He had to be out there. I just needed to turn over a few more rocks.

Last summer though, I got stung. I let my guard down too low, ended up in a compromising position in a dog park and was so stricken with embarrassment that I pledged a monk’s vow.

“I am happy being single,” I told my friends through clenched teeth. “It’s fine, reeaaaally.”

Choosing to be Single in Your 30s

The Saturday nights of bars, of debauchery, of taking on the entire universe had faded, just like my 20s.

Instead, I was learning that being single in your thirties meant you babysat on a Saturday night, watched black and white movies or drank on porches until 10:30 (okay, sometimes 11) at night.

My friends, my siblings, hell, even cousins 10 years younger had married off. When they felt charitable, they invited me out.

Couples brewed cheese fondue. Compared slow cooker recipes. Dreamed about installing a hot tub (three steps out the back door, to the right, please).

I had nothing to offer those couples.

I had an interesting job, dreamed about bicycles in Africa and offered a little on the diversity card, but come the relatable stuff – the mozzarella or cheddar conversations – I was out.

In my mind, and maybe their’s, I was bachelor bound – but not one they make TV shows about.

Queue the old farmhouse, a few possums, a shotgun, a rocker on a porch and a bit of moonshine and you get the picture.

Wisdom on a snowy highway

Luckily, I landed a job that allowed me to escape that tobacco chewin’ future.

The gig would take me to Asia, but a big part of me was sorry to leave.

There were still a dear few who shared the journey and leaving them behind would be hard.

Kiki was one of them. She is a champion at Roseanne style sarcasm, shares a similar background and owns an unending sense of adventure. We’ve been friends for the last 15 years and there is no one I would rather share a long stretches of highway with.

Before I left in January, we headed north for a hold-me-over adventure, to meet friends who lived 6 hours away.

As we passed frozen lakes and pine trees blanketed in white, Kiki reflected on her return to singledom. She had met Mr. Right, only for him to break her heart within a few months. Together, we bemoaned our situation. Being single was horrid, disgusting, something only lepers should endure.

When I find the real Mr. Right…”

I cranked my head hard.

“When?” I interrogated. “How can you say that? How do you know you’ll find him?”

Supportive friend. That’s me. Mr. Supportive.

“I have to believe that,” Kiki returned patiently. “I will. It’s when. It’s a matter of time.”

“I have given up hope,” I admitted. “To me, the show is over.”

Kiki told me she couldn’t live that way – without hope. “I will fall in love again. I will get married, I will have children, it’s when. It has to be when.”

For the next hour, we talked about framing. About setting yourself up for success instead of failure. If I was going to ever have a chance at meeting someone amazing, of falling in love, I was going to have to embrace when, instead of if.

Fast forward

In the days and weeks that followed, I started dreaming again about Mr. Right. About when. About the possibilities that might exist.

A lightness returned, excitement.

Instead of seeing the future with dreariness, of endless tables for one, single movie theatre tickets, long journeys alone, I imagined myself with someone incredible.

I didn’t know if it would work, but it sure felt good to gamble on a better future, on with a different outcome.

I opened myself up to dating again. And I waited.

Trans aerobics

ImageMost days, it’s too hot to go out when the sun is up.
People hide in the shade, in air conditioned buildings, in ice cube trays.

But when the sun starts to set, Vientiane’s citizens pour out of their homes and into the streets. They head down to the Mekong river, and get ready to move.

Every night, group aerobics are led by a transvestite in the town’s most prominent park. Crowds of 150 or more gather and wave their hands like they just don’t care, kick the air, wiggle too and fro. Music pumps and the mood is right.

Had to try it for myself.

After 15 minutes, the woman on the podium at the front had kicked my ass, my shirt drenched, my moves exhausted. I stepped aside as the crowd continued shaking in unison.

I turned around to watch, spotted few gray hair ladies on a park bench who smiled at me. They shuffled over. I sat with them.

As we watched, I couldn’t help feel a bit of pride – public acceptance, crowds rushing to attend – the inclusion was incredible. That’s worth exporting.

Why I went back into the closet

barber-shop
I arrive too early. Or too late.

It’s 6pm on a Thursday night and the barbershop, a tiny cement box beside a bustling Lao street, is on hold.

The barber, a very round Lao man in his 50, sits in a white plastic lawn chair. He’s huddled over a Styrofoam container of rice and vegetables, smacking his lips.

He half waves, says something in Lao and motions to the barber chair. Then he goes back to his meal while an orange cat circles at his feet.

In the shadows of the building is a younger man, who clips a pair of scissors in his hands. I catch his eye in the mirror, he slaps on a smile and then quickly looks down.

After about 15 minutes, the barber stands behind me in the chair. He floats a white sheet over my clothes and points questioningly at my scalp. The electric razor, I say. Short.

He looks puzzled and beckons to Edward Scissorhands in the shadows. I repeat myself, Edward interprets and the barber nods yes.

The barber pulls out the electric razor. Lets it buzz next to my ear and hovers there for a minute. He takes a quick graze at my hair, throws his hands up, shakes his head and says something to Edward. He walks back to the white chair, picks up the orange cat and scratches its stomach.

A shared understanding

Edward works methodically, carefully with the machine.

In his broken English, I find out that at 30 he’s an intern – two weeks on the job. He used to work for an NGO before, but funding ran out and he’s been without work for a while. He smiles a lot. Fumbles once or three times.

Once he’s finished, he has me lay over the sink and washes my hair.
“Where is your wife,” he asks.
I look up at him as he continues to scrub my scalp.

Our eyes meet. I don’t have one, I tell him. I’m single.
There’s a look of recognition.
“I’m single too,” he says, and smiles wide.
He reaches over and pinches my shoulder, our eyes still connected.

And without actually saying it, we both know what that means.

We’re men in our 30s and not really single by choice. We’re single because we’re attracted to men and that’s not exactly cool here.

Why I went back into the closet

Yes, there are a few gay bars in the capital city, in places where locals speak about in hushed tones. But beyond that, the inclusivity of Thailand seems to be missing.

Like so many other places in the world, gays and lesbians linger in the shadows.

And for me, someone who is generally out in Canada, it’s not exactly an easy waltz back into the closet. But it’s a trade off I’ve allowed myself to make.

I need to be able to manage the outcome. If I can’t, I keep my sexuality to myself.

In the organization I work for, I don’t know anyone else who is openly gay and can’t be certain how they’d deal with it. So I don’t tell colleagues who I would consider friends. The rumour mill can be vicious.

I’m also unclear about the laws related to sexuality in Laos. Wikipedia states there are no laws criminalizing same sex activity, but cannot accurately report on homophobia in the country. There are definitely no laws specifically protecting gays and lesbians here, and no laws formally recognizing same sex marriage.

And so that fear, that threat of homophobia, of losing my job, of being asked to leave the country has sent me back into the closet.

I admit, it’s less than ideal.
But it’s a sacrifice I’ve been willing to make.

You see, the other side is that I live for travelling and adventure, I stand solidly behind social justice issues and love being a storyteller.

I’ve been amazed at the way-off-the-beaten-path places this job has taken me and have been able to report on incredible stories of communities who are beginning to thrive because of development initiatives.

But then someone does know

Back in the barbershop, Edward becomes the first person here to officially know.
To know that secret.  As I get set to leave, I feel lighter. There’s a sense of relief when someone knows.

“You’re the first white person I ever touched,” Edward volunteers, chuckling a little as he finishes washing my hair. I sit up and he massages my shoulders a little.

I smile at Edward.
“You did good.”

Why it Matters: Gay Marriage

!TVIt was the last step.

In 2005, Canadian TV sets carried wall to wall news about same sex marriage.

The government was arguing a bill that would legalize same sex marriage after 4 years of various states performing legal same sex unions.

While lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transsexuals (LGBT) and their ‘straight’ allies rallied together for the same rights as heterosexual couples, religious opponents predicted imminent doom.

The clashes were prime time news drama. 
Both side were unwavering, both grabbed a microphone within a 30 foot radius given the chance. Both sides spoke with clipped stoicism. The urgency was undeniable.

Inside my own living room, I watched wide eyed.

Living in Denial

hatFor more than 10 years, I had deflected and rejected any insinuation that I might be gay.

I had grown up in a small rural town, in a family of an evangelical persuasion. Being gay, even the idea that I might be, was pure horror.

I worried my family might reject me, kick me out or send me to the therapy that their favourite moral compass, Focus on the Family, advocated for.

Throughout high school, after a classmate suspected I might be into boys instead of girls, rumours quickly spread. Within a week, I was endlessly taunted, occasionally beat and routinely isolated.

Throughout it, I maintained innocence – I was not gay, I pleaded over and over.

In college, I stood stiffly behind the same message, my interest was in school – not flirting or dating.

While the taunting, beating and social isolation had ceased, I turned the acts of discrimination inward.

I carefully guarded the way I walked, gestured or talked to ensure suspicion would not be roused. I avoided large social occasions and shied away from any conversation that related to sex – which for a college student is quite a feat.

The migraines that developed, the slump in my walk, the accelerated hair loss, the furrow in my brow, all that was a small price to pay. I had the angry look, as my 12-year-old cousin described it, but it was worth keeping the secret for.

Social shifts


By the time I entered the workforce year in 2001, the first same sex couple was wed in an act of civil defiance to Ontario’s laws.

As the media started to spark stories about the couples, and air the viewpoints of the LGBT community, I listened intently.

I could identify with the marginalization, discrimination and inequality they spoke about. Their calls for full equality under the law – regardless of your sexual orientation – resonated.

As the news continued to air for four years as the government and courts wrestled for a decision, I went through a period of self acceptance, and creating a group of allies.

In 2005, I decided to come out, first to my family, and then to my friends.

The Living Room Scene

I took a deep breath and sat my parents down in on their green sofa.

“The time for secrets is over,” I started.

I cited the law sitting before the government as evidence that gays were to be treated equally.

I told them how I’d prayed ceaselessly in my youth, that this would be taken away.

“I have to accept it. I can’t be part of things – like your church – that won’t,” I told them.

I laughed when my mom offered to send me to a Focus on the Family camp, threw my hands up in disgust when she returned home a day later with a book from the church library.

They didn’t get it – they still thought I was making some rebellious choice – like when I became a vegetarian out of spite.

It would take some time for them to understand. But the fear of being kicked out, of losing it all, dissipated.

First signs of change

In the following weeks I told friends. They were endlessly supportive.

“You look taller,” three of them said separately.

The anger that I’d carried subsided. My brow lost its plow ruts. The migraines let up.

That summer, the summer of 2005, was an unending series of bonfires, of karaoke songs, of long laughs. I was free. It was exhilarating.

For me, just like when the country passed the same sex marriage law, a threshold had been crossed.

We’d opened a new chapter of inclusivity and equality. The future could only be better.