Denial and Tigers and Flames, Oh My!

Denial and Tigers and Flames, Oh My!

[September 24, 2017]

Identity. After a misguided attempt to attend York University for theatre studies in 1990, I quit university, returned to my hometown, and worked in the warehouse at Sears for the next four years. In 1995, at the age of 25, I decided to follow my true passion by moving back to Toronto to enroll in the Illustration program at the Ontario College of Art. After four years of feeling stalled in Cornwall, beginning my studies at the College was like a rebirth for me. Determined to take advantage of this new life, I took the opportunity to reinvent myself. Leaving my days in the theatre behind, and my penchant for losing myself in the characters I played, I made a promise to myself to figure out who I truly was.

Throwing myself whole-heartedly into my schoolwork I quickly adjusted to thinking about myself as a visual artist again, an identity that I tried to suppress during my theatre days, but an identity I now found myself delighted to reassert. Like a man starving for nourishment I devoured each project assigned to me, resolving to extract every bit of knowledge I could from each one of my professors. Feeling fulfilled and on the right path with my work, I decided to attack life with the same enthusiasm, ringing every last bit of pleasure and experience out of every moment. With this new philosophy in mind, it became my goal, when I wasn’t studying or at school, to be the most entertaining person in the room. I lived by the motto that if you worked hard then you needed to play hard as well.

My late 20s and early 30s were all about pushing myself to the limit. Though I was still in denial about my sexuality, with the bullies now long gone, my homophobic behaviour began to fade away. Since I hadn’t had that much experience dating, I decided to put myself out there. Though in private I began fantasizing about being with other men, I dated woman exclusively—trying to convince myself that if I found the right one my homoerotic fantasies would just disappear.

I searched a long time, during that time, to try and find the right woman for me; a search I suppose in my heart I knew was destined to fail. Though I can see now that search was pointless, it was still a necessary step I needed to take in order to help define myself. Not wanting to be gay, I needed to exhaust every possibility that I might be straight so that I could eventually give myself permission to be gay.

When you suppress something about yourself, however, your true nature often reveals itself in other ways. Though I wasn’t open to embracing my true sexuality during this time, I did start to interact with people in a more fluid and ambiguous way. I was testing the water, being different for the sake of being different and seeing how far I could push people’s levels of acceptance. In a conscious effort to be fabulous, I prided myself on being outrageously inappropriate and took pleasure in shocking the friends that surrounded me. Though I regret many things that I did when I was in the closet, I do not for one minute regret the incredible amount of fun I had during this time in my life.

To honour that most inappropriate younger self, I thought it fitting to take a break from the serious tone that my blog often takes and rejoice in the retelling of one of my favourite stories from this time in my life. The story, in fact, that awakened in me the courage to be different which ultimately lead me to becoming more myself.

My story takes place during my first year at the Ontario College of Art, back in the fall of 1995. My favourite class back than was my 2-D design class taught by the incredible Pat Gagnon. I clicked with her right away and always did my best to meet or exceed her exacting expectations.

One day Pat, told me that someone working for the organization that planned the famous Brazilian Ball (a huge charity gala in Toronto that ran for almost 50 years) approached her about designing masks to be auctioned off at the event. The project was to be led like a competition and the winning mask would be awarded $1,000. Taking the project to selected students in her classes, Pat thought I would be a perfect candidate and asked me if I would design a mask for the event.

Misunderstanding her and thinking she needed me to design them all, I went home that night and designed twenty masks. When I presented Pat my twenty designs the next day, we had a good laugh about the misunderstanding but, seeing that I had put so much work into the designs, she decided to let me produce two finished masks for the event. Proud to be selected, I produced a stunning fire mask and a beautifully rendered butterfly mask.

Hopeful that I would be chosen the winner of the competition I waited restlessly for the results. Though the top prize ended up going to someone else, the judges—so pleased with the quality of the submissions—decided to award five additional prizes in the form of tickets to the ball itself. To my delight, I was one of the recipients of a ticket to the ball. Considering the tickets probably would have been about a $1,000 a plate, I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would ever have the opportunity to attend. With instructions to design costumes similar in theme to the masks that we had designed, the five winners of the tickets were sent home to construct costumes for the big night.

Choosing to take inspiration from one of the mask designs that I had not constructed, I decided that I was going to attend the ball as a tiger. On the night of the ball, with the confidence that only youth can summon, I began the construction of my costume. Clad in a pair of skimpy black jean shorts, a dog collar from an old Halloween costume and a pair of well-worn Doc Martins I began the three-hour process of painting my face and body to look like a tiger. With every exposed inch of my body covered with make-up, you will be pleased to know I got one of my housemates to do my back. I then proceeded to try and hail a cab outside of the Spadina Avenue co-op in which I lived. To my great disappointed, no cab was willing to pick me up. Heart broken and dejected, I went back into my house to complain to my housemates and try to figure out another way to get down to the Metro Toronto Convention Centre where the Brazilian Ball was being held. Wanting to see where my night would take me, and knowing that it would at least lead to a great story, my housemate Marcus offered to give me a ride to my destination.

Dropping me off at the Convention Centre, I thanked Marcus for the ride and walked confidently into the party. At that moment, it was like all the air had been sucked out of the room as it felt like every eye in the place turned to watch me make my entrance. The instant that I set foot over the threshold, I realized that I had made a terrible mistake. Rich people’s costume parties were much different than the costume parties that I had had the opportunity to attend. The patrons at this party all held masks on sticks or wore tasteful masks on their faces and, instead of costumes, the men, to my surprise, were all wearing tuxedos while the women were dressed in formal evening gowns.

As you can imagine, I had a decision to make; either I was going to walk into that party and own the room, or I was going to turn tail, literally, and run. Marcus by the way had already peeled out of there.

Taking a deep breath, head held high, I walked into that place and decided to revel in the stares and not shrink away from them. Cheeky as could be, I began to introduce myself to people. I let them know I was an artist, and handed out the business cards that I had made especially for the occasion. The cards identified me only as “Tiger Boy” with nothing but a stylized sketch of my face in tiger make-up and my phone number. I even remember telling a shocked, disapproving woman that if she was going to stare she should definitely watch me as I walked away because otherwise she would be missing the best part.

As the night went on, and people got drunker, I became the belle of the ball. Everyone wanted to know my story and wanted to get their picture taken with me. Ironically, there are probably countless pictures of me from that night in albums across Toronto’s high-society homes but, alas, I don’t even have one. I guess I was too busy living in the moment to care that I wasn’t documenting my night. If it was now, of course, I would be plastered all over social media and you would be able to see me in all my, ahem, glory but instead you will just have to take my word for it.

Once the cocktail hour was over, everyone was ushered to his or her table for dinner. After being served dinner that night, a parade of Brazilian dancers were ushered into the hall in order to entertain the guests. Taking their place on a central stage, which was televised on big screens above them, the dancers began to put on a spectacular show. About halfway into their show the dancers began to pull audience members on to the stage in order to dance with them. Eager to be part of the show I tried in vain to get them to notice me and bring me up on stage with them.

After not getting picked, for what seemed like an eternity, I decided to make my own opportunity and boldly went up on stage without an invitation to dazzle the crowd with my own version of the dancers’ moves. It didn’t take long for the dancers to notice, but to my surprise they didn’t usher me off the stage. Instead, seeing that I could hold my own alongside them, they decided to make me part of the show. Unbeknownst to me at that time the cameras had chosen to follow my performance and the people in the hall were treated, via the screens above my head, to me gyrating in time with the music.

Tired of the spotlight I eventually excused myself from the stage and made my way back to the table where my fellow OCA classmates watched me in disbelief. On either side of the stage as I made my way off and back to my table I encountered rows of older woman exclaiming “We saw you on the big screen Tiger Boy. We think you’re wonderful.”

Not wanting to disappoint my fans, I quickly got myself a drink and then spent the remainder of my evening dancing the night away with my adoring entourage. I never lacked a partner that evening, dancing from the willing arms of one partner into the waiting arms of the next. For some reason I always knew what to say, mixing the right proportions of outrageousness with playful naïveté. One of my favorite lines of that night being, “Did you know that I am an artist. I think that I would look amazing on your bedroom wall.”

Not surprisingly, I got a lot of proposals that night; some flirtatious and sweet and some down right scandalous. In the end, I refused them all, the backward boy from Cornwall showing his true colours, and instead begged one of my classmates to drive me home.

It took me over an hour to scrub all of the make-up from my body that night and, even though I was tired as I scrubbed, I couldn’t stop myself from smiling. That night I discovered it wasn’t so hard to be different. In fact, once I got over the disapproving stares, I found that being unique from everybody else was actually quite intoxicating. Sure, at first people didn’t know what to make of Tiger Boy but, after they got to know him and found out what he could do, they couldn’t get enough of him. With that night under my belt, I began to take pleasure in being different. Every Halloween for four years after that night I would strip down to my skimpy black jean shorts and paint my entire body. Halloween became my favourite holiday; a chance for others to be someone else but for me a chance to be closer in many ways to the person I really wanted to be.

So you probably think that that is the end of the story. It isn’t. In the summer of 2000, months before taking my first steps out of the closet, I painted my body one last time. This time instead of painting it for Halloween, I did it as a special self-promotion for my illustration business. My best friend Toni agreed to take the photos for the promotion and I spent the requisite three hours painting my body. The subject of the make-up this time was a bit more abstract and after three hours of pain staking work I emerged from the process as “Fire”.

I remember the day of that photo shoot, like it was yesterday, feeling more comfortable in the body make-up than I did in my own skin. Things, however, were about to change and I knew it. I had laid the groundwork, tested the waters and was ready to jump in with both feet and embrace who I truly was. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, this last grand photo-shoot would serve to mark the transformation to my new identity. An identity I did not have the courage yet to verbalize but could visualize and interpret as marks on my skin.

I love the photos from this shoot because within them I can see myself letting go of my baggage and taking my first tentative steps toward my true self. Interestingly enough, once I came out of the closet I never felt the need to strip down and paint myself ever again. That work was done and I didn’t feel the need anymore to make a statement. I suppose I am just content with finally being able to be myself. I am proud to say I don’t have to paint my skin anymore in order to define myself. I know who I am.

Back to blog