[July 16, 2017]

The number eleven will always remind me of my second-eldest brother, Kevin. In his youth, Kevin was a phenomenal athlete. From the sidelines, as a young boy, I marveled as I watched him outshine his rivals. He was a fierce competitor and could hold his own; not only on the lacrosse and football fields but on the hockey rink as well.

It was on the hockey rink that Kevin earned the nickname “Jules” and wore the number eleven on his jersey. I spent many afternoons and evenings with my family watching number eleven zip around the rink. In those years, I thought Kevin could do anything and I only had to look at my father’s reactions during those games to have those thoughts confirmed. My father was extremely proud of Kevin, both on and off the rink, and I consider myself extremely lucky to have had such a remarkable role model.

Having a big brother who excelled at sports, however, was a bit of a curse for me. Though my parents wanted and expected me to take after my brother, I was an artsy kid right from the start and did not want to follow in my brother’s footsteps (or hockey skates). Oh sure, there were times that I wished I had my brother’s skills and I tried with all of my might to emulate him; but I learned very early on that my place was not on the rink or field but rather in my head, heart, and hands. Looking back, I suppose that one of the reasons that I chose to be an artist was because I couldn’t compete with my brother in organized sports. I had the patience to sit for hours with a pencil and paper trying to interpret what I saw in my mind’s eye and that was a talent that my brother did not possess. I nurtured that talent because it was unique to our family and it set me apart from my brother. When I drew pictures, I wasn’t in his shadow anymore. Instead, I was judged and admired for something that could no longer be compared to him—something that was truly my own.

Abandoning sports, I built my identity around the arts and competed with myself in order to improve my skills. Though I was happy to have found something to call my own, I began to realize that sports are truly the vocabulary of young men (or, at least, that’s what we think young men should be interested in) and to not be versed in that language can lead to exclusion and isolation. Being different was okay in elementary school but I discovered during my transition from Grade Six to Grade Seven that if you wanted to be popular you needed to conform.

From Grade Seven to Grade Eleven I found myself on the fringe at school; unable to compete with the boys in gym class they began to treat me differently. Though I still found solace in the arts, my preoccupation with drawing further alienated me from the boys, who began to view my pursuits as effeminate. To protect myself I began to withdraw which, to my dismay, lead to the boys labeling me as a loner and eventually coming to the conclusion that I must be gay. Labeling me as a “faggot” they bullied me until I began to believe, like they did, that there was something wrong with me.

Filtering who I was through the eyes of the boys at school I felt worthless and defeated. On the outside, these boys shared much in common with my brother Kevin and, at the time, I thought if I shared with Kevin what was happening to me at school he might side with my persecutors. I thought that he, like them, couldn’t understand me because I was different from him and, for a long time, I distanced myself from my brother, unfairly labeling him as one of those unfeeling jocks. The bullies had done their work well, and though I didn’t at that time identify as being gay, I was ashamed that people thought that I was. So ashamed in fact that I couldn’t share with my brother what was happening to me at school for fear that he might come to the same conclusion and, like the boys at school, reject me for it.

Sadly, It wasn’t until I left high school and went on to university that I realized how much of an ally my brother was to me. During one of my early visits home from the Ontario College of Art and Design, Kevin and his lovely partner Chrissy invited me to their house for dinner. That night we proceeded to drink many beers and over the course of the evening Kevin really opened up to me. We talked about how I had always followed my own path. We talked about how I had refused to work at Domtar, the paper mill my entire family worked at, and how glad he was that I was following my dream. To my surprise and delight he then told me that he had a drawer in his dresser where he had saved all of the programs from the plays that I had written and produced. Excusing himself, he went to his bedroom and came back with a card that I once created for him for his birthday. I was overwhelmed. Kevin was not like the boys that bullied me at school. He was not afraid of me because I was different, and didn’t want or expect me to be anything like him. That night I saw something in his eyes that healed years of pain that I had endured on my own. He was proud of me and always had been.

As I made my way through university- and even long after I graduated- one of the highlights of my visits home was always a night out drinking with my brother. It became a way for us to connect, the alcohol stripping away all bravado and modesty allowing us the opportunity to tell each other how much we cared. When planning to come out to my family, I had always imagined telling my brother Kevin and in that planning it always happened during one of these nights. If you have read my other blog posts, you know that my mother was the first person that I eventually told, but that was not planned. My intention from the very beginning was always to tell my brother Kevin first.

Telling my family that I’m gay was one of the scariest things that I have ever done. I was deeply afraid that they were going to reject me. That they were going to pull away from me and deny me their support and their love. Losing a friend over coming out—which I have—is one thing but losing a family member seemed unbearable to me. I guess that is why they were the last ones for me to tell. You see, you build up a support group by telling your friends first and then you just pray that you won’t need them when you finally have the courage to tell your family. Wanting to tell Kevin and Chrissy first was no accident. It was calculated because I knew in my heart that they would be okay with it.

My suspicions were right. One evening, after a few drinks and a lovely dinner, I shared my secret with Kevin and Chrissy and they were completely supportive of me. I suspect that Chrissy may have had some idea that her brother-in-law was gay but my brother was taken completely by surprise. After a few more drinks, Kevin confided in me that my news was a little weird for him, and though he loved me, it would take a little getting used to. I felt honoured that he could be so honest with me and knew his reservations weren’t anything that I hadn’t struggled with myself.

In reality, it didn’t take very long for my brother to get used to the “new” me. If it was a struggle, he never let me see it and he and Chrissy were by my side when I told the rest of my family that I was gay. When I took Stacy home for the first time they greeted him with open arms and never once made him feel like he was unwelcome and when we got married they attended our wedding and partied the night away with us.

All this, of course, is all well and good but the thing that attests most to my brother’s complete acceptance of me just happened last summer when he came to visit me and Stacy in Toronto. During that visit, Kevin came to party, and for the first time since I came out to him he let his guard down and had a few drinks with us. My brother cannot hide his true feelings when he is drinking and during his visit I got to see how much he has grown to care about my husband. Beer firmly in hand, I watched him chat and bond with Stacy the way we used to bond on our special nights out and delighted in the fact that Kevin now saw Stacy as just “one of the boys”. As I watched them fist-bump each other in my nephew, Jordan’s, back yard it was clear to me that Kevin had nothing left to get used to: he was all in.

As I wrote at the start, the number eleven will always remind me of my brother. It was the number on his hockey jersey and when I see it today I cannot help but think about the many characteristics he possesses that I aspire to. My brother is humble, confident, loyal and trustworthy, funny and strong and I would be a great man if I had half of his integrity. He acted as a wonderful caregiver to my ailing father, stood by me as I struggled to come out of the closet to the rest of my family and has always been a great support to my mother. As I write this it just occurred to me that the number eleven turned on its side can also be read as an equal sign, which is also very representative of my bond with my brother for he has always seen my relationship with my husband Stacy and my modest accomplishments as equal to his own.
Back to blog