Straight Jacket

Straight Jacket

[September 10, 2017]

Identity. I have spent my life trying to figure out who I am. In my early adolescence people called me a “faggot”. I couldn’t walk through the hallway at school without somebody using that horrible slur as a cruel way to define me. Back then I hated that people thought I was gay. I also hated that I was being bullied for being perceived as gay. I made a promise to myself that I would do everything in my power to distance myself from that horrible label. I would not let the bullies define me.

In Grade 11, I discovered the theatre. A local theatre company called Glen Productions was holding auditions for the musical “West Side Story” and, even though I couldn’t sing, I decided to audition. Somehow, the director, Richard Forrester, saw something in me and cast me in the role of Action. Getting a role in that play truly changed my life. In a very real way the theatre saved me. It gave me confidence; a place to belong and for the first time in my life imposed an identity upon me that I was proud to adopt. I became a “theatre kid”, loud, obnoxious, confident, and daring.

After “West Side Story” I decided to start my own theatre company and write my own plays. In my senior year of high school, I wrote my first play entitled, “What About Me?” and produced the play through my theatre company that I called Straight Theatre. I chose the name “Straight” because my first play was all about my eldest brother’s struggles with drugs and alcohol addiction and I wanted it known that – in fact I insisted- the members of my theatre company were all drug-free.

With the success of my first play under my belt, I began to believe that I had finally figured out who I was. I wrote and produced three other plays with Straight Theatre trying to recapture the magic of that first production. Though the plays were successful, that magic never returned. Little did I know that I was looking for my identity in the wrong place. Looking back at that time now I can see that I was hiding, playing different parts because I was too afraid to be who I truly was: a young gay man. During that time, however, I would not even entertain the notion that I was gay. I convinced myself that I was too busy to have a girlfriend, denying that I was disinterested in girls and hoping beyond hope that no one would notice that I was perpetually single and conclude that the rumours were true and I really was gay.

Wanting to misdirect my friends and prevent them from knowing my suppressed identity, I began to tell some of them that the real reason I named my theatre company “Straight” was because I wanted to form a theatre company that was made up of only heterosexuals. I made it clear that I detested gay people and though I never said these words to anyone else, most of my friends knew how I felt and as a result the word spread - amongst the small town community of Cornwall - that Straight Theatre was not accepting of anyone who happened to be gay.

Now I must be clear that Straight Theatre was not just made up of me, and my opinion did not necessarily reflect the opinions of the wonderful directors, choreographers and composers that spent hours working toward a common goal. What we created together was truly remarkable and it is not my intention here to taint the memory of our accomplishments. Some of my colleagues might not have even been aware of my homophobic position and will most likely be disappointed to hear of my bigotry. To them I apologize and hope that they see that the fault is on me alone and in no way a reflection of them.

Needles to say, I am not proud of this time in my life. I was angry with the bullies that tormented me and instead of directing that anger towards them I chose instead to direct it towards gay people. I was so preoccupied with denying that I was gay, so afraid that I was the thing that my tormentors so hated, that I forgot how to empathize or even recognize who was truly being marginalized. Gay people had become the “other”, the thing I most definitely didn’t want to be; a hated thing, and the best way to deny I was that thing was to hate it as strongly as my tormentors had. As a leader in the community it was my responsibility to be accepting and welcoming to everyone and I am truly sorry to all the people that I hurt. My attitude and actions were as deplorable as the bullies who, in the hallways at school, once called me “faggot”.

Afraid, sad and deeply closeted I retreated into my plays. Immersed totally in the theatre I created, I tried in vain to convince myself that each new work would somehow fill the void I felt deep inside me, and that the family I made with each production wouldn’t just disappear after the final curtain call. To the outside world I was confident, slightly arrogant, eternally optimistic and always happy. But inside, I was incomplete, tasked with trying to find myself. I suppose I longed for someone to see the real me, someone to see past the façade, and help me become the person I was destined to be. But the reality is I was too afraid to be that person and, because of that fear, actively kept people at arms-length. That is not to say that I didn’t have wonderful friends; friends that I cared for then and care about now deeply. But back then there was always a part of me that I thought I had to keep hidden, a part of me that I thought was somehow wrong. My friends know me now in a way they didn’t back then and I am so grateful that I can now live my life in truth.

Truth. Something you have much respect for when you are in the closet but not something you have enough courage to live in. While I was hiding behind my theatre group, I met a young man that was courageous enough to live his life in truth. Though he was an actor, he never auditioned for any of my plays, probably because he didn’t feel welcome. But he was a good friend to one of the young women who always did. This young man was openly gay, in a small town that wasn’t very welcoming of that, and chose to wear his sexuality as a badge of honour.

I was afraid of this young man—afraid he might try to expose me, afraid that he might see in me what he saw in himself. He did see through me. Wounded, I am sure by my homophobic behaviour, he told me one night at a party that his friend aforementioned thought for sure that I was gay. They had apparently come to the conclusion together because I had rebuffed her advances and because they had never seen me with a girlfriend. I, of course, denied his accusation insisting that I wasn’t gay. But that night we both knew he had stumbled onto the truth. With more kindness than I deserved, he offered me his friendship, letting me know that he was available if I ever needed to talk. I often wonder how my life would have played out if I had taken him up on his offer but, unfortunately, I just wasn’t ready yet. That young man never did expose my secret to the rest of my friends and I got the feeling that his offer was genuine and available whenever I found myself in need.

After that incident, and the young man’s incredible kindness, I began to see gay people differently. It would still take me years to accept that I was gay but that young man helped me take the first steps on the road to self-acceptance. From the sidelines I watched him push boundaries, stand his ground and live his life on his own terms. Once, when I was working at Le Chateau at the Cornwall Square, he entered the store, picked out some dresses and asked me if he could try them on. Shocked, I showed him to a changing room, where he proceeded to try on his selections and ask me what I thought. I served him that day as I would any other customer but I was honestly a little uncomfortable. I have often wondered if he tried those dresses on that day for himself or just to help me push the limits of acceptance. Regardless of his reasons, I went home that night overcome by his fearlessness.

I learned a great deal from that brave young man and have thought of him often over the years. I am sure it would come as no surprise to him that I eventually came out of the closet. It took me years to forgive myself for the homophobic things that I did in the past. But remembering how that young man once was so willing to forgive me let me eventually forgive myself. I don’t know how many gay people my homophobia kept away from my theatre company, and I don’t know how many people I hurt but I hope acknowledging the mistakes of my past and asking for forgiveness will in some small way atone for my abhorrent behaviour.

My path to Justin Case and the Closet Monster has been a rocky one, but it has informed what I have written and though parts of my own personal story may be difficult to forgive, they are a part of my story and must be acknowledged. To live your life in truth means that you must take ownership over everything that you have done, both the good and the bad, and learn to be a better person despite your failings.

Everyday I try to be a good man, loving husband, devoted friend, caring brother, dutiful son, thoughtful uncle, and responsible citizen. I know that I don’t always live up to my potential and some days fall short of my expectations but I don’t let those shortcomings prevent me from trying to do better the next day. Humans are imperfect creatures and we must live, learn, and sometimes fail, in order to grow.

I am proud to say that I am no longer that scared, angry adolescent and after years of searching and growing I have finally learned to love an accept myself for who I am.

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