Silenced on Valentine's Day: When love is a crime

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A lifetime ago, as a teenager, I sat on a bench on a ridge overlooking Vancouver one luminous summer evening. I sat there alone for hours as the sun made its way to bed.

I felt enveloped my own seamless silence, one that stretched out in all directions to the horizon.

My silence was about a male classmate I had fallen for. I thought it was such an unspeakable thing that I could not tell anyone about it.

This silence was somehow both terrible and strangely beautiful at the same time. There was tranquility to it, in a meditative way, that provided a profound clarity I have not experienced since. It rendered the superficialities around me transparent and made it clear what was most important to me.  

But my silence extended beyond just this one attraction. I had also erased so much of myself, employed this ability to suppress who I truly was so effectively, that I felt like I didn't even exist at times. If validation is provided by being reflected by others, I had no sense of that as I had silenced myself so completely, no one could hear me enough to provide an echo.

I despised living this way because of how isolated I was, how chilling and suffocating it felt. Even now I'm cautious about remembering what that chronic and unrelenting loneliness felt like out of fear that it may trigger a backward slide.

But it was what also protected me at the time.

I needed it to get by, in high school, in the world, once I knew for certain that I was gay by Grade 8. I had no inkling as to what my straight male friends were talking about when they began to start talking about their attraction to girls. I never pretended to be straight because I felt I couldn't. I retreated into myself and if I kept quiet, I hoped no one would ask any questions and that I would not be bothered or harassed.

Of course, that was not case. There were still threats of violence and humiliation from guys. Girls ridiculed how I was too feminine, not enough of a guy. And there were also comments from relatives. But I thought that the less that I said, the more chance I would have to be ignored.

What I hadn't anticipated was how crushing it would be to be rejected by the classmate I had developed feelings for. We were on opposite ends of the social spectrum—he, a jock, and I, a nerd, made repeated mutual awkward attempts to befriend each other that resulted in nothing—but there was something I recognized in him, and perhaps him in me, that repeatedly drew us to hovering around each other in a tentative, unspoken duet—or rather, two solos separated by an invisible barrier.

However, things changed in university. He no longer wanted to have anything to do with me and appeared fearful every time I ran into him.

I blamed myself—I jumped to the conclusion that it was because it was too obvious I was gay. It was as if the last support holding up an incredible weight had been knocked out, and years of guilt—even without ever having acted on my attractions to other guys—came crashing down on me.

When the burden of keeping quiet became too much to bear, I finally broke the sound barrier. I spoke the words to my parents that I had never thought I would ever say: I am gay.

I felt like I was confessing a crime.

Instead, while they weren't exactly thrilled that I was gay, they had been mostly concerned about my state, as it was obvious to them that I was deeply unhappy. Much to my shock, they accepted me and said I was still their son.

I slept that night as if I had not slept in years.

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It did not occur to me until years later, particularly after my classmate tried to befriend me again, that perhaps he was struggling with his own silence, one that he may never have emerged from.

During all those years, I had seen furtive glances from other guys, in classrooms, at bus stops, in stores. It was always the eyes that gave them away. Not just a single glance, but repeated, sometimes desirous, sometimes longing, often fearful, sometimes with a touch of shame. Some of those gazes will forever haunt me: it was like seeing hungry prisoners staring out from their cells.

It felt like living in a police state, where you never knew if or when you were going to be caught, reported, arrested, humiliated.

This was in a country in which homosexuality was decriminalized in 1969. But even decades afterwards, there was, and still is, plenty of aftermath to contend with. Even after coming out, I have met many gay men who are out socially and sexually but not emotionally, or who are still contending with their personal growth being stunted by closeted years.

Compared to my own story, some gay men have had a far easier time with social acceptance, where it wasn't any concern at all to those around them, while others have faced more extreme and challenging situations, including being kicked out of their family, physical assault, or leaving home at a young age.

Then there are the guys whose stories that we never get the chance to hear because they will never speak out, or because they decided to end their stories prematurely.

What remains clear to me is that in spite of overall acceptance and rights, including marriage equality, the struggle against silence continues on in our own country: in rural areas and pockets of urban centres, in classrooms, at workplaces, on sports fields.

If this is the state of things here, I can only imagine and empathize what it is like for those who are living in far more extreme and oppressive conditions, those who have been silenced by recently instated antigay legislation in countries such as Russia, India, and Nigeria; in countries in which homosexuality is punishable by imprisonment—such as Singapore, Jamaica, Guyana, and more—or the death penalty—as it is in Iran, Saudi Arabia, and others.

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Amongst all the stories I have heard from my family about their experiences of the Japanese Canadian Internment in B.C. during the Second World War, there was one that my aunt recently told me that I had never heard before. This one was after legislated restrictions, extended four years after the war had ended, against Japanese Canadians were finally lifted and they were allowed to return to the B.C. coast in 1949.

When my aunt and my uncle, then a young couple, returned to Vancouver, they set out to find an apartment to rent. At the time, anti-Asian sentiment was still rampant in the city: they were often refused service in restaurants and there were often signs up that said "No Orientals" in rental apartment buildings. 

Luckily, they had a temporary place to stay with a Scottish woman friend. My aunt said apartment hunting proved to be incredibly difficult as they were constantly turned away. Their friend became suspicious as to why they were being rejected. She decided to pretend to inquire about vacancies at places after my aunt and uncle had been told that no apartments were available. The managers who turned away my aunt and uncle would tell this Scottish lady that yes, they had rooms available for her.

Boy, my aunt told me, did that woman ever give those managers a fierce tongue-lashing.

"That's discrimination!" she would yell at them.

My aunt and uncle did finally find a place, run by a Croatian immigrant couple. My aunt thought that perhaps because they were somewhat outsiders themselves, they were sympathetic and accepted them.

My aunt is uncertain what gave that Scottish woman the strength of her convictions, at a time when the predominating attitude, even by the government, was against some of its own Canadian-born citizens. For whatever reason, she was able to speak out against injustice, rather than keep silent, while the Croatian couple were able to speak to my aunt and uncle as equal human beings, not as inferior or threats.

They were able to speak for and help those who were not able to do so for themselves.

Canadians have been willing to do the same during the Sochi Winter Olympics in a multitude of ways.

Like the demonstrations of great sportsmanship, such as a Canadian cross-country coach Justin Wadsworth helping Russian skier Anton Gafarov finish his course (when no Russian coaches came to his aid), Canadians have been showing an ability to see beyond artificial boundaries and focus on the essentials of life and humanity when it comes to equality.

From Vancouver city councillor Tim Stevenson traveling to Sochi to speak with the International Olympic Committee about LGBT rights to Canadian cities flying rainbow flags at city halls, Canadians have been giving a voice for those who cannot speak out for themselves. While it sends a message internationally, it also sends out a signal within our own country, to those who are still struggling, and to those who may not have given much thought to the subject.

To be able to express love, to be able to celebrate a day like Valentine's Day, without shame or fear, seems like a luxury when it shouldn't have to be.

In that respect, I can only hope that one day Valentine's Day will be V-Day for all of us. 

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