Book excerpt: The Queer Evangelist by Cheri DiNovo

It’s incredible that I’m alive at all. I am profoundly lucky. I’d like to say it was grace, but one day on Bloor outside the Swiss Chalet, I passed out.

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      Here is an excerpt from The Queer Evangelist: A Socialist Clergy's Radically Honest Tale (Wilfred Laurier University Press), published in April 2021:

      Kids. Kids everywhere. The cops on horseback had broken up the anti-Vietnam War rally (I remember a lawyer saying “Get their badge numbers!” to no avail), and the demonstrators streamed into the downtown core. The Anarchists, mostly kids, started smashing store windows. The Maoists, kids too, were waving the Red Book and shouting “Running dogs of U.S. imperialism!” This completely astounded Saturday shoppers, who thought the Maoists were referring to the kids running up the street. That’s when someone started yelling, “It’s the revolution!”

      Instead, and perhaps regrettably, it was just a bunch of us socialist, hippie, peacenik, anarchist street kids. We were a tiny minority at the time in a vast capitalist state. I was a cynic. The Vietnam War was an abomination, no doubt, but the kids I hung out with in the street drug trade never believed for a moment the adult world would change, not really. We all wanted to be William Burroughs or Jimi Hendrix or Janis Joplin. We assumed we would die young. It was far more romantic and more likely than revolution.

      I’d left home at fifteen, believing myself to be more mature than the neurotic, violence-prone adults at home. In that, I was at least somewhat correct. There wasn’t a name for what afflicted me back then, but it’s pretty safe to say I suffered at the very least from PTSD. The other children I met on the street were much the same. For most of us, it was safer on the streets—couch-surfing, sleeping rough, or piling into a rented room somewhere— going home. Occasionally, I’d sneak back to the House of Usher to sleep, but it was never worth it. I didn’t need my mother harassing me about where I’d been. I’d been everywhere.

      I fed myself by selling LSD, at the time under the Food and Drug Act and not criminalized, that was imported from California in hollowed-out Bibles. Yes, I get the irony. The product was so pure and strong that we’d pay $5 each for tablets in quantity and then divide them into four and charge $10 each. A quarter would keep you stoned for twenty-four hours. Despite the excellent profit margin, we never had any money. We were kids and we were also stoners. Try counting money while stoned on acid! We lived on toasted danishes and coffee. Booze was déclassée, and besides, we were way underage. We got stoned almost every day on something, all “soft stuff”—pot, hashish, acid, mushrooms. Someone was always trying to tune a guitar. We listened to music constantly, rock, jazz, and experimental, and we read voraciously. One year I decided to focus on all the French authors available at a local bookstore in alphabetical order, from Artaud to Zola. Doing anything else, like school, seemed such a waste of time. After the last sale of each night, we hunkered down with the turntable on and engaged in far-ranging, stoned discussions. Our topics went from revolution to jazz to cinema, and in memory we were all brilliant. Certainly, we were precocious and arrogant. Now I look back with nothing but love for those teenagers who knew everything.

      Who were we? Some of the group are still alive. There was Gary (whom we called Gary the Jew), Stoned Richard, Japanese Bev, Little Richard (as distinct from Stoned Richard), Faye, Bob, and others. Those are the ones who I know survived. Since then we’ve scattered across the continent and beyond. At some point, each of the boys ended up in prison with absurdly long sentences. While still a teenager, Gary sold an ounce of weed, was busted for trafficking, and got two years. Sexism worked for us girls. Well, it sort of worked. It was assumed we were simply hangers-on to the boys. I remember a car full of narcs, burly plainclothesmen, who told me with slimy rape overtones that “A little girl like you should be careful out on the streets.” It was clear to me that authority was definitely not to be trusted. Cops weren’t “protectors.” They were our enemy. We were disposable, not children but a menace to their children. As young women, we were prey. We carried the gazes of old men, including cops, on our bodies. We were objects. The message was overt and had been received. That moment produced in me a suspicion, a distrust of all male authority. I still consider that distrust realistic and healthy.

      Sexual liberation meant that we should have sex with men whether we really wanted to or not. Pity fucks, we called them. Friendly fucks. Fucking fucks. The appeal, if there was one, was to be desired, wanted. It wasn’t about whether we were having a good time. It was whether the boy was. His good time gave us a measure of “power over,” no matter how illusory. I’d always been attracted to both boys and girls, and I learned very quickly girls were more complicated but also more fun.

      Sexual assault is so commonplace. In fact, of all the women I’ve known well enough that they confided in me, I have never met one who has not been sexually assaulted. Somehow, I escaped rape on the streets until much later, in my early twenties. The aggressor was a past lover, a boy whom I considered a friend. I was at his place to collect some of my stuff. It was definitely a power move on his part, an actual assault. His point was to show me clearly that I was simply a “thing.” An object. That I was less than human. The assault seemed familiar somehow, as if the world had prepared me for that moment, from the bully boys as a child, to Ken’s violence, to most movies and most books. I remember pretending bravado, and after he was done, I laughed at him. I grabbed my stuff and ran. I’d seen all those movies where a man grabs a woman and she melts into his arms. The reality was ugly, no melting. There was no point fighting, you just hope to survive and get the hell out as fast as you could. The boy remained a friend for many years, although living a long way away. We went on as if nothing had occurred. Trauma can be like that.

      Decades later I told the story. We happened to be in the same city when I was attending a conference, and we met for coffee at my invitation. I wanted to raise the subject and instead, surprisingly, he did. “So, who was it that you were speaking about?” he asked. Maclean’s magazine had done an article on women with profile who had been raped. I had been included. I was shocked, intimidated, and I felt the same sensations I had when he assaulted me. In short, his question muted me. I brushed off the question—“Ah, let’s not talk about that”— even though that’s exactly what I had wanted to talk about. When I returned home, I sent him an email: “You know as well as I do that I was speaking about you.” I had more courage from a distance. I never heard from him again.

      As a woman friend said to me, “He probably didn’t think he was doing anything wrong.” Possibly the most terrifying aspect of rape and the threat of rape is that, in a sense, according to his cultural conditioning, in his own mind, he wasn’t doing anything wrong. He was being a man, taking control. He was forceful, aggressive, demanding, successful. In his mind, I “should have” found that maleness arousing, exciting, desirable. My cultural conditioning prepared me to be raped. Women were told to cultivate “desirability.” We were taught to attract a man who would want to rape us. In a twisted way, we were told that would give us control. Supposedly, we made it happen. Obviously, rape is one of the worst forms of assault, but rape culture is real and affects women as well as men. The paradigm of straight sex, mirrored often in all sex, is a twisted version of the Hegelian master and servant dialectic. Or at least it seemed so.

      We girls were well-schooled. We understood our “place,” but we didn’t like that place. We fought back. Our attitude was a resounding “fuck you!” The second wave of feminism was in full swing. We began to use men the way they used us. We chose women. We wore micro-minis, no bras, and we defied men to say a word. We left them before they could leave us. We laughed in their faces over and over. We got political. When men in cars catcalled me, I went right up and yelled at them. We survived but we still got raped.

      Meanwhile, the hallucinations of LSD became tiresome and softer drugs no longer sufficed. A new drug hit our streets, made and sold by our local bike gang. It was methadrine and it changed my life. I realized it was everything I liked about LSD without any of the negatives. No troubling “crazy” moments. Methadrine, or methamphetamine, was just the euphoria and the ability to go without sleep or food. It was cheaper than cocaine and more direct. Like a poster child for a slogan about gateway drugs, I moved from acid to meth. It took some effort. For starters, I had to buy it from the bike gang. That meant walking a gauntlet in a coffee shop/ diner filled with bikers. Imagine a teenager who looked about twelve walking past a collection of psychopaths just so she could score. I wasn’t going to laugh at them. I wasn’t “insane.” As I said, it took some doing, but I didn’t do it for money. I never sold it. Too risky. I just wanted to use.

      The experience of “copping” was so hazardous and nasty that it was better to do it infrequently. That meant buying larger amounts, which was not good either. Methadrine also meant needles. It was nasty tasting and besides, it was the rush that was worth it in and of itself. With a needle, there was no waiting for anything. Bang. Stoned. My cousin, son of my uncle the biochemist, was already used to hitting morphine, and was staying at Bedford Road at the time. He taught me how to use a “set of works” with acumen. One time my cousin was hitting me up with meth when my father walked in. Startled, I blurted to my terrified father, “I’ve been meaning to tell you, Dad, I’m a lesbian,” rushing my coming-out story to him. Whatever part of my brain that was functional probably thought telling him then would soften the impact.

      I wasn’t a lesbian, but I didn’t really know you could be queer back then. I didn’t know you could be bisexual, so lesbian was the word I used because at that time I had a girlfriend. My mom had died. Ken had killed himself. Only Dad was still alive and I can’t believe the hell I put him through, that fifties man. I followed up “I’m a lesbian” with “Don’t worry, Dad, it’s only methadrine, not heroin,” as if that made any difference. Later, after his death, we discovered notebooks he’d kept detailing my activities. He’d been following me. Poor, sad dad. He, who had been absent throughout my childhood, was creepily present when I least suspected it. How very “of his generation” to ignore the women in your life until they were “unfaithful,” at which point you became obsessive. I simply felt sorry for him.

      Just writing about the methadrine days now, decades since I’ve had anything like it, brings back that glorious experience for that post-traumatic teenage kid. People who are in recovery from addiction will understand when I say that everything I felt was wrong in my life, that drug made right. It’s incredible that I’m alive at all. I am profoundly lucky.

      I’d like to say it was grace, but one day on Bloor Street, outside the Swiss Chalet near Bedford, I passed out. Hit the pavement. I came to before an ambulance could be called and before too many people gathered. I managed to get myself a chicken sandwich — the best I’d ever had, which was when I realized I hadn’t eaten or slept in days. That moment I discovered something in myself that has saved me a few times since. I didn’t want to die. Later I slept. It was the best sleep too. With the help of good adults, a psychiatrist who enabled me to get student welfare and a minister at a local shelter, I got back to community college to earn my high school equivalent. I stopped using.

      Centennial Community College, with its high school equivalency program, was geared exactly for kids just like me. I’d dropped out after grade ten. The college was populated with kids serving time, kids out on day parole, kids from institutions, and kids like me coming off the streets. Our professors were products of similar stories, or they would have had good university jobs. One was a refugee from the Gulag, another a defrocked priest. They were some of the best teachers I’ve ever had. We kids were all motivated by the same small voice that reminded us we wanted to stay alive. Hindsight suffuses the entire experience with light and grace. Somehow, in spite of everything, teachers and students alike were free. Freedom is grace, always. We, with grace, had survived. That year was a holy year. We left the college as apostles of survival, mentored by other survivors, knowing it was possible. We learned to love our damaged, fucked-up selves. It was entirely conceivable, for many for the very first time, that we might live.

      For our drama project before graduation, we students, under the auspices of faculty, staged the most appropriate play we could find, Marat/Sade, about inmates in an asylum recreating the French Revolution. Most of us in the cast weren’t even acting.

      Reverend Dr. Cheri DiNovo is an ordained United Church minister at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre for Faith, Justice, and the Arts in Toronto. She served as NDP MPP for Parkdale-High Park from 2006 to 2017. Her contributions to provincial politics and social justice were recognized with the Order of Canada in 2019. Reprinted with the permission of Wilfred Laurier University Press.