Coming out “binds” members of the queer community, Jennifer Breakspear tells a roomful of people gathered for The Centre’s second annual National Coming Out Day event, Oct 9.
“It’s something that is intensely personal. Only you can choose when and to whom you will come out. And yet it is also a very political act and it’s an act of community,” she explains.
For Jesse MacGregor, a 60-year old transgendered man, coming out in the 1960s meant fighting ultra-conservative views that often associated being queer with being mentally ill.
Born female, MacGregor knew he was different when he fell in love with his female elementary school teacher. In Grade 8, when a secret sexual relationship with an older schoolmate was suddenly made public, he was sent to the Vancouver General Hospital psych ward. “Which is what they did if you were gay in those days,” he points out.
“I was deeply unhappy trying to function as a lesbian and struggling as a person who really identified as a gay man,” he told the crowd. “Having been expelled from high school, I entered the downward spiral of systemic system abuse, very much focused on altering my sexuality to conform. Luckily for me, all such attempts failed.”
Today, MacGregor lives openly and proudly as a transgendered person. His story was just one of several shared at The Centre’s celebration of coming out.
For self-confessed “hippy chick” and writer, Claire Robson, coming out as a lesbian occurred in the most unlikely place at the most unlikely time. In her book Love in Good Time: A Memoir the British-born Robson takes readers on an autobiographical journey of her coming out experience, which —while wrought with trials and tribulations —is full of self-discovery and humour.
While on vacation in Norway with her then-husband, Robson was forced to admit to herself that her conventional married life was not the one she was truly meant to live. After realizing it was time to come out as a lesbian, Robson jumped on her motorcycle and —leaving her husband and former life behind her —and never looked back.
Fred Lee, a well-known queer columnist and radio personality about town, told the crowd that his coming out experience was positive, thanks to a very supportive family.
“I never thought of myself as out —I never thought I was in to begin with,” he says with a typical Fred Lee laugh.
“My mother said I was late in coming out and that was probably because I was still redoing the womb inside her,” he quips to the crowd.
“It [coming out] was not traumatic. I respect that we hear those stories time and time and time again,” he continues, “but if we only hear those stories then it just kind of makes people believe that that’s what’s going to happen when they come out.”
Despite his own easy coming out process, Lee has not been entirely unscathed by the closet. A few years ago, he found himself in a long-term relationship with a man who hadn’t come out.
While Lee, of course, is openly queer, living with someone who wasn’t was like living multiple lives. “Even though I wasn’t in the closet I felt like I was,” he says.
If being openly queer in North America is often difficult, imagine what it’s like for a young person growing up in a remote village in the South Pacific. Josh Kumar doesn’t have to imagine it —he lived it.
“Every day in my life back in Fiji was a torment,” he tells the crowd.
At the age of 13 —after several crushes on boys in the village he grew up in —Kumar realized his sexual interests were unlike others in his community, where he was teased and ridiculed for not being masculine enough.
Still, Kumar tried to hide his sexuality, rationalizing the suffocation of his queer identity under the guise of preservation and powerlessness. “It’s not lying if they make you lie —if the only truth they can accept is their own,” he says.
But eventually the pressure broke Kumar down and he found himself briefly contemplating suicide. “I’m convinced sometimes that we do more harm to ourselves than anyone else can do,” he says.
He left for Canada a few years later.
Despite a difficult youth, Kumar has found respite in Canada these past three years. Although he says the likelihood of having his queerness embraced in his rural Fijian village is slim to none, the support he has received in Canada has made him realize he has another family in the Vancouver queer community, where Kumar now lives as an out and proud gay man.