“Americans know as much about Canada as straight people do about gays,” Buddy Cole smirked.
Just like that, the tiny bud of my queerness awoke from its slumber and blossomed into something strange and beautiful.
It was 2004 when the Comedy Network began airing reruns of the old sketch comedy show Kids In The Hall on summer afternoons.
I was 14 and miserable, an awkward, lonely girl struggling to articulate my own queerness. I felt a tremendous sense of being “different,” but since the adults around me chalked it up to garden-variety teen angst, I did too. Then those 15-year-old Kids In The Hall reruns found their way into my parents’ Brampton, Ontario, living room and a light went on in my baby gay brain.
It was Buddy Cole that did it. When not managing hapless pop stars or dreadful lesbian softball teams, Buddy Cole, the outrageous alter ego of openly gay comedian Scott Thompson, would deliver a series of monologues from his eponymous bar.
In retrospect, those monologues were probably my first exposure to explicitly queer television. Martini in hand, Buddy would expound on a range of topics from interracial dating to BDSM to pterodactyls, and they were so unapologetically sexual that I used to frantically turn the volume down in hopes that my younger sister wouldn’t hear. But I think that was the point. In Buddy’s own words, “respectability is for five-star hotels, not people.” Queerness was a scandalous private joke that he was letting me in on.
Would Buddy pass the Tumblr test today? The character was accused of perpetuating stereotypes during the show’s original run: every monologue was peppered liberally with the other F-word and everything from racism to pedophilia was fair game for a laugh. But there’s a difference between laughing at and laughing with, and I always got the sense that if you laughed at Buddy, he’d mess you up.
“I’m not saying I’m gay,” he hissed into the camera after a monologue about homophobia in stand-up. “I’m just saying, boys, you wouldn’t want to run into me in a dark alley.”
From the website LiveJournal, I had the impression that gays sprung fully formed from the trendiest parts of New York City and San Francisco and West Hollywood. It had honestly never occurred to me that gay people could even be from the suburbs. And then my dad pointed at Thompson and told me he was from Brampton.
I always thought being gay was exciting. But Brampton? A city south of Toronto and part of the General Toronto Area (GTA), it was a big deal when our downtown got a Subway, for god’s sake. The closest we ever got to culture was an occasional Gino Vanelli concert.
And yet Scott Thompson was from Brampton. And not just any part of Brampton: he lived in Armbro Heights. He’d grown up just across McMurchy Avenue from me and had gone to Brampton Centennial.
I wondered: had he spent his teenage years waiting for the #52 bus so he could blow his allowance money at Shopper’s World? Had he worked part-time in a strip mall greasy spoon to earn money for the movies? Had he been chased out of the Spencer’s Gifts shop at Bramalea City Centre for laughing at the erotic dice? Had someone called the cops on him and his buddy for drinking Jones Soda out of glass bottles in Treleaven Park? Was the fabulous Buddy Cole once bored?
Because I was bored. Holy crap, was I bored. Perhaps for my non-sullen peers, Brampton was a perfectly delightful place to grow up. But for me, the endless swaths of tract housing and strip malls were a constant reminder of everything I didn’t want: the quiet subdivision, the house, the kids, the car, the two-car garage, the cottage, the barbecue, the snowblower, the Costco membership, and the Saturdays spent drinking burnt coffee in the bleachers of a hockey arena that hadn’t been renovated since 1971.
A GO Bus trip to downtown Toronto and back involved a level of coordination and pocket change that suburban 14-year-olds simply didn’t have. And if we did make it downtown, we were too self-conscious about our acne-spotted teenage-ness to have a good time. We’d sneak peeks at copies of Xtra and Fab, and gaze wistfully at rainbow-splashed flyers for gay clubs, raves and parties. And afterwards, we’d go home, feeling somehow incomplete.
A typical life in the suburbs isn’t necessarily a bad thing to want, but at 14, I didn’t know any adults who wanted something different. The crushing sameness of it all felt inevitable, and I couldn’t quite articulate why the prospect of a comfortable, middle-class suburban existence felt so suffocating.
And then came Buddy Cole, making his way into my lonely teenage life with a limp wrist and a dry martini, the platonic ideal of the fabulous, unapologetic homosexual I longed to befriend and the fearless queer impresario I longed to be.
Finally, someone was telling jokes meant for me to understand and for others to scratch their heads at. Even though I felt like a freak who would and could never fit in, Scott Thompson and the Kids told me that even Chicken Ladies, Head Crushers and salty ham-cooking housewives were worthy of love. A life outside of the suburban closet suddenly seemed not only possible but wonderful.
I moved to Toronto at 18, ostensibly for school. Truthfully, I couldn’t keep the queer part of myself tamped down any longer. It had always felt like a weight in my chest, but being in and around Toronto’s gay village lifted that weight just enough for me to figure out my sexuality on my own terms.
As I matured, I realized the suburbs weren’t homogenous, that every teenager in history has felt like a freak who didn’t fit in, and that all of us queers — no matter how fabulous — still appreciate our suburban parents pulling up in a Toyota Camry with a bulk delivery of Mr Clean Magic Erasers from Costco.
But my inner Buddy still comes bubbling to the surface when I least expect it, mostly in spaces that are decidedly not queer: work, baseball games, Brampton. Someone will ream me out or casually drop a homophobic slur and suddenly, Buddy is there, demanding my right to take up space. His defiant flamboyance has always felt like a licence to aggressively be myself, consequences be damned.
To borrow another pretentious queer kid’s phrasing, Buddy Cole was more true than real. He’s the shameless queer we all wish we were, unbound by the conventions of heterosexual life. And every time he looked into camera, I felt like he was entrusting me with some special private knowledge, one that I was worthy of even though I was just some kid from Brampton.
In the series finale of The Kids In The Hall, Buddy Cole burns his bar to the ground. I didn’t understand the significance of the act at 14, but I do now: Buddy’s bar is wherever you are, and wherever you are is made queer just by you being there.
I understood that queer is not a place, but a state of mind, and that lonely, questioning kid from the ’burbs was every bit as fabulous as the out queer woman she is now.