Jeremy Sanders arrives for our interview wearing a pink-and-orange-striped shirt and jeans. He’s just finished work at Davids Tea and is sipping on his favourite flavour, Glitter & Gold. “It’s really sweet,” he says with a smile.
Sanders, who graduated from high school last year, is taking a year off to audition for theatre schools in southern Ontario – and save money. He is also practising his art as a regular in every Orpheus Theatre show he can get into. This month, Sanders will be part of the ensemble for The Drowsy Chaperone, a parody of 1920s musical comedies that follows the story of an eccentric theatre fan as he brings to life his favourite (fictional) musical.
“I started getting into theatre in Grade 8,” Sanders says. “I was in the Sound of Music playing Friedrich von Trapp, and I have been in shows ever since.”
For Sanders, theatre has been more than just a place to act; it has been a second family. “I started coming out in 2010, Grade 10, a couple years after doing theatre. I found a safe community in theatre and at Orpheus. At the same time, I was going to St Paul’s High School in Ottawa and was facing hard times.”
Sanders decided to come out last year in his final year at school. “I tried to be myself,” he says. “One day, I wore a ‘Legalize Gay’ shirt and my teacher told me to remove the shirt. When I went to talk to my principal, she said I could wear it if it was covered and that if a teacher asked me to take it off I should be prepared to wear something else.”
Undeterred, Sanders says he decided to do something to make his school a safer place for gay students. “I tried to start a gay-straight alliance with my friend. When we asked my principal to endorse it, she said no.”
Sanders says the principal told him teachers would be against a GSA and that it would not reflect well on the school. “I was not surprised. Some teachers were openly against anything gay. My English teacher even preached to us in class. He was so anti-gay, he even had us take off the anti-bullying Jamie Hubley bracelets.”
Sanders says he wanted to draw attention to the situation and work with local support organizations, but with classes, his upcoming graduation, theatre rehearsals and coming out at home, he decided to focus on other things.
“My parents separated when I was in Grade 2. My dad still lives in Toronto and has been okay with the gay thing, but my mom, who I live with, is really religious . . . she was my biggest concern with coming out.” Sanders recalls how his mom was openly homophobic at home. “She hated gay people on TV. And when she saw Rent, well, it was a bad day.”
Then Sanders’s mom went through his phone and found text messages he’d sent to his boyfriend. “She wasn’t happy. There were tears. And I ran to my room, hid under my bed and cried. A few weeks later, my mom and I talked, and she told me that I had a doctor appointment. Instead, she drove me to my church and had me meet the youth pastor. Luckily, the pastor ended up being more on my side, and it kinda backfired on my mom,” he says.
It has been a slow journey, one day at a time, Sanders says. “Me dating people, her being exposed to it has been better for her. And, when she came to see me perform in Rent in the winter of 2012, by Orpheus Theatre, well, that was a huge thing for her. I was playing Angel, so to see her son playing a drag queen and be supportive, it has been a huge evolution.”
Looking back, Sanders says his school was a tough place to be gay, especially in grades 10 and 11. “Older students would call us names, and you sorta had to get used to it.”
Yet Sanders says that by Grade 12 there had been many times when he realized that being out made things better. “My graduating class was starting to be accepting. One time in music class, a few people stood up for me when someone called me a fag, but today I doubt that would happen.”
Sanders hopes his high school might one day be a safe place for queer youth. In the meantime, he will be volunteering with Orpheus and creating his own safe place.