He shone like a brand new dime, that first time.
“I want you to meet my son,” she had told me. “I want him to meet more gay people. School has been hard on him, these last couple of years.”
I was in Fort Smith, NWT on tour with a mismatched set of other storytellers. It was the first week of June, and the roof of the earth was gearing up for summer solstice. The midnight sun stretched the light so far and long that dusk was bent over backward enough to bump into the next day. The sun cooked the dirt into dust that got into everything, grinding between back teeth and turning my new black boots grey.
We were seven hours drive by mostly gravel road to Yellowknife. A hell of a place to try to hide yourself.
His mother was a solid, smiling Métis woman with a laugh you could hear from the other side of the lake. Her son stepped out of the car and onto the weary pavement of the parking lot outside of the only motel in town, which boasted a restaurant that served both Chinese and Italian cuisine, and I use the term loosely.
He was wearing brand new sneakers, so white they caught the sunlight and bounced it right back, bleaching the backs of my eyelids when I closed them. His tracksuit was also white, both pieces, and so was the singlet he had on underneath. All of his clothes crisp and pristine, with a fresh out of the wrapper look that stood out stark and sudden against the frayed and aging backdrop of this little northern town.
He was sapling thin, with cover girl cheekbones and feather duster lashes. Easily one of the prettiest boys I had ever seen, all long fingers and fey hips and wrists.
I could imagine him standing in a lineup on Davie St in Vancouver, waiting to get into a club that pounded a dull bassline from inside, surrounded by his twinkie buddies in designer jeans and two hundred dollar T-shirts.
That such a creature still breathed in a high school in Fort Smith, Northwest Territories seemed somehow unfathomable to me.
A mud-coloured pickup pulled up beside us, its tires popping bits of loose gravel sideways.
Our hiking guide jumped down from the driver’s seat, wearing sturdy boots and a grey beard. He led us on a meandering route past the old graveyard and down a well-worn path through the pines, wide shards of sunlight showing the dust and dandelion seeds floating in the air that smelled so much like home to me.
I kept stealing looks at my friend’s fairy boy son. Him in his immaculate threads and me in my now dirty new Fleuvog boots and vintage leather coat. I loved him at first sight, flying his flaming flag so fiercely, here, so far from a Pride parade or leather bar or MAC counter. All of 15 years old and fearless already.
Later, I pulled his mother aside and told her about a camp for queer youth that I was going to be artist in residence at in a couple of weeks. It was probably too late for this year, I told her, but what the hell, send in an application, because you never know.
The last week in July, he sashayed through the door of the education centre in Edmonton. Sixty-five queer youth for four days. I wondered if he had ever been around more than one or two queer people at the same time before. I wondered if he felt as overwhelmed as I did.
A place where faggot wasn’t a bad word anymore. A place where he could be one of many. A place where he could just be.
I got to work, teaching creative writing classes every morning and cajoling my group of youth to choreograph an a cappella synchronized dance number to “I Will Survive.” He was in my group, and I spent the better part of four days trying not to hug him too much in front of everybody else.
On Saturday night there was a talent show. One of the local kids organized a fashion show, and he modelled a gold lamé gown complete with fake breasts and walked the runway in heels like he was born in them.
I felt like the homosexual version of a hockey dad whose son just scored in overtime.
I watched him stand taller and smile bigger and swish wider every day. And then, of course, the inevitable came around.
Sunday night. There was a lot of crying, the kind of tears that could only be conjured up by a bunch of queer kids about to return to High River and Moose Jaw and some little town just north of Edmonton. Alone.
I couldn’t even look him in the eyes the last time I hugged him. I couldn’t tell him what I was thinking. I hoped that the new pride he held in his shoulders wasn’t going to be pounded out of him in gym class, or while he tried to learn trigonometry.
I felt sad, but mostly I felt rage.
Rage that we are winding up the decade in what is supposed to be one of the most liberal and progressive countries in the world and still we haven’t made our schools safe for kids like him. That something as vital to his future as his education happens in a culture of fear and under the threat of violence.
I reminded myself to be thankful that at least he has what a lot of queer kids don’t have. An amazing family behind him.
I got an email from his mom yesterday. She thanked me for getting him into camp, saying that he really needed this support, and that he seemed so much more confident and wiser since he came home.
The four days of relative safety and acceptance from his peers really did him some good. Now we just have to get to work on the other 361 days of the year. He still has Grade 10 to get through.