It seems odd now, in retrospect, that my biggest concerns going into WorldPride were whether my muscles were pumped enough and whether I was going to get laid.
This was my mindset as I entered Club120 on June 28 to attend the Totally Naked Toronto (TNT) party. I paid the $10 entrance fee and was given a plastic bag for my clothes by a man wearing nothing but shoes, a cockring and a smile. I had had a whiskey before leaving home to handle that moment of truth when you arrive at a party such as this and have to shuck your clothes. Is anybody watching me? How do I compare physically to the men around me? Do I really have the courage to do this? But once the clothes were doffed, I relaxed. It’s like that first plunge into a pool — it takes guts to jump in, but once you do, you’re fine.
I felt really fine soon enough and joined the men on the dancefloor, letting my cock swing as I danced with other sweaty men in group revelry. Hands caressed my ass as I walked by, cocks bumped in passing as bodies pressed together in narrow passageways. It was in one of these narrow passageways that a hand reached out and planted itself on my chest. The arm belonged to a striking, smooth-bodied man, and I slowed so that he could fight the tide of bodies and come back to me. Face to face, without words, we kissed, passionately, and I pulled his smooth body into mine. The kiss ended and I heard him say hello in a British accent. His name was Roger. He explained he was here from London, England, with his boyfriend and he introduced me to his boyfriend, who remained at his side. I kissed him, too.
Roger went down on me, and when he came back up, I started to bend at the knee to return the favour. He stopped me and said, “Just so you know, I’m HIV-positive but take meds and am undetectable.” I smiled, appreciating his openness, giving me a choice in the matter, and I continued my descent to go down on him.
But our mutual fellatio was minor compared to the holding and caressing and snuggling we did. His body was a perfect fit for mine, and we remained locked in each other’s arms for a long while. When we finally broke apart, I headed to the bar to order another beer. Roger’s boyfriend was there, and he turned to me and said, “Hello, husband stealer.” His mouth was smiling, but his eyes were not.
I couldn’t take the time to find out if I’d gone too far with Roger as I had two lesbian friends from Montreal arriving imminently at the bus depot that I had to pick up. I dressed and found Roger at my side, asking for my number so that we could text. With numbers exchanged, we kissed one last time, and I felt a profound feeling that Pride had been a success. Anything else Pride had to offer would just be gravy, I thought. I didn’t expect that I would awaken to anything deeper than this.
I picked up my friends and we partied in the streets of the Village. The next morning, while waiting for the girls to awaken, I made coffee and leafed through Xtra, Now and The Grid, which were all running stories about gay refugees fleeing to Canada. Their pictures were published. They had gone public. The news could potentially trickle back to their homelands, meaning they would never be safely anonymous should Canada force them back.
As I read these stories, my anxiety built because I recognized something in them that I clearly lacked: courage.
I write a sex blog, and I use a pen name and don’t show my face. Although I am out as a gay man, the kind of sex writing I do is closeted because coming out as a sexual being is still a hurdle for most people, myself included. I am not one of the heteronormative conforming guys who wants to marry and move to the suburbs to ape conventionally straight mores. So I write from the shadows.
When my friends and I arrived at Yonge-Dundas Square, it was already teeming with people waving rainbow flags and wearing Pride beads and stickers. I wore nothing of the sort. I had no rainbow flag with me to wave.
With the crowd pressing upon us, my lesbian friends looked up at the patio of Jack Astor’s high above the square and declared that we would watch the parade in comfort there with bottles of beer in our hands. I said that it was likely to be packed up there, but they were determined, and so up we trekked, and after a two-hour wait at the inside bar, we got a coveted table on the patio and watched the never-ending parade from a high vantage point.
But I couldn’t get the refugees’ stories out of my head. I imagined them in the parade, in the muck and mire of it all, waving rainbow flags while I watched from a remove, five storeys up. I’d had it so easy, coming out. My parents and friends had, for the most part, accepted my homosexuality with grace.
Maybe that was part of the problem now: I hadn’t had to fight like the refugees had. So what the hell was keeping me from at least purchasing a rainbow flag from the street sellers to wave? Why wasn’t I wearing a necklace of rainbow beads like I’d seen hanging around so many necks? I realized that I was still the fearful little boy on the playground afraid of being picked on for being gay. I was still afraid of the bullies.
Even in the middle of WorldPride, I was afraid of seeming “too gay.” I was afraid of rocking the boat. Afraid of being authentic. Afraid of feeling that my shaky masculinity was at stake if I really let loose on a dancefloor to a disco tune. And it hit me: I had muscles, but I had no balls.
The parade was unstoppable and was still going when I bade farewell to my friends at the bus depot. I returned home and looked in the mirror. What good were these muscles if, at my core, I was living scared?
How dare I live scared when I live in Canada and have unheard of freedoms as a gay man? Having turned 40 this year, when would I finally grow a pair?
I went to bed and woke up in the morning with laryngitis. My voice, a symbol of my expression, was blocked, shut down, silenced.
Though I couldn’t speak, I turned on my computer and googled the 519 Community Centre. I found the email address I wanted and wrote a short email: “Hello! My name is Jason Armstrong and after WorldPride, I just feel so lucky to live in Canada, where I can be openly gay. I’m beyond upset about my brothers and sisters in countries like Nigeria, Uganda, Russia, etc who have to fight much harder than I ever had to in order to be open about my sexuality. You offer services to newcomers to Canada. Can I volunteer in some way to help you do that? I work administratively and so have great people and administrative skills, but I would do anything you need to help my gay brothers and sisters feel welcomed in Canada. Thanks so much!”
I didn’t feel worthy of this Pride. I had the courage to get physically naked at a nightclub. Now I needed to get naked in a grander sense of the word.
Like the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz, I sought courage on par with my brothers and sisters from faraway lands. Next Pride, I won’t watch at a remove. If a 20-year-old gay Russian refugee can publicly give Putin the finger, then I certainly can, too, rocked boats be damned.
I was once a little boy who got teased on the playground. I’m not a little boy anymore. By next Pride, I intend to be a man.