Jesse Stong wants everyone to lay off Anderson Cooper. When the CNN personality smashed free of the glass closet in July, public reaction ranged from casual shrugs over the obvious revelation to righteous indignation at its delay. But for Stong, the lack of any compassion for Cooper’s experience signalled a larger problem.
“I don’t actually believe anyone chooses to be in the closet,” the Richmond Hill–born playwright says. “If people aren’t coming out, it’s the result of fear or shock or trauma. People saying Anderson isn’t brave because he waited so long need a reality check. The fact we’re at a point where coming out is still an act of bravery means there’s a lot more progress to be made in the realm of queer acceptance.”
An entirely different coming-out story forms the core of Stong’s SummerWorks offering, Breathe for Me. Edith, portrayed by Deborah Kipp, and Edna, embodied by Peggy Mahon, have lived together for more than 50 years. But their relationship’s true nature has been fuzzy to those around them and at times even to themselves. While Edith was previously married and had a son, Edna remained a spinster, battling both epilepsy and alcoholism her entire life. Though they’ve managed a sort of comfortable denial until now, a fight over Edna’s refusal to see a doctor forces them to confront the truth of their life together.
“Everyone knows those two old ladies or gentlemen who live together, and no one is really sure if they’re queer or not,” Stong says. “I was lucky to be born in a time when coming out at a young age was the norm. But I’m fascinated by the experiences of a generation who may never formally come out even if they know it themselves.”
Stong’s own slide down the rainbow was documented during his 2005 stint as fab magazine’s Twink columnist. A student of social work at Ryerson, he had next to no writing experience beyond a teenaged diary when then-editor Mitchel Raphael (who now runs the monthly Sodom parties) offered him the gig.
“I was totally obsessed with Sex and the City and had this idea I would move downtown and become the gay Carrie Bradshaw of Toronto,” Stong laughs. “I wrote about bathhouse experiences and getting Pride tattoos, eating disorders and discrimination against bottoms. It was sort of like growing up on paper, which is probably why I’m so interested in coming-out stories.”