I write this on the first day of a new year, having rung out the old with feasting and friends and Auld Lang Syne. A gaggle of us gathered around a bonfire at midnight, in the 30 below Winnipeg mid-winter, and sang Robbie Burns’ poem, so familiar now it’s words have almost lost their meaning: “Should auld acquaintance be forgot.”
I have always had old friends. Not just old as in long-term, but truly old, geriatric. There was Cameron, who remembered the day I was born. When my mother died, he became a best friend to me. I was eight and he was 45, and so we continued until his death at 80 a few years ago. Sometimes I’ll be getting off a bus, or reading, or cooking and out of nowhere I’ll think of him, miss him, and be doubled over by grief and sobs. I can’t believe how actively and unexpectedly I miss him.
There was Dorothy, who I met when I was 18 and she was 58. She told me the truth about many things people of her generation denied. What it was to be a single woman, a sexual woman, in those years. She told me her secrets and I told her mine. Every year she sent me a Christmas card she had received from someone else: recycled. And after she died in 2005, I dreamt I received one final card from her, signed with a visual pun, “love, Dot….”
None of my old friends grew up gay, used the word gay, or even had a definition of gay against which to measure themselves. I got to know them in a different community, the community in which I grew up, Scarborough, which had in their lifetimes transitioned from rural to suburban. Cameron was the last person in Metro to list “farmer” as his occupation. He never married.
I remember being at Alfie White’s 90th birthday party; Alfie White, whose family farm became the Toronto Zoo. This tiny, ancient man looked me in the eye, grabbed me by the hand, and asked, “Are you a bachelor?” I hesitated, and did some quick generational and cultural translation before answering, “Yes.” “Me too,” he crowed, and laughed, slapped his knee, and didn’t let go of my hand.
Of course Alfie, like Cam and Dorothy, is dead now. That’s the problem with old friends. Us younger friends tend to outlive them. A couple of months ago I realized that, for the first time in my life, I had no old friends at all and was poorer for it. That is, until I met Jonathan. Jonathan is 78. He came out two years ago when his partner, Harold, died, ending their partnership of 56 years. Harold was an older man, so he and Jon told people that Harold was Jon’s uncle. Only upon Harold’s death did Jon tell the nurse, the priest and the neighbours the truth. It wasn’t gay pride that did it; it was a grief so big that nothing mattered anymore, not even who knew or what they thought.
Jonathan and I drink tea and he talks. Sometimes the details of his stories shift. His mind becomes confused. He and Harold were friends for six months before they shared a Christmas at his cousin’s. Harold led him into the dining room and said, “I hope I don’t upset you,” before kissing him. Or maybe it happened in the hall in Jonathon’s mother’s house. Maybe they had known each other for years beforehand, years of bike riding and gardening and Jonathan not knowing love between men was even possible. But of course it was. For 56 years!
They planned their retirement so that they could summer at the Lake and winter in Mexico. Last winter Jonathan went by himself to Cancun, but didn’t like it. The hotelier asked, “Where’s your uncle?” And Jon told him, “I loved him and now he has passed on.” The hotelier held him and said, “I knew, Jonathan, we all knew.”
I am grateful for the stories he tells me, even when they are repeated over and over again, even when the times and places change in the full jumble of his mind. I love my new, old friend.
He reminds me that we are young, as a community, an identity. That we have come so far in such a short time. That we have so much further to go. Many people were not touched by gay liberation. We didn’t reach them, didn’t include them. Or maybe we were simply too late. And even now, even with human rights codes, anti-hate crimes legislation and gay marriage, even now I wonder about what torturous compromises people make to keep their family’s love, their religious community’s respect, their safety intact?
We are so far from equal. My nephew came out last year at the age of 21. It was the bravest thing he has ever done. Even though he has a lezzie aunt and progressive parents. Even though he and his siblings have always been loved exactly as they are. He ignored, denied and suppressed it for as long as he possibly could. He didn’t want to be gay.
And that is the problem. Even though lots of straight people think we’re “clinging to our oppression” because we keep pointing to injustice — even though in their minds it’s no big deal because we’re all kinda queer now, aren’t we? — it is still easier for many people to live in the closet, or with an “uncle”, than to face the homophobia of this world.
My old friends have taught and continue to teach me many things. I am grateful that I can be out, when it was inconceivable for them. Most of all, they remind me that all of our gains and victories just aren’t good enough. If anyone still feels the need to lie about who they are and who they love, we’re far, far from done.