“I can’t spend four years being called a faggot.”
I felt like I’d been punched in the chest. Like the words floated through the air and physically hit me.
I was in Toronto, the city where I was raised, attending the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word, as a memorial to a deceased lover who was part of the scene and also as a coach for the Ottawa Youth Slam Team.
Sequestered in an event room, the youngest members of the team, Biting Midge and Scotch, were rehearsing a new poem they’d written about dealing with the pressures of sexuality at a young age. It included the word faggot, with its six-letter breath-stopping quality, and was delivered by 12-year-old Biting Midge.
On that same day in Ottawa, the city I now call home, an openly gay boy only three years older than Biting Midge had written on his Tumblr blog, “I can’t take anymore . . . I don’t want to wait three more years, this hurts too much.”
Biting Midge never met Jamie Hubley, but if he had, they’d have found they had many things in common: a love of performance, a great sense of style and an exuberant nature. Their greatest similarity, possibly, was that they were both bullied. They were — and, in Biting Midge’s case, are — both victims of people who think they should be someone other than who they are.
Their greatest difference? One boy died that day and the other spit poetic fire to a jam-packed crowd.
So why bring up these two beautiful Ottawa boys?
Because the bullying is part of a larger issue I call the gender war. Don’t worry: I won’t go too deeply into an anti-colonial analysis of how oppression based on race, gender, sex and class is part of an agenda of social control waged by a privileged few — you know that story. But I am going to delve into my own experiences with the gender war, and what I think it is.
According to a press statement from Jamie’s father, Ottawa Councillor Allan Hubley, Jamie was forced to swallow flashlight batteries because he wanted to take up figure skating instead of hockey. That was in Grade 7. Before he ever came out as gay.
Earlier this year, Biting Midge, who doesn’t identify as gay, was accosted by a group of teenagers in Westboro who demanded to know whether he was a girl or a boy because he was wearing skinny jeans and had a Bieber-esque haircut. It seems it’s not so important whether someone is gay or straight, but rather that they are the right kind of boy or girl.
I remember grade school loneliness and confusion. This was before I’d ever kissed a girl or a boy, before I knew what transgender or gender-queer meant. In high school, the word dyke was written in reference to me, in hateful letters. In university, I remember a group of teenagers on an OC Transpo bus screaming faggot at me. I remember feeling frozen by the verbal attack but also strangely pleased that I could still pass as a flamboyant boy. My gender ambiguity was the target, the reason for name-calling, physical violence and social ostracism from both children and adults.
The foot soldiers in the gender war don’t care so much whether someone actually is homosexual, bisexual, male, female, intersex — it’s whether they look it, or act it. One’s clothes, gestures and general physical features can determine this. It’s a war zone out there for anybody who isn’t “man enough” or “woman enough.”
I first stumbled into this war zone in primary school and was shell-shocked by it, over and over, for years. I didn’t understand why kids would say mean things to me and push me around when all I wanted was to be friends. I thought if I could get a boy to fall in love with me, then I would finally be accepted.
Throughout grade school, I clung to the hope that a boyfriend would be my gender redemption. But when that time came, it made things worse instead of better. Instead of acceptance, there was betrayal. The boy ignored me when I said “no” or “stop” or “get off me” and left me for my best friend.
I worked hard to get away from people like that and to survive the aggression so integral to the gender war. And there is no cure-all solution for survival; it seems to be a combination of stubborn and lucky.
I was known for stubbornness in my family and ethnic community, which both condemn homosexuality. By the time I hit 19, my family had become fed up and staged a “gender intervention” on Mother’s Day so I could be a “real woman.”
That was the year I made the decision to move to Ottawa and defy all notions of filial piety and “a daughter’s place.” That was the year I stubbornly decided I’d rather be myself and face the possibility of social exclusion than stay in a community that condemned me and demanded I conform to values I don’t believe in.
In Grade 10, I remember running away from a girl who had the courage to whisper that she was in love with me. I remember being torn between the beliefs I was raised with — that lesbians were demons — and the very real feelings I had been ignoring.
Something shifted inside me and I turned around, marched back into my room, closed the door and told her I was in love with her, too. That was the evening I lost my virginity, masked by the sounds of the Smashing Pumpkins’ Adore album.
Later, much later, when my mother walked in on us, I would explain our red faces and disarray with mumbles about over-enthusiastic late-night dancing. I’ll always consider myself lucky to have had such a tender and joyous first experience.
While high school was far from awesome, both luck and stubbornness came in handy when things did get hard.
There was the time a group of misfits, myself included, made our anti-suicide pact. It was our last defence from a level of despair and meaninglessness that we felt counsellors, doctors or parents could never understand or help us heal.
The discussion went something like this: “If you kill yourself, I’ll kill myself, too.”
“I don’t want you to die.”
“Then you won’t do it, will you?”
We were lucky to have had each other, and we were stubborn enough to keep each other alive.
Luck and stubbornness are still with me.
I have some lovely partners and steadfast friends in a caring support network, a community that accepts my gender-queer self. I have a roof over my head, food on the table and fewer bullies in my life than ever before.
Despite all this, I’ve realized I’m going to have to do more than just survive this gender war; I’m going to have to spread my luck around and hope stubbornness is infectious.
That involves working with youth, standing up to slurs, explaining in my workplace why I dress the way I do, attending vigils, marching in protests, performing, writing and doing what I think each and every person is capable of doing — fighting back. Not only to be stubborn, or the reason someone got lucky (though both are fabulous in their own right), but also to be a source of hope and peace.