A few years back I took my partner of the time home to Prince Edward Island and introduced him as my boyfriend to my extended family, with the exception of my last remaining grandparent (he’s quite deaf; I couldn’t bring myself to yell it at him). The boyfriend was politely acknowledged, as might be a foreign exchange student who doesn’t speak English.
This self-outing was swept away at my aunt’s birthday this year. The party was in Toronto, attended by several of my Islander relatives. I took a female friend and, in a desperate attempt to stimulate conversation, told them, “We met on PEI about 13 years ago.” A few weeks later my mother reported that one of my aunts was telling everyone she had met my fiancée.
When you come from a province where everybody speaks in code about sexuality, coming out and staying out is not easy. A couple of years ago I brought a platonic male friend home with me. Several of my younger, hipper PEI straight friends assumed we were a couple. Not to our faces. No, verbal confirmation would be déclassé. They just talked about it in their telephone calls to each other after my friend and I had left.
Though I consider myself to be quite out in Toronto — I work at Xtra, for heaven’s sake — my strategies for outing myself fall by the wayside when I’m among people from the East Coast. They’re far more accepting of gay and lesbian people than, say, Albertans. But that acceptance is built around the notion that homosexuality is hypothetical, out there somewhere, like a fog that may drift away.
A few years back I was the only person under the age of 50 at a Christmas party at one of my aunt’s, sitting glumly by the tree, counting the minutes before I could politely leave. One of my aunt’s friends, a Cape Bretoner who is known for being saucy and impertinent, yelled at me from across the room.
“What do you do for a living, Paul?”
“I work as an editor at a newspaper,” I hollered back over the din.
“What kind of paper?
I subscribe to the “three questions and you’re out” school of discretion.
“Xtra, Toronto’s gay and lesbian paper,” I called at her.
All conversation stopped dead. Those next few minutes of silence are certainly etched forever in my memory, but at the same party the following year the brassy Cape Bretoner asked me if I had a girlfriend.
My own rural PEI parents have been supportive of my being gay, though they struggle with how to talk about things. Last year I travelled on holidays to Brazil with my father, who is in his 60s. My gay nightlife was unimpeded by his presence — he was ready to go to bed at 8pm each night. I had arranged a date for later one evening, when a straight Irish guy we had met on an Amazon river trip invited us for a drink.
“No, I’m going to bed early,” my father said, “And Paul’s going out… [particularly long pause]… with a guy.”
When I set up camp for us on the gay part of Ipanema beach, my father seemed quite comfortable, not registering the large number of Speedo-ed young men offering him massages. What did catch his attention were two guys who, when I think back on it now, were probably doing GHB.
“What do they have in that bottle? Is that marijuana, do you think?”
“I don’t think so.”
“What do you think it is?” The two men had plopped down on top of each other on the sand, right in front of us, dry humping through their bathing suits. “Are you sure it’s not marijuana?”
“I’m pretty… sure,” I replied, distracted by the humping.
“Whatever it is, it seems like they’re having fun.” But his eyes had already set on a group of young women walking down the beach. Whatever he thought about the two guys — if he had thought about it — was already history.