High school was a long time ago, but even though next year will mark thirty years since my class graduated, I am frequently struck by the lessons I learned there. One such lesson came from my classmate, Alex.
I should back up a little to set the stage for the younger crowd. I’m from Halifax. In the 1980’s, Halifax still had skinheads, many of whom actively quoted Hitler and laughed when they did. People were horrified, but not because of the hate the skinheads espoused. People didn’t like skinhead violence. Halifax preferred its intolerance to be nicely dressed. Laced up black boots and jeans hung with suspenders did not fit that model.
We comforted them when their mothers turned their backs and their fathers told them to leave. We were fifteen years old…
Aryan supremacy wasn’t even remotely limited to the skinheads who so proudly wore their racism and bigotry out loud and proud for all to see. Most of Halifax was preparing for the race riots that were yet to come around the time of my graduation. In a city that had bulldozed its black population’s homes in the middle of the night, where the only freestanding abortion clinic had been burned down (twice, if I recall) before I graduated, and the law defied progress on women’s rights, in a time where the mass murder at l’École Polytechnique, which would later synchronize to our first year at university, was still in the making, the stage had not been set for acceptance of gay or lesbian citizens. Yes, we had a “gay bar” in Halifax, but it was whispered about in shocked, hushed tones.
That was the late ’80’s. I was in high school. As you can expect from my political views today, I gravitated towards the political crowd even then. We were the safe house for Halifax’s fringe groups who had yet to make a space for themselves: Gay and Lesbian; Pink Triangle; Two Spirit; LGBTQ. None of that existed yet. We knew the art teacher was gay and we were fine with it. (It was even a badge of honour to have been told to you by the man himself.) Slowly, in ones and twos, a few of our maverick friends came out. We learned about how their parents reacted. We comforted them when their mothers turned their backs and their fathers told them to leave. We were fifteen years old, then sixteen, then seventeen. Halifax was an boiling pot against “diversity.”
And then one night, my phone rang. It was my classmate, Alex. “I heard you were a lesbian,” he said. “No, I replied carefully. “I am not. Why?”
There was a long pause. Many heartbeats later, the most lonely voice I have ever heard said, “I’m gay.”
Alex was not one of my friends. If my friends tended to be political, Alex’s friends tended to be clean cut and upstanding. You just knew after graduation, they’d go work for the government in various functionary jobs. (My friends would be picketing outside, a fact that still holds true thirty years later.) I don’t know why Alex thought I was a lesbian, but I did know why he called. My social group wouldn’t judge him, yet on the streets of Halifax, the skinheads who roamed the streets when the bars closed might actually harm him. He was looking for a lifeline – someone who knew what he was going through on a visceral level. Alex wasn’t just coming out. Alex was putting his life on the line.
In his moment of coming out, he threw my name down like a safety net.
And he had called me to do it.
We spoke for a while, but the moment of opening had vanished when I told him in my single sentence that I did not share his experience. He was glad to talk, but the conversation had no depth. I tried to keep him talking as long as I could. At seventeen, I had seen a kid come to class with his face – his FACE – full of stitches from the beating he took when skinheads thought he was a peacenik. Lord only knew what they would do to a clean-cut boy who liked other boys. I wanted to hold out a lifeline to Alex, but in the end, that phone call was my first, and my last, from him.
I saw him around school for the rest of the school year, then again in our final year. He remained darkly wedged into the closet, our conversation a secret between us, until one day I got a call from his furious girlfriend. Alex had dumped her because he was gay – and I apparently knew all about it. Although I wasn’t happy about being held accountable for this situation, like somehow I had caused his gayness or not fixed him or outed him or whatever it was I was supposed to do that would have prevented her broken heart, I was a teeny bit proud. Whatever I had said meant something to him. In his moment of coming out, he threw my name down like a safety net.
It’s been a lot of years since then. Like I said, it will be thirty years since I graduated next year. A lot has changed. And a lot has not. There is still a coming out process that is felt out gently with friends and family. But it’s a lot more accepted today than it was thirty years ago. And yet, even as I write this, I think of Orlando.
Times have changed, and then they haven’t.
I don’t have a brilliant piece of wisdom to help move our society forward. But I think of Alex and his attempt to reach out. I wonder who he became. Did he have the courage to find a life partner or did he break more women’s hearts? And why did he need courage to be himself?
I sincerely hope that Alex, and all the Alexes who came after him, and all the Alexes who come next, find their passion and their lifeline. I hope for a future where they don’t need to rely on my hope. If there is a lesson I learned there, above all other lessons, it was to value all human life. My classmate gave me the gift of seeing the world through eyes that feared judgement and disgrace. And then he gave me the gift of trust. It is my job to be trustworthy.
Dear Alex, if you are reading, I hope you found yourself. Thank you for your trust that night.