In the early '90s, I was a Customer Service Manager in a branch of CIBC, and I hired a young man by the name of Bill.
Bill was a big, burly, young man, the type that's always intimidated me, because I'm not at all like him, and because I want to be more like him, and because he's not gay; and because I'm gay; and because most everyone in my history has been able to tell that I'm gay from looking at me or talking to me; and because I thought for sure Bill would know I was gay; and because he wouldn't be comfortable with me; and because he'd make me feel uncomfortable being around him.
Whatever Bill may have thought about me during the interview process, I didn't get the impression that he knew I was gay, and that he was uncomfortable with me. He seemed decent enough, personable enough, and respectful enough. So I hired him.
Over the course of several months, my interactions with Bill were always good ones. He was attentive when I spoke to him, he always took direction well, and he got along with the rest of the staff. I never once got the feeling that he wasn't comfortable around me, either because I was his supervisor or because he knew I was gay. (By then, he'd spoken to an number of other staff members who knew I was gay and who must have told him I was. I didn't hide it from anyone, but I wasn't a flamer either. It was just another part of me, like my hair color, or my weight, or my height.)
Most days, I had lunch in the upstairs lunchroom. Sometimes, Bill was up in the lunchroom too, with several other staff members, and we always seemed to enjoy each other's company. We talked a lot, often about off-color topics, and we laughed a lot too.
I'll never forget when a copy of "The WestEnder" was upstairs on the lunchroom table. Bill was leafing through the paper and got to the ads on the last few pages, the ones for escorts that were into nearly every scene any of the readers of the paper might be into. Bill read out some of the ads, putting lots of expression in his voice, and making them sound utterly ridiculous.
Finally, he picked up the phone in the lunchroom, dialed the number in one of the more colorful ads, and, in the most serious and sincere voice, talked to whoever was at the other end of the line about what services were available and what he was looking for. Of course, he wasn't interested in availing himself of the service at all; he was only interested in putting the person at the other end of the line on the spot with outrageous requests she seemed only too happy to accommodate. The rest of us in the lunchroom tried to stifle our laughter as we listened, but there was no way we could.
I don't remember how long Bill was with us before he got a transfer to a branch in downtown Vancouver. We said our good-byes and good lucks, and away Bill went, to pursue another opportunity.
Some time later, perhaps a number of months, I was in downtown Vancouver after work on a late Friday afternoon, snooping through several stores, and having dinner out. I lived on Beach Avenue at the time, so, unless I walked the distance, I had to take either the Davie bus all the way down Granville, then Davie. Or I had to take any bus down Granville, get off at Davie, wait for a Davie bus, or walk the rest of the way.
Across from The Bay on Granville, I boarded a bus. Since it was late in the afternoon, the bus was very crowded. As I was used to doing, I moved all the way down the aisle to make room for all the passengers that would get on the bus at the various stops down the street. At the back of the bus, I put my bag down, grabbed onto the handrail, steadied my feet, and got ready for the bus to lurch forward.
Right in front of me, sitting on the second to last seat in the bus, was Bill. I recognized him immediately, although I didn't remember his name; I've never been good with names. Feeling intimidated all over again, even though I'd once been his direct supervisor, I thought about how not to say anything to him. But I didn't want him to recognize me and think I was stuck up. And moving elsewhere in the bus was impossible, so I did what I should do. I said hi to him, smiled, and tried to make it look like I was pleased to see him again after such a long time.
From the reaction I received, you would have thought Bill had never seen me before, had no idea who I was. I was surprised, but I didn't let it affect me. I'd started the conversation now, so I felt I had to continue it.
I asked him how his new job was going at the branch downtown. He said fine, and proceeded to answer all of my subsequent questions with no more than one or two words. While I looked at him, he never looked at me. His eyes wandered all over the inside of the bus and out the window. He looked at the person sitting beside him, as if to make sure that person wasn't put off by him talking to me. I thought Bill was cold and aloof toward me, and I didn't immediately understand it.
But as the bus proceeded down Granville Street, packed with people all the way, I thought I recognized that expression on Bill's face--the same expression of utter disgust I'd seen on other people's faces, mostly my peers at school, when they saw me in the hallways, and were disgusted with me because they thought I was gay. Like them, I realized Bill didn't want to talk to me. I knew that he would have preferred if I hadn't acknowledged him at all--if I'd stood right in front of him and said not a word. He didn't want any one of the other passengers around us to see him talking to a faggot, and to think that, by association, he was a faggot too. I cut back on the conversation at that point. I'd run out of chirpy small talk anyway, especially for someone who didn't want to talk to me in the first place.
Fortunately, I wasn't on the Davie bus that late afternoon, and I had to get off at the corner of Granville and Davie. I said good-bye to Bill, wished him continued success in his new job, and left.
I never saw Bill again, but the effect of that brief and miserable interaction will be with me the rest of my life. All I could think about was, was I so despicable, so disgusting, so repulsive, that Bill, after me hiring him months earlier, and him getting along well with me as his direct supervisor, couldn't muster enough small talk to at least get through an unexpected encounter? Had he been that fake when he worked for me, sucking up any personal feelings he had about working with, and being supervised by, a gay man, that I couldn't really tell how he felt? Did it disgust him so much working with me that he simply couldn't tolerate a brief encounter on the bus months after I ceased being his supervisor? Could some people really be that two-faced, one way while they worked for you and another way altogether, when you longer wrote their performance reviews and they no longer had to pretend to like you anymore?
I have always felt insecure around other people, particularly football-player types like Bill, and this experience did nothing to help me in this regard. But, as I look back on it now, I know that Bill's reaction said more about his character and his prejudices than it did about me being gay. In my logical mind, I see this, and I know it shouldn't bother me. So, why, then, after all these years, do I remember this exchange so vividly, and do I still find myself hurt by it?