Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Letter to My Twenty-Year-Old Self, Part One

Dear Rick,

You don't know me, but you will--in thirty years.  That's right, I'm your fifty-year-old self, writing to you from the year 2010, a time and place in the future that isn't on your radar in 1980.  You're having difficulty even conceiving of the year 2000 now, because it sounds very space-agey, and you'll turn forty then, which might as well be one hundred, because both seem equally inconceivable.  But, believe me, it's all ahead of you.  You'll see.

Where to start?  Well, I could write to you about what's going to happen in the world in the next thirty years, but you'd tell me I'm bullshitting you.  So I'll only say this:  It will be impossible for you not to pay attention to what happens to Princess Diana in a Paris tunnel on August 31, 1997; to the World Trade Centre towers in New York on September 11, 2001; to the countries bordering the Indian Ocean on December 26, 2004; to New Orleans on August 29, 2005; and to Michael Jackson on June 25, 2009.  You'll have to see it all yourself to believe it, and, even then, years later, you'll wonder if they really happened.  I can vouch for that.

What about if I tell you what you're going to do for a living?  I know you think you'll only stick with that job you got this year, with one of Canada's largest financial institutions, until something better comes along, but you're wrong.  Yes, you always thought you'd be a writer, crafting words into beautiful essays, short stories, and novels, making your mark on the world with your perfectly expressed thoughts and ideas, and you'll see the irony in working for a company that deals in little more than numbers and math, especially since your mind doesn't work in that way, and you were never good with numbers and math in school.  But you'll work for the bank, in many different capacities and different locales, for twenty eight years, "retiring" in July 2007 to pursue a writing career in earnest.  In 2010, you'll write more than you ever have before, but you'll still struggle with the daily realities of creating something where there was nothing, and you won't have earned a dime on what you've written since 1994.  Maybe in the future.  Now is all about finding your voice and writing what brings you joy.

Maybe you'd like to know where you'll travel.  I know the idea of travel seems exotic to you, something a little otherworldly, because your parents never gave you a case of wanderlust while you were growing up, but you'll see a few amazing places by the time you're fifty. Because of your childhood obsession with Disneyland, you'll go there nineteen more times (even holding annual passes to the park for several years); you'll go to Walt Disney World in Florida with your sister in May 1989; through work, you'll travel to Toronto several times, and Montreal and Regina once each; to Cancun, Mexico, in February 2002; to Hawaii in December 2006 and October 2007; and to Paris, France, in September 2008.  Travel will be a nice-to-have in your life, but your focus will always be on a comfortable and stable place to call home, and that's where you'll spend most of your money and your time.

I understand how all of this is fascinating to you--since you're only twenty, and never in a million years did you expect to receive a letter from your fifty-year-old self.  After all, you're just getting on with your life after graduating from Okanagan College in April 1979, earning a worthless general arts diploma, and subsequently working at a self-serve gas station until the bank hired you.  I could go on about so many other things that happen in your life that you wouldn't understand or believe, but what I really want to do is use the rest of this letter to tell you about something that's critically important to me and to you, whether you realize it or not.

For the past number of years, you've done everything you can to put the possibility of being gay out of your mind.  Yes, I know, the kids weren't nice to you when you went to school, calling you unflattering names, physically abusing you, teasing you constantly about being gay.  I know all about that and everything they did.  Remember, I'm you, thirty years down the road.  I know you left high school in June 1977 feeling such a sense of relief you'd never have to be around them again, until you realized several would end up attending college at the same time you did the following September.

Only things were different in college, weren't they?  For some reason, most people seemed to be more accepting, more tolerant.  You didn't get called faggot even once during your two years of college, did you?  That's because some of the worst offenders were finally growing up.  From my perspective today, I also think that's because some of them were gay themselves, and beginning to realize what that looked like.  I think they realized how awful they'd been to you for so many years, and they wanted to say something to you about it, but they didn't know how, and you wouldn't have known how to receive it because you were still too angry anyway.  Or maybe they'd be oblivious to how they treated you, not realizing they'd called you all those names, did all those things, and how you'd been affected by them.  I'm not sure which.  Even all these years later, I still recall what they did, and I'm confused by my mixed feelings of forgiveness and anger.      

I realize this will be one of the most difficult things for you to hear--and I don't want to hurt you in any way, so please keep that in mind--but--bear up for me here--do you know that you're gay?  I know.  I know.  You've heard that in many different ways from so many people--from the mean-spirited kids at school, to the older fellow from Vancouver who tried to pick you up when you stayed with your grandparents in Kelowna and you were only thirteen; to the freakish goon who worked at Pixie Photo and told you he didn't have any picture prints but he had a great, big hard-on for you; to any number of older and creepy men in Kelowna who leered at you on the street or in the mall.  You were told you are gay in so many ways, so many times, you couldn't bear to hear it even one more time, but you need to hear it one last time, from me, because you know you can trust me, right?  I'm you, for goodness sake.  I'm not out to hurt you.  I would never intentionally do that.  What would I gain if I did?

Yes, it's true, whether or not you're prepared to believe it--you are gay.  And before you shake your head, no, you're not, or break down and cry because you can't bear it to be true, or try to run as far away as you can, you have to know you can't run away from what you are, from what you know in your heart you are, from what you've known to be true about yourself for many years, ever since you were a little boy, when you were attracted to your neighbor's hairy chest, or one of your elementary teacher's handsome face and stocky build, or the downy soft hairs growing on the muscular pecs of some of your high school classmates.  You tried to convince yourself you were just envious of their maturing bodies, because they had hair growing on their chests and you didn't, and you wanted some more than anything else, to prove to yourself, and to the world, that you were a man after all and not gay.  But you know lots of gay men have hair on their chests, don't you?  Just because you have a hairy chest doesn't mean that you're not gay, as much as you'd like it to.

So you're gay?  So what?  Of course, it's easy for me to say that now, because I'm you thirty years older, and I've seen and done things that you can't imagine at this point in your young life.  But, trust me, eventually, you'll accept that you're gay.  No, let me rephrase that. Perhaps you'll never totally accept it, because, even in 2010, despite the logical progression in the movement of our society and culture, there's still some discrimination against people who are gay--but you'll get to the point when you'll make your peace enough with it to get on with living your life.

But, first, you'll go through a tough six years.  Between now and when you turn twenty-six, you'll both deny your sexual orientation--to yourself and to others (who will continue to insult you every time they ask if you're gay, because the question, no matter what form it takes, or who asks it, even if they're people you like and trust, will feel impudent and insulting)--and begin thinking about the very real possibility that you might be gay.  For a period, you'll label yourself asexual.  You learned that term in biology class in college.  It means having no gender at all, without sex, sexless.  You'll rationalize that, even though you're a young man, with male hormones coursing through your system, compelling you to be sexual, you're not interested in having sex, with women or men.  And you'll be happy with this decision for several years, because it'll be easier than having to deal with the possibility of being gay. But, eventually, you'll realize sex is one of the most beautiful things you can share with the right person, someone you feel emotionally connected to, yes, even love, and you'll decide being asexual had a place in your life when you needed it, but it was no way to live your life. (In fact, it's not living at all--it's existing, going through the motions, but I'll let you discover that for yourself.)    

HIV and AIDS will make things even harder for you.  What are HIV and AIDS, you ask? You'll have plenty of time to learn when they come up. There'll be lots of confusion about it. Are they God's revenge on gay men for being gay?  Can you get them through French kissing?  Will wearing a condom while engaged in anal sex prevent them?  You'll find answers to these and other important questions as time goes on.  Suffice it to say, you'll be grateful that somewhere in the very core of your being, you knew being promiscuous wasn't morally acceptable.  You'll be grateful that you didn't play around when you were younger, and that you remained a virgin until you were twenty-six, because thousands upon thousands of gay men will end up getting HIV and AIDS, and a shameful number of them will die, the world forever robbed of their unique visions and talents.  You'll be grateful you always believed, even when those around you didn't, and it wasn't cool to be you, that sex was meant to be shared with someone special, not indulged in indiscriminately with any cute face that came along.  That could be the very reason why you're still around in 2010, writing this letter to you.

As inconceivable as this seems now, you'll come out when you're twenty-six--late for some, early for others.  So much will happen before this pivotal event in your life.  First, you will come to accept that you're gay, as incomprehensible as that sounds now.  Second, you'll get to the point where you believe that, because you're a good person, you don't deserve to be alone for the rest of your life, just because you're gay.  You'll come to believe you are entitled to be as happy as any straight man, and that you have to live your life fully to be happy, even if that means being something society finds unacceptable.  This will be a big step for you, because your experience at school, and at home with your parents, taught you to hate yourself.  Because you left your teens with no self-esteem whatsoever, the fact that you get to the point where you believe you're entitled not only to be gay but happy will mark the beginning of your journey down the long and challenging road toward self-love.  That journey will be ongoing for many, many years.  Your fifty-year-old self is still on it, discovering all of the insidious ways in which he still falls short of loving himself unconditionally.  I suspect you and I will be on this journey for the rest of our life.

What will lead you to the point of coming out as a gay man, and who will you come out to? Long before you officially come out, you will out yourself to a colleague, someone you work with in Prince Rupert, during the summer of 1981, when you go up there to provide vacation relief.  You and Judy will become good friends, and she will come down to Kelowna several years later, and go out dancing with you at Tramps, at the Capri Hotel, on a Saturday night after you've moved out on your own.  You and Judy will end up back at your apartment building, in the open, under-building parking lot, sitting in your car talking until the sun comes up.  For the first time in your life, you'll feel safe enough to tell another human being that you're gay.  You'll know you can trust Judy.  And, even if you don't know, you'll know she's returning to Prince Rupert, and, if she spreads your news to anyone, they won't be anywhere near you to hurt you, or to use what you've told Judy against you.  This will be an important event in your life--the first time you've had the courage to put into words that you're gay, so that both she, and you, can hear it.  

Unfortunately, it will still be some time before you officially come out because to tell a friend who lives out of town that you're gay is quite different from telling a family member who lives in town.  Sue at work will help you with this.  You'll hate her, because she'll make your life a living hell while you work at the Southgate branch on the administration-officer-in-training program.  But Sue will transfer to Capri Centre, where you'll work as a teller, the two of you will clear the air, become good friends, and she will be one of your greatest supporters (even as her brothers were some of your biggest tormentors in school, their attitude about gay men changing markedly when their younger brother comes out).  You'll receive an invitation to a New Year's dance from the unlikeliest of customers at the branch, Sue will encourage you constantly to take the chance and go, and you'll eventually work up the nerve to attend your first gay function, where you'll discover not all gay people are creeps or freaks, where you'll meet a sweet young man from Vancouver who genuinely likes you, and where you'll get a glimpse of what it will be like to accept yourself and to begin living your life as a gay man.

When you come out, it will be to your mother, and it will not be pretty.  You'll do it on New Year's Day, 1986, over the phone, after you've both returned to your respective homes following dinner at your aunt and uncle's.  You'll insist your mother had to have known already, because you'd left so many clues over the years--you showed no interest in girls, you never dated any, you were too concerned with your hair and physical appearance, you were a good decorator, you listened to too much dance music.  But when she tells you she had no idea, you'll be incredulous and even more upset with yourself for dropping this bomb on her (at a time, you'll later find out, when her marriage to your father was falling apart, and she was already going through enough without having to learn her son was gay).  Your mom will cry, a lot, something you hate to hear, something that hurts you to the core, because, for all her faults, you're close to your mom, and because your father used to make her cry for many reasons, and you swore you would never do that to her.  She'll tell you not to say anything to your father or anyone in the family about being gay, but she'll end up telling them all, which will come as a shock, since you don't have the option of telling them in your own words or seeing their reactions firsthand, and which will be a relief, that she's done some of the hard work for you.

It will take time for your mother to receive your news and to make sense out of it.  It took time for you to accept being gay so you could tell other people, didn't it?  Then you must expect your mother will need days, weeks, months, and perhaps even years to accept you in that new light.  But, I promise you, you will be surprised by how resilient your mother and family will be.  Sure, three or four weeks later, when your mom calls you to say you're invited to come over for dinner, and she assures you your father won't leap over the table and throttle you for not being the son he always hoped you were, things will still be strained between all of you.  You'll pretend that everything is just the same as it was before, and God knows no one will bring up the subject because who knows where that might go, but, of course, it's not the same at all.  Everything will be unexpectedly civil, maybe more so than before they knew, because emotions will be raw, you'll all need a little tenderness, compassion, and understanding, and everyone will be on his or her best behavior.  But you'll get through it, and so will they.  

As for the rest of your family, you and your aunt will discuss it, briefly, and she'll tell you she always knew (which leads you to ask yourself how your mother couldn't have known, or didn't your mother and her sister ever talk about the possibility that you might be gay?). You'll come away from this conversation thinking she's all right with your sexual orientation--after all, it's not one of her two sons who's gay--but, years later, when your aunt's daughter (your first cousin) is getting married, your aunt will do something that will suggest to you she isn't so comfortable with it after all.  And you'll be so upset by what happens that, in the end, you'll decide attending your cousin's wedding, and pretending like everything is fine between you and your aunt, is the last thing you want to do.  The wedding incident, in conjunction with other events, will put distance between you and your aunt, but that's all right, because you'll see her more as she really is, and you'll realize you don't need people like that in your life if that's the way they choose to be.

As far as your seventy-something grandmother is concerned, she's always loved you dearly, and she'll tell you she wishes for you that you weren't gay, but, if that's the way you are, then the good Lord made you that way, and she has to accept you.  You will love her for this response, and she will never waver from it.  She will also make you feel she loves you just as she did when you were a little boy, her first grandchild, and she will support you over the years in ways that will stun you in their generosity and acceptance.  Even when she turns ninety-two, you will never feel any distance between you because of your sexual orientation. She will stand as a shining example of unconditional love.  


  1. My favourite part was that about your grandmother. My grandmother and I are very close, but she does not yet know I am gay. It will happen though - preferably before Thanksgiving. And I know that I will be loved anyways.

    Because grandmothers are good for that.

    I thank you for this post - quite fantastic. I've often thought of what I would tell myself in high school to have done - the advice and knowledge I would impart. But, despite my joy at being me, I have not yet moved on to being gay and pursuing somebody that I feel is worth loving. When that happens, perhaps I'll have a sense that I should be telling my younger self about my future...

  2. Thanks for your feedback, Neal. This was a fun post to write. I'm afraid it's overly long, but it brought me great joy to write it. Thanks for sticking with it.
    Isn't it ironic that someone as old as my grandmother is as open and accepting as she is, when my mother really struggled with knowing I'm gay, as did my aunt? Says something about the stereotype that someone older won't understand or will readily judge. That's wasn't my experience, and I pray it won't be your experience either.
    I love the twist you put at the end of your comment--namely, what you would tell your future self based on when you finally come out. Great idea. I'd love to read a post about that. Sounds like you could really let your imagination go.
    But it also sounds like you could set an awesome path for yourself. You know, along the lines of, if you don't think it, it will never happen. In that case, think high and think broad. Let your life be as full, and as rich, and as rewarding as it can possibly be. The sky's the limit.
    Thanks again for your interest in what I have to say. I sincerely appreciate it.