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Are attitudes towards gay community changing?

By ROB PINKERTON

Have you noticed the different reaction in Canada and the United States to gay celebrities coming out of the closet? When Anderson Cooper came out, the U.S. media went into a frenzy and women wept. When Rick Mercer came out at about the same time it seemed to be a non issue in Canada and many in the gay community were not aware of it. Oreo cookies supported Pride Day with a Facebook ad that sported a rainbow coloured cookie. There was a hue and cry in the States that made many businesses look closely at similar support. Sally Ride, the American astronaut, came out in her will. There was lots of media coverage about her death but because of her hero status, the bigots are keeping a low profile. Sad that she was not comfortable with the public knowing while she was alive. Sally, apparently a very private person, knew the problem that her country would have with her sexual orientation.
In my opinion, the issue is that sexual orientation is an issue. “Who cares?” would seem to be the correct response. Are we getting to that point in Canada? Are we getting there in Ladysmith? I spoke at length with Bruce Mason who grew up here in the 1950/60s. Bruce told me that he knew he was different from his peer group but he didn’t know why when he was very young. There was nothing to read on the subject and no one to talk to. Although his classmates never called him homophobic names, they certainly sensed that Bruce was different from them and bullied and beat him daily. Teachers who were aware of what was happening did nothing. Bruce told me that “High school was the worst time of my life”. As he got into his twenties, he realized that he could not live with the black feelings inside him, the resentment, hate and fear. He forgave them. After that he said, he could see his tormentors on the street and treat them like everybody else. How does a man of that age become so wise?
Bruce believes that growing up in a town like Ladysmith these days is very healthy for a gay person. Going to Vancouver and immersing yourself in the gay community, you are sheltered from coping with society as a whole. When someone calls you a “faggot” you withdraw a little more to the safe place with your friends. Bruce used his wedding to his partner Michael, as an example. There was a lesbian couple from Vancouver who were visiting across the street from his place. They told him that it was the nicest gay wedding that they had attended. A Vancouver wedding would have 90 per cent gay attendance. Bruce estimated that 90 per cent of the people at his wedding were straight. He also received a compliment from what he called “a red neck logger” that that was the nicest wedding he had been to.
Bruce told me that in the 1980s four teenage boys came into Knight’s Hardware store where he worked and asked him to go for coffee with them. He hesitantly agreed. They thanked him for being openly gay in Ladysmith. They said “Our parents know and respect your parents and what you are doing has made it a lot easier for us”. “You’re all gay?” Bruce said. Things were changing.

Gay couples

Michael McKinnon and Bruce Mason in their yard. Gay attitudes are changing. Photo Rob Pinkerton

Doing this article has created a bit of a stir in our gay crowd. “Why are you doing this?” I am asked. Good question and I had to give it some thought. Growing up in Vancouver, I was aware of homosexuality but it was just something to tell bad jokes about. Adults did not speak about it except to vaguely warn us about “perverts”. I worked with many gay men on the CPR coastal boats and later on BC Ferries. Like any other segment of society, I liked most of them and disliked a few. I come from a very religious United Church family, liberally sprinkled with ministers and biblical scholars. My mother, in her nineties, made the decision that she could no longer be a member of the United Church because of their acceptance of gay ministers. I respected Mom for her convictions but did not agree with them. She knew this and would bring up the topic and tell me what the bible said on the subject of homosexuality. Yikes! Harsh stuff. We would get into some tense discussions and were getting no where. I used to set her up. I took her into “My Fish Tank” in Nanaimo that was run by Rob, a very good looking masculine man who sky dived, scuba dived and loved paint ball. He charmed her and took her from tank to tank showing off his fish. On the way home, Mom said “What a lovely man. Is he married?” I said that he was living with a man. “He’s gay, Mom.” She was very quiet for the rest of the drive. I told her one day that Tricia and I were going to a wedding. “How lovely” she said. “Who’s getting married”. “Bruce Mason. You know him from your church.” I said. “How wonderful. Do I know the bride?” “No” I said. “His name is Michael”. She became very quiet and I said, “I really set you up there, didn’t I”. “You certainly did” she said.
I did some poking around on the Internet for recent medical studies on the subject, to be ready for Mom’s next attack which I anticipated would be soon. Researchers are not convinced that there is a homosexual gene although there are some fascinating studies in that direction. The Garcia-Falgueras and Swaab 2010 study postulate that “The fetal brain develops during the inter uterine period in the male direction through a direct action of testosterone on the developing nerve cells or in the female direction through the absence of this hormone surge. In this way, our gender identity and sexual orientation are programmed into our brain structure when we are still in the womb. There is no indication that social environment after birth has an effect on gender identity or sexual orientation.” There are other studies that back this up and speak of the strengths or interruption of the hormone surges influencing sexual orientation and conclude that this is a normal variance in human sexuality. This is a simplification of these studies. Read them, please. (Homosexuality, Wikipedia) Mom listened to what I had to say and said that was very interesting. She never raised the subject again. She died the following year a few months before her 101st birthday.
Bruce related how Kinsey, a doctor of psychiatry, created a scale that illustrates human sexuality. The numbers given here are not accurate and are only used to give the reader a general idea. Think of a scale from 1 to 100. A group from 1 to 30 or 30% of the population is heterosexual. No choice. At the other end of the scale 10% are homosexual. No choice. The 60% between these groups make a choice. Where a person is on the scale will, of course, affect the decision and for most the choice is easy. The studies mentioned above say that “social environment” does not affect sexual orientation but the decision is made sometimes to conform with social, religious and family pressures. It can be years later that the decision is reversed or corrected and the individual comes out. I am aware of a number of men who after failed marriages and heterosexual relationships, “came out” in their forties and fifties and now live contented lives in gay relationships.
I spoke to Scott, a man of 22, who has lived and gone to school in Ladysmith. He, like Bruce knew from a very early age that he was not attracted to females. But there the similarity ends. He experienced no bullying at school or in the community. Scott told me of a group at Ladysmith Secondary school that was called the “Gay Straight Alliance” and this year has been changed to LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender, questioning) where you can sit with your peers and discuss whatever issues you want. Sara Stone, the teacher/sponsor for this group told me that it was started by a girl some years ago who saw the need. Sara said they take stands against bullying and hurtful language, discuss all aspects of LGBT and organize a “Rainbow Day” for the school. When Scott came out he and his Dad had some difficult times but that seems to have passed, perhaps because there is lots of information to access and people to talk to. There are also many websites that give reasons why homosexuality is wrong. These are mostly personal or religious opinions. The scientific studies are there to be ferreted out. Read them all and come to your own conclusions. I found one through a university web browser called “Can Anyone Tell Me Why I’m Gay?” What Research Suggests Regarding the Origins of Sexual Orientation, by Dr. William Jenkins of Mercer University. I found it very thorough. Dr Jenkins’ conclusions are that nothing is proved as yet but there is fascinating and exhaustive research being done. www.freepatentsonline.com/article/North-American-Journal-Psychology/226818615.html
Lena, about the same age as Scott, grew up in the area. She told me that she had lots of boy friends in high school but none of the relationships lasted long. After a disastrous engagement ended she started to figure out and be honest with herself about her attractions. She “came out” in a quiet way and when she told her parents there was no discussion. Talking to Scott and Lena, I found that they had very little understanding of what knowledge their parents and grandparents had about being gay. I thought I was writing this article for relatives of gay people but I have realized that young gay people need an understanding of where the older generation is coming from. Our knowledge was molded by religion, and homophobic people like Anita Bryant, an Oklahoma beauty queen, whose Old Testament argument was that she was afraid that, as homosexuals could not reproduce, they would molest and convert our children. Confusing pedophilia with homosexuality, she crusaded in 1977 and won the case against adoption by homosexuals. The law still stands in Florida. The silly thing about this argument is that homosexuals do reproduce and an interesting fact is that a huge percentage of children raised by gay people turn out to be heterosexual. For the most part our parents did not talk to us about anything to do with sex. Male same sex was punishable by death in Canada until 1869 and until 1969 the penalty was life in prison. It was not a topic to be discussed. The closet was full and the door closed. So, cut us some slack kids. This research is new and we still have our programmed brains to untangle. That can take time when your child chucks a grenade into your life.
Mary Fox, our very successful local potter agreed with me and we talked about how far Canada has come on equal rights in our life time. Forty five years ago, Justice Minister Pierre Trudeau stated that “The state had no place in the bedrooms of the Nation” and two years later altered the criminal code to give recognition to individual rights. Now same sex persons may marry and have the same rights (pensions, income tax provisions, divorce, etc.) as straights.
Mary, whose 25 year loving marriage ended when her partner Heather died, lives the way I think everyone should; accepting everyone for who they are and not caring who they sleep with. We talked of homophobia and although she has never experienced it in Ladysmith, she assures me that it alive and well, like everywhere; of a gay man who speaks disrespectfully and with anger about straight people. Do we call him a redneck, heterophobe? She reminds me that there are unpleasant (not her word) people in all segments of society. We spoke of the stereotypical belief that homosexuals are more promiscuous than heterosexuals. Mary tells me that there are many lesbian couples living quietly in Ladysmith. We spoke of how segments of our local gay community do not inter-act and many do not even know who is gay. Older and young, male and female; people just living their lives as it should be.
It is certainly not like this everywhere in the world. Washington State is agonizing about gay marriage as a vote nears in November. The Catholic Church is strongly opposing the bill and 63 former priests are supporting it. If it passes, Washington will be only the seventh state to legalize it. Thirteen countries have legalized it while 81 countries have criminal laws against it. In some places you can be put to death. I think we are lucky to live in a very liberal corner of the world.
The transsexual Jenna Talackova who participated in the Miss Universe beauty pageant brought this aspect of sexuality to the front pages for a while. Jenna was born a boy and from early childhood suffered from gender dysphoria, a condition in which a person feels that there is a mismatch between their biological sex and their gender identity. This causes unhappiness, anxiety and confusion. Although this condition is rare, it is not as rare as you might think. The British medical system reports that 1 in 1,400 people are diagnosed with this and it is five times more common in men. In her grade 8 year book, Jenna, still Walter then, looks like a cute 14 year old girl. She started treatment at that age and at nineteen, had surgery and became a woman. These days, when gender imbalance is detected in a child, the hormone therapy can be started sooner. The young person then does not have to go through a confusing puberty in the wrong sex.
Some have said that Donald Trump’s tacky contest is no place to make a statement on transsexuality. I disagree. Jenna made the world notice her and her gender. She says that her goal is to help others who need to make decisions like she made. Now she must answer inane questions on Barbara Walters and other sensation seeking TV shows during her short period of fame.
I met with Jules, a pre-op transgender in her forties, who lives in Nanaimo. Born Julie, she like Bruce, knew that she was different. She would not wear dresses, threw dolls away and excelled at sports and so was called a “tom boy”. Puberty was confusing. Julie could not understand why her girl friends wanted to date boys. She could take them to the movies. Developing breasts were just a nuisance as they got in the way when throwing a ball. As a young women she lived the lesbian life but knew that was not what she wanted. She was a man in a woman’s body. She started dating straight women. Now this is confusing for me and perhaps you. Why are they straight? She had a long term relationship and she and her partner fostered children. The last they had from birth and were hoping it would be forever but after almost a year, members of the biological family adopted the child. This was very hard on the relationship and they separated but remain good friends.

Julie – now Jules is a transgender waiting for surgery.

Julie, now Jules, has decided that she wants to be a man. After counseling with a psychologist, she was accepted for the treatment. Jules said that the day she made the decision was the happiest, most relieved feeling she had ever experienced. The treatment starts with hormone therapy, then double mastectomy where the areola are grafted to another part of the body while the chest heals and then, re attached. A penis is constructed (phalloplasty) from tissue of the forearm and testicles are implanted. This is obviously, not a decision to be made lightly. There but for a hormone surge go you or I.
Jules has no stories for me of family or friends rejecting her. On the contrary, her family has always loved her and accepted her life style. She teared up and choked when telling me about her sister, her greatest fan. She said to her mom “since you named me once…would you help me choose a new name? She speaks of her two step dads with affection and has a wonderful closeness to a nephew and niece.
We chatted for about two hours and I learned things about transgender people that made me realize no two person’s sexuality is the same. They are as different as fingerprints. The variations amaze me.
The world is a changing place and the rapidity of that change makes it difficult to adjust. At one time it was thought that our world was the centre of the universe. Galileo proved Copernicus’s earlier statement that the sun was the centre and endured a firestorm of criticism from the scientific community. I think it is wise to keep an open mind. Homophobia is caused by ignorance and fear and can be eradicated by knowledge.
A woman whose son had recently come out, said to me, “I still love my son.”
I say that is not enough. You must accept your son.

About the author: Rob Pinkerton

Rob Pinkerton

  1. Paul McCallan says:

    Great article Rob!

    So nice to see an opinion and perspective from a smaller community that is proactive enough to cut to the core. I love all the great points and stories.

    In regard to the closing sentence I personally believe that love is the most important foundation. Having acceptance built on your love solidifies the meaning of acceptance I guess The Beatles were right when they say “All we need is love”

    Great read! Thanks.