BY TYLER COOK
Special to the VOICE
I thought long and hard about how to approach this autobiographical examination of a gay kid in the ‘80s and ‘90s growing up in a pastoral, rural, farming and bedroom community. As I sat down to write this opus — having a background in media relations, interacting with bureau chiefs and beat reporters alike at all of Canada’s majors on everything from the events of September 11 to lifestyle-based product launches—with degrees in public relations, history/art history and certificates in human resources and journalism, I have written for CEOs and the most senior leaders of a variety of domestic and global companies and NGO/As. My words and speeches have been said by, and my press releases attributed to, many people in business, government and national publications. I thought this would be easy. It was not.
It was not for a variety of reasons, the least of which being the feelings of inadequacy and shame that this notion of coming clean, publicly, would mean. To be clear, it’s not the shame of being a gay man, it is shame based on the lengths I took to cover it up. The lies I told myself and others—everything from unwanted teenage pregnancy to everything I said about myself for many years, were lies. I created a narrative of what I thought it took to be liked by someone, anyone—when the truth was revealed I paid the price, overwhelming loneliness.
This is on me. When you are different, intrinsically you feel as though you need to be someone else to fit in. For me this came with the complete disregard for the line between fantasy and reality. I didn’t care, as long as I wasn’t the gay kid. If I was someone else and had all the material things that made people popular on the teen TV shows of the day, I could negotiate my way into at least one birthday party, to which everyone in my class was invited except me. Another strike against me: A deep sense of self-loathing that only further festered my self-hatred and being discovered deepening my humiliation…I own it, it is much a part of my past as learning to drive, or how to ride a bike.
I often wonder if things would have been different if I felt able to be my authentic self, instead of burying the real me behind a disingenuous presumption of who I thought I had to be. It wasn’t until my mid-to-late-20s, and multiple failed relationships, that I was really able to put these toxic behaviours and acts of self-sabotage to bed, once and for all. I am worthy of friendship. Just me. No lies, no exaggerations, no filter. I deserve to be accepted. Just like the lyrics in my favourite song, by my favourite band, The Smiths’ “How Soon is Now?”
I often wonder if things would have been different if I felt able to be my authentic self, instead of burying the real me behind a disingenuous presumption of who I thought I had to be
I am human, and I deserve to be loved. Just like everybody else does.
Ironically, what I am most ashamed of are not the lies. They just represent my deeply flawed attempts at self-preservation. It is not standing up for myself when it really mattered. Instead, I hid. I accepted that my life would always be dodging punches and punchlines. Both of which I endured, telling no one. I knew three things for certain: I was unlikeable; I was unlovable; and, being a pariah, talking to me could be the death of one’s standing in one’s clique. But I was smart. I was a gifted writer, photographer, horticulturist, musician and designer. I was fast with my words. I used my laugh, wit and self-deprecation as defense mechanisms. I was loud, disruptive and never let the opportunity for double entendre to slide. That said, my verbal retaliations rarely landed as I hoped. Not because they were without wit, but because they were incomprehensible for a 12-year-old bully to understand, frequently leading to a worse beating than I probably would have received if I’d said nothing.
What I endured was relentless bullying from Grade 1 straight through graduation. There was no one to turn to, no one to act in my defense. Sadly, these experiences were not confined to other students, but also teachers.
Being goosed, and having my ears played with in front of the class by a teacher in Grade 7; having another teacher constantly telling me to “be a man” and stop swinging the bat “like a girl” in gym class. Being so afraid to use the washroom at school for fear of being beat up, that I would hold in my urine the entire day until I got home. This is what my day-to-day school life was like. I should have said something, but who would have listened to the weird kid that didn’t really fit in? Instead, I became an asshole — to myself, and to everyone around me.
As a “walking student,” I lived in fear every day as I walked back and forth to school from Grade 5 to Grade 8. Getting to school was easy, getting home was a different story. I learned to be sneaky. Hiding in supply closets and classrooms until the bus students left, many of whom were my biggest tormentors. Things got so bad I no longer went home for lunch, not even when I could make the trip on my bike in 15 minutes. The walk to the isolated bike rack provided ample opportunity to be verbally tormented, punched, or worse.
I vividly remember being caught walking with my best friend in grade school, being approached by two of the cool kids on their bikes, and me trying to protect his reputation, blurting out after a sleepover at my house, “We’re just collecting things for a church sale.” It was also the moment I understood true friendship, possibly for the first time, when after they rode away he said, “You didn’t have to do that, you’re my friend.” It was the same friend that guaranteed me safe passage to school every day. I used to walk to his house and wait for him to walk, or ride our bikes, the remainder of the way… until things changed, when he left for another school in Grade 8. I was on my own.
Once entering high school, things didn’t change that much. Again I hid, sometimes in the library, sometimes in the far corners of the school, where I knew I wouldn’t be found. I read incessantly, periodicals primarily. In the first three years of high school, I read every issue of National Geographic, Punch and The New Yorker. I developed a love for words, differing opinions, tongue-in-cheek humour, and at times irreverent sarcasm. It was also where I first read about Gay Related Immune Deficiency (GRID), later renamed HIV/AIDS.
As the world was waking up to ravages of the AIDS epidemic in the gay community, it became additional fuel to the bullying fodder. A girl in my Grade 11 geography class, hell-bent on putting me in my place, announced loudly, “You’re such a fag, I hope you get AIDS and die.” I cried, whether or not anyone saw the tears, I cried. Again, no response from the teacher in the moment, but she did ask me after class if I was okay. I ended up crying in the department head’s office during the break, mortified that I’d have to cross the campus, tear-soaked. The student’s mother was a teacher at the school, likely leaving her protected from any culpability. In fact, it’s probably long forgotten, with no recollection of the event itself, but not by me. I remember the words, the patterns of hate, the sharpness, and how they have the power to wound, like a serpent’s fangs. Some cuts take longer to heal than others, some stay open for nearly 30 years.
I wanted to know everything there was to know about AIDS. If it was trying to kill me, I would do what I could to stop it. At the advice of a friend, whose mother I believe was its Executive Director, I became the biggest and youngest volunteer at AIDS Niagara. Anytime they needed anyone even to answer the phones I was there, learning how to avoid what was most certainly my fate, while supporting those who were suffering from the disease in any way I could. This included starting a group at E. L. Crossley — the Association for Futures at Risk (AFAR)— with a like-minded friend (who, in the years since has done amazing work internationally related to HIV/AIDs education), to share the risks related to AIDS with the broader high school community through speakers and action.
When AIDS Niagara asked for volunteers to work their booth at Gay Pride in Toronto in 1993, I leapt at the opportunity. For the first time I realized it was okay to be who I was, that I wasn’t alone. I had hope. So much so that I came out as bisexual to my OAC Sociology class later that year. The elation was short lived. I was officially “the fag of the class of ’94,” the target of jokes and receiver of slanders — including having Tyler Cook sucks Moose Cocks spray-painted across the entrance and exit of the school parking lot. Few people said anything to me that day, but those who did probably saved my life. I never thanked them for these acts of kindness until recently.
When I left for university, I purposefully chose Mount Allison, a small liberal arts university with some of the strictest admissions standards in the country, located in the marsh between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. As a polymath, and chronic over-achiever, it was a great fit. While my parents were proud that I was accepted, they expressed dismay that it was the only school of the 12 post-secondary institutions to which I was accepted that did not offer me a full or partial scholarship. My decision-making criteria were clear. I chose Mount A for the sole reason that no one I knew was aware that it existed, let alone would apply to go there. At no time was this more evident than during the Crossley graduation proceedings, when the head of guidance announced, “Tyler Cook, Ontario Scholar, will be attending Mount, Dal, someplace out east.” Initially I considered it nothing more than another slap from the school designed to educate me but lacking the ability to support and protect me. Only later was I able to interpret this moment as a victory. I had found my freedom.
Growing up is hard. Growing up as a member of the LGBTQ2+ community in the ‘80s and ‘90s in Fonthill was nothing short of a nightmare. You learn a lot of things, a lot of things that are really tough for any kid to process. Each thing you learn, while it hurts so badly at the time, benefits you later.
■ You learn first and foremost never to trust anyone; then you build self-reliance and inner strength to keep moving and eventually you learn to trust people again.
■ You learn, and begin to think that you’re the issue; then you realize it’s not you, it’s them, and you forgive, and feel sorry for your tormentors.
■ You learn to be ashamed of yourself and everything about you; then you find your truth, you grow, and you leave that version of yourself behind.
■ You learn how easy it is to commit suicide, you try several times and you fail (only because your mom calls at just the right time; or dad comes home from work earlier than usual and finds you with empty prescription pill containers and alcohol); then you realize, once you leave the town, life is actually worth living.
■ You learn what it feels like to have your Grade 8 teacher ask your friend, another student, if “Tyler is gay,” then your friend tells that it’s okay if you are.
■ You learn what it’s like to be slandered in your high school yearbook, you learn that hate speech is a hate crime; then you don’t make an official or public complaint because you know what it is like to have your name dragged through the mud. I quote directly, “Flamers, like Tyler Cook.” This does not mean that even 28 years later personal apologies from the school board, the school, the yearbook’s faculty advisor, and the individual(s) are not due, because they are.
■ You learn that running away to avoid any possibility of running into someone from your home town is your only option for a fresh start; then you find yourself, and a group of friends you never had growing up that don’t care about your past, and they become your family.
■ You learn to lie, and tell stories, so you make telling other peoples’ stories your career and you become successful (using a variety of pseudonyms) to allow you to neglect your own; until you become comfortable in clearly articulating your past.
■ You learn what it’s like to be talked about; then you fight back with humour, sarcasm and words, written, spoken or otherwise.
■ You learn that who you are has the propensity to impact others in your family who also experienced bullying; then they stand up for you and you understand the value of family.
■ You learn what it’s like to have no one to protect you and feel that you will never be loved; then you meet the love of your life, you marry him and you finally feel safe (I love you Jason).
I promised myself that unlike in my usual writings, I wouldn’t name names. That doesn’t seem fair. My name is someone’s pet peeve in a yearbook. My picture, the only one with a “special” orientation, mimicking my own. I am not naming names, but I will leave breadcrumbs, just enough so you know who you are, and so you can think about how your words and actions nearly killed me, not just once, but many times—that is if you choose to care. And I do believe that is your choice.
Growing up gay in Fonthill was hell, or the closest possible thing to it — to this day I only go back out of familial obligation and for no other reason. What it taught me was how to survive on my own, and to love myself when no one else would. It also taught me to be a better person. A kinder person with boundless empathy for the hurt and the marginalized, with a profound sense of social justice. I am not sure that I should be grateful for the experience, but I’m sure I would be a lessor human without it.
What I am grateful for is that at the end of it all, as hard as it was on my brothers, my family didn’t care I was gay; I am grateful that my marriage has outlasted those of my tormentors—and I now know what being loved is really like; and I am grateful that those LGBTQ2+ kids growing up today are more accepted and that many don’t have to face what I did every day for 18 years.
This is why we need Pride. It’s not about the corporate monetization of diversity and inclusion efforts—although those symbols of acceptance would have greatly helped 15-year-old me walking around the Pen Centre, downtown St. Catharines, or Welland. Pride enables me to focus on the fact I survived. I survived when many times my survival appeared untenable to me—it was going to be AIDS, some drunk high school student who thought it would be fun to beat up the gay kid, or me just not being able to make it through another day. I am a proud husband and son; uncle and brother. I have pride and no one will ever take that from me again. ◆
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