I have been terrifically moved to read of the experiences of Mr. Trent Crick and Mr. Tyler Cook over the last weeks, so much so that I fear I have taxed the patience of the editor with my requests to add to and amend the following account of my own life growing up in Pelham, where I in fact still reside. There will be a major difference in my story, however, because I have chosen not to reveal my name except to said editor, who has pledged that it will remain undisclosed. The reason for this relates to my family. I am in an entirely different circumstance to those of the two younger men whose school years were in the 1980s and 1990s. I came of age many years before. I got married, and had children, and our children had their own children. None of them know, and I have to surmise do not even suspect, that for many decades I have lived a double life.
I must be prudent in describing the circumstances of my upbringing and working years, as too many details—or “breadcrumbs” in the words of Mr. Cook—could well lead to my being identified. Perhaps you are wondering why occasion to write anything at all if I am not to be fully honest, and my answer to this is that I shall be completely honest, but only up to a point. Through this essay I want to unburden myself of a certain quantity of guilt over my deception, but I also want to explain it, and I want to make it categorically clear that our society’s knowing deceit about homosexual behaviour goes back many decades.
Our family like many here lived among farmland, although my parents were not farmers themselves. Both my parents came from large families, and I too had many siblings. Both my parents’ families had resided in Niagara for some few generations. We don’t have roads or bridges named after us but old-timers would recollect our family names.
I attended what was for all intents and purposes a one-room school through Grade 8. These were very happy times. I was a cheerful boy, and considered very sociable. I took part in almost every sport I could, in all four seasons, and had the scrapes and sprains to show for it.
One of my parent’s siblings did own a working farm to the west, and visiting this uncle and aunt and my cousins was always an adventure, so much so that at weekends I and my siblings would beg our parents to take us on this ride out 20 Highway, which at that time ran almost solely through orchards and farmers’ fields. It was on this farm that I learned about the birds and the bees. Elaboration isn’t necessary—anyone who sees animals mating for the first time likely remembers these images forever. One of my cousins took it upon himself to explain the reproductive basics to me—we were both ten or eleven—which I only half-believed, especially when he claimed that parents did the same thing to make babies.
In my turn I took these details to school, and my telling them caused no little amount of shock and denials from my chums, although a couple of the local farm kids confirmed them as bona fide.
I remembered these early days many years later and wondered whether they were responsible for my attraction to a certain type of male in general, to what for matters of simplicity I will call “rugged” or “outdoor” men. One particularity of farmers in the summer was how they looked when they took off their shirts, what came to be referred to as the “farmer’s tan,” when the face, neck, and forearms were darker than their chest and torso, because they worked under the sun but kept their T-shirts or work shirts on. I sharply recollect a late summer afternoon as I entered puberty, watching a hand on my uncle’s farm pitching hay into a horse’s stall. He was 19 or 20, not long out of school in any case, and for some reason he had taken off his shirt inside the stable. His back and chest were like pure cream, whilst his neck and lower arms were caramel. My heart beat so fast that I thought I might pass out. This memory is almost as striking today as it was these many decades ago.
I don’t mean to say that this was my first inkling of desire, far from the case, but it drilled into my heart in a way that the curious play with boys my own age had not. We need to have a word about this. Any honest male of any age will admit to being curious as a boy to see other boys’ “equipment.” It takes very little to go beyond looking to something more. I don’t remember this as being anything other than normal, a part of growing up. There were a couple of popular swimming holes that drew a goodly number of chums of varying ages, and if there were no girls present we stripped off completely and jumped in. “Equipment” comparison was inevitable, and then relief of the consequent arousal. I stress that at least through public school no one called this out as unusual or deserving of bullying, because we were virtually all doing it. Having said this, it also wasn’t something we talked about, and assuredly not at home. Nothing sexual was ever talked about at home.
The first time I had any sense of a taboo was occasioned right around this same stage, perhaps because I was starting to put two and two together. There was a term that kept being repeated on the radio (we did not yet have a television), which was “sex perverts.” This was because of the McCarthy hearings, when US Senator Joseph McCarthy conducted a witch hunt against various groups, especially so-called communists and the aforesaid perverts. The perverts turned out to be “homosexuals,” another word that was new to me. I realize that now it may be hard to believe that a 12 or 13-year-old would not know what “homosexual” means, but it was a different, much simpler time, and we were after all out in the country.
By the time I got to Pelham District High School matters had changed a little bit, but I was still rather naive. At this time I noticed that some boys were labelled “fairies.” For a good year or so I thought that being a fairy just meant being a “pretty boy,” which was another new phrase, and I thought being a pretty boy merely referred to a kid who was better looking than others. It wasn’t until Grade 10 that the penny finally dropped, which brings me to another point.
Being a fairy or a pretty boy was bad because this was almost as bad as being a girl. This gets the measure of the male attitude of the 1950s. Fairies and females were the worst things one could be. At its root, homophobia is also a fear and resentment of females, resentment that becomes hatred. Anti-gays are misogynistic as much today as they were then. Gay-haters are woman-haters too.
Anti-gays are misogynistic as much today as they were then. Gay-haters are woman-haters too.
I am ashamed to admit (and have been ashamed for a long time) that on occasion I took part in this bullying. Even as I was having sexual liaisons with other classmates, I did not put myself in the fairy category, since clearly I was not girly, I did not want to act like a girl or be a girl. The phoniness gets worse, because even if we might have taunted a “fairy” at lunch, on many an occasion after school two or three of us were together in the bush or in someone’s garage, looking at a salacious (remember the era) magazine called “Playboy,” which one of our siblings brought over from across the river, and doing what, to us, came naturally. It was a truism that as the moments progressed we were looking less at the magazine pages and more at each other.
As puberty hit like a ton of bricks I also became attracted to girls, and they were attracted to me. Unfortunately for a randy teenager, the farthest you got with “nice” girls was kissing, and what back then was called “petting,” and if you really hit the jackpot “heavy petting.” If there were any not-nice girls at PDHS, I was unlucky enough never to go out with them. This tended to leave us males of the species mightily frustrated, with certain orbs turning blue. There was many a double-date when we would say goodbye to our girls and end up behind a barn or the back of a garage, alleviating the pent-up tension.
By the last year of high school I started to get a hold on what stronger words like “queer” and “fag” meant. A bit before this time “homosexuals” had been back in the news, and two stories made a particular impression. The first was that the federal government banned homosexuals from immigrating to Canada, and the second was concerning a “ring” of homosexuals in Boise, Idaho that involved dozens of men and teenagers. What was shocking to people is that the men involved were “respectable” members of the community, lawyers and doctors and such.
Yet my sexual desire did not diminish, and strikingly (as I look back) I didn’t think that (1) I was a fag, or (2) that there was anything wrong with wanting sex with other males. I must emphasize this. At no time in my life have I ever been ashamed of my sexual attractions, nor have I judged them to be in any sense “unnatural.” It was just the way I was, and I knew if I had these feelings then others did too, a deduction repeatedly proven accurate from puberty onward. In other words, I identified the disparaging labels of fag and fairy and so on with a personality type, not with the sexual activity itself. More on this later.
Also at this time I had my first “serious” girlfriend, and later I also started having sexual experiences with older males. This is not going to please some old timers around town, but it is the truth. One of these males was a well known leader in Fonthill, a stereotypical “man’s man,” active in a baker’s dozen ways at once—church, sports teams, citizen committees—and I know for a fact that I was not the only one he took a liking to, because I confirmed it with others that he went with. Even though of course he is long dead, I will not name names. I will say however, that some of his other special friends are still very much alive, and they know who they are, and their disgusting anti-gay remarks in recent decades have been shameful. A few years ago I stopped going to the Legion because I couldn’t withstand listening to it any more from old men who as young men had enjoyed every minute of their time with Mr.——, and carried on beyond that for years with other men, even after they were married.
The editor suggests I make it clear that I am not condoning abusive or coercive relationships. I am not. I can only testify to my experience, as a 19-year-old, who freely sought out these affections, plus what’s more it was after I left school, the summer before I went to university. (I was never aware of this man or his friends having relations with anyone who was underage or even still in school. Remember that in those days there was Grade 13, so graduates were either 18 or 19 and considered adults.)
[Editor’s note: If you are a young person and you believe that an adult is behaving improperly toward you, you may confidentially contact Kids Help Phone, 800-668-6868, www.kidshelpphone.ca, for help. If you are not sure whether the behaviour is improper, please call anyway to ask about it. This phone number is always on page 4 of every issue of the Voice.]
In fact, it was this man (who was married with children) who gave me some counsel that came in very useful.
First, he told me that male love was older than the Bible, that it went back to the very start of human civilization. Then he said that I would be surprised over and over to find out who would make a pass at me and that it was impossible to tell every book by its cover. Not everyone was an obvious “Mary” or “nance” or “queen,” all terms that again referred to shuddersome effeminacy. Finally he said that “our kind” were everywhere, in every level of society, and if you wanted to find someone all you had to do was go to the nearest public washroom, or changing room, or swimming pool, or anywhere that men opened their flys or changed clothes.
I quickly would discover the truthfulness of all this at Crystal Beach, where I worked that summer
I quickly would discover the truthfulness of all this at Crystal Beach, where I worked that summer. Most of the time I was assigned to a ride that allowed riders to determine themselves whether they rode around right-side-up or upside down. (By consequence there was no small amount of vomit to clean.) I soon discovered that the washrooms—most preeminently those that were out-of-the-way, as in the lower level under the dance floor—were hornet’s nests of activity. There were teens, and graybeards, and dads who left the little ones with their wives to go on rides so that he could go out prowling. There were plenty of New Yorkers who came over and they were always in a party mood, oftentimes tight from flasks they nipped from and offered around, and whether ascribable to the booze or to their more forward American nature they didn’t waste any time hiding their interest.
At night the neon lit up the midway, and the noise from all of the concessions made it hard to have a normal conversation as you walked along. Like Mr. —– predicted, I was propositioned by everyone and his uncle, pun intended. Please don’t judge me a braggart when I say that I was easy on the eyes, a strapping country lad with solid muscles and blond hair. A few offered me money which I never took, but I would take a burger and a pop if I was on dinner break. I often heard the same thing—that they were nervous talking to me at first because I didn’t look “that way,” but usually neither did they. These were masculine males like me, just the type I liked. I still remember meeting a somewhat older fellow in a changing room (probably really only 30 or so) and, seeing his white torso but tanned arms, I asked him what he farmed. He looked at me like I was speaking Chinese, so I pointed at his chest and said, “Farmer’s tan.” He scoffed and said, “Golfer’s tan.”
I went off to university in a large North American city. I spent much of those years having relations with both males and females, although my contact with males was almost always brief and anonymous, whilst I formed longer-lasting relationships with girls that I mostly met on campus. I would never “date” another male—it never even occurred to me that such a thing could happen.
Workers in the field that I studied were in some demand in the greater Toronto and Hamilton areas, so after graduation I returned home to Niagara and was hired immediately. At an organization party I met a secretary and we got on like a proverbial house on fire. The following year we were married, and on schedule nine months later our first child arrived. By this time we had bought a house in one of the villages that later became Pelham. More kids came. We were a happy, contented brood.
All the same, my “switch-hitting” appetite was as strong as ever. In university I took a psychology course where I first learned about the “Kinsey Scale” and the range of sexual behaviour in humans. I realized that in terms of desire I was spot-on in the centre of this scale, equally attracted to both sexes. In terms of experience (or maybe “opportunity” is better), I calculate that in those years, before marriage, I had at least 20 to 30 contacts with males for every one contact with a female.
I realized that in terms of desire I was spot-on in the centre of this scale, equally attracted to both sexes
As anyone with eyes must agree, males are built to rut. They are ready, willing, and able to go anytime, and given the opportunity they will. It is a biological curse, you could say. All a fellow had to know was where to look. Washrooms were always a sure bet, as were YMCAs, and closer to home a particular area of bush not far from where the 406 highway would be built, where there was a convenient parking lot next to a historical marker. Usually every few months in these places I would spy someone I knew from town, and often I was as surprised to see them as they were to see me. Remember the Cold War policy that kept the USSR and the US in line, known as MAD, or “mutually assured destruction”? We fellow travelers in the brotherhood observed the same policy—no one ratted out anyone else, because to do so would destroy us all. Once again the cross section of society was there—tradesmen, managers, service club members, mechanics. In fact, the more machismo a man put on, the more likely it seemed to me that he would have a taste for going “that way,” at least on the side.
As I moved up the ladder I was given more responsibility. Starting in the late 1960s I was traveling to locations across North America and overseas. I had a regular enough itinerary that I began to make particular male friends in different cities, and this is where my real double life took off. By this time the sexual revolution was in full swing and homosexual—or using the new term, “gay”—bars were everywhere. Any larger city anywhere in the world had at least a half dozen such establishments. There were also “Turkish saunas” that were a sure bet. I became a regular in a favourite spot in each city—my accent giving me away as Canadian in the States, but being assumed to be American (and “rich”) elsewhere abroad.
One summer Sunday I flew to New York City and that night headed to what was my preferred bar at the time, a friendly spot called either Ashes or Ashor’s. Somehow or another I had been too busy over the week prior to have heard anything about the so-called “homosexual riots” that had happened a few days earlier, up the street a few blocks, at a bar called The Stonewall. This name would become synonymous with the start of the gay rights movement, but on that night in our bar we were all in agreement: this was making everyone look bad. The Stonewall was a notorious dive, a hangout for drug addicts and male prostitutes. In fact, the consensus among us proper, respectable middle-class men with mortgages and in many cases wives, was that these low-class fairy boys were ruining a good thing.
In fact, the consensus among us proper, respectable middle-class men with mortgages and in many cases wives, was that these low-class fairy boys were ruining a good thing
What do I mean? Yes, it’s true at that time that you could be charged by the police if you were caught with another male—usually this was for “indecency” or another morals-based charge. I do not deny that this could be the ruination of a man’s life in certain circumstances, most especially in small towns where lived small minds. However, in my world, and the world of the men I knew, these were extremely rare events. We were discreet. We weren’t flaunting anything and passed for 100 percent “straight.” There was a thrill in the secrecy of it, in the hidden life. The covertness was exciting, like we were spies undercover but also in plain sight.
This was my attitude through the 1970s. I don’t remember where I first heard the expression, but it was said around that time that “the love that dare not speak its name now won’t shut up.” Gay parades with flouncing, half-naked men on floats? Men dressed up as women? It made me cringe, made me angry, in fact, at such brazen militancy. (I was given to understand later that this was what the head shrinkers called “internalized homophobia.”)
This shameful, selfish outlook of mine started to change in the 1980s, as AIDS, the “gay plague,” swept around the world. You may ask how I protected myself before this deadly threat arrived, after all, there were other insidious, sexually transmitted diseases before this. Indeed, my biggest concern over the years was accidentally bringing something home to my wife, which would have torn me apart with guilt. My approach was to become increasingly selective about who I went with, and if I ever had a nagging suspicion that something wasn’t right I headed over the river to get tested by a doctor, whom I had met at a bar in Buffalo and with whom I became lifelong friends, or go to one of the free clinics. On the matter of HIV, without being too descriptive I was at very low risk considering that I did not ever favour the activities that were most linked to becoming infected. Nonetheless, until the late 1990s I would get an HIV test about every two months, just to ensure that I was clean.
What began to soften my attitude toward the “gay” identity (as opposed to the simpler physical connection with men, which was not a political statement) was seeing how atrociously AIDS patients were being treated, how Canadian and American politicians failed these men, how the hysteria around the virus was allowed to run riot for so long. Some may remember that there were serious if half-witted politicians talking openly about quarantining AIDS patients in special camps. (A pointless effort anyway, since this was a disease that took years after exposure to reveal itself.)
In the early 1990s I also met some younger male couples that challenged my views about what a relationship between two men could be, that it could go beyond the sexual in the same way as the love between a man and a woman. For their part they could not understand how I could have been happily married to a woman for so many years, and asked me, if times had been different when I was young, whether I could have settled down with a man.
I believe the answer to that, for me personally, is no. I always wanted a family, I never for a moment regretted getting married, and I have been lucky to have lived a long and happy life with my wife. Perhaps this is a generational perspective, because among the men that I knew who were in the same situation, and of roughly the same age as myself, none of us would have wanted to move in with other men. This may be seen as a lack of courage, but again, I can only speak for myself when I say it was a lack of interest. That being noted, I heartily support the right of others to live their own lives, and fervently believe, as a photograph in this paper showed recently, that “love is love.”
As for my randy ways, age has a way of turning that flame down, bit by bit, until all the heat is gone
As for my randy ways, age has a way of turning that flame down, bit by bit, until all the heat is gone. There was a gay sauna in Fort Erie to which I gave my business for a few years, but the modern ways that men connect with their phones for casual fun left the writing on the wall, and it shuttered its doors some years ago. Now the nearest such facility is in Hamilton, but the notion of bundling my arthritis into the car for that long of a drive puts the damper on desire, and even if I did get into the place, such venues are for the young and not very hospitable for we elders in the brotherhood.
I remember Trent and his wild hair, as he would sometimes come through Keith’s when we ate there. I had no notion of his sexual identity, and regret that he suffered so much pain on account of it. Let me say that any elected official in Pelham—or anywhere else—who read the stories of Trent Crick and Tyler Cook and still has anti-gay sentiments in their heart is undeserving of the public trust. There is still homophobia and bullying in Pelham and Niagara and Canada, and the religious zealots who fan these flames are lower than dirt. I sadly have no doubt that the new Pride benches to be installed in town will be vandalized.
It takes all kinds in this world, and we would all be so much better off if the bigots and haters and racists would truly learn to live and let live. ◆