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April 10, 2005

  • Befriend Your Local Lesbian
  • There is going to be an election soon. And you can bet there are going to be two major issues facing the Liberal Party, both beginning with the letter S: Sponsorship Scandal and Same Sex Marriages. To the former, I can offer no help whatsoever.

    To the latter, I have one small hope: that everyone could have a friend like my friend Sharon.

    In my second year of university I was just concluding my tenure as an Evangelical Christian. Things had not been adding up in my mind for a long time. I was liberal politically, and spent my first year of university becoming jaded and cynical whenever I spent time with the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship group. And yet, I still felt that the Evangelical view of scripture was crucial to my life, and that morality needed to be fixed or else there would be chaos. This is why when I joined York University's Student Christian Movement chapter—a Christian organization that was suitably political and activist for my thinking—I balked at going to their spring conference on sexuality because I thought its promotion of homosexuality was wrong.

    Now, understand that by Evangelical Christian standards, I was on the “compassionate” end of the spectrum. I believed that homosexuality was a result of some kind of trauma—a dysphoria that left people damaged due to abuse or other factors.

    Which brings me to my friend Sharon.

    In my second year of university, I took the core course of the Women's Studies program at York. It was, and remains to be, probably the most significant course I took in my misspent academic career. The reasons for this will have to wait for another time except to say my view of the world was radically affected. The one key reason for this was our tutorial instructor, a woman named Kym Bird who was the best professor I have ever had (another story as well). It was Kym's practice to hold court in the Vanier College student pub after class—a way for students to keep discussing the issues informally as well as to provide an opportunity to decompress.

    In those classes I was exposed to a world completely outside my relatively sheltered systems. And in the pub after class I was exposed to people I had studiously avoided in my life.

    First and foremost, lesbians. Sharon was one of them. An out, short haired, slightly androgynous looking lesbian.

    When I first started taking this class, I felt that my Christianity called me to engage with people like her. I'd say it was ‘love the sinner and hate the sin’, but it was different than that. I never expressed my opinion on her sexuality or the sexuality of anyone else in my class, and I never opposed it. I just privately felt she was probably the result of something that had gone wrong in her life.

    What I had not reckoned was that I would become friends with Sharon, and indeed the diaspora of feminists that hung out in the student pub after class. Sharon was pretty ordinary. She was, in fact, something of a jock (with apologies for the mixed metaphor)—she worked at York's athletic centre. But she was honest, she was warm and she was amazingly self-reflective and most of all she was friendly—a trait which when you're one of two men in a tutorial of 20 is appreciated.

    She was five years or so older than me. I seem to recall she had done something sports-related—perhaps she was a physiotherapist—before coming back to work on a degree in education. I think it was the teacher in her that found me interesting to her. She knew I was new to the whole feminism and gay scene, and she helped explain it to me.

    And so over three months of classes and pub meet-ups I got to know Sharon. She had a pretty normal life, much the same as mine: and she shared with me a healthy love for Monty Python and Margaret Atwood.

    It was in December that I realized how great a friend she was.

    The previous December, 14 female students at L'ecole Polytechnique in Montreal were murdered by a man brandishing a rifle ranting about feminists. The incident became known as the Montreal Massacre. Every December 6 this tragedy is commemorated; a touchstone in the campaign to stop violence against women. I remember the first such year the massacre was remembered like it was yesterday. The horror and sadness of such a tragedy affected most students back then.

    Various student groups were planning a memorial service to take place on December 6. The student group I was involved with, the Student Christian Movement, wanted some kind of an interfaith service to take place beforehand. But the women in our group felt shut out from the planning process. Feminists can be understandably suspicious of anything with the word ‘Christian’ in it. Eventually an interfaith service was planned, though it was downplayed in all publicity (even getting the name of our group wrong).

    In class, Sharon, who was a member of York's Women's Centre, was getting people organized about going. I mentioned that I was disappointed that there was so much suspicion of an interfaith service and that all we were doing was adding a spiritual element for anyone who had an interest.

    Sharon was not religious and was not interested in our event, but she affirmed what we were doing as being important and promoted it, and even showed up at the actual interfaith service.

    The whole of December 6, 1990 was as intense a memory as I'll ever have. There was a ceremony, a vigil and an opportunity for people to speak. It was emotionally charged and powerful as women came together to talk about violence and the need for it to end. It changed me, politicized me.

    Afterward, Sharon took me to the Faculty Club for a beer and helped me process it all. While we were there, I asked her about her life, about her parents (who I seem to remember she was on good terms) and about the women she dated (she had just come out of a long term relationship with another woman that seemed as traumatic and typical as my other heterosexual friends' breakups). I talked about my non-existent relational life and she made sympathetic noises. I suppose, when it comes down to it, we bonded over beers that afternoon. On the way out, we stopped by the Women's Centre and she gave me—still a virgin—some condoms and a dental dam "in case I might need them" (I turned bright red). She also introduced me to her best friend Dan, who was a gay man—the first out gay man I can remember meeting as an adult.

    She gave me a ride to the subway and it was in the car with her that I realized something remarkable, something incredible. She's really no different than me. There isn't any reason for her difference in sexuality other than her just being that way. There is nothing wrong with her being gay.

    It changed my life.

    I later found the ideas and the concepts—both personal and theological—to explain what I felt. As ever, my heart got there before the words. I realized that my friendship with Sharon was like any other friendship, and her life was like any of my other friends: full of ups and downs and jokes and bits we try to avoid. The only difference was that she loved women. Not because of abuse trauma or any of that crap, but because that's who she loved. To my mind, it couldn't be wrong, it couldn't be sinful, because a sin involves a moral choice and this isn't about choice but about who someone is.

    I tried to explain this to her some months later when we were in her car again. We both had just been to a poetry reading by Margaret Atwood and both purchased anthologies of her poetry that she autographed for us. We were both star-struck and thrilled by her. I tried to explain to Sharon how much her friendship had changed me, but I never quite got the words out. Instead we gushed about how great it was to actually briefly exchange words with our favourite Canadian author.

    I lost touch with Sharon a couple of years later—the next year she started practice teaching and eventually she went on to become a full-fledged teacher. I stayed in touch with her friend Dan for a while after she left, but eventually he graduated too. These things happen. Our lives are, as someone said, a series of comings and goings. Sharon still has my copy of Foucault's History of Sexuality, so I remain hopeful that we might one day reconnect.

    Over the next few weeks, the issue of same sex marriage is going to come to the forefront of our national agenda. There are all sorts of people who talk about it destroying the institutions of the family and marriage (which I find laughable; if they're that fragile there's something seriously wrong).

    I think there's a simple way to reduce the rhetorical quagmire: people from around the country should befriend lesbians just like I did. Once people have put the ordinary human face to their apparent nightmares, maybe they might realize there is no nightmare; just normal people who want to get by as best they can.

    I know it's a hokey strategy, but maybe we need hokey solutions right now.


    Posted by graeme | (0) Comments | Permalink

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