Suicides of LGBT teens lately have been reported much more frequently than in the past, and Jamie Hubley, the focus of our thoughts today, is destined to be a sad statistic tomorrow, and while we applaud efforts like the It Gets Better Project – see the Canadian video here – obviously it isn’t enough to have famous people reaching out to gay teens, because that’s not real life…but it is a well-meant, mainstream start at removing some of the stigma attached to being a gay teen.
But it’s not enough – not nearly.
When I first read about Jamie Hubley, I was shocked. I admit that I was naïve: I am a reasonably privileged white Canadian male; my friends are small-L liberal types whose lack of prejudice I take for granted; and I live in Ottawa, which isn’t some hick Christian Republican city in the States (think Matthew Shepard and Laramie, Wyoming). My MPP and mayor are Liberals, my MP is a New Democrat, and I expect them to support and participate in Capital Pride (and they all do). How can it be so bad for a gay kid from an Ottawa suburb?
There was, perhaps, more press about Jamie Hubley because his father Allan is an Ottawa city councillor – by all accounts a good man, a recipient of the Governor General’s Caring Canadian Award for his volunteerism.
It was only when I read Cllr. Hubley’s statement today on the death of his son that I realized how foolish I was to think one teen’s personal situation would be automatically better than another’s because of geography or even having a loving, supportive family.
And I realized this because, for once, I stepped back from my usual chosen role online as a commentator and made it personal. Reading what Cllr. Hubley wrote, I realized this, too: I could have been Jamie Hubley.
I am so bloody fortunate. I am openly gay, and take it for granted that no one has an issue with it. I have a partner with whom I’ve lived now for over a year. I have stepkids and no one’s ever suggested we aren’t fit parents because we’re two gay men. I didn’t even feel disadvantaged by being gay and living in a town of 4,000, though until I met R it was rather lonely.
How quickly I forgot that, even if it did get better, it used to be much, much worse.
Like Jamie Hubley, I grew up in suburbia – Unionville, Ontario to be precise – and while my parents split up when I was a baby, I was raised by a loving mother, did well in school, and had friends…until I became a gay teen.
Like Jamie Hubley, even before I really knew what “gay” meant, I was teased and bullied for a lack of athletic aptitude (in Jamie’s case, as his father wrote, he preferred figure skating to hockey). Somehow, despite not being particularly “girly” or “sissy,” the other kids knew I was different, and they knew the difference was bad, and that they could get away with hurting me because – as my teachers often lamented – I made little effort to fit in.
It was tantamount to their saying that if only I weren’t gay, I wouldn’t be bullied for being gay.
I hit puberty early, in grade 5, and from that point on my school life fell apart. Having been the top student in every class up to that point, identified as gifted, blah blah blah, I suddenly started shuttling from school to school as I and my mother tried to find the magic solution – that didn’t exist – to keep me out of harm’s way.
It’s been reported that kids on Jamie Hubley’s school bus tried to shove batteries in his mouth for not liking hockey. In my case, I was socially shunned, beaten up, shoved into lockers – you name it. And it went on for years and years and yes, it did damage to me: to my self-esteem, to my mental health, to my view of the world.
We’ve all heard right-wing commentators associate us with all those sad statistics – higher rate of suicides, addictions, mental health issues – as if they were inherent to the fact of being gay instead of being a result of how often we are treated at a young age, then go out into the world with no guidebook, few role models…not a clue, really.
By the time I was seventeen only my parents, two or three friends, and a few teachers knew I was gay. I hadn’t told most of my family, and for that matter, I still haven’t. I am ashamed to admit that it was only this year that I told my favourite cousin, and I didn’t really tell her so much as I simply introduced her to my boyfriend.
That year – in 1992 – my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a mastectomy. She wasn’t expected to live through the operation. (Happily, she did, and because she was determined and had excellent doctors, she survived for another fourteen years.)
Meanwhile, I was left alone at home. I wasn’t on speaking terms with my father and stepmother, who lived 200 kms away, and my mother’s family for some unknown reason thought it appropriate to let an only child, a teenager, a mama’s boy at that, stay alone at home caring for two dogs and two cats for a month while his mother was in Intensive Care.
This was when the bullying at high school was at its worst. My mother and I thought we had solved the problem by switching me to an alternative school, AISP, in North York, but shortly before Mom’s diagnosis I was attacked by a fellow student on a class trip. He called me “faggot” and kicked me in the chest, as I vividly recall, for which he was given a three-day suspension.
And so, I stopped going to school, even though I was an A+ student, liked by his teachers, liked even by many of his peers (mostly the female ones), all because some fucking delinquent asshole named Eric was somehow threatened by this studious, meek, gay suburban kid.
After three weeks alone, terrified to go to school, scared that my mother was dying, I tried to kill myself. To this day I don’t know why I changed my mind and called a family friend who took me to the hospital, but I did.
It did get better…in time, and after I switched to another alternative school called Subway Academy Two that offered individual learning with three teachers, all of whom encouraged me and made me feel like I belonged. Still, essentially I traded all peer socialization except for one single, solitary friend for the safety that Subway provided.
Why am I sharing my story? It is with great reluctance that I do. There are parts of this story unknown to even my partner, and I want to be taken seriously. This is not a gay blog, or a mental illness blog, though I am willing to admit that my youthful troubles led to anxiety and depression. Primarily, I’m known for politics, and this is more personal.
But it is political too, because if you’re reading this, you probably know me – in real life, or through social media, perhaps – and it’s just wrong wrong wrong for me to go on blithely retweeting and reposting stuff about Jamie Hubley if I’m not even willing to be honest about my own path.
When one is young, one lives in a bubble, really. When teenagers talk about their problems, it’s as if they don’t realize that anyone else has ever had the same issues.
I don’t know how else to let gay teens know that a lot of us went through the same shit except if we reach some sort of critical mass of personal stories. It’s all very nice that Dan Savage is doing something, but most gay kids won’t turn out to be Dan Savage. They’ll be more like, well, me, trying to be happy, trying to live a “normal” life, finding love and friendship, bettering oneself, helping to improve one’s community.
And even then, the cynic in me whispers in my ear that we haven’t – yet – changed society, that it is still an inevitable struggle for almost all LGBT youth, and there will be more Jamie Hubleys over which we share a link and shed a tear.
But maybe telling our stories is a start, and of course we should support local charitable and social services that can make a difference.
You can make a donation, as per Cllr. Allan Hubley’s request, in Jamie Hubley’s memory to the Youth Services Bureau of Ottawa’s Youth Mental Health Walk-In Clinic. It’s too little, too late, I know…but it’s something.