Wonder Woman Wrecked My Life Then Saved It: I Finally Accepted Being Gay

There comes a time when the real you can’t sleep anymore

5 April 2024 / Published on Medium
Photo credits / Freepik

I have no idea how it came to be, but somehow, I found some old red fabric and cut it raggedly into the shape of a bodice. I also vaguely remember that I had found some shiny gold glitter and had glued it on in the shape of an eagle’s wings: the best that a young boy could do, anyway.

I carefully put my normal clothes on top of this wonderful secret and headed out to school. On the outside, I was just a regular old kid. But lying underneath hid a vibrant, proud and strong alter ego — my own superhero — just waiting to show itself to the world.

I don’t know why I loved Wonder Woman so much. Perhaps a very deep part of me knew, even then, that I was different. All I know is that seeing her transform from mere mortal to the divine in a flash of thunder and a cacophony of trumpets was red-hot magic to me.

I don’t remember how the rest happened at all that day. I must have trustingly told someone what lay underneath, innocently thinking that showing this other side of me was wonderful. Instead, it lit a fire that never seemed to go out. A fire that burned me down to the ground with a fury that had one message: The real you is something to be ashamed of and needs to be buried deep, deep down. One little crack of difference on one single day turned into years of torment.

Even in brief moments when I felt a sliver of belonging, the eventual moment would come when someone in the crowd would remind me of what I had done, and the façade of acceptance would shatter all around me in a million pieces.

Always waiting for the other shoe to drop.

I grew up in the 1980s in a pretty conservative Markham, Ontario. Our house was just outside of a subdivision of modest bungalows built in the 1960s. The street names were inspired by the story of Robin Hood: I suppose it was an attempt to paint a picture of a perfect suburban paradise. King Richard Court, Alanadale Avenue and Sherwood Forest Drive, to name a few. As I mentioned, we lived just outside of it, down in the valley near Main Street. I find it ironic that, even geographically, we lived just outside of where most of the kids lived.

Just slightly out of bounds.

It’s funny what you remember about the past. How some seemingly random moments stick out like big signposts on your life path. Maybe because they are major turning points in our lives. Some major shift in our bodies or our minds. New neurons being born. Or being shut down.

One such memory is of a boy named Aaron Johnstone, who was new to our school. He was big and brawny for his age, with a shock of red hair and pale skin covered with freckles. I don’t even remember why he was in my driveway. Was he passing by? Did I invite him over? Surely he wasn’t there because of me. And yet, there he was. But I do remember how I felt. Warm in the face. Nervous. Heart beating out of my chest. He was handsome and confident, and here he was in front of me.

I’m not supposed to feel this way.

And then she came over. Tracy lived in the apartment building across the street and on the other side of the creek. She looked quite grown up for her age, let me put it that way. She had flowing black hair, gorgeous eyes and olive skin. I watched as Aaron and Tracy teased and flirted with each other. Even at 12 years old, it had begun, and I stood there on the sidelines like a silent witness. The flirting continued, and eventually, Tracy got on the back of the banana seat bike that Aaron was on — even though it was really built to fit only one person — and they rode off together.

I felt a twinge of jealousy. I wanted to be her. Not because she was a girl but because being a girl meant she could be close to him.

And so it continues. A half-drawn person on the surface. A universe — like a thousand stars of emotions and feelings — going on underneath.

There wasn’t even a molecule of gay life back in the early 1980s. I pretty much hung out with girls for most of my school life. It was just safer. No pressure to be athletic or to pretend to like things that you didn’t. It would have probably been just too confusing to hang out with the other boys, always pretending, always vigilant at the security fence, being sure not to cross any boundaries. I did have some very good male friends, don’t get me wrong. But in the small moments I had with the cool boys of the school, I was always on edge. Always nervously waiting for one of them to remind me of what happened all those years ago.

It was as if they were saying: “We’ll accept you this time, but don’t forget your place. Don’t forget what you did.”

In 1984, I moved into high school. Everyone was pretty much figuring out this brand-new world, and the teasing finally ended. I guess everyone was too busy figuring out their own shit. It was pretty much right out of a John Hughes movie. There were the rich, preppy kids who lived in the more affluent, nearby town of Unionville, wearing their penny loafers, chinos and Ralph Lauren button-downs and driving their Cabriolets or Chevy Berettas to school. There were the rockers who smoked in the quad during lunch — the girls decked out in tight jeans and big hair and the guys with their mullets and jean jackets emblazoned with their gods of music, like Led Zeppelin and Iron Maiden. And then there was the alternative crowd. Satiny tops and black blazers from Le Chateau. Crimped hair and dark eyeliner. But me? I think I was kind of ‘none of the above’. Friendly to everyone, but I didn’t have much of my own identity.

I had tried that once. Better to swallow it down.

I did like the alternative crowd, though. And there was one particular guy named Justin. He was definitely gay, but I don’t think he ever said it. He was funny and confident, and I looked up to him. We used to sit next to each other in the cafeteria while we played euchre and ate glow-in-the-dark cheese popcorn at lunch. When I look back, it was all very strange. Under the table, we would always be touching legs. But above the table, there was no acknowledgement that anything was going on. Not even a look at each other. Like two separate realities going on at the same time.

All quite normal on the surface, but a whole other reality was simultaneously going on in the dark places. Never in the light of day.

Until that one day, anyway. Justin had invited me to camp out in his backyard. All was good, and we had a fun evening. And then, in the morning, Justin asked me if I wanted to touch him. He told me that it felt good and tried to convince me that I would like it, too. You’ve got to remember that there are feelings of attraction, but there is the whole realm of being sexual, too. At that age, I’m not sure what I felt. But I knew that it was all just too much, and that set off alarm bells. Who knows what chaos it would’ve unleashed? At least when it’s all hidden away, it’s under control. I remember feeling pretty awful for the rest of that morning, with anxiety pulsing through me like poison. I couldn’t have gotten out of there fast enough. I eventually left, and sadly, that was the last time we spoke. You can’t undo those types of moments.

Go back to sleep, and don’t wake up again.

I think I was pretty much dormant after that for about a year or two. And then, a wonderful thing happened. I met a girl named Lisa. I don’t think I have ever connected with anyone else like her. We had our own language. Our own inside jokes. We laughed a lot, and we loved being with each other. The love was real, and that felt good. And it was a very deep and pure kind of love. Just not that kind. Way more than just friends, but not quite able to go that extra mile. But I did go as far as I could.

We had a wonderful few years together. We went out partying. We hung out at coffee shops and at the mall. We even went to prom together. She in her satiny white dress, me in my shiny tuxedo and bright purple corsage. Finally in the uniform of normality. Finally feeling like I belonged.

I didn’t feel like there was anything missing because the real me was still fast asleep.

But even then, there were hints of the sleeping giant inside. I remember collecting GQ magazines and loving the photos of handsome men in sharp, clean, expensive clothes. A legitimate way to look at men, wrapped up in rampant consumerism. Maybe I could buy my way in. The Obsession photo shoots by Bruce Weber. The alternate fantasy worlds of Calvin Klein models — clad only in underwear — posing in surreal landscapes. I remember showing people those photos of impossibly godlike men and commenting how I loved their hair or their clothes. What I was actually saying was: “I think this guy is really hot.” Just in my own secret language. Apparently, the world underneath still had a way of communicating with the outside world. It may be buried, but it still wants validation. It still wants to live. Even if you build the strongest dam to keep the raging torrent at bay, it’s no match for your own truth, even if it only comes out as a trickle.

Soon enough, 1989 arrived, and the end of high school was rapidly approaching. We were all choosing where to go to university. Lisa was already at a different school, and soon after, we decided to break up. I can’t deny that I was somewhat relieved. Not because the love had died but because the pressure was mounting to take it further. I guess deep down, I knew it was a love that couldn’t be everything to me — or to her.

Go to a different place. Kick the can down the road.

My university years in Ottawa were amazing. I lived in a house of six people, and sometimes more. On summer nights, we’d have campfires in the backyard and listen to bands like the Grateful Dead and Jethro Tull. I grew my hair long and wore ponchos and sandals. We spent many nights drinking and playing Risk until the wee hours of the morning or wandering the woods blissed out on mushrooms.

Susie became one of my closest friends, and we spent endless days and nights together. She never demanded anything of me, and I never asked anything of her. When I look back, I was definitely more coloured in, but I was still galaxies away from my true self. Diluted. Nice to everyone. No strong opinions. Having an opinion meant drawing attention to yourself. And having someone not like you just felt too painful. Like you were going to be found out. The fear of being an outcast. Of not belonging.

After graduating, I decided to stay in Ottawa for a bit. I think that’s when it started to happen. If I had banished my true self to an eternal slumber, then it just makes sense that it would start to talk to me in my dreams. Haunted by visions of being with guys. Slowly, gradually, I could feel it waking up.

I couldn’t hold it down anymore.

Two of my roommates had a friend named Thom, and he came over once in a while with his handsome boyfriend. And finally, after all the schooling was done with no risk of public banishment, this finally felt like a safe place to reveal myself. Soon after, I came out to my roommates who were very supportive. And then, I had to tell Susie. She was actually pretty devastated. What kind of train wrecks do we leave behind when we can’t love how we want, giving our half-full hearts to women who loved with arms wide open? She was amazing, and she actually went with me to my first gay bar. When I think of the love that it took to do that, I look back with such gratitude. I had taken the first baby steps into this strange, exciting world. But soon after, Susie got into her powder-blue car and drove out of the city and out of sight.

On another night at the disco, I met a cute French Canadian guy. He wanted to take me out on a date. He was out and proud and he was so completely at ease in his own skin. And I was so uncomfortable in mine. I just didn’t know how to act. I guess that’s the point. You don’t have to act anymore, but I had been on stage for so long that I didn’t know who I was. All of the feelings were finally seeing the light of day for the first time, like some foreign entity waking up in some undiscovered country. But, over time, I did find room.

After throwing out the lying and the half-truths, there’s finally room for you.

Life was wonderful in the 1990s. I felt like I was standing on solid ground. My family was wonderfully supportive after the usual questions and also the worry about HIV and AIDS. There was the sadness about me never being a Dad, or at least not in the traditional way. The world seemed to be waking up at the same time, too. Tom Hanks played a gay man in Philadelphia. Gay characters wandered into Central Park on Friends. Ellen came on and then came out. And as time passed, I could finally take my place in this world. An honest and genuine place.

Do these memories still affect me today? In one way, no. I’m very much out and proud, and I thankfully live in a society where being gay is accepted. But in another way, the old demons still hang around like bad air. It takes time to undo years of training.

It’s way better now, but I used to be at parties where straight men gathered around each other to talk about sports and other man stuff. It usually involved a barbecue (because it was okay if men cooked when it was outside and used large manly utensils and cooked with fire). And I would get that same old feeling. The same feeling of not being in the club. And sometimes, I didn’t even let on that I was gay. I just couldn’t be bothered to deal with seeing the change in their eyes or feeling their discomfort.

Apologetic. Polite. Unopinionated. Steering clear of confrontation. Still this nagging fear of being rejected. Fear of making mistakes and being really hard on myself when I do make them. A constant drive to improve myself. To be better. To maybe prove to the world that I really do belong and that I’m good enough.

Sometimes, it’s like I’m saying: “Do you mind if I just take this little space over here? I won’t make much noise or cause a fuss. I’ll behave.”

It’s still a work in progress, and those demons might always be there. But they’re a lot weaker now, and I realize that ‘coming out’ is just one part of self-actualization. The other part is healing those ancient scars of shame and guilt.

Finally saying: “I’m done. I can’t swallow this anymore. You will just have to feel uncomfortable. That’s your issue, not mine.”

It’s about realizing that not being the vibrant, proud and strong one-hundred percent me means that things feel crooked inside, and I won’t walk on uneven ground anymore. Energy has to go somewhere and it’s not going inward anymore.

It’s about knowing that you have just as much a right to own your space as everyone else. Realizing that you don’t have to react anymore, which you did for such a long time. No longer reacting to what comes your way but instead throwing out your own light — bright and strong and laser-beam focused.

I understand now what Wonder Woman was to me. She was an embodiment of that power. A flat, put-together, non-assuming person that, with just a few spins around, could transform into a brilliant, powerful, confident superhero. The superhero that stands guard over you and never lets go. For me, it took years to finally spin around and honour my truth — almost like it happened in slow motion. But as it turns out, you can’t keep your true self asleep forever.

Meanwhile, in an alternate universe, Aaron Johnstone rides into my driveway with the warm air rustling his fiery red hair. He smiles at me, and I return it. I’m alive and vibrant and real. No alter ego waiting to see the light of day. Just me in full technicolour luminosity. I get on the back of his bike, and we laugh together as he struggles to ride up the hill. We finally reach the top, and my heart is full as we ride through the streets named after a fantasy world long gone. We ride past the Dads mowing their lawns and the Moms tending to the flowerbeds. The tic-tic-tic of the sprinklers watering the thirsty lawns, casting rainbows in the sunshine. Past Sherwood Forest Drive, Alanadale Avenue and King Richard Court, we go. Out of the darkness of the valley below and into the promise of summer, writing our own adventure as we go.

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