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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Part 2: Gay parent, gay child

Globe and Mail
Tuesday, Jun. 10, 2003

Jennifer Woodill was wallowing in self-pity, face drenched with tears, waiting for consoling words from her mother at the end of the long-distance telephone line. Except none came. The woman who could be counted upon for her warm shoulder and wise counsel was being as prickly as a pin cushion.

There Jennifer was, a righteous 25-year-old lesbian from Toronto marooned in the woods for two months at a posh summer camp in the United States, teaching guitar to the daughters of New Jersey's elite, all the while forbidden to breathe a word about her sexual orientation or to show a hint of affection for the camp's assistant director, who was her steady girlfriend.

Before the summer, she had lunged at the chance to pocket $5,000 for barely two months work in the glorious outdoors. It never crossed her mind that masquerading as a straight woman would feel like selling her soul.

"I can't stand it here any longer," she sobbed into the receiver, like a homesick child. "I want to go home."

"Now you know what my life's been like," Marcia Perryman said simply, with all the sympathy of a callous shrug.

That telephone exchange on a steamy summer evening almost two years ago was the essence of the generation gap between a woman who came out as a lesbian 25 years ago and her lesbian daughter today.

Those years have been a lifetime in the evolution of gay rights in Canada — an evolution that in its speed and breadth is the most striking example of the tolerance for ethnic, religious and sexual diversity that Marcia's generation marched in the streets to establish, and that Jennifer's generation takes as its birthright.

When middle-aged lesbians such as Marcia were the age their children are now, the gay-rights movement in Canada was in its infancy. Equality rights had not been enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms; sexual orientation was still grounds for discrimination; no one had dreamed of splashy gay-pride parades bringing city traffic to a halt with thousands of marchers.

This was a gay generation compelled to live a heterosexual lie, heading for the altar in their 20s to smother their sexual leanings. Some treated their sexual orientation as though it were a nasty smoking habit that could be cured with cold-turkey abstinence. Those who knew better feared living outside the closet at a time when psychologists considered homosexuality a mental illness and the law regarded gay sex as a crime.

A generation later, gay households are counted in Canada's census, and high-profile court battles have been waged to award same-sex spouses almost all the trappings of common-law heterosexual life, from alimony to adoption.

Instead of remaining closeted for decades, children are coming out in their adolescence. High schools and universities feature lectures against homophobia and offer clubs not only for gay students, but also for those who are bisexual, transgendered, and even wondering about their sexuality.

Now that many of the thorny political battles waged by the first gay activists of the 1960s and 1970s have been won, the new generation has the time to refine what it means to be gay. Tossing out stereotypes, they are crossing from the margins to the mainstream, treading on heterosexual turf as though they own it. Couples are exchanging vows at commitment ceremonies with all the pomp and circumstance of a traditional wedding. They are turning to fertility clinics and open-minded adoption agencies to start alternative families that their parents never imagined possible.

"There has been a fundamental shift in consciousness," said Marcia, who lives mostly in the closet with her partner in a farmhouse in a small town near Pembroke, Ont.

"My generation of lesbians was more black and white. Our generation thinks of a bisexual person as someone who doesn't know what they're doing and should get on with it, and this new generation is much more conscious of the sexual continuum. For my generation of gay and lesbian people, because we are the first generation, it was much more important for us to define ourselves. The next generation is saying that the pigeon holes are much too small."

Marcia, 54, came out abruptly in the late seventies, a 29-year-old suburban housewife with two small children and no inkling she was gay until she was swept into the romance that would turn her cosy, conservative world on its head. In the next few years, she felt a shame so profound that she took a vow of celibacy.

She shakes her head in wonder at her feisty, forthright daughter, now 28, who can no more imagine concealing her sexual orientation than she can the colour of her skin.

As a lesbian in the blush of youth, there is nothing Jennifer feels unentitled to. She and her partner, Alex Vamos, are planning a wedding this summer followed by a romantic seaside honeymoon. They have just moved into a house in Toronto's trendy Beaches neighbourhood. And they have lined up a friend in New York willing to be the sperm donor and part-time father to their children when they try to conceive next year.

It seems difficult to fathom, only a decade after gays were still fighting to preserve their jobs. And it's true that public opinion has not entirely swung over. Every gay and lesbian has a story of homophobia to tell.

"It's important not to romanticize the ease of being a 20-year-old lesbian and gay person in many parts of this country," said David Rayside, a University of Toronto professor of political science and sexual-diversity studies. "A significant minority of my students admit to being uncomfortable at a party where there are same-sex couples, or uncomfortable if they knew their lab partner was gay."

Seven years ago, Jean-Yves Malenfant sat down with his three children to break the news that he was gay and had fallen in love with a man. Only two months before, the family had celebrated his 25th wedding anniversary with the small-town New Brunswick high-school sweetheart who was as madly in love with her husband as ever.

His sons cried. But his daughter, Sylvie, 16, known to everyone as Daddy's girl, took the news hardest. Bursting into tears, she shouted, "No. It's not true. Tell me that it isn't true."

These were painful moments but, for him, tinged with the relief of unloading a lifelong burden.

"For the first time in my life," he said recently, "I felt I was who I was. Even when I told my wife, I felt a big weight was lifted off my shoulders because I could be truthful."

He wonders now how it never crossed his mind that his daughter, ever the tomboy who seldom wore dresses, loathed Barbie dolls, loved sports and never gushed over boys, was a lesbian. When she confided in him a few years ago during a long drive from her Moncton University dorm back home for a weekend — the first person she told — he remembered her fierce response to his own declaration.

"He was so happy," recalled Sylvie, now 24 and with a new-minted masters degree in criminology from the University of Ottawa. "He told me, 'No matter if you're gay or not, you have the opportunity at your age to figure out who you are, and I think that's wonderful.' "

To figure himself out was a freedom that Mr. Malenfant never had.

"I thought I was the only one like that. I didn't know anyone who was gay around me. I didn't feel like I had a choice. I had to have a straight life and get married and have kids. I met my wife, and I fell in love with her. I feel that I really was in love with her. I loved her the best way I could."

But as the years passed, it became more difficult to ignore the powerful urge to be with men. Finally, out of town at a conference, he met a man named Pierre who is now his partner of seven years.

"When I left to go back home, I was in love with that man," he said. "I knew going back home, things couldn't be the same as they were before."

Like her father, Sylvie discovered she was gay when she met someone, falling for a classmate in her first year of university. It was like an epiphany. She fretted about telling her mother. "How would I say to my mom what had hurt her so much for such a long time?" she wondered.

In the end, her mother guessed. "Are you gay?" she asked bluntly one day, after her daughter became distraught at news that a girlfriend was dating another woman. "That's what I'm trying to figure out," was all Sylvie had the guts to respond.

Her mother was indignant. "Make sure you find out who you are before hurting someone else."

Time has healed her mother's wounds. And coming out to friends, Sylvie has found that people treat her pronouncement as no big deal. Still, about to embark on her career, she refuses to use her first name in print, defaulting to her middle one.

"My dad, it took him 48 years to figure out, 'This is who I am.' I had the opportunity to explore who I was at 19 because people are more and more open-minded," she said.

William White was a teenager easing out of the closet — "it was a gradual process, like I was almost emerging from a shell" — at the same time as his 48-year-old father bolted out of the closet with a suicide attempt that almost worked.

Like many gay people, William, now 21, had understood from an early age that he was different. At school in Halifax, where he still lives, he was a social outcast, teased and bullied by the popular children. When he caught himself fantasizing about the boys in his class, he would will himself to stare at the girls in a futile attempt to train his sexual orientation away from its natural leaning.

"It was not a great time to discover things about yourself that don't make you popular when you're not popular to begin with," he said.

A few years later, his depressed father would slash his wrists and neck at work, pushed over the edge by financial pressures, a job he loathed with a market-research company, two decades of living the lie of a gay man stuck in a crumbling straight marriage, and a nagging sense that he was unworthy as a father.

"I considered myself as a failure as a man and a father because I had these gay thoughts," Walter White said. "It was what I thought to be an evil, bad, immoral part of myself that I couldn't control."

He and his wife had invested years in counselling to save their marriage. She sat by his hospital bedside for five weeks. Then he turned to her and said, "Well, I guess you know your husband is a homosexual?" The revelation stung.

Walter emerged from hospital a changed man, bursting with plans to train for a new career and, for the first time in his life, describing himself as a bisexual.

"It was an interesting parallel in our lives," his son said. "I was starting to go into the same place at the same time. He was repairing his life and I was shaping mine, but we were both doing the same thing."

Now, Walter lives in Halifax with his partner of three years, George, and holds a job he adores as a home-care worker for seniors, few of whom suspect he is gay. For his part, William juggles two jobs, managing a sandwich shop when not working as a landscape gardener. Everyone knows he is gay.

"I understand why my father tried to live mainstream and lived his life in a private section of his mind," William said. "But it's too hard to have a dual life in your head. I did on a micro scale what he did on a macro scale. What he took 20 years to do, I took two years to do.

"I couldn't do what my father did. He didn't share his feelings with my mom, and he built a life that was only half of his life. I could not build a huge mountain and watch it collapse."

Jennifer Woodill is sprawled on her denim-blue couch, bought — along with the armchair where Alex sits, feet tucked under her — when the couple moved into their new house. The plans for their honeymoon are changing by the week. A resort in Algonquin Park was dropped for a bed-and-breakfast in Nova Scotia owned by a lesbian couple, now being abandoned for a holiday in Provincetown, Mass.

For two women comfortable in their lesbian skins, it has been a rude awakening to realize that their sexual orientation would make them feel conspicuous at the luxury resorts they have pored over on the Internet — not the romantic retreat they had in mind.

"I never feel bad about being gay," grumbled Alex. "But with this honeymoon thing, it really feels like an obstacle."

And so, the switch to a U.S. tourist town famous as a draw for gays and lesbians on vacation.

"It's very, very gay," Jennifer said, trying to sound upbeat. "We can go there, and we'll be fine. I think it will be fun." ROBTv Workopolis