Robbie, 30, sits down with the EMHC to talk about his experience of coming out – and growing up – and how YEG’s queer community has changed over the years.
I was in Ottawa and I met a woman and we connected and I thought “Should I be giving her my number? Wait a minute… I can’t do that! I’m gay!”
On Being Gay in YEG
When did you first know you were gay?
Around 15 or 16. I was a late bloomer. At first I thought I was weird because my initial attractions didn’t even occur. Liking guys was a relief, comparatively!
Have you ever felt discriminated against due to your sexuality?
Things like threats of violence, and people coming after me – being targeted – that hasn’t happened to me for years… for me, for it to be discrimination, it has to be direct, meaning, it would be someone choosing to do something based on who or what I am. So recently, it has been carelessness and ignorance, not hatefulness. But that still creates uncomfortable situations.
So, do you see a big difference in Edmonton between now and when you first came out?
It’s easy for me to identify because I’d [leave Edmonton] for a while and then come back. When I first came out, I was 15 (this is coming on 16 years ago)… If I was walking down the street holding my boyfriend’s hand, I would have to be aware that it was a statement. But while I was away last time, it seems as though Edmonton had this cultural shift, where now it is very inappropriate to be racist or homophobic, at least in a direct, hateful way. So, if I want to be publicly affectionate with someone I’m seeing, it’s not such a statement anymore.
Have you ever experienced stigma or discrimination within the queer community?
Oh yeah, I think it’s something that is a common experience. “We tend to eat our young…”
“We tend to eat our young”? Can you elaborate on that?
I find it very interesting, that as time goes on, there seems to be less and less importance placed on community institutions, like the Pride Centre or gay bars. There is this kind of – I don’t want to say anger, but that is the word that comes to my mind – from older generations, myself included, who are a bit bitter due to how easy it is for younger generations. And [partly because of this] there’s no inter-generational learning. And so as a way of biting back, younger generations tend to stigmatize older generations. So, there is this kind of two-way bitterness where no one wants to teach and no one wants to learn. And those are the things that inter-generational sharing could improve and increase that feeling of community.
So have you already felt that ageism at the young age of 30?
Well, if anything, I’ve been the ageist one but… like Grindr for example. I’m finding it very entertaining, that I seem to be entering into that “Daddy” territory. Because I don’t think of myself as old, but you’ll have an 18 year old person hitting on me, and I’m like, “If this is your real age on your profile, maybe you feel this is appropriate but I don’t think this is.” And that would be my mindset with a space like Outreach. Most of them have just gotten out of high school and are just starting university… I might be putting that on myself…
My mother is also gay. She came out in her 40s and didn’t have a resource for a while until she found Womonspace, [which] really helped her as an adult person coming out. But if I think of me now – I am sure those spaces must exist… but I don’t know what I would do if I was to come out at this point.
On Coming Out
How was the process of coming out for you?
First I came out to my circle of friends at school. Among my family, I came out to my mom… She said, “Thank you for telling me but maybe we shouldn’t talk about it until we figure out the reaction of other people.” Later, I ended up coming out to my father in order to bring my then boyfriend to my graduation.
With my background being Portuguese – though we’re not super stereotypical immigrants – and with the catholic influence and both of my parents having grown up on a very small island, there was this irrational fear: thinking my father would not handle it well. But really the thing that upset him was that we didn’t have comfortable enough of a relationship for me to feel comfortable telling him about it – that he was the last to know.
What was the reaction when you came out?
It was surprisingly neutral. For my father, he later said that the most awkward thing was when other people commented about gay people, because he had a direct connection to it. I mean, for him, when people were commenting about a gay person… it was a comment specifically about his son. So he was more sensitive… which is good!
My mother was also afraid of how people would react. But eventually my parents talked to the rest of my family – and we have a very gossipy family – so the job was done for me there!
After being openly gay for about 15 years, have you learned anything that you would have found useful to know when you first came out?
There’s more fluidity now. When I came out there was this expectation of, “You need to stick to a label and represent it.” There was also this push for marriage equality, which is quite important, but I don’t believe that should be the be-all and end-all of what a gay relationship should be. And although when I’m in a relationship I prefer it to be monogamous – which again, is one of those expectations – now there is more fluidity in terms of self-identification of gender, preference, or coupling.
So, there can be less expectation on how one should be. Which I envy a little because, as an example, I was in Ottawa and I met a woman and we connected and I thought “Should I be giving her my number? Wait a minute… I can’t do that! I’m gay!” And that is something current queer folks don’t have to grapple with as much, I hope.
If you could tell the queer community one thing what would it be?
Telling them to be kinder to themselves and to each other seems to never work, so perhaps I would advise ‘one less’ as a recommendation. One less drink, one less catty comment, one less cigarette, one less self-hating judgement, one less hour at the bar or on Grindr. Just generally one less thing that doesn’t serve you.