I’ve lived in Vancouver for over eight years, having moved here from Ottawa—where I was born and spent all my life—and there’s nowhere else I’d rather be. In fact, I believe moving out here was the best thing that happened to me since I came out of the close twelve years ago. I’ve changed a lot in that time and, looking back, I feel very far away from Ottawa, and the me who lived there. From where I’m sitting it sometimes feels as though very little changed for me in those first four years after coming out, and even less in the two decades that came before. As though the only important decision I made in Ottawa was to eventually get the hell out, and find a place—the only place—where I could be who I needed to be. I have to force myself to remember there was a lot more to those four years than coming out and dreams of the West Coast.
I remember my graduation, in June of ’92. I’d come out to myself less than two weeks before, and still felt completely lost. The ceremony wasn’t helping, either. All the other graduands seemed so sure of themselves, what they wanted, where they were going. But me? I had no clue, and no confidence that I could handle it all. Nothing I’d gone through so far had prepared me for this. My life—safe, routine, familiar—was being turned upside down and for the moment I had no one to talk to. I was alone.
At some point in the following weeks I got the idea to go on a short trip by myself, to shake up my routine and hopefully give me a bit of perspective and confidence. After some thought I decided on Québec, a few hours away by train. Familiar enough—I’d been there a couple of times when I was much younger—but still far from my everyday life. So I travelled there in early August, staying at the Université Laval residences. I did the tourist thing by day—the Zoo, the Aquarium, Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré, Île d’Orléans, exploring the narrow streets of Vieux Québec—and wrote in my diary by night. There was a lot of self-doubt, confusion and loneliness in those entries… but also joy at this new adventure, and hope (or at least wishes) for the future. When I came home I felt a bit more relaxed, a bit more sunburned, a bit more confident, a bit more determined.True, I wasn’t changed as much as I would have liked… but I’d taken that important first step.
That fall I came out to Ottawa’s gay community, and my immediate family. And then, one by one, to some of my friends and classmates. I was nervous as hell the first few times, but with each person I told the fear got a little weaker and I got a little stronger.
And I became politicized. I read up on queer issues, got in touch with my anger and joined activist groups. Tentatively, at first; for a long time after coming out I lacked the confidence to pull my weight and be more than an observer.
I stopped going to church; for years I’d been going more or less out of inertia, and I suppose it was only after I came out as gay that I could also come out as a non-Catholic. For a while I flirted with Wicca, then began a gradual slide towards atheism.
And I stayed in school. For the first year after coming out I took higher-division Physics courses, thinking I could go on to a Master’s. Then I realized Computer Science was more my thing, and began a new degree in the fall of ’93.
I don’t remember exactly at what point I thought of moving to the West Coast, but the more I thought about it, the more appealing it seemed: the mountains, the sea, the unknown… and, just as importantly, it was far away from Ottawa. By late ’95 I was feeling a growing need to leave, make a fresh start somewhere else. I’d changed a lot, grown, and made friends I’d miss, but Ottawa held too many painful memories, of loneliness and need and failure, both before and after coming out. I also wanted to do graduate studies, but preferably not in Ottawa. I applied to a number of universities and, to my delight, was accepted in the Master’s program in Comp Sci at Simon Fraser University.
At the end of June ’96 a bunch of us from Outlook (Ottawa U GLB group) went down to Toronto for the Gay Pride weekend. Until then I’d only seen Ottawa’s relatively modest Pride parades, so I was really looking forward to this. The weekend started off with a trip to Canada’s Wonderland on Saturday. Great fun, and another first for me, though I was too afraid of heights and motion sickness to go on the wilder rides. The weather turned to rain in the middle of the day, but it was warm enough that after a while I didn’t even feel it. That night we took a walk through the gay ghetto—there were Pride flags everywhere—and made a brief stop at an incredibly crowded club.
On Sunday, Church Street was a riot of colour and noise, with people in all sorts of costumes, everyday clothes, or no clothes at all. Toronto is a different world; back in Ottawa I never saw more than one or two pairs of breasts a year at the parade. But here there were topless women left, right, and centre, as well as a few naked men (or just about naked; but really, what do you call someone wearing only (a) a leather harness, or (b) a translucent gown and cock ring?). The crowd was so thick I only caught a few glimpses of the huge, elaborate floats as the parade looped around the neighbourhood. That was fine, there was plenty to see. Church Street was closed off for a street fair kind of thing, and I spent the afternoon people-watching, checking out the booths, and trying to keep hydrated under the blazing sun.
In a way this weekend trip to Toronto felt similar to my earlier trip to Québec, both being preludes to something big and intimidating: my journey out of the closet, and moving across the country. Part of me was still worried that I wouldn’t be able to live on my own and it was nice to be reminded that, yes, I could handle it. These two nights in a youth hostel could be seen as a bit of a test, that I passed with flying colours. Then again, in hindsight I’m sure I was looking for patterns in all the wrong places. Though there was a nice superficial symmetry between the two trips, the differences far outweighed the similarities. I didn’t go to Toronto to reflect or work up my courage—though that was a nice side effect—but only to have fun, and connect with the greater community I was now a part of. Most importantly, I was different. For all my doubts and insecurities—still there after four years—I finally knew I had the strength to make it on my own.
And Vancouver was only five weeks away now! Over those five weeks I ping-ponged between excitement and terror as I said my goodbyes and packed and dreamed about my new life. I was massively nervous and insecure, but I never considered not leaving. I was doing the right thing: Vancouver was where I belonged now, not Ottawa.
But moving thousands of kilometers across the country wasn’t some kind of magical rebirth. It didn’t immediately remove all my issues and insecurities, no matter how much I would have liked it to. Just like I had before, I grew up and changed one step at a time. And I’ve only just come to wonder if maybe it didn’t matter where that happened. There was nothing special about Vancouver, or Ottawa, for that matter. I was doing pretty well by the time of my second fateful trip, and I think now I could have built a fine life pretty much anywhere, or continued to build it if I’d stayed in Ottawa.
That’s not to say I made a mistake eight years ago. It felt like the right thing to do then, and I don’t regret it one bit. Vancouver is my home now. But the truth is that I didn’t have to move here. At some point between Québec and Toronto I made a choice. Maybe it didn’t feel like much of one, but there it was. There were any number of roads open to me, not just the one that led to Vancouver. There’s not much point in playing what-if games and wondering how my past could have been different, but I can think about the future. And I can choose where the road out of Ottawa will lead me.