I came out to myself almost six years ago, in late May of 1992. It was a long and complicated process, ending with me able to write down the words “I am homosexual. I am gay,” and really accept it. All my life I’d distanced myself from my feelings and attractions, telling myself—when I thought about it at all—I just had a gay side, or gay tendencies, and that if I just found the right woman it would all go away. Finally I realized that would never happen, and I had to face reality: I was attracted to men and not women. It wasn’t just a tendency: I was gay, all of me, from the top of my head to the tips of my toes.

And so, my first identity. With it came, not just the unspeakable relief of breaking through a lifetime of denial, but a kind of focus, a recognition of the path that lay before me: I had to find other people like myself. I had to make contact with Ottawa’s gay community.

I learned, I connected, I stretched my boundaries little by little. The following spring I bought a set of freedom rings and surprised my parents by wearing them at the dinner table. A few t-shirts followed, as well as a whole bunch of politically-minded buttons to wear on my jacket or schoolbag. I loved the way they looked, so bright and colorful against grey or black. I liked letting people see them, making them think, even starting conversations. Little facets of myself, political or humorous or both or neither, diverse but never personal, never unique to me.

And so, lots of tiny little identities that followed me as I grew up, as I grew to know myself and discover larger, more solid labels.

Homosexual, gay, faggot, queer

“Gay.” Such a simple little word. What does it mean? To me, it’s shorthand for “being exclusively attracted to people of my own gender.” I know not everyone will agree with this definition, and that’s fine. What’s important is that it works for me, because I’ve found my sexuality to really be that simple, closety wishful thinking notwithstanding. I use the word when I want to be specific about my sexual orientation (ie: “gay” as opposed to “bi” or “straight”). Maybe its best point is that it was actually chosen by gays themselves—first as insider slang, then spreading to the mainstream. Plus, it’s short and upbeat. Hell, what’s not to like?

“Gay” has become a mostly neutral term these days, more or less interchangeable with “homosexual.” It wasn’t always this way, though. I’ve read letters dating back a quarter of a century, from self-defined homosexuals who rejected the label “gay.” It was the early 70’s, the early years of the Gay Liberation movement. As I understand it, “gay” was just starting to spread to the mainstream—and that included mainstream, assimilationist homosexuals. In those days, the word was full of activist connotations: marches, rallies, revolutionary rhetoric, all sorts of troublemaking.

Looking back across the years, spiritual heir to those activists and troublemakers, I can’t imagine why anyone would prefer “homosexual” to “gay.” It seems so stiff and awkward, and—to me—vaguely demeaning. When I hear “homosexual,” I think of the psychiatric establishment examining us, dissecting us, classifying us, morbidly focusing on sex lives or mannerisms instead of the whole person; I think of televangelists, who’d rather say “sodomite” or “pervert” or worse.

But even that hasn’t always been true. The word “homosexuality” was coined in 1869 by the German-Hungarian writer and gay rights activist Károly Mária Kertbeny. And labels continue to evolve, grow in acceptance, or be created. Bisexual. Transgendered. Dyke. Faggot. Queer.

Reclaimed put-downs are very tricky to use. It’s difficult to explain to well-meaning straights why one would want to call oneself a dyke or a faggot, and why they’re not allowed to do it. And, some gays are offended by these words no matter who’s using them.

I publicly identified as “faggot” for shock value once, in one of my articles. It sounded good. Though I hardly ever use the word in everyday conversation, I’m actually quite fond of it. When I hear “faggot” I think of gay men (“buggers,” “sodomites”) strangled and piled as kindling to make fires hot enough to burn witches. I think of old fears, old hatreds, old oppressions. And I picture torches burning bright, pushing back the darkness.

“Queer,” my favorite label besides “gay,” is another story. I remember once, long ago, when I was just starting out, saying I wasn’t queer enough to be called queer. Too normal, too mainstream. This was before I found my activist side, before I made the decision to stop going to church, before I realized what I could do, what I could be. And now? Now I embrace the label, because I know I’m queer in many, many ways besides sexual orientation. What I like best about this label is that it’s so inclusive, at least in theory. I call myself queer and imagine it makes me one with all the other outsiders, of whatever sexual orientation, who know being normal isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.


When can you call yourself a writer? That’s something I wondered about in my more insecure days. It all started with a twenty-page short story written for English class. Though it turned out to be the key to unlocking my creativity, did it by itself make me a writer? A year later, when I started to work on my first novel, did that make me a writer? Ten pages, twenty, thirty. How much was enough to convince me this wasn’t a fluke, a passing fad? By the time I reached the hundred-page mark, I was pretty sure this was for real. That I was a writer, I wasn’t just writing page after page and chapter after chapter.

But what’s the difference between “writing” and “being a writer”? Getting paid, getting published, making a living out of it? I’ve never been paid for it, I’ve only gotten my work in local zines, newsletters and student newspapers; as for a career, I’m pretty sure computer science pays more. Or is it a question of output? Is someone who writes four poems a month twice as much of writer as someone who writes two poems a month? And what about those who write just a couple of poems every now and then? Are they still writers? Dilettantes? Scribblers?

With time I realized how absurd it was to think in terms of “degrees of writerness.” But it’s still an occasional subconscious theme when I look at other writers and poets: I’m comparing, measuring myself against them, asking myself what they have that I don’t, and vice-versa. Why? Where does it come from, this need to hierarchize, to fit myself on a scale or at least a pyramid? I think it has a lot to do with basic insecurity. One the one hand, needing to have others to feel superior to; on the other, not trusting myself enough to follow my own paths, and idolizing others who I think know the way better than me. And, maybe they do. But I have to find my own voice, and make my own paths, and I can’t do that by putting other people on pedestals.


I never really thought about being Catholic while growing up. It was just there, all around me, unquestioned and unexamined for years and years. Then after I did question it, after I left it behind, I realized I needed a label to replace “Christian”; a new name to pin on my jacket to go with the buttons I was busy accumulating. The little ankh I bought in the fall of ’93 was a dead giveaway to my spiritual direction; for the next little while, as I explored Paganism, I spend a lot of energy worrying whether “Pagan” fit me. To my frustration, it didn’t; so I looked at other names, which didn’t fit me any better. Eventually (and somewhat reluctantly) I settled on “still looking,” a label that really wasn’t one but described my situation perfectly.

Then eventually came “agnostic,” then “atheist.” Simple enough labels, which makes them even more limiting. Also, “atheist” is a negative label, denoting a lack of belief. And it doesn’t say anything about what I do believe in. It totally ignores my spiritual roots, Paganism and Taoism—in fact, my entire spiritual side. Still, for lack of anything better, I identify as an atheist. Besides, I feel more at home with the atheist community than the (largely theistic) Pagan community.

I don’t wear those buttons anymore. The freedoms rings and t-shirts have been gathering dust for a long time. Oh, there are many explanations: buttons broke and had to be replaced, so in the end I just gave up; the rings were too noisy; the t-shirts are too small for my present taste.

Or is there more to it? Maybe this whole button thing was a phase I had to go through. And maybe my buttons could be seen as a metaphor for my use of labels. So I ask myself, what’s left after they’re gone? Until not too long ago, the question wouldn’t even have occurred to me. You can’t go around naked. Everybody needs a name. The more labels, the merrier. Put them on your jacket, put them on yourself. Hell, I even did it in the latest version of my home page.

Now… now I don’t know. What is left after labels are gone? The freedom to accept right from the start that I could simply be “still looking,” for one. The freedom to live without these hierarchies or writerness and the paralyzing insecurities that spawned them. The freedom to simply be, and touch, and love, without fitting yourself in the trichotomy of gay-bi-straight. I’m still trying to wrap my brain around these concepts, these visions. Then again, the brain is probably the wrong way to do it. Overanalysis is part of the problem, isn’t it? Better to go with the flow, accept each situation as it comes, without judging.

On the other hand, sometimes lines do have to be drawn, if only to set oneself apart from the mainstream and would-be oppressors. I’ve said before (and I’m not the only one) that without relentless Christian (in North America) evangelizing and institutionalized Christianity, atheism would no more be an issue than asantaclausism. The labels “homosexual,” “gay,” etc… not to mention “fag” and “dyke,” only came about in reaction to homophobia from straight society. To come out as gay, as atheist, is both a personal and political act. It’s admitting, to yourself and the world, that you are different. And announcing to others like you that they are not alone. Without individuals and groups and publications that publicly identify as gay/lesbian/bi/trans/whatever, where does someone questioning or exploring their sexuality go to reach out?

So as long as there is homophobia, as long as there is religious imperialism, the words “gay,” “queer,” and “atheist” will be important to utter. Limiting, yes. Someday, maybe, obsolete. But for now I believe it’s the best solution for an imperfect world.