Thirty years ago today, on September 21, 1984, the first installment of a column on gay and lesbian issues was published by Imprint, the student newspaper at the University of Waterloo. While LGBT perspectives are now completely routine in Canadian student papers, my column was, to the best of my knowledge, the first. Over the years I’ve been asked most of the questions that appear below.
Q: How did it get started?
A: I had felt terribly isolated when I was coming to terms with my sexual desires as a teenager, and I didn’t want anyone to have to go through the same thing. I was trying to break the silence so being gay wouldn’t be this great taboo that, as I saw it, was mostly being talked about by bigots and crackpots. I hoped ordinary people would just see it as normal and natural for someone to be gay.
Q: So you were a real pioneer?
A: I was, but I should clarify there was already a regular program on the CKMS-FM, the Waterloo student radio station. The thing is, it had a small and self-selected audience, whereas I was trying to reach people who weren’t already thinking about the issue, weren’t already sympathetic. So what better way than a column on the op-ed page of a paper that had a circulation of around 12,000? Mine was the first for a mainstream audience.
Q: Did you have any difficulty getting it approved?
A: I submitted the required six samples to show I’d be able to keep the thing going, and the voting members of the paper’s volunteer corps approved it without any fuss.
Q: What was the schedule?
A: The column ran in pretty much every issue of the paper, which came out every Friday during the Fall and Winter terms, and every second Friday during the Spring term.
Q: How did the column change over time?
A: When I started, the tone was very defensive, embarrassingly so. The original title of the column was “Everyone Knows,” referring to stereotyped ideas that everyone (my projected “they”) thought they knew about “us” but that I wanted to challenge. After a while a fellow student with some journalistic experience advised me that it would be better to just get on with what I wanted to say without worrying explicitly about readers who were the most prejudiced.
So I shifted to a more confident and straightforward tone and a new title, “A Different Light.” named after a gay bookstore in Los Angeles, itself named after a (rather cheesy) science fiction novel by Elizabeth A. Lynn. And then in March 1985, when the feature-length documentary The Times of Harvey Milk won an Academy Award, I was inspired to start writing under my real name.
Q: What was that like?
A: Well, scary in a way. I didn’t know how people would respond. I thought there was more than a slight chance that I’d get beaten up, but I was determined not to live in fear of other people’s reactions. And in fact no one at Waterloo ever hassled me to my face, though I did hear second-hand about people who no longer wanted to associate with me.
Q: Do you consider yourself brave?
A: Brave, schmave – it was just something I felt I had to do. People were suffering, and if it would help for me to be open about being attracted to other guys, how could I keep silence?
Q: After such a ground-breaking step, how could you then end up turning your back on all that you wrote?
A: Though I committed fourteen years ago to a life of chastity, in fact I haven’t rejected everything from my days of gay activism. People sometimes make oversimplified assumptions about what I must believe now. As for how I went from out-and-proud gay activist to orthodox Catholic, the long answer will have to wait for a later installment. The short answer includes that I continue to endorse some of the values I promoted and defended thirty years ago, in particular, the dignity of all people regardless of their sexual desires or sexual practices.