The side yard of the Parker home is a pleasant escape from the bustle of the city. Despite being located on one of Halifax’s busiest streets, the vine-wrapped gate at the side of the house leads into a lush green garden surrounded by high fences that manages to create the illusion of tranquility.
But the garden is never very far from total chaos.
Planted in amongst the flowers and bushes, three loud and unmistakable rainbow flags burst with colour. Normally, the flags would be a recognizable symbol of gay pride, but at the Parker home, they’re more ambiguous than that. Alex Parker, the 19-year-old who purchased the flags, knows what they represent. Alex also knows that he probably isn’t completely straight—he just hasn’t told anyone yet.
“I need to make up my mind and figure out what I am before I tell anybody,” says Alex, sitting behind his house, surrounded by the peaceful garden.
Alex—who asked that his real name be withheld—still lives at home with his parents and his older brother. His brother knows what the rainbow flags in the side yard really mean, and suspects that his younger brother is bisexual. It doesn’t bother him, he just wishes Alex would change the way he dresses sometimes. Alex’s mom understands about the flags, too. However, she doesn’t believe—or doesn’t want to believe—that her son might be gay.
But nobody ever mentions gay pride around Alex’s 73-year-old father—he still thinks they’re just flags. Colourful flags.
“I think it would shock him,” says Parker. “I think if I’m going to tell him, I would have liked to have moved out before, just so I could stay out of his way and give him time.”
This is life for Alex, just as it is for many young gays and lesbians who have yet to come out—an awkward balance between sexual discovery and maintaining the normalcy of day-to-day life. Alex believes that coming out at this stage in his life would make things uncomfortable for his family.
“My mom finds it perfectly fine for anybody else, but it’s not OK for me,” he explains. “She can deal with it at the office and with her friends, but that’s a lot easier than coming home and having to deal with it at her house.”
If Alex is merely uncomfortable about coming out at home, he’s genuinely fearful of the consequences about coming out on the job. He works as a carpenter—a job that he says is brimming with machismo.
“One guy on the job, he’s not gay, but they bug him all the time about being gay. They tease the hell out of him, say things like, ‘Why are you looking at that guy?’ or ‘Hey, he’s changing his shirt, you should come over and look.’ I don’t think I could handle it; I think I’d leave. I’m just glad it’s not directed at me,” he says. “I honestly don’t think it would be safe for me to come out there.”
Recently, he discovered the Halifax Lesbian Gay and Bisexual Youth Project, a not-for-profit group based in an old Halifax home on Brunswick Street that reaches out to young people like Alex.
The Project focuses on individuals who are 25 years and younger, offering peer support groups, counselling and a link to the local gay community.
The Project capitalizes on the look and feel of their cozy headquarters; the inside of the house is bright and colourful and inviting. The top floor contains offices for the Project employees, while the bottom floor has a large living room for the weekly discussion meetings and drop-in nights. One wall of the living room displays prison-style mug shots of attendees who have come out over the past year, and the date when they chose to do so. Alex has been visiting the Project house regularly for the past three weeks. His father thinks he’s been going to play pool.
“During the initial coming out pro cess, the parents tend to be a big deal, because most parents have no clue,” says Meghan Curry, one of the staff at the Youth Project. “They go through life thinking that their child is heterosexual, they’re going to grow up, get married, have children and do all of these things—fulfill all of the expectations, and then they learn something about their child that is a complete turnaround, and they have to deal with that. And it’s shocking. The full realization can take a long time.”
Meghan knows what life is like for visitors like Alex—she is bisexual herself, and despite the fact that she works at the Project, she has yet to come out to her family (she also requested that her name be changed for this story). Just like Alex, Meghan is 19 years old, still living at home and nervous about how her family would react to the news—especially when it comes to her father.
“My dad would kind of be the person I’m completely against coming out to,” she says. “There’s always that hesitation—if I allow any amount of self-disclosure, what are people going to think? Is this a safe environment for me to do so? There are all of these questions you have to go through every time you choose to reveal that about yourself, and it’s just not a place that I want to put myself in.”
Meghan also knows about the delicate art of omission, a thin but remarkably effective shield that can keep family members and friends from learning anything too explicit.
“I kind of cover up where I work. As soon as I say Brunswick Street people seem to think, ‘Oh, inner city youth.’ So I just leave it there,” she says. “Everyone is saying, ‘Oh we’re so proud of what you’re doing,’ but I feel like as soon as I slip the words GLBT’ in there, that’s just going to disappear.”
It may seem like a paradox for a young, closeted teen to be helping others open up, but Meghan says that despite all the work that she does at the Project, her personal circumstances are still intimidating.
“The youth that I see are so resilient and brave for coming out at that age, and sometimes I look at my own situation and think, ‘Well, isn’t that hypocritical. You’re trying to empower the youth and here I am totally not out at all,’” she says. “But as great as the youth are and as happy as I am for their situations, I don’t really see it as applying to myself. Because I know my family. I’m still afraid of their reactions no matter how much I support the youth and see them succeed.”
Meghan discovered the Youth Project while still in high school. By then, the Project had already worked with hundreds of young Haligonians, giving them a safe place to open up about their sexuality. For some, like Alex, the house on Brunswick lends a supportive environment to their life that wouldn’t otherwise exist.
Leighann Wichman has been with the Youth Project since its foundation in 1993. Since then, she has seen the wide array of challenges that confront young adults in Halifax who are unsure of their own sexuality.
“Most youth are afraid of losing the respect of their parents, losing that support, or they think their parents will be disappointed,” she says. “But even more than that, coming out to yourself is generally the greatest challenge.
“Another one of the biggest factors that can affect coming out is isolation. So in the drop-ins and the discussion groups, we see a pretty quick turnaround in youth who are coming out. Suddenly they have this social outlet where they have other people that they can meet. It shows how much isolation is a factor because as soon as they come into an environment where they can make friends, and talk to other youth and have a peer group, we see a huge difference in them.”
Wichman says the climate has changed over the past 12 years for young people who are coming out. But despite some notable social strides, clearing personal hurdles never gets any easier.
“When youth are coming out now, there’s more information available, there’s more stuff on TV, there’s more books out there, there’s us, there’s a teen health centre ,” she says. “But getting to that point of coming out and revealing that information for the first time to somebody and opening yourself up is still very difficult, regardless of all the resources that are around.”
And they still get the horror stories. For every positive story of accepting parents and supportive friends that passes through the Project, there are the stories that don’t have a happy ending. Curry says that it can be difficult to hear some of the worst-case scenarios from those who live them first-hand.
“To see youth come in who have been kicked out of their house or have been abused by their parents, or they’re being harassed at school, or who have been the victims of violence, it’s obviously upsetting and frustrating. To be reminded that it’s still going on is always frustrating. We just try to focus on how we can make this situation better.”
For now, Alex Parker’s story doesn’t have a proper ending, happy or sad. Although Alex wouldn’t mind telling his father the truth, he plans to keep things to himself for the time being.
“It wouldn’t change our relationship in the long run. He wouldn’t want me any more or any less than he does now,” he says. “My relationship with my dad sucks anyway—I just don’t want to make it worse.”
Such a statement may not seem very optimistic, but Alex has at least found comfort in dealing with his questions slowly, at his own pace. Although he is still uncertain about his sexuality, Alex says the Youth Project has been instrumental in helping him take relaxed, gradual steps towards a better self-understanding. When he becomes more certain of who he is for himself, that’s when Alex says he’ll feel comfortable coming out. It’s also the advice he offers to anyone in a situation similar to his own.
“Take your time. It’s your business, you don’t need to tell anybody,” he says. “If you really feel personally that you have to tell people, just take it slow. If it’s a positive reaction, great, and if it isn’t, just give them time. Hopefully, they’ll accept it eventually.”