October 2, 2013

Almost Gay Bashed In Rural Alberta.

I once heard that in Native American/Shamanic tradition, if you go through a traumatic experience, a piece of your spirit breaks off and goes away. There are ceremonies and rituals you can go through to call the piece of your spirit that has broken away back, to make yourself unified and whole once again. I never realized that there was a piece of myself that had broken off and gone away - until almost getting gay bashed in rural Alberta called it back and made me whole again.

The irony of using an idea from Native American spirituality to tell this story is not lost on me, but it's the most accurate way to describe the experience.


I've been visiting Edmonton and rural Alberta (where I grew up) for the first time in over 14 years. I've been having a lot of fun reconnecting with old friends and revisiting places from my childhood. So many fun, good memories!

However, my childhood here wasn't all idyllic. The darker side of my time here was the intense bullying I experienced for 6 years at the first school I went to. The school was on the First Nations reserve close to the acreage we lived on back in the 80s.

Remembering all the good times, though, I thought to myself, "Was it so bad? Maybe it wasn't. Maybe I was just a kid and it seemed a lot worse than it actually was."


I decided to go visit my old elementary schools. It was a Sunday afternoon, and I figured there'd be no one around so it'd be fine.

I went to the first school, on the First Nations Reserve. There were some people there - some parents playing with their kids on the playground. No big deal. I just wanted to walk all the way across the field and back.

I got to the opposite end of the field, and I just stood there and reflected for a couple of minutes. I was remembering all the bullying I endured here... And I thought, "OK, I guess it really wasn't so bad." I turned to go walk back to my car... But a truck had pulled up near me. It was one of the parents.

He wanted to know what I was doing. And I told him the truth - that I was visiting all the old places from my childhood. And then he said...

"Are you a queer?" I knew immediately I was in danger and this could get ugly. When someone in rural Alberta asks you if "you're a queer", they're asking so that they can give themselves permission to gay bash you.

And then he said, "I ain't never seen a East Indian here before. I think you're here to look at kids!"

Fuck. This was serious. I may be gay, but I'm sure not a pedophile. Gross! However, in this asshole's mind, "gay" and "pedophile" were undoubtedly one and the same.

I told him that if he was uncomfortable with my being there, I would leave. He drove off to get my car license place # and I walked back to my car. Unfortunately, I had to walk past a couple of other parents and their kids to get back to my car. There were also some others driving up on a 4-wheeler. This could flip into an ugly, violent situation in a second. And I was completely alone.

I was freaking out on the inside. All of the memories of the non-stop cruel bullying came back. And the helplessness I felt came back. And I remember how no one would listen to me or help me. I just had to endure.

"Faggot!"

"Nigger!"

"Sissy!"

"Queer!"

"Ugly buck-toothed nigger!"

"Paki!"

No one was saying those words now, but the memory of hearing these slurs every day when I was a child made them ring loudly in my head now. I felt like I had regressed back to my 8 year-old self. I was on the playground, surrounded by homophobic, racist hicks and no one was going to help me. The memories of how horrible the kids at this school were to me came flooding back in an overpowering torrent.

I felt completely helpless. But then I remembered that I'm 33 years old and that it is 2013.

I have my iPhone with me, a lifeline to the world outside of this fucked-up bubble that I was trapped in with no escape during the most vulnerable years of my life.

I called 911.

I told them I felt stupid calling for this reason... I was calling because I was visiting my old school on a Sunday afternoon, and that this guy assumed I was a creepy pedophile, asked me if I was queer, and that there was a good probability I was going to get gay bashed. I said that I wanted to be on the phone with someone in case the situation escalated. I got transferred to an RCMP dispatcher.

She asked me where I was. When I told her I was on the school on the reservation and what had happened, her voice changed to serious concern.

In a moment of vulnerability, I said to this RCMP dispatcher, "I'm terrified because when I went to this school, no one helped me or stopped the abuse. And my run-in with this guy reminded me, truthfully, how awful the kids here were to me. I feel like I'm reliving it and I'm terrified right now."

I got in my car and started to drive off, leaving the school behind in my dust.

The dispatcher asked me, "Are you safe? Are you OK? Are you in your car and able to drive? Do you need someone?"

I'm 33, but in that moment, I was 8. And I was reliving what I lived through everyday day for almost 6 years at that time.

This was the first time anyone had really listened to me and was offering to help me in a real way.

The operator's compassion tipped me over the edge, and I broke down with emotion. I had finally received something I never thought I ever would. It was a moment where everything started to heal up for me.

I said, "I'm OK. Thank you so much for being there when I needed you."

I meant every word.

When you relive past trauma, you kind of go into a state of shock. That's where I was right now. I'd kind of entered an autopilot mode where I wanted to be some place where I felt safe and secure.

So I drove 20 kilometres west to the elementary school I moved to on October 2, 1990. At the new school, the intense, racist homophobic bullying stopped... I did have a few incidents that happened... But nothing like what I experienced at the first school.

When I got to my second school, I felt all the tension in my body dissipate. I sat a few feet away from the place where on my first day, a boy named Daniel invited me to play tag. And I was in shock when we played tag and no one turned against me and tormented me. A flood of good memories from the second school came back.

It was surreal. I felt like I was being rescued for a second time by this place.

It was, truly, a gift. I felt like someone was saying to me, "Hey, I know you went through some awful experiences back there. But look - look at the wonderful things you are surrounded by right now. You're all right now, kid."

It was warm. There was a beautiful Alberta sunset giving everything a lovely golden colour. There were the sounds of kids and dogs playing in the background. And I was surrounded by the memories of my old friends, my favourite teachers, and so much more.

See, for years, no one listened to me. I was made to feel like how I was treated wasn't that big of a deal. That it was normal. "Kids will be kids! Just ignore it!" And unbeknownst to me, I had blocked out how bad it really was and how badly it had scarred me.

Abuse.

Trauma.

I never would have used these words to describe my experiences before... Until this unexpected encounter with a racist, homophobic asshole broke through 23 years of denial and everything came back to the surface all at once. This is really the first time I have acknowledged the depth of how those experiences hurt me and how they very nearly destroyed me. I contemplated killing myself at age 10. That's not fucking normal.

I've been wanting to come back to Alberta for years. And now I know why. I needed to experience this. I needed to validate for myself how bad it really was, and acknowledge how helpless I was, and that I indeed didn't deserve such treatment, and that it wasn't normal.

I also needed to experience having someone believe me and listen to me and HELP me when I needed it.

I will be forever grateful to the 911 operator who acknowledged my experience, stayed with me, had genuine concern for me, and supported me as I relived what that little boy in me endured for six years.

When I turned 18 and left home for university, deep down, I felt I was searching for something. I was looking for something to complete me - boyfriends, relationships, careers, money. But nothing ever worked. I always felt incomplete. I was looking for something outside to fill this void I vaguely felt on the inside.

15 years later, at age 33, my run-in with this asshole on the playground juxtaposed with the compassion of the 911 operator allowed that void to be filled. I didn't know this was what I was searching for this until I found it.

As I sat at my second school and looked at the place where I played tag like a normal kid 23 years ago without having slurs thrown at me... I felt the piece of my spirit that had broken off and floated away all those years ago come back to me. I felt like a jigsaw puzzle that had its one missing piece finally put in place.

And I felt, for the first time in my life, complete. Nothing was missing anymore.

15 years of searching was over, and my life was finally ready to start.

=============

While this was all happening, one of the other things I relived was my intense hatred of First Nations people because of how I suffered at their hands.

I felt this way for many years, but got past it over time. It flared its head again when I went through the experience I described above, though. Thankfully, it was temporary, for I was able to remember that while the people who bullied me were assholes - there's no way an entire race of people could be assholes.

I think my experience above is a testament to how people who are oppressed and abused can become abusers and oppressors themselves. First Nations people have been oppressed and abused on a large scale for centuries. And they turned around and abused me all those years ago, for that is how abuse is perpetuated from generation to generation, from group to group.

The damage bullying can do to a child is serious. If your child is being bullied, don't dismiss their feelings or their experience. And for God's sake, do something to stop it.

People often ask my why my parents didn't take me out of that school sooner. And they always say, "Your parents could have done A, or B, or C!" But what they fail to understand is that this was in the 80s, and my parents had only been in Canada for a few years. There was no internet, information wasn't easy to come by for multi-generational Canadians, let alone my parents who were new Canadians.

I called my mom last night and told her that if she and my dad felt any residual guilt for keeping me there as long as they did... That it was OK, and that I knew they did the best they could with the knowledge and resources they had at the time.