Nikki Gershbain is a Toronto lawyer national director of Pro Bono Students Canada.
As I find myself on the eve of Toronto’s World Pride day this weekend, making plans to march in the parade with my partner, my son and step-daughter and their dads, I cannot help but reflect on the fact that it has been almost a quarter of a century since I came out.
In 1989 I was 19 years old and had recently moved to Toronto from the middle-class, Jewish suburb I grew up in in Winnipeg. Leaving my hometown was liberating, and when I enrolled at York University it felt natural to fall in with a lefty crowd.
It was an exhilarating intellectual and political awakening. I was righteous and politically correct and started spelling women with a “y.” I learned that sexuality was fluid, and by 1990 I was dating a woman and identifying as bisexual.
In 1991 I went to my first Pride – in those days it was a March, not a Parade. I danced down Yonge Street, thrilled and indignant as straight people gawked and pointed and took photos of us as if we were animals in a zoo.
You have to remember that this was a completely different time. Outside of Ontario, sexuality was not covered in any of the province's human rights codes. Aside from that, there were no gay rights. There were no spousal benefits or any right to adopt children.
I remember one evening I was at a bar on Queen Street that hosted a weekly lesbian night called Lola’s. The lesbian uniform in the circles I ran in leaned toward the androgynous. In an awkward attempt to fit in, I wore purple lace-up Doc Martens, baggy boy Levi’s and a white T-shirt. I overheard someone ask: “So who’s the butch with the long hair?”
By 1992, I was happily out to friends, but full of fear and shame at home, where I still lived. My parents suspected I had a girlfriend. My mother fell into a deep depression and barely spoke to me.
When I finally could not contain the truth any longer I told my father I was seeing a woman. He of course already knew, explaining: “When you look like a duck…” For one terrifying moment I was convinced he was going to say “dyke.”
A few days later I moved in with my girlfriend. Not the first girlfriend, mind you, the second one – the one who made me realize that being gay didn’t mean I had to wear plaid shirts and lumber jackets. I bought make-up and wore dresses and embraced Lipstick Lesbianism.
In 1993, my mother started taking Paxil and I went off to graduate school in New York City on a Fulbright Scholarship. My girlfriend and I lived in Greenwich Village, around the corner from Stonewall. My mom came to visit us and she was happy, and so was I.
I came home for the summer, just in time for Bill 167, which would have extended spousal benefits and the right to adopt to gay couples. Bowing to intense pressure, the Bob Rae government removed adoption and put the Bill to a free vote in the legislature.
I was at Queen’s Park the day that every Tory MPP, almost every Liberal and 12 New Democrats voted - with their consciences, ironically – to kill the bill. The gallery erupted and Reverend Brent Hawkes stood and yelled “Shame! Shame!” before he and many others were forcibly removed by guards wearing rubber gloves.
(Reverend Hawkes would go on years later to officiate at Jack Layton’s state funeral on national television. On Sunday he will be leading the World Pride parade as the Grand Marshall.)
That year for Pride we didn’t march on Church Street or Bloor Street or Yonge Street. We marched around the legislature and chanted “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!”
In the fall, I was back at grad school and I began to notice that more and more gay advocacy was taking place in the courts, and that gay marriage had entered the zeitgeist.
In 1996, I wrote an essay on same-sex marriage that was published in a magazine. I argued that marriage was a patriarchal institution. I wrote that the fight for gay marriage was part of a neo-conservative agenda, and that assimilation into the mainstream would be the death knell of the sexual liberation that had been so hard fought.
(Years later I learned that the government cited my article as evidence that not all gay people supported same-sex marriage, an outcome that was never my intention).