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first person

Illustration by Drew Shannon

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When I first heard the news that Canada would debut a gay dollar coin this year, my first reaction was, “Hmm... is it really necessary?”

My humble, don’t-cause-a-ruckus, present-day gay self first saw the new coin as governmental silliness, such as when the U.S. Post Office held a vote for the Elvis stamp: puffier, older Elvis versus hip-shaking, younger Elvis. (I voted for the pelvic thrust.)

The coin marks a 50-year anniversary of the decriminalization of homosexuality in Canada in 1969 and, considering how relatively short that span is, the changes have been absolutely astounding. Born in 1964, I’ve lived through the entire process. The coin is the least that can be done to commemorate darker times and the gains that the LBGTQ community has realized.

There was a time at the peak of the AIDS crisis when my friends and I made our own gay money. Once a month, I’d meet with a small group of volunteers who buddied up with persons with AIDS in Los Angeles, sharing struggles and the emotional toll. During breaks, we’d take bills out of our wallets and stamp them with a pink triangle and the words “Gay Dollar.” There were times I was too embarrassed to pay with my stamped money, so I’d write a cheque.

Over time, I felt more empowered and grew to be as “in your face” as my meek self could ever be. I got my ear pierced, slapped a pink triangle sticker on the bumper of my Honda Accord and occasionally donned a gay T-shirt.

I’m sort of here. I’m queer. Get used to it (please, if that’s all right with you).

Like many who were raised during the time when AIDS was a death sentence, my awakening arose from anger at the sense that gays were dispensable. I was living in the United States and had endured a stint of time in Texas, deep in the Bible Belt, before fleeing to California. I’d thrown up my arms over the oft-stated notion that gays were perverts and degenerates. How do you argue with people who so freely fuel hate with ignorance? What truly maddened me was seeing creative, vibrant and loving individuals in society getting decimated while officials fretted over toilet seats, plastic gloves and “family values.” As incensed as I got 30 years ago – even participating in protests – the taunts and that condescending “Love the sinner, hate the sin” mantra still fester deep inside me. I was raised feeling defective and less than. Sadly, that doesn’t change with enlightened legislation.

I never envisioned marrying a man. I never heard any discussion on the topic during my formative gay years. AIDS overshadowed all else. Even now, gay marriage feels like a right for others, not me. While I see elderly men publishing wedding announcements and silently cheer their special day, gay marriage seems like something that’s more for a younger generation, people who are growing up with it as a right.

I spent almost all of my career in the closet, even if it seemed like the door was wide open most of the time. I began teaching in a Catholic school in Texas, with nuns by my side. I felt certain I’d be fired if they ever found out. I was raised hearing that gays were pedophiles. I feared false accusations if I were out and a student didn’t like a low grade on a major project. I envisioned parents protesting me as their child’s teacher. When I became a principal, I didn’t care much any more, but I didn’t want my gay identity to be a distraction.

I also never adopted a child despite a yearning to do so, beginning with my early work with persons with developmental disabilities. Several children I worked with were wards of the State of Texas, their parents having relinquished all rights either owing to egregious acts of abuse or a lack of desire to raise someone with so many needs. There were days when I felt, “If I could just take you home and raise you.” I knew there was a need for adopting persons with special needs but my own internalized homophobia got in the way yet again. Despite what is probably my own gift in working with children, I never felt worthy enough to be a parent. I always felt that if I were a gay dad it would create more of a liability for the child.

To be sure, not having children is my greatest regret. I acknowledge that some of it was my own doing but society’s view of homosexuals and its opinions regarding gay adoptions also played a major part.

While I found circles of people who embraced and accepted me, reports of hate crimes and discrimination took their toll in subtle ways. There are times when I still feel ashamed – even a pariah – as a gay man. The past 50 years has been a period of remarkable, “swift” change in terms of LGBTQ acceptance but it represents my entire existence – a life lived against a backdrop of hate and resistance. Despite the gains, I continue to see the hate in the online comments written after stories such as the one announcing the gay Canadian dollar. The objections are couched in tired old phrases like “special rights” and “political correctness.”

I’ve now come to the point where I believe a limited-edition, gay Canadian coin has great meaning symbolically. The changes over the past 50 years mean that today’s LGBTQ youth have a better chance at healthier self-identification. They have an opportunity for more social acceptance and for people around them to help stand up to the haters. Moreover, they have more legal rights in terms of marriage, parenting, housing and employment. They are in a position to expect these things rather than hope for a few rights and never even dream of others.

I’ve ordered $1 and $10 versions of the “equality coin” from the Royal Canadian Mint. I look forward to holding my first government-approved gay money, a bold design by artist Joe Average. No doubt, I will shed some tears – part hope, part regret.

I don’t care if the indulged majority who never had to question marriage or raising children or being secure in a job may feel the coin is frivolous. The coin isn’t for them in the first place. It’s an acknowledgment for those of us who repressed our true selves and felt oppressed. It is for gays who never lived to see rights and protections enshrined in law. It is for younger LGBTQ people to learn more about how far we’ve come and to gain a deeper sense of gay pride. For these reasons, the coin has value so much greater than any monetary designation. The coin represents both empowerment and normalization.

Come on, Canada. Show me the money!

Gregory Walters lives in Vancouver.