STORY: July 1983—I was seventeen years of age when I first met another gay person.
My dad was an executive with a company in Ireland, which was owned by a Canadian multinational headquartered in Toronto, and each year he’d head away to the Annual General Meeting there. The night before he was to leave that year, something urgent came up at work, so he asked me “How would you like to go to Canada tomorrow?” That was a no-brainer, and the next morning, not having slept all night, I left Shannon with an older colleague of his named Kevin. Dad said he'd join us in a couple of days. His advice was not to discuss Northern Ireland or politics with anyone there, because Toronto was mostly Protestant, and things in Northern Ireland were pretty bad just then.
It was my first trip to North America, and I knew there were lots of gay people over there because I had seen a newspaper report of a protest about a film called Cruising and gay people had been angry about it and some gay politician had been shot in San Francisco. I wondered how I’d be able to meet some just to see what they were like. But, I couldn’t tell anyone about that, so for the time being I buried those thoughts deep in the secret caverns of my mind.
I knew air stewards were supposedly always gay, but I was disappointed that the cabin crew was just women. With a fascination for trees, I was also looking forward to seeing real North American maples and other wonderful trees whose leaves transform Eastern North America each autumn into a carpet of blood reds, blazing orange, and butter yellow. I figured I might be able to buy or collect some seeds and try to replicate the phenomenon in the west of Ireland. The Gaelic Johnny Appleseed.
And maple syrup. That was so important. Definitely, I would be trying maple syrup. I was trying to figure out what it tasted like. We didn’t have that this side of the Atlantic. You only saw that in the movies, and by all accounts people over there ate it all the time. And peanut butter. But not the jelly. Jelly to us was the quivering dessert, and we could never understand how Americans could put that and peanut butter on bread. But, when I got there I found out that jelly was actually jam. And the Pepsi challenge. I hoped to take that. So, ,I was anxious to get to this different new world.
After an uneventful flight, a car whisked us to The Royal York Hotel, where Kevin and I went to our rooms, freshened up, and then met for a meal downstairs.
“Now young man, how would you like to see Toronto?” asked Kevin. I assented and we walked about the city. I saw the CN Tower, and Kevin, a civil engineer, explained how it had been built, and how they dealt with the force of the wind acting upon it. That was interesting, but the engineering lecture continued with the Dominion Tower, Commerce Court, Charles Street, etc. As Kevin droned on, I was covertly watching the different men who passed by to see if I could spot a gay one and noting how good-looking they were, just like in The Six Million Dollar Man. CHiPs, and even Sesame Street.
My attention had been drawn to a store with three large X’s over the door. I knew that was probably bad because things with three X’s were banned in Ireland since it meant they had something to do with sex. At this stage, I was bored and a little tired. Noticing me stifling a yawn, Kevin looked at his watch and remarked “Well, now you’ve seen what Toronto has to offer, and as it is 1 am Irish time, we should turn in for the evening. A good night's sleep is what you need, young man.” I nodded and we walked back to the hotel, said good night, and went to our rooms.
So, apparently, I’ve seen Toronto I said to myself. My arse I’ve seen it, I thought. There were other things that I badly needed to find and see, and I intended to do that. I was afraid to leave immediately in case Kevin checked on me, so I showered again and watched TV for a bit and was mesmerized by the televangelists, particularly one who was looking for money, in decreasing amounts, eventually raising his hand to the tv screen and telling people to touch it and God would heal them. To me, he was clearly mad, but I was concerned that, with this on national television, Canadians must believe this and be as cracked as him. Dad was right. They were very religious here.
Almost an hour had passed. Kevin was definitely asleep I decided. I quietly left the room and before I knew it I was on Yonge St., frantically looking for the three Xs. For neither love nor money, I could not find it. I retraced our steps and when I turned a corner, there it was, now flashing neon in the dark. My breathing quickened and my chest tightened as I approached the store. When I reached it, it was better than I had expected because it was obviously a gay store, as evidenced by the video box covers of naked men in the window. I was mesmerized and had to adjust my dick, was straining in my trousers, and hard as a rock. Never before had I seen pictures of naked men with erections. Their dicks were so big and the men were so good-looking…
I decided to go in, but as I approached the door, a sign on it stated you had to be eighteen years of age to go in. I was crushed, but in a way relieved, and also didn't have the ability to lie about my age, although I could have easily passed for eighteen.
Turning away, I made eye contact with one of the most handsome men I had ever seen. He smiled at me and said hi.
My throat was dry and I felt faint and almost choked on the words, but blurted out “Are you gay?”
He laughed and said yes, and asked where I was from. He said "Welcome to Canada” and held out his hand, saying “I’m Michael ”. I extended my hand and, as our hands touched, my entire body seemed to become supersensitized, as though a new electrical connection had been made and I kept shaking his hand because I wanted to savor this strangely pleasant sensation. He asked me my age and immediately said “ I don’t think you should go in there” nodding towards the shop.
“Well, I really want to meet gay people” I replied.
“Well, there are more suitable places for you to do that. How about I take you to a gay bar?”
So, off we went. He was a med student, he said, at the University of Toronto and was twenty-two years old. He was Italian-Canadian, which accounted for his looks. He walked me through the gay area of the city, talked about being gay, and asked me about life in Ireland and how it was. We passed a couple of bars flying the rainbow flag, but, Michael said that I shouldn’t go there, and eventually we went into a basement bar.,
I almost shot a load when I walked in the door. The place was heaving with every kind of man, but they were gay men and I didn’t care. They were like me - queers, faggots, homos, fairies, steamers - and some were dancing, others linking arms, more kissing, laughing, talking. It was like a bar in Ireland, except they were all men. While Michael was ordering drinks, guys were smiling at me, saying hello, giving me the eye. Music was playing and the two songs I associate with that bar are Donna Summer’s “She works hard for the money” and ”Up where we belong” from the film "An Officer and a Gentleman". To this day, whenever I hear those songs, I’m immediately back in that bar in Toronto.
We found seats in a corner and I think Michael was enjoying my reactions to my surroundings. He said I could ask him anything I wanted, so I quizzed him on when he first knew he was gay and who knew, etc. Being there among people like me felt like I had been swimming forever, but had finally found dry land. I was among people I would never have to explain anything to and who understood where I was coming from.
Suddenly, the jet lag hit me, and I felt exhausted. Michael walked me to the hotel in that beautiful evening heat, and he gave me his address, said I should write, and left, turning to wave until I was inside the building.
Of course, I managed to lose the piece of paper and never saw Michael again. I’m grateful to that young man in July of 1983 for watching out for me, for taking the time out to talk to me, and for guiding me. I wonder if he remembers the innocent Irish kid he met one night outside a video store off Yonge St. Wherever you are Michael, thanks again! I hope life has been good to you.