To be or not to be
Long before I considered if I might be gay, I began to have the inkling, like a knot tightening deep in my stomach, that hinted that even if I wasn’t the gayest of gays, one thing was certain — I was not straight.
Though the difference may seem inconsequential to some, at the time being defined by what I wasn’t as opposed to an identity I actively claimed made sense. I was already used to feeling like an outsider - in the middle of grade three my family moved from suburban Halifax, N.S. to Westchester Village, a tiny seaside community on the South Shore, tucked between Chester Basin and Marriott’s Cove — just outside the village of Chester.
I remember my first day at Chester Basin elementary.
Duran Duran’s album, Arena, had recently been released and my parents bought me the new cassette as a distraction from the culture shock that would take hold during those first weeks. When I showed up that first day clutching my gray Sony Walkman, hoping I might find someone equally as enthralled with the ’Wild Boys’ as I was, I found instead that my peers hadn’t yet discovered the wonders of Samantha Taylor and CBC’s hot new show, Video Hits (I had older cousins to thank for my own introduction).
Eventually, of course, I made some friends — even a few good ones — but, despite staying long enough to graduate from high school, I never felt like I really fit in. I’d always be a Come From Away, maybe because after a while I’d stopped trying.
Stumbling toward ecstasy
I had my first crush on another girl that first year, though I’m not sure I realized it as it was happening.
The Basin school had closed and we’d all been transferred to Chester District elementary in the village, where I got to relive ’new girl’ status all over again, although this time — mercifully — not entirely alone.
Ms. Clark was my fourth-grade teacher. She was young and smart. And, to me, very pretty. I imagine she’d been on-the-job for no more than a year or so, at best. I thought she was the bee’s knees and would do my most to impress, though I don’t think she ever noticed. I don’t recall recognizing it at the time, but a few years later, when I began trying to figure out who I was, I remembered the flutter of butterflies and things started to make sense.
In grade nine, I crossed paths with the first person to activate my ’gaydar’ - that intuitive ability many queers have to pick one another out in a crowd. I didn’t really understand why at the time, but she - another teacher, whip-smart and quirky, with a boyish style and War Amp key tag hanging from one ear - made me feel at home and safe at a time when I really needed to feel protected. I know now that there’s a particular strength that comes from seeing yourself reflected in another. Representation really does matter.
In a sweet twist of fortune, a few years after I graduated high school, we bumped into each other again and became friends. But, I’m not sure if I ever let her know just how much her presence meant to me in those early years. Perhaps I can start right here, with this?
Around the same time my gaydar experienced its first blip, I began intentionally exploring sexuality — both the idea and my own. I joined a youth group, where I met my first queer peers. Having other young people to talk to, people who were experiencing similar things, felt revolutionary to me. It was the first time I started to see how important community and chosen families could be.
By July of 1994, I’d finished high-school and moved back to the city, enrolling at Mount Saint Vincent University for the fall term. One night my roommates, who identified as gay and lesbian, took me dancing at The Studio — the best, most magical (and like, second) gay bar I’d ever known. The club was small and heavily mirrored, with front and back bars, a busy dancefloor, and some the best barkeeps and bouncers you could ever meet. For the next few years it would become, for me, almost a second home — until it was shuttered in 1996.
I remember being on their checkered dancefloor the first time another woman looked my way. I slid messily across that same floor on my knees one night when I’d overdone happy hour drinks. I was in such a state that bar staff (many who’d become friends) ensured I made it home, safely tucked in, with water and Tylenol nearby and a bucket within reach. And one night close to the end of their reign a friend and I even showed up at the bar with Green Day (yes, the band) in tow for some dancing and drinks, but that’s an entirely different story.
The Studio’s closure left a big hole in the local community for me. It wasn’t until Shelley Taylor opened Venus Envy in 1998 that I started to feel a similar sense of community reemerge. VE’s arrival and offer of a safe space where folks could explore desire and share sexual health and social justice knowledge prompted a feeling of belonging and strengthened my connections to the community. And it became Halifax’s go-to source for inclusive, sex-positive, education and exploration, offering workshops, events, and a mind-bending array of sexual health products for the entire community. All things every Canadian should have access to.
VE’s arrival and offer of a safe space where folks could explore desire and share sexual health and social justice knowledge prompted a feeling of belonging and strengthened my connections to the community.
The shop became a hub of sorts for various groups in the community, including my own friends. Our Motley Crew included VE staff, musicians, artists, actors, social workers, bartenders, entrepreneurs, activists, and drag kings. We called ourselves the AC/DC (with a hat tip to Amy, the group’s unofficial daddy) and for a few years, VE was very much the centre of our orbit.
Of course, the last decade has changed things a bit. Friends grew older and settled into new grown-up lives — many now in different cities. And Marshall Haywood, VE’s first employee, bought the store from Taylor a decade ago. As for me, my sexuality still ebbs and flows like the changing seasons, these days I’m simply more comfortable with it. What hasn’t changed is the importance of safe spaces like VE for queer people and communities, or the freedom that comes when we know we’re not alone.
That, and I’m still not straight.
LGBT Friendly Businesses and Services
Robyn McNeil is all about her kid, her cat, her people, good stories, strong tea, yoga, hammocks, and hoppy beer.
NOW ATLANTIC - JULY 2019
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- ROBYN MCNEIL: Halifax's Venus Envy helps create safe space, community
- LAURA WHITMAN: Inviting diversity into our conversations
- Halifax-based reachAbility program seeks to end anger stigma