I was 14 years old when I first heard about Matthew Sheppard. I remember watching the news, mesmerized at his photo flashed on the screen. I thought to myself, he has such nice hair; I wish I had hair like that. Then I read the caption and sat frozen as they spoke about how a young gay man was murdered, the victim of a brutal hate crime. Matthew Sheppard was 21 years old when he was beaten and tortured and left upside down to die on a fence by a group of nearby college men, all for being gay This is a moment in my life I will never forget because it was when I realized being me, being different, could be dangerous. In an instant I suddenly became afraid of being myself and wanted to hide everything about me that was “gay.” I began to wonder, would I be the victim of a hate crime? Would I be bullied? Assaulted? Would the same thing happen to me in my small town of 700 people? At a young age, I was anything but proud of the person I am.
I consider myself lucky as I was brought up in a very caring and accepting home with wonderfully supportive parents. I feel this way because there are still people in the LGBT2Q community who were/are not as fortunate as I am. The rates of homelessness among gay and lesbian youth are almost double that of their heterosexual peers. As well, the suicide rates are disproportionately higher for youth identifying as gay. I am lucky to have parents that love me and have instilled in me a sense of confidence and pride about who I am. But don’t ever dare say that to my mom. She gets so angry when I remind her of my luck since she is of the belief that no child should ever feel lucky to have parents that love them (and if you know my mother, she will win this argument).
High school was rough for me despite how much I tried to hide the fact that I was gay. I was teased relentlessly, aggressively, and sometimes even physically. Now don’t get me wrong, I am not looking for any sort of pity party but it’s just my reality. I strongly believe that thanks to my parents, I have become a well-adjusted, confident and empathetic young man with so much to contribute to society. I am very lucky when many who had similar experiences to my own aren’t.
I started working for corrections at RTC Ontario, at Kingston Penitentiary, when I was attending university in Kingston. I loved the excitement of going to work in a penitentiary every day. I enjoyed having a warden as a boss, I adored the excitement it gave people when I told them I worked in the Penn, but more than all of that I fell in love with the people. It was here where I felt for the first time that I was part of something bigger. It was at Corrections where I noticed people weren’t bullying me for being myself, and people genuinely liked me. They thought I was funny and smart and I started to gain confidence in myself and become comfortable with my sexuality, all because of the support and acceptance from my colleagues. I found myself surrounded with people from various ethnicities, age demographics, and sexual orientations. Everyone was different but we were all on the same team.
I moved to Bath Institution the next summer and from there I went to Kingston Parole Office. Once I started my Masters Degree in Ottawa, I moved to the Ottawa Parole Office. Every office I worked at helped build my confidence in a unique way. Meeting men and women I could relate to, who had similar stories and experiences, provided me with a newfound confidence. For the first time I noticed I wasn’t ashamed or scared to be me, but I was very proud to be a gay man working for CSC.
I am lucky.
It was two correctional officers that brought me to my first gay pride parade in Toronto in 2004. I will never forget the excitement I felt and awe I was in. There were so many people just like me there! There were also people not like me but who were there to show support for people like me. I remember when I saw the Ministry of Ontario Corrections marching, some hand in hand walking down the street in uniform. I always wondered why CSC didn’t have a presence. After all, it was this organization and the people working here that made me feel so accepted in the first place. I wanted us there and I wanted to see our correctional officers marching just like the armed forces did. I wanted everyone to feel proud like I do. What a great way to say thank you to an organization that changed my life.
I decided one day in the spring to ask about getting into the Ottawa Parade. Afterall, what did I have to lose? After a few email exchanges with a director general I have previously worked with on a few projects, I received approval to proceed with my proposal to have CSC march not only in the Ottawa parade, but in any pride parade across the entire country! I knew what the pride parade meant to me - it was a time to be completely and fully accepted. For one day, I could walk hand in hand with my boyfriend in the middle of the street and not feel judged, or targeted, or scared. It is a time I could finally feel pride. But this is just my story, there are millions of people who have theirs and what pride means to them. I seem to have so much pride these days; pride in myself, pride in my coworkers, pride in corrections, and my own organization leading the way in terms of acceptance within the public service.
In 2014, CSC became the first federal government department to formally launch a Positive Space Program. Our Commissioner and his colleagues on EXCOM received the first Positive Space training session on November 4, 2015. It is unmistakable that the leadership within CSC is committed to fostering a safe and welcoming place for everyone regardless of their sexual orientation. Participating in Ottawa’s pride parade for the first time reinforced this.
It’s been years since Matthew Sheppard died in that horrific way and we have come a long way since then, but events such as the Orlando tragedy a few months ago are a stark reminder that the fight for equality and acceptance is far from over. That is why the pride parade is so important. It is so much more than “just a parade.” For a lot of people it’s the first time they feel like they are a part of a community. It’s the first time they haven’t felt alone, or different and perhaps it’s the first time they feel accepted.
Especially to that girl in the office who might not feel like her colleagues will accept her for who she is or to say, a little blond boy with great cheekbones from a small town who thinks he’s the only one in the world reading Vogue with a flashlight under his covers at camp. This is my story, but it was our parade. It was our day. And we should all feel so proud, and grateful, and (sorry mom) even lucky to work for such an accepting, progressive organization. Thank you to everyone who made this day such a wonderful success.
Today we march together, today we march with pride.