His nickname was Peanut, and that night, in the rain, I feared for my life while an 18-year-old boy tried to assert his masculinity over me by threatening to kill me. I was a year older than him (on account of spending a year at another college before transferring), and I remember thinking that I was going to die in the rain, smelling of beer.
People leave places all the time. They’re running away or they’re looking for something. I ran away from Rhodes University after spending just six months there, pursuing a degree in journalism. I had already discovered the radio station and was spending a lot of time there. Yes I was suffering from post-traumatic stress on account of my father dying in 1994. Yes I was homesick. I was overwhelmed and depressed and underweight and I just wanted to die. But I wasn’t going to let someone have the pleasure of my demise, out of spite.
The first semester of 1996 started just fine. I met some fine people on the first day, some of whom I’m still friends with today. Hi Dan! Hi Dylan! Hi Wayne! Eventually we had about twenty members in our group of friends.
I didn’t realize it back then but I crushed hard on one of the straight guys in our group. He’s gay now. Figures.
What happened was, according to them, I lied by omission. See, there were two guys in the group who were openly gay, and if I’m not mistaken, one of the girls said she was bisexual. Because it took me a few months to come out, their logic was that I had lied to everyone by saying I was straight.
What hadn’t occurred to anyone (because 18-year-old brains aren’t very wise) was that it took me 19 years to accept what my situation was. I wasn’t just coming out to them, I was coming out to myself. It was at Rhodes University halfway through the first semester there, that I realized I wasn’t straight. Just a few days later, I lost many of my friends, and was isolated by my own residence.
Many years down the line now, I realize that it was a complex time for me. I am autistic and made it through life by suppressing my sexuality and gender non-conformity. The eighteen months of boarding school helped because I was perpetually terrified of being called gay. My greatest act was convincing people I was a straight dude.
So on the day I finally plucked up the courage to write to my mother (by email!) to tell her “I’m not straight, like Elton John”, I had already spent twenty minutes sitting in the rain a few nights before that, listening to Peanut threaten my existence because for some reason, he thought I was making advances on his friend Ryan.
For the record, I was not. There was a really cute dancer who I fancied, called Joe. I never acted on that because Joe was in a relationship and I was terminally shy.
I’m the first to admit that my story isn’t unique, nor is it that bad. Having your life threatened (and nothing actually happen) is a story many people can tell. After all, I’d been told by my own father that he wanted to kill me. It was a new and exciting experience.
Earlier that evening, I had been sitting with some guys who lived in my residence, at the local campus drinking spot, and one of them poured beer over my head and down my back as a joke I guess? When that happened I should have gone straight back to my room, showered, and gone to sleep. Instead, I decided to walk downtown and find some people I liked. Because it started raining and I was feeling depressed, I decided to sit on a bench on the pavement and wait for the rain to pass, feeling sorry for myself. I was good at that: the usual angsty late teenage fare. And that’s when Peanut and his cronies happened upon me.
I’ve never been good in a fist fight and generally try to avoid physical altercations. On this particular occasion I was even less in the mood for his homophobic bullshit. 42-year-old Randolph would have ripped into him with the amazing power of words, but 19-year-old Randolph didn’t have a clue. So as Peanut and his friends hurled abuse at me, telling me in graphic detail how they would kill me and their hapless girlfriends trying to get them to stop, I stared right through them without blinking. (Years later I used this same talent in my network television role as an unblinking corpse on an episode of Fargo.)
After Peanut got bored at my lack of reaction, they moved on. As my tears mingled with the rain I realized I couldn’t stay there anymore. I got up and wandered over to a restaurant where I saw people I used to go to high school with. I figured if anyone would have my back, it was them. So I went in and they asked why I looked shellshocked. I explained that Peanut and his friends had threatened to kill me, so they asked why, and I explained that I was gay and that Peanut somehow was under the impression that I fancied one of his friends.
Dear reader, you’ve seen this movie. It’s the part where people you thought you could trust immediately clam up and say “We’ll talk about this later.”
Later turned out to be the following evening. A knock on my door was followed by three of these people I thought I could trust, walking in and telling me, in my own bedroom, that being gay was fine with them but they would appreciate it if I stayed out of their business. I recall one particular person suggesting that if they were in the common room and I walked in, I was to steer clear of them. They promised to extend me the same courtesy.
I discovered first-hand how being queer is not a choice, because I threw away all these friends and fell into a deeper pit of depression once I realized who I was and had the audacity to let other people know.
23 years on, I hold onto the rage I felt back then when I need a reminder of what queer people go through every day. I remember a boy so threatened by my presence that he wanted to rip my heart out.
I remember how quickly I was excluded by that group of 20. I was the same person I had been the day before. I remember saying that to them but it didn’t seem to matter. I remember who my real friends were, and that after I came out and before I left the university for good a few weeks later, they looked out for me.
But most of all I remember my mother being the champion single parent she was forced to be. I took six months off from my life, with her looking after me as a human being. I had ups and downs that were intense, but she was there when I needed her. My best friend from school does need a special mention here. For his later failings, he was a supportive friend for those six months.
It took me more than a year after leaving Rhodes before I finally met someone and got into a relationship, and then a few months after that my mother and I finally “broke up” and I moved out of the house.
She’s coming to visit us in September of this year, here in Calgary. I think I need to thank her for taking care of me in 1996 and how she single-handedly saved my life.