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History Table of Contents
1991 Summer Conference
Summer Conference 1991
Growing up on the Edge: The Emerging Generation and Canada's Future


Advocacy Officer, Ontario Ministry of Community
and Social Services

Whenever I go into an average high school class to talk about homosexuality I use a range of interactive, usually very noisy methods to get some of the basic information across about homosexuality.

I say that out of the 30 of them, three are on the pathway of self acknowledgement about being gay or lesbian. I point out that sexual orientation is established early on in life, perhaps even in the womb, and that most gay men and many lesbians have a sense of being different from their earliest memories.

Isolation, fear, depression and uncertainty is a reality for young gays and lesbians. A recent California study said 30 percent of teenage suicides are due to issues around sexual orientation. Though startling, it doesn't surprise me.

Five years ago I was loaned by the government for a year's work on the Sexual Orientation Youth Project at Central Trauma Youth Services.

One of my roles in that year was to interview young lesbians and gay men, not those who were involved in the social services system, but those who were able to get through without any professional help.

Over half had either attempted or seriously contemplated suicide as a way out of the fear and confusion of their same sex feelings.

It has been shown that young gays and lesbians need three things to have their self concept given a chance.

One, the opportunity to meet other gays and lesbians.

This may seem to many of you to be an easy thing to achieve.

However, considering we are an invisible minority, even to each other, plus there is not a natural support system to nurture pride in a sense of self as most minority groups have when growing up, at least with their family. And its the family that you are most fearful of losing and opening up about yourself.

Its a feat just to find another person who feels the same way as you do.

To give you a very concrete example, in the time since I have been here, I haven't met one other gay or lesbian person, and this is even with having identified myself.

Second, the opportunity to meet older gays and lesbians to realize the future isn't as bleak as the media portrays it. There is increasingly a very vital, exciting, nurturing gay and lesbian community, that's becoming more and more visible and participatory in the mainstream society. And this awareness and support is a valuable asset to nurture one's self esteem.

Finally, to have heterosexuals in their lives who are non-judgemental and accepting. That is why it was so disheartening for me to hear on Thursday night that there is still a large amount of suspicion by young people towards gay people.

Indeed, there is still a long way to go to get my very large minority group visible and an equal partner.

In July, 1988, I tested positive for the HIV virus. Some people call it the AIDS virus. I had been practising safe sex for four to five prior to 1988, ever since there was an emerging knowledge of what safer sex looked like.

I had no symptoms and was 99 percent sure I was negative, but there was this little voice inside saying, "How can you be 100 percent sure?".

By 1988, it seemed like an increasingly smart thing to get tested. There were beginning to be things developed that might help in slowing down the progression of the illness.

Also, I tend to be proactive in life, rather than reactive. And I had seen too many of my friends have to cope with a new diagnosis and telling others all from a hospital bed.

I want to illustrate what it's like living with HIV through the lives and words of young people with HIV. Many of these young people I know. Some of these profiles and quotes come from a study that has recently been done out of Central Toronto Youth Services.

Elizabeth is 18. The year before testing positive for the HIV virus, Elizabeth described herself as just like any other ordinary teenager going to high school. She was living at home, had lots of friends, and went to movies and dances. She would hang out at the mall and also go downtown and walk around. The first time she went downtown she had so much fun, she started going regularly. On two occasions, however, Elizabeth stayed downtown overnight. That was the first time she met the man who infected her. Elizabeth found out that she was HIV positive at the age of 16.

Danny, 24, presently shares an apartment with a male lover. He left his home in the Maritimes at the age of 15 and lived in many American cities before coming to Toronto. While living in the U.S., and until recently in Toronto, Danny worked as a prostitute. Danny had heard about AIDS the year before he tested HIV positive at 23. His plans for the future haven't changed. He is going to school to study hairstyling.

Here are some quotes from these young people and others.

Elizabeth: "I got tired and sick lots but didn't know at the time that it was HIV related. I missed at least one day each week of school in grade 9, and the teacher would say how was your vacation this week. He thought I was just skipping. I want to finish school and go on to college. I got tested by my family doctor but he didn't tell me he was testing me for HIV. I never thought I would be HIV positive, I knew nothing about it."

Danny: "It hurts having to keep everything inside, I've told one or two people, but they don't believe me because I'm a joker. I will not go to any counsellors, I'm not ready to expose myself and I'm afraid of discrimination. In some ways I find its helpful knowing I'm infected, but it's hard. At times I regret it as its so scary, when I found out, my life went right through me, I was completely flushed."

Toad, 21: "I waited for the test results for two and a half months. I kept calling and calling my doctor who said he was either ill or too busy. I finally went to his office and his secretary was there alone. She told me that I was HIV positive. I had no pre or post test counselling."

Patrick, 24: "I was just starting to get back in touch with my parents. I told them I was bisexual and then that I was HIV positive. Now there is a great division between us. They've even changed their phone number and will not give the new number."

Frank, aged 24. "Friends were too upset to be helpful. I found that I had to be supportive to them. People want me to be positive and happy and to hide the anger and depression."

Bentley, 22: "There were some many hurdles to jump just being black and gay. I wonder how my community will react to my being HIV positive?

The city of Toronto is one of the few places in Canada where statistics are gathered on HIV positive individuals.

Most places only carry statistics about people with AIDS.

As of April, in the age group 15 to 26, there were 871 reported cases of HIV infection, just in the City of Toronto.

These numbers are very frightening, as it looks as though we are at the tip of the iceberg, and its an iceberg that's growing not melting.