Identity, drag, and unionism
Surrounded by sequins, hair spray, wigs, costumes, jewellery, and yes… lots of duct tape—Joane Rivers and the Deceiving Divas were anxious but ready to hit the stage two year’s ago at OSSTF/FEESO’s Provincial Summer Leadership conference in a ball room at the Westin Habour Castle. Joane Rivers is my drag persona; Joan Rivers has always been an idol of mine and a long-time hero/ally to the Queer community. She was advocating long before it became trendy.
This was not our normal crowd full of Queers with empty shot glasses on the tables before the show even started. This wasn’t the usual crowd with loud outbursts of vulgarity. This was not going to be a regular Saturday night show. For Joane Rivers, it was also the night the two professional worlds met in a very public way. The world of Garrett the educator of 20 years and Garrett the drag performer of 15 years were about to collide. Two worlds that had been kept apart out of fear and necessity were coming together and I was terrified but ready.
The audience was politely chatting, the house lights dimmed and the show’s first character, Marilyn Monroe, appeared on the stage to warm the crowd up. There was a quiet gasp and then mesmerized silence. The other queens began to panic—yelling to Joane, “they hate us” and, “this is going to be a long night.” I assured them that they just think they are at the theatre and are being super polite. “Don’t worry,” I said… “Joane will warm them up.” Inside however, I was experiencing my own panic and internal conflict. Years of hiding my identities and the homophobia I’ve experienced within the education system had come to this moment. Deep breathe… the show must go on!
Following the polite applause for Marilyn, Joane Rivers exploded on the stage with a mission—to push boundaries, make statements, and invite OSSTF/FEESO to experience just a glimpse of my world and Queer culture. Unapologetically, Joane gave permission for us all to have a good time while challenging our boundaries and norms. Joane extended an invite to a mainly cisgender/straight audience to play, for just a night, in a world of edgy humour rooted out of oppression. An invitation to experience Queer camp was extended and the audience embraced it with open arms. This was going to be a FUN night!
In traditional Joane fashion… can we talk? Can we talk about a community that has experienced so much homophobia and transphobia for decades? Can we talk about a community that survived the politics of an AIDS epidemic? Can we talk about a community that continues to face police brutality, hate legislation and must fight to provide safe spaces for 2SLGBTQI+ youth? Can we talk about a teacher who was closeted, living multiple secretive lives, and who eventually found a safe landing place in OSSTF/FEESO?
Our ability to survive often stems out of the creation of a Queer culture referred to as “camp.” When we have had to laugh or cry, the Queer community usually chooses laughter. We are a marginalized group that uses self-deprecating humour, over-exaggeration, and the stereotypes of oppression to push the boundaries of mainstream norms and values. Through humour, we make very strong social/political statements about gender binaries. Joane Rivers had welcomed the audience into this Queer culture for a night. Garrett was frightened to allow the two worlds to collide.
It was a long journey getting to this moment. Thirty years ago, I was a closeted gay man that married his high school sweetheart and had two children. I was still in university and was desperately trying to hide my identity by being as straight as possible. For this first few years of my career, I continued this charade and was completely closeted with all colleagues and students. Internalized homophobia paralyzed all aspects of my life.
My entire career has always been rooted in anti-oppression work and in those early years, I found myself working tirelessly fighting racism while completely burying my own identity needs. The early 90s were cruel times for Queer educators. Hearing stories of gay colleagues who had been fired from the local Catholic Board, hearing blatant homophobia from students and colleagues only further closeted me in fear. Internalized homophobia is powerful and soul destroying. I was also navigating the conflict I felt in fighting for human rights while ignoring my own oppression and the oppression of my gay students. This internal conflict eventually pushed me to come out when I was 29.
I came out in a big way. Within a couple of years I was out to all family and all colleagues and students. I shifted my anti-oppression activism to all things gay while also exploring my own Queer identity. In doing so, I quickly found myself living another closeted life as a drag queen performer. By day I was fighting the homophobia of colleagues, students, and an education system determined to destroy me, and by night I was on stage performing in fear that the worlds would collide.
I guarantee there isn’t a Queer educator out there that couldn’t share story upon story of the homophobia they have experienced at work. I’ve had parents remove students from my class and administrators who supported that decision. I’ve had verbal and physical threats to my safety from students. I’ve had vandalism to my home and car at the hands of students. I’ve experienced female colleagues who felt safety in my sexual orientation as grounds to physically touch me at work which I had to explain to them was never appropriate.
I’ve had male colleagues avoid me at work spaces and one who informed me that “they don’t judge me for being gay because that was God’s job.” I’ve had many colleagues ask me to “tone it down” and even an administrator who told me that I needed to leave the gay at home and stop forcing my gay agenda at work.
As a social justice activist, the systemic homophobia within education has been even more frightening. During the early days of my career while trying to establish Gay/Straight Alliances, I was informed that if I continued with this “agenda” my job would be in jeopardy. I’ve led an entire career faced with systemic obstacle after obstacle that has limited my professional growth. Once, I was explicitly informed that another gay guy in the job position was not required. I often found myself on the opposite side of the table advocating for Queer rights for students while administrators fighting the changes were closeted themselves. I’ve had secretive relationships with closeted Queer administrators, senior administrators, and even politicians. I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried.
While facing these challenges at work, I was escaping to the Queer culture of drag under the spotlight at night. It was my opportunity to fully explore my creativity and Queer identity but it came at the expense of finding myself closeted and living in fear once again—a constant fear of students, parents, and my employer finding out. I would find myself performing with anonymity in drag while looking out to an audience that often was made up of my own closeted colleagues, parents of students, and yes… sometimes the very administrators threatening my job during the day. These were very confusing and fearful times, filled with anxiety.
Our identities are complex and extremely important for all of us. When we find ourselves forced to hide identities and we can’t be truly authentic in all spaces, it creates significant harm. It also does a huge disservice to our own students who are desperately looking to see themselves in the mentors and institutions around them. For years, I couldn’t find that safe space as an educator and I was letting my students down at the same time. We were all experiencing trauma and harm.
Slowly, over time, these two worlds of educator and performer began to meet each other. My social activism as a performer hosting youth pride proms met with OSSTF/FEESO District 13 (Durham) who was sponsoring the event. I found myself performing for youth in a space where District 13 leadership were present watching the show. While we never spoke directly about it, I was beginning to develop a trust with my union. I was becoming aware that the Federation was doing work supporting 2SLGBTQI+ youth and this spoke volumes for me about a possible safe space to land when I was ready. Relationships with marginalized folks take time and nurturing. I observed from a distance as the union was showing signs they were doing the right things. It wouldn’t be long and I would find myself fully immersed in Federation work.
So off Joane Rivers went… no subject left untouched. Crude and rude, pushing the envelope while at the same time displaying a vulnerability, likeability, and humanity we all felt in the room. This was about coming together as allies and celebrating Queerness and all it means.
Enter the DIVAS! Celine, Liza, Whitney, Reba, Dolly, Adele, Diana, and, of course, Cher! Powerful women recognizable by single names… these are the idols of the Queer community. Strong powerful women who challenged norms, laid ground-work, and who were feminists in their own right—all of whom championed Queer rights their entire careers. This was the Deceiving Divas with Joane Rivers at the helm in all of her glory!
Nervous to the point of illness backstage, Joane Rivers made the decision to break character, show vulnerability and allow the two worlds to collide. A glammed up Joane was behind the dressing table, stripping down the façade while performing “What Makes a Man a Man.” The number often brings audiences to tears, leaves us questioning gender binaries and homophobia, and reminding us of the importance of compassion, acceptance, and the celebration of humanity.
The glitz, vulgarity, and camp slowly disappeared to reveal the educator, colleague, and proud Member of OSSTF/FEESO. Standing vulnerable and out of drag… I found myself immersed in love as a thunderous standing ovation broke the silence of the closing number. This was the moment I knew I the complexity of my identity had been valued and seen. I had found a safe place to land in OSSTF/FEESO!