Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
After the hurt
Harrison Oakes knows first-hand growing up gay in rural Manitoba is fraught with doubt, darkness and desperation. His story shows kids need all the help they can get.
Even though his father was the pastor, Harrison Oakes was relentlessly bullied in his church youth group.
"I got made fun of because I was more feminine than a lot of the guys," says Oakes, a 28-year-old University of Winnipeg student.
"The overwhelming message from my youth group was 'you would have made a really good woman because you suck at being a man.' "
When he was eight, Oakes' family moved to the Steinbach Bible College campus. Four years later, his father completed his ministry degree and took his wife and sons to a small town in southwestern Ontario. He started the Evangelical Mennonite Conference Church in Straffordville.
Oakes was 12. That year, a male parishioner sexually abused him. Oakes told no one.
He started attending the youth group when he was 13.
"I was immersed in an extremely conservative, religious community," Oakes says, one that taught him being gay made people an abomination in God's eyes.
At 14, he transferred from a small school to a much larger high school. Youth group "friends" spread the rumour he was gay. He didn't believe he was. It wasn't something he'd ever talked about or really understood.
Still, he was belittled and harassed.
"I used to leave school, run to the park and climb to the top of one of the highest trees and just sit there for hours and cry."
His parents took him for counselling, where he disclosed the sexual abuse. The police were contacted. Oakes says he was removed from the church youth group and the music team because of his allegation.
"As far as the church was concerned, I was a big fat liar."
Oakes says the youth pastor told him it would be better if he didn't attend church anymore.
His parents sent him back to Steinbach to live with an aunt and uncle.
"My parents said 'we need to get you out of here.' So they shipped me to Steinbach," he says. "I was 15. I got a job, paid rent, looked after myself. I lived in their basement. I didn't feel I had any supports. I was just incredibly, incredibly unhappy."
He attempted suicide a few months after his return to Steinbach. He dropped out of school before the end of his first term.
At 16, he began trying to talk to his parents about his growing attraction to men.
"At first they were really angry because it wasn't talked about. They told me it was the thorn in my flesh. They said 'God's going to be big enough to get you through that.'
"I was desperate to fit in and be right. I bought into that and kind of cycled in and out of believing that... I was so scared I would burn in hell forever. I was essentially brainwashed into believing I would go to hell."
Oakes says he spent years trying to reconcile his sexual identity with everything he had been taught in church. He now defines himself as an atheist.
He has no contact with his parents or younger brother.
Oakes says he's furious at the opposition to Bill 18, the province's anti-bullying bill that, among other things, allows for Gay-Straight Alliance clubs to be formed in schools, including faith-based schools.
"It's very personal to me. It just reminds me of the damage the church can do. One of the key things I have taken from my time in the church is love God with all your heart, and love thy neighbour as thyself.
"If Jesus summed up everything in those two commandments, why can't we just study these two? The bottom line of his religion was loving and accepting people who were unacceptable."
Oakes, who is studying bullying as part of his psychology degree, says homophobic bullying is "extremely detrimental to your development as a human being."
"The issue here isn't what you believe religiously. The issue is what you do to stop bullying to the point of suicide. Opposing the possibility of a GSA (Gay-Straight Alliance) creates a norm of intolerance."
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Jennifer Howard, like all parents, wants her son to be protected when he starts school.
"Every child deserves a safe place to go to school. And now that I'm a parent and think of my own child, I want my kid to be able go to his own school and talk proudly about his family," she says, relaxing in her large office.
"I don't want him to be exposed to ridicule or hatred because he has two mothers."
Howard, Manitoba's minister of family services and labour, grew up in Brandon. She came out when she was 19 and in university. Other good friends were also coming out. She was active in student politics and in a supportive environment.
They began Brandon's first group for gays and lesbians.
"I was part of the founding meeting of Gays and Lesbians of Brandon and Elsewhere. GLOBE."
"We had to add the 'and elsewhere,' otherwise we would have been GLOB.
"Before that mostly we met in people's kitchens. There was an informal kind of phone line that was run out of someone's home so people could connect to the group. We became a little more formal with a board and bylaws and that sort of thing.
"I was one of maybe two or three people who were willing to be out enough to go to the post office and get a post office box for the organization, to go to the credit union and put our name on the account and have signing authority for something that said 'gay.' "
Howard, 42, says there was a lot of fear in Brandon's gay community in the early 1990s.
"We held monthly social gatherings. We wouldn't give out the location unless we met you in person. We put up paper over the windows because people were too afraid to be in there if people could see in."
Howard wasn't out in high school.
"I knew that it was something I should not talk about. I certainly saw in high school there were people there would be rumours about, especially young men who didn't fit into that kind of traditionally masculine stereotypes, so when you see that you know it's not a safe place for you to come out.
"I think that's one of the pernicious things about bullying. It has immediate victims but it also has lots of collateral damage. Nobody had to bully me because I knew from watching the other people around me what the consequences would be."
She supports her party's Bill 18 because of her experience growing up and for Harry, her 18-month-old son.
"I know that he lives in a world where not everyone is going to think that his family is a real family. He lives in a world where people are going to disagree with him. I accept that.
"But I believe we live in a country and a province that is based on the value that we can disagree, we can have very fundamental disagreements and we can have fundamental differences, but I still have a duty to respect and guard the safety of those I disagree with. That's a duty we owe each other. I want my kid to go to school and be safe. I want that for all kids."
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When the parishioners at Steinbach's Southland Church held a recent anti-Bill 18 prayer meeting, Adam Brandt and a group of friends held their own prayer session outside.
Brandt, a 22-year-old student, was raised in Steinbach. He has positive things to say about the community and the church. He's dismayed at the furor enveloping the town.
But as a self-defined queer man, he says it was difficult to grow up in the religious setting. Now, he hopes his respectful protests will bridge the gap between the church and the GLBT community.
"Having a Gay-Straight Alliance (in high school) would have made me feel comfortable enough to speak up about the bullying, to tell a teacher or someone.
"My heart hurts because I know there are children in the high school now who are suffering because of this."
Brandt says most parishioners respected his quiet protest.
"Many people walked past, said good evening and took the pro-Bill 18 pamphlets we were handing out. Some read our signs and walked past us to their cars and others just ignored us altogether."
A few of his fellow protesters entered the church to pray for families of GLBT children who have committed suicide.
"I just want people to understand I'm the same as them, that we just disagree on this bill," Brandt says. "My church taught me to love my neighbour as myself, to respect my neighbour."
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 16, 2013 J2
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