As Matt Waltz spoke to his peers in a packed hall at St. Mary’s High School Thursday morning, he knew it was probably the first time some of his friends and classmates would learn he is gay.
The Grade 11 student acknowledged that for some there may be shock.
“People tell me I don’t seem gay. Get to know me, it will become obvious,” 16-year-old Waltz told students gathered at an assembly commemorating the 2012 International Day against Homophobia.
“Society expects you to walk a certain way, to act a certain way. People expect you to fit stereotypes but why do you have to fit stereotypes?’’ he said.
Waltz encouraged his fellow students to break the mould when thinking of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth.
“Do I seem like I’m alive, that I have feelings?’’ he said. “Make a move from stereotypes. Make the world, the country and this community a better place. This is one way to start.’’
The crowd of students, many dressed in purple shirts to show their support for gay youth, gave thunderous applause to each of the five speakers who took the stage to describe their experiences of being gay and coming out to family and friends.
The anti-homophobia day event was organized by the school’s sexual minority support group known as PRISM — Pride and Respect for Individuals of a Sexual Minority. Waltz is a key leader in the group.
Lindsay Ernst, a former St. Mary’s student, told her mother she was gay but kept it a secret from her father for another two years.
“I kept it from him,’’ said Ernst as she was overcome with emotion.
“He’s up there,’’ pointing to her father, Wayne Ernst, who surprised her and came to the school to listen to her speak.
She recalls the day she came home from Western University for the weekend and sat on her dad’s bed to tell him she was gay. She was crying and having trouble getting it out.
“Are you pregnant?’’ asked her father.
“I’m gay,’’ Ernst blurted out. She recalls the immediate silence and left the house that night.
When in Grade 9, female students in Grade 12 befriended her and supported her but later she became depressed after they graduated. Those same friends continue to be her best friends.
“I cried a lot. I didn’t want to be different,’’ said Ernst, 22, who is going to school in the fall to become a firefighter.
With her family support and a network of friends, Ernst said she’s never been happier.
“I love being gay and I wouldn’t change it for the world,’’ she said.
Wayne Ernst said he was always the first person to make the homophobic joke and didn’t care if he hurt people’s feelings.
“I was a bit of bigot. I was the Archie Bunker,’’ said Ernst, who’s been on his own personal journey since his daughter came out as a lesbian. Now, the two have a close parental bond.
“I told her you will always be my daughter, nothing less,’’ he said in an interview.
Kayla Blair, a 21-year-old cancer survivor, credits the deadly disease for forcing her to face her true self.
In February 2011, the former St. Mary’s student had a malignant tumour removed that doctors initially thought was a stomach ulcer.
Blair said it was halfway through her chemotherapy treatments that she knew the only way to get completely healthy was to “be OK with who I am and live authentically.’’
During one of those chemo treatments, her mother asked her if she liked boys. She hesitated but said no.
“It was a quiet ride home,’’ said Blair.
The same day she called her father at work and told him. “I wanted to be fully OK with myself.’’
Today, Blair said her father and brother accept her as a lesbian, but her mom continues to struggle.
“I’m OK with that. She was raised to see life in a certain way,’’ she said. “Life is not always what we plan it to be. There are surprises and challenges and that’s good.’’
Along with students, the panel also included the mother of a gay teen.
Lorri Talbot told the group how her son, Aaron, was bullied at St. Mary’s when he was a student there last year. He was taunted and teased and followed to the nearby Tim Hortons where he was confronted by the bully.
“I lost a lot of sleep. I worried about Aaron all the time,’’ she said. “He didn’t deserve the hatred.’’
Talbot said her son told her he was gay and she was overwhelmed with the news.
“I needed time to think about it. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. Yet saying nothing at all, I did hurt his feelings,’’ she said through tears.
Talbot admits she thought Aaron would outgrow the idea of being gay and that it was just a phase.
“I let fear take over. I was terrified how others would treat him,’’ she said. “I had let him down as a parent. I didn’t know how to support him. I was completely out of my element.’’
Talbot said eventually she realized that “being gay isn’t something you choose. You are born that way.’’
Talbot said she has learned how to be accepting of her 19-year-old son.
“I’m proud of my son Aaron. He didn’t let anyone suppress him. He is kind and passionate about LGBT youth,’’ she said.
“I’m very proud of him for being gay and I love you for that,’’ said Talbot, who was hugged by her son after she addressed the group.