JP Michaels / Canada
“Mother Knows Best
It was my mother’s habit to engage me or one of my siblings in a joint task for some alone time with each of her children. Most often the task was doing the dinner dishes where my mother washed and one of us would dry. This was safe-time, alone with our mother to discuss whatever.
On a warm August day in 1960, at the age of five my Devout, Irish, Catholic Mother, while teaching me how to sew on a button, told me I was gay.
Once we had covered the basics for the task at hand of threading the needle and proper use of a thimble, my mother began by saying, “now Joseph you’re going to be going into Grade One in September. (We lived within a block of the parochial school that I was to attend and could see it from our front porch.) And you are going to meet a lot of new children. Some of them will be your friends and some of them will not. Some of them may call you names and make fun of you and say that you are different. But you’re not different you are special.” I recall this conversation as if it were yesterday.
My mother was a person of few idle words, so when she did speak all would listen. My mother basically announced to the family that I was special and this is how I was to be treated and that was that and so it was.
I had a very full and active childhood with many playmates in the neighbourhood some of whom I keep in contact on a casual basis to this day. I recall being described by relatives as a very affectionate child. I had a very close relationship with my Italian Paternal Grandfather who, living just around corner from me, fostered my affectionate expression through opera and gardening.
I don’t recall ever being discouraged by my immediate family members from wearing dresses for play in full view of the neighbourhood from the front yard. In verifying some points for this story, my eldest sister reminded me that it was she who in fact started putting me in dresses because she wanted a little sister. Of course she blames herself for my being gay but that’s another story.
When my two older testosterone-charged brothers would tease me and call me a sissy or a girl my mother would show a side of herself that my brothers knew enough to stop. And I recall quite vividly receiving from Santa, a kid-size fully operational iron and bright red metal ironing board. Moreover, I recall not feeling the least bit put out by the gift. In fact, I was quite excited.
At the age of six, my mother took me alone to see a live theatre performance called the ‘Birthday Cake’ put on by teenagers from the Guelph Little Theatre in the upper chambers of the old City Hall in downtown Guelph. During the performance my mother turned to me and asked if I would like to do this someday. I just said, “Yes”. Then the following year, at the age of seven, my mother enrolled me in Saturday morning acting classes at the Guelph Recreational Centre.
My “specialness”, if you will, was treated very matter-of-factly and I knew nothing different growing up. I always felt protected as a youngster. As a young teenager it was theatre and my music that would take me a little further afield but always in a very safe and secure environment.
I joined the drama club in high school in grade nine. It was cool to be part of the drama club because the most popular senior girls were in the drama club. And where there are popular girls there are popular boys who like to date popular girls.
It so happened that the two most popular girls went to the same church as I did. Their mothers and my mother were “ladies of the Church” for the Catholic Women’s League. So I had all my bases covered when it came to the girls. I call this “ACCEPTANCE BY ASSOCIATION”.
The popular boys happened to play on the senior boys basketball team. I lobied for a position as “Senior Boys Basketball Statistician” even though I was failing math. My job was to sit court side next to the Coach who, by the way, was also my Grade 9 Gym Teacher. For some reason Coach always picked me in gym class to demonstrate wrestling holds.
As Coach would be working up a manly sweat yelling at the players, I had a blueprint of the court in front of me on to which I would record the jersey number of the player by approximating the location on the court from which a shot on net was taken. If the player made the basket I would circle the jersey number. At the end of each quarter I would tally up the statistics as to the number of shots taken to the number of shots made. I then tallied the stats for the entire game. Needless to say I was the most popular person in the change room after the game and I was clothed. Sometimes I would deliberately make an error in calculation so that a particular player would be required to linger naked in front of me while I recalculated. Afterall, I was failing math.
Directly out of high school, at the age of 18, I entered the Order of Friars Minor Conventual Franciscans; a Roman Catholic Religious Order. In the first letter I received from my mother as young and eager Franciscan Postulant, my mother wrote, “I knew in the womb that you were special. I did not love you more or less than my other children, I just knew I had to love you differently.”
It never occurred to me that two men could love one another. In fact, up until the age of 18, I wanted to be a girl because that is the only way I could see how I could follow through on my instincts being attracted to other men.
Of course I had “sexual touching” experiences with other boys. Of course I was privy to the guilt-ridden circle jerks in cub scout tents. In which, by the way, I never really participated. Scouts honour. 🤚
Oh not because I didn’t want to participate. It’s just that I couldn’t figure out what the words would be when I confessed to my Parish Priest. And I will never forget the awe-inspiring panic I felt when I saw my FIRST ejaculation. It was thrilling! There must have been glass fulls. You could always count on one of those Bernardi boys to step up to the plate.
But it wasn’t until I was seduced by my Religious Superior at the end of my first year of religious formation that I realized that one man could love another. It was a frightening experience, yes, but I was boldly grateful at the same time. It was this pivitol experience that charted the course in embracing my authentic sexual self.
Excerpt from ‘Memoirs of a Style Icon “Died and Gone to Fashion: Surviving a period of unwellness one outfit at a time.” ‘ JP Michaels © 2019”