I was 10 years old in 1967. Growing up in a hamlet north of Sudbury, Ontario “in the Valley” meant I had little direct contact with the larger social fabric of the world, and no direct access at all to the “REVOLUTION” that LIFE magazine told me was happening EVERYWHERE OUT THERE.
My parents, although not overly literate, had a subscription to LIFE magazine when I was young. It was through that erudite publication that I formed my first impressions of the world that existed outside the prescribed borders of my tiny personal world. In those glossy pages I discovered that men had walked on the Moon! LIFE told me stories of what life was like in the major urban centres; New York, San Francisco and London, England were shimmering cities of infinite promise. It spun breathless stories of how technology would transform our futures in magical ways.
As an artistic and precocious adolescent, I was particularly fascinated by tales of a sexual revolution that was allegedly transforming society just over the horizon. By the age of 12, I was already aware that I “wasn’t like the other boys,” and by the ripe old age of 15, I had determined that I was most definitely bisexual, if not extraterrestrial!
At this point, LIFE Magazine had become for me, not merely a bulletin from beyond my immediate experience, but a siren call that drew me inexorably toward an imagined future where boys like me became men like that… in control of their avant garde lives, living and loving freely and openly, challenging social norms and forging a brave new world of self-expression, sexual exploration and deeply held political and spiritual beliefs.
Imagine my shock and dismay when my first year of secondary school was experienced at a Jesuit boys’ college that required a lengthy bus ride into the “big city” of Sudbury every day! My mother, a good Catholic, had bought our parish priest’s assertion that the local public high school was a pernicious place and that my educational, spiritual and physical well-being depended on my enrolment in St. Charles College in downtown Sudbury, twenty miles away.
Needless to say, that first year of high school did not go well. In elementary school, my artistic nature and precocious personality had endeared me to my teachers, who favoured me with their attention and granted me license to explore the library outside of regularly scheduled classroom visits. At St. Charles College I was quite obviously “not like the other boys,” but where that had been an asset in my earlier educational career, in high school it was as if I had a target painted on my back and the name of the game was Bully the Queer.
Where was the free love that LIFE Magazine had promised me? Where was that society that encouraged and celebrated creative self-expression? Why didn’t my peers read books outside of the specific school curriculum?
It wasn’t long before I sat down with my parents to patiently explain that although I would complete my first year at St. Charles to spare them any embarrassment, I would not be returning there for my Grade 10 classes. I required them to enrol me in the local public high school (literally across the street from our house) and would complete my secondary school program there.
The formality of my manner, coupled with the assertion that if they didn’t agree to my request then I would definitely be putting myself up for adoption by a more informed and cooperative set of parental units, left them little choice in the matter.
The remainder of my high school years were spent creating a miniature version of the glorious fantasy world that LIFE Magazine had suggested was my birthright. Drama Club was an important part of that fabrication, as were multiple art, mathematics and English literature classes. Although I still experienced being ostracised by many of my peers, I was able to assemble around myself a like-minded cadre of misfits and outcasts that allowed all of us to feel like there WAS a place for us in the world. The Valley wasn’t Haight-Ashbury or The Castro, but our little corner of it was as close as one could hope for under the circumstances.
Those faded issues of LIFE Magazine no longer enthrall me. The modern world is simultaneously more fabulous and more terrifying than anything I read about in those pages. But the power that publication had to shape a young queer’s vision of what might be possible in a person’s life stayed with me. I am grateful for the life I’ve lived and continue to live. I remain optimistic about what the future may hold. That combination of gratitude and positive anticipation is, in my opinion, the most powerful formula for happiness.
Thank you, LIFE, for being there.