Friday, September 26, 2008

"I'm Coming Out... I Want the World to Know."

"I'm coming out, I want the world to know, I’m got to let it show…”

So sang Diana Ross in her seminal hit, “I’m Coming Out”, a ditty that in more recent years has been co-opted by the LGBT community as a rallying cry for just that – coming out of the closet and declaring ones homosexuality.

I recently spent a couple of weeks in Vienna, wherein I befriended a mildly famous Viennese celebrity. Cedric - a judge on an Austrian reality TV show a la America’s Next Top Model – was a transplanted American whom I met in Vienna’s only passable gay bar – the Village (yes I know, rather touché). When you’re traveling solo through Eastern Europe best friendships aren’t really on your radar; you’re merely looking for someone who won’t bore you to death over a couple of beers. Political and moral commonalities are far less important then fluent English and tips on where to get good local food on the cheap. While Cedric may not have fit the bill for a potential new bestie– he did meet the requirements for a couple of boozy nights of mayhem.

On my last night in Vienna, as the bartender continued to ply this poor “Toronto Boy” with shots of Vodka, the topic at hand turned to celebrity gossip, as one is wont to do when other topics of conversation run dry. “Britney Spears…” is safe for a good thirty minutes of conversation with most anyone. But as if by a cruel twist of fate the stereo turned from a classic Madonna number to Ricky Martin’s “Livin La Vida Loca”, prompting yours truly to state: “I wonder why more celebrities aren’t openly gay, shouldn’t Ricky just come out?” Cedric – perhaps imbued with his own sense of celebrity – was shocked at my suggestion (no, not that Ricky Martin was gay), but that a celebrity would choose to “come out of the closet”.

“Sexuality,” he argued, “is an intensely private issue. Who or what I do in my bedroom should not concern my fans.”

Then and now I remained unconvinced with Cedric’s reasoning. While sexual proclivities are surely no one’s business, sexuality, whether we like it or not, clearly is.

Now, back in North America – less then one month later, the third estate has been graced with yet another People Magazine cover featuring some celebrity proclaiming: “I’m gay.” Thanks Clay! No shit.

A friend called me yesterday announcing the non-news that everyone was stuck between acknowledging and yawning about. She wondered my opinion about Clay’s acknowledgment of his homosexuality. At first, I gave my usual: rah rah sis coom ba… another ‘mo to add to the team! And truthfully, remembering my own rather unhappy times in the closet, I’m always glad to cheer someone who has the courage to come out. Moreover, another public figure to add to the too short list of openly gay celebrities is always welcome. However, the more I thought about Clay, the more I became bothered by his decision to come out when he did and in the manner in which he did it. Clay’s People Magazine article splashes its headline on the cover “Yes. I’m gay” – admitting, to everyone in the Loblaws checkout line, that something anyone with half a brain has suspected for years is true. Clay’s magazine cover, also hints at something a bit more insidious – for the last four years Clay’s been effectively lying to most of Middle America. "Yes, I'm gay," acknowledges the rumours and idle gossip which dogged Aiken for the last few years. Rumours which he rarely addressed.

When a celebrity, like Clay Aiken, Lance Bass, Rosie O’Donnell, or even Ellen DeGeneres, comes out, it confirms months, maybe even years of speculation over their sexual preference. Subsequently a celebrities decision to come out of the closet is a bit different then your typical announcement over thanksgiving dinner in first year of university: “Mom, dad… you know how some people like dark meat, and some people like white meat and everyone thinks I really like white meat? I think I’ve realized that I actually really like dark meat. A lot.” The difference is that in most cases, celebrities who come out publicly do so years after coming to terms with their sexuality themselves; as most gays will tell you - coming out to yourself, is a major part of the battle. In Clay’s case, the singer has said that he came out to his mother four years ago [around the time that rumours oh him hooking up over the internet hit the airwaves]; but it was the birth of his first child, which prompted him to come out to his fans and to the public. As Clay himself says, "I cannot raise a child to lie or hide things." So why lie to the public for four years?

My main issue with the argument that “sexuality doesn’t matter” is that if homosexuality doesn’t matter – then why is it still such a big deal for a celebrity to come out the closet? Why did Clay lie to the public for the past four years? Most likely Clay was afraid about how his sexuality would harm his career. With the exception of a couple of celebrities and politicians who have spent the majority of their careers as openly gay, most public figures either stay closeted or wait until their career is on the wane before coming out hoping to capitalize on the ensuing publicity grab. The ensuing media circus that occurs when a celebrity comes out (ie the magazine covers and the accompanying Barbara Walters interview) further proves the fact that sexuality still matters. If no one cared about celebrities being gay - People Magazine wouldn't run Clay on the cover. And subsequently would Clay have been on the cover of People Magazine this month if it weren’t for his newfound sexuality? In fact coming out often adds a whole new dimension to once moribund careers. In reality Aiken was bordering on becoming a career has-been and tabloid sideshow. Yet, by coming out, newly Gay Clay is suddenly relevant again.

When it comes to sexuality, heterosexuality is often a given; it’s a normative judgment. We assume people to be straight, until we know that they aren’t. And no matter how comfortable you are with your homosexuality – when a gay person meets new people he or she still has to “come out”. When I started my MBA program in the fall, I met 250 people to whom at some point or another I had to say or confirm, that – I’m a boy who’s into other boys. (I know this wasn’t a big shock considering I’m the only person in my class who decorated their name-tag, and the abundance of cardigan’s hinted that I was a bit off… but still…)

As society’s normative sexuality, heterosexuality is used by public figures for their own gain. Where would Brad Pitt be in the current celebrity obsessed climate without his wife and harem of children? For politicians heterosexuality is part of the package sold to voters. The current Conservative Party Tagline: “Stephen Harper is dedicated to building a stronger, prouder, more prosperous Canada by delivering real results for everyday Canadian families” drives home Harper’s commitment to heteronormative family values. Just as Brad Pitt uses his heterosexuality to sell films so to do politicians who strive to portray images of themselves as dotting fathers and mothers. Check out the last line of Stephen Harper's bio: “Stephen and his wife, Laureen, have two children, Benjamin and Rachel, and make their permanent home in Calgary.” Contrast that with the lack of information in John Baird’s biography and draw your own conclusions. The conclusion, at least, on the outside, is that heteronormativity sells.

The point being, however, is that we still live in a society that is overwhelmingly hetero. And as we live in that society - perhaps that's one of the reasons why its important to acknowledge that sexuality isn't just what you and I do behind our bedroom doors. If heterosexuality is normative and generally quite public - then shouldn't homosexuality allowed to be part of the public record as well. And with the exception of loudly "coming out" with a people magazine cover- how can we make it so?

In a perfect world I can see the reasoning in Cedric’s argument and in some way’s he’s right - sexuality shouldn’t matter. Yet in the world we’re currently living in – sexuality still does. Politicians and actors remain closeted for fear of angering their fans and constituents. For society to move beyond its current sensationalistic People Magazine announcements of faggotry, we still need queer heroes who are out and proud, regardless of the ramifications to their careers. In some instances this is already thankfully happening. American actor TR Knight regularly and with little fanfare shows up at events with his boyfriend. Two Canadian TV actor’s Adamo Ruggiero and Luke Macfarlane have been out almost since they became famous. Slowly we are inching our way towards the potential of a post “coming out” era. An era where indeed one could actually argue that sexuality doesn't matter.

However, still – in 2008 – does it make sense that we have closeted news anchors, actors, politicians and singers fearing that their sexuality will impact their careers? The fact that we are still willing to devote magazine covers allowing someone to shout (as if it matters): I’m Coming Out, I Want the World to Finally Know, argues that sexuality can still be an issue. And until we are able to move beyond sensationalist People Magazine cover's I'm still willing to argue with Viennese celebrities that homosexuality isn't simply a private matter.

I'm Out - Hope the World Already Knows.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

These Are Our Downtown Aristocrat Years

My apartment doesn’t have cable, but as I’ve spent the better part of the past month at my parent’s house (the Two-Fer), where the digital cable and booze flow freely, I’ve been able to reconnect with my good friend Stacey London. Nothing says a hot Friday night in my provocative life then a “What Not to Wear” marathon.

Anyway... whilst reconnecting with Nick Arojo, Carmendi and judging (sequined hammer pants, really?) along with my besties Stacey and Clinton, I kept on seeing a commercial for the Discover Credit Card, wherein the announcer declares that, “We are a country of consumers; but that’s ok. The difficulty is choosing what to buy.” This is an ok motto, unless you’re one of the thousands of Americans who are living off of credit card debt and whose mortgages are precariously close to default. But sure – spend away. Get some Discover Points and pay really high interest rates on crap from Target. That’s the American way, right?

There is, however, a modicum of truth in the Discover Card commercial (truth in advertising, egads!). Consumer consumption is a major economic driver and one of the definitive characteristics of our fun capitalist society. Consumer confidence, in the crapper of late, due to high oil prices, and mortgage foreclosures (what one economist called a perfect storm), drives a significant portion of our service economy. The enclosed shopping centre, that purely American invention, perfected for the cold Canadian climate, (Yorkdale Mall in Toronto is one of the top grossing malls in the continent by square foot), are odes to our society’s plethora of choice. You don’t like the 100% t-shirts at the Gap, well American Apparel is right next door, and if not there, then Club Monaco probably has some sassy v-necks in muted hue’s.

One of the most pervasive trends in shopping these days is lifestyle retail. No longer are we buying simply a couch, or a t-shirt. We’re buying a story. Mike Jeffries, CEO of Abercrombie Corp, perfected lifestyle retail model by revamping Abercrombie and Fitch into what it is today – some sort of sexed up East Coast Ivy league orgy clothing company. That vintage polo shirt you bought for $59.50 isn’t just a polo shirt that looks like your mom spilt bleach on it; by committing to Abecrombie's Moose you’re saying that you too could play a game of pick-up football with shirtless tight ends. You mean your McGill experience wasn't full of pillow-fights and erotic touching? Mine was(n't).

Lifestyle retailing has become so pervasive in my life, that in a perhaps pathetic admittance of guilt I realize that I tend to live my life vicariously through retail establishments. Witness my two-month love affair with J. Crew cover model Kelly Rippy, whom I actually tracked down in New York City. The bubble burst when my friend who knew who admitted that the Kelly in tweed from the catalogue wasn't the real Kelly who preferred Brooklyn, tattoos and skateboarding to Upper East Side, polo shirts and car services. (Also he prefers women, but that's a whole other issue).

So imagine my pleasant surprise when I got a recent email from Club Monaco announcing the arrival of their fall collection, conveniently entitled “Downtown Aristocrat”. The tag line: the downtown aristocrat is chic and cultured classic and urban. They give uptown refinement a downtown edge.

Like a beacon of light the geniuses at Club Monaco instantaneously enlightened my somewhat bleak life. Truth-be-told I had been feeling a little bit glum of late. I was no longer a resident of Faux Hill, my till now defining claim to fame, and my boho-chic annex apartment, was just that: boho chic, with an empathis on chic, not on bohemian. The pretty Restoration Hardware throw pillows on my couch say faux and its the annex people... ain't nothing low-rent about it. Admittedly the whole look is miles away from my undergraduate apartment, a loft, which was conveniently located above an Indian marketplace and had a darling view of Montreal’s needle exchange bus.

So what was this new, twentysomething lifestyle I had acquired for myself? It had, up until recently, been nameless, an amorphous Amoeba travelling down Bloor aimlessly running into friends and ex boyfriends alike. There was no real genre to my Annex-lite lifestyle. Perhaps it could be: Aromatic? After the hours I’ve spent willing away time sipping mint tea at Aroma Espresso Bar?

Or how about: "Over extended?" Or “The Waugh Years”, as I had taken to signing letters with the name “Daddy Waugh”, as Rick Waugh, CEO of Scotiabank, and his lovely student line of credit was funding my lifestyle and that of my friends. I pictured a "Wonder Years" voiceover: "The good people at the Bank of Nova Scotia had given me a line of credit. My mother commented about their stupidity.."

But then with that one statement the head honcho’s of Club Monaco had distilled my life, and the lifestyle of most of my friends, into one clear statement. We are Downtown Aristocrats! Suddenly I felt so much better about myself. I had an identity again. It was as if I had a reason to live again, no longer was I lost in the abyss as an aimless twentysomething. Aimless? But I'm a Downtown Aristocrat. Don't you get it? I take one part uptown snottyness and mix it up with two parts downtown je ne sais quoi and bam! one downtown aristocrat in a cashmere blend v-neck.

Praise you Club Monaco. Praise you indeed.

And then I thought to myself that of course Club Monaco, owned by the arbiter of re-invention himself: Ralph Lauren (real name: Ralph Lifshitz), he who had moved downtown from the Bronx and re-tooled himself as a downtown aristocrat for the polo set, would be able to so successfully and succinctly rebrand my lifestyle.

Thanks Lipshitz. Here’s a big ole L'Chaim (of a mint-green Aroma tea) to our Downtown Aristocrat years.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

See You on Bloor Street

I recently ran into someone whom I went to McGill with and whom I haven't seen since I fled McGill's Arts Steps for the last time.

After nearly colliding one windy morning at the corner of Bay and Bloor, she declared, "I always see you on Bloor Street."

Crazy talk, am I always on Bloor Street? Well, I realized, I do live a couple of blocks north of Bloor... my old job was at the corner of Yonge and Bloor... and my current place of academia is centered just south of Bloor. Perhaps she had a point... I did spend most of my life walking between Aroma Espresso Bar and Espresso Bar Mercurio; ie from one pole of my Bloor Street lifestyle (Annex) - to the next (Yorkville and school).

As I ran into an ex for the umpteenth time on Bloor last weekend I concurred that indeed Bloor Street had become the superior vena cava of my life and to most of my friends.

So why this unintended infatuation with a street as mundane as Bloor? Unlike many main drags in other cities, Bloor is not a grand artery of leafy trees, old buildings and fine old institutions. The Champs Elysees Bloor isn't; its not even Rue Sherbrooke in Montreal. Herr Thorsell's recent attempt to reposition the ROM as a citizen of Bloor (thereby adding a bit of institutional grandeur) has been an abject failure; sort of like a 905'er tripping on faux Louboutins at Sassafraz.

Basically devoid of major panache Bloor exists as a safe and accessible street lined with two and three story buildings; while not a grand artery - it is one of Toronto's iconoclastic avenues. Only as Bloor nears Yonge does it reach any sort of attempt at fanciness, but in true Toronto-speak fanciness is perhaps best personified by the landmark Colonnade shopping concourse, a 1963 modern monolith that, while a landmark, is short of beauty. Attempts to turn Bloor into something it isn't (the ROM's renovation) and the upcoming Bloor Street revitalization project have been met with typical Toronto (don't change the status quo) sneer. The Bloor revitalization project (a streetscaping improvement plan) is actually being blocked by a group of shop owners who are Concerned about Bloor (namely that black granite would be dangerous to pedestrians). I'm more concerned that Labels 4 Less opened next to Tiffany & Co... but I digress.

But Bloor Street is where my friends currently are at. My social circle, typical spawns of Toronto's stretch of clean and white midtown (Loser Park, RosedAle, the Brittle Path and Faux Hill) have all completed their undergraduate degrees, moved to china (to teach English) or completed a master's abroad, and have settled back in Toronto to start their career or attend one of the city's professional school factories (of which I attend... so I'm throwing stones at my own glass house, don't hate). The problem of course is that living back with our parents wasn't an option. Downtown beckoned us all. And yet shockingly no one chose to live much further south of Harbord. Real downtown (south of College) was a land full of streetcars and ethnic enclaves. A vibrant and quaint to visit, but not a place to live; especially if you wanted to maintain a bit of your Uptown lifestyle. Bloor Street and the Annex provides a nice mix of downtown with enough Uptown snob appeal.

While flitting about antique stores in RosedAle the other day (I'm gay) I ran into a Mummy in French Country. Mummy was looking at chairs with her Dakota Fanning esque daughter who was latched into a St. Clements uniform.

"Mummy, why are we here?" the daughter asked.
"We need new kitchen chairs."
"But we have kitchen chairs." How precocious.
"We need new ones for the house we're building." And I immediately pictured some erantz Richard Wengle designed monstrosity. These - are not really my people I admitted as I slinked out of French Country, realizing that I don't yet deserve Laguoile steak knives. One day my friends... one day.

And that is why Bloor is so attractive. Bloor Street sits on Toronto's juncture between Uptown and Downtown. South of Bloor is downtown at its best - streetcars, chinatown, tourists, Yonge and Dundas. Great if you love lot's of people and noise, not so great, if you're used to Pusateri's... That small pocked around Bloor is the the bridge between downtown and the manicured lawns of suburbia. And for me, and for most of my friends - that's where we sit in life, straddling the dupont of our twenties. One foot planted firmly in our twenty-something existence of Thursday nights out, charity galas, dinner parties, and the other foot planted firmly in the corporate ladder, head gazing up the hill at our eventual centre-hall future.

Eventually I'm sure you'll find us all sitting back in the Faux Hill Village on a Saturday morning talking about sending the kids to summer camp, but in the interim - I'll see you on Bloor Street.