Language selector

My journey of action, taking it back to 1987

Page controls

Page content

By Michael Bach

It was 1987. That was the year I turned 16. It was also the year I acknowledged that I’m gay.

I vividly remember the first time I said those words out loud. I was working on a school project, interviewing an alumnus, to update the school’s history. I had heard rumours that he was gay, but wasn’t certain. Long before the advent of the internet—and 24/7 information—there was no way to check.

We met over coffee. Sitting on a faded blue couch, tape recorder on, I finally said, “May I ask you a personal question?” He chuckled and said yes, as if he knew what was coming.  “Are you gay?” He paused, smiling softly, and met my eyes, “Yes.” I breathed in and replied, “I think I may be too.” He hugged me. We’ve been friends ever since.

Saying those words for the first time was like taking off a suit of heavy armour. The weight of it—a childhood marked by shame, abuse and pain—was lifted in seconds.

In 1987, the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans-identified (LGBT) community was not what it is today. First, we only had the ‘L’ and ‘G’ in the acronym. Either Bisexuals and Trans people hadn’t been invented yet, or there was simply no acknowledgement of them. In fact, the ‘L’ was relatively new—a proclamation of the difference between gay men and gay women. This was a time when we were either straight, or not.

To say the least, I didn’t come out to a world welcoming me with open arms:

It was only six years earlier, on my 10th birthday, that the Toronto Police raided several of the city’s bathhouses—a catalyst that galvanized many in the LGBT community to come out of the closet, and take to the streets to demand equality.

We were in (what we believed to be) the middle of the HIV/AIDS crisis, a disease that took the lives of many gay men before they learned how to protect themselves.

It had been only one year since homosexuality was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders—the standard classification used by medical professionals in Canada and the US to define psychological illnesses.

It had also been a year since Sexual Orientation was added to Ontario’s Human Rights Code. (It would take another decade for Sexual Orientation to be included in the Canadian Human Rights Act.)

But for me, coming out was the first step of a long journey.

At university, I faced homophobic abuse and violence. While I’d broken through my own internalized homophobia, I was living in a world where I was not accepted. While I can’t remember the moment I became an activist, my parents raised me to speak out. I became determined to effect change for my LGBT brothers and sisters struggling to find their strength.

I became the coordinator of the (now defunct) Lesbian and Gay Youth of Toronto. From there I moved on to the Toronto AIDS Walk, the Lesbian and Gay Community Appeal’s (now Community One) Fruit Cocktail, the New York Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project, and so on. I immersed myself in the community where I belonged.

Much changed over the following two decades. In a post-gay marriage Canada, however, members of the LGBT community were still suffering from discrimination in their jobs. Along with a small group of committed individuals, I started Pride at Work Canada with the goal of ensuring the nation’s workplaces are open, inclusive, and free of discrimination for LGBT people. From humble beginnings, that organization is now one of the most respected LGBT not-for-profit organizations in Canada.

As I reflect back, more than 25 years later, it was my childhood that drove me to be the man I am today. It was the endless taunts and accusations of being a “fag.” How I prayed to every power in the sky to change me. It was the number of times I considered ending my life.

When I came to terms with my own identity, I looked in the mirror and proclaimed, “This is who I am and I am fine just the way I am.” That was when I made the commitment to ensure that the people who followed me would come out to a more accepting world.

That day in 1986, when Sexual Orientation was included in Ontario’s Human Rights Code, marked the beginning of profound change. It said that I mattered. It meant that acknowledging yourself as gay, lesbian or bisexual did not mean giving up rights or living as a second class citizen. It meant you were equal and free.

Michael Bach (CCDP/AP) is the national leader of diversity at KPMG in Canada, and a graduate of Cornell University with a Post Graduate Certificate in Diversity Management. You can follow him on Twitter @diversity_dude.