Since I was a small child, I have had a deep fascination with superheroes - in particular Batman. I believe what drew me to his character was the dualistic nature of his identity, his perseverance and adaptability. While dualistic in nature, there are many layers to Batman’s identity and characterization that inform his emotional responses to the obstacles he would need to overcome.
The same can be said for my coming out process. I had to draw upon on an inherent strength I did not even know was there. It was a learned skill as well, as I continued to build upon it with experience and age.
Of course, coming out three times crafted who Jason Cole is today.
When I came out to my mother at 16 years of age (initially as a gay male), it was a difficult time. I was raised Roman Catholic and in fact, I was the most religious person in my family. Therefore, my mother was shocked (as well as myself). I had very little inkling that I was queer until I kissed a boy down the street and the attraction to him was so powerful, unlike anything I had felt before. Coming out is a family process and in time my mother and family would accept my sexuality.
I also remember my first Pride the following year. I was captivated by spectacular, the provocative dress (or lack there of), the many folks making out on the street, the leatherfolk and of course, the water guns ready to splash myself and my friends in a moment of pure joy. I had found my tribe, or so I thought.
As the expression of my sexuality became entwined with my maturity, I began to hone in on what my life would like. At first, I thought that was to be married. While my marriage did not work, I remain good friends with my ex-husband to this day. I did learn a lot, including that marriage and settling into a monogamous relationship are just not for me.
It was also around this time that I found out was HIV+. This presented myself with a second coming out process, which was layered in stigma, ignorance and what seemed like a crash course in HIV-related advocacy, law and health promotion. To say this was overwhelming would be an understatement. Why? Because I thought I had it figured out. I would casually drink with my friends, go out on the weekends, laugh out loud and be the extrovert that I naturally am. However, that would be interrupted as I attempted to navigate through disclosure to partners, my family and my friends.
"I value the place that being poz gives me. It reignited my desire to work through challenge and toward change in how HIV is viewed within the queer community and beyond."
I had to dig deeper to draw upon that inner strength so that I may be profoundly heard, or ‘loud and proud’ as it were. I was taught many lessons, the most important being taking charge of my own health and not apologizing to anyone for my diagnosis. My inner-stigma was shattered and for that I am incredibly grateful.
Yet it would not be until gender exploration and identification that I became whole and owned my own narrative, where I learned even more valuable lessons on being proud. For nearly the past year, I have chosen to identify as genderqueer - preferring pronouns such as they, them and theirs. I came to this conclusion about my gender identity after years of exploration in my own life and an immense internal struggle that never seemed to settle, or at least until I allowed it to.
Combining all of these identifiers: being pansexual, poz and genderqueer make me feel not only multilayered, but also a whole and content individual.
I know the role my sexuality plays in my life, preferring casual partners over long-term romance (at least until Cupid comes knocking at my door, instead of my real estate agent). I value the place that being poz gives me. It reignited my desire to work through challenge and toward change in how HIV is viewed within the queer community and beyond. As for my gender identity, I have been able to see the world through new eyes - never underestimating the power of what safe space means to gender non-conforming individuals.
In short, I became my own superhero because I had to. Sure, there is some added fun and frivolity to that statement, but I believe it is important to honour our personal histories of struggle in order to enjoy the present.
June is Pride Month in Toronto. We come into this month on heels of the introduction in Parliament of new laws protecting trans and gender non-conforming persons. Truly, this is an emotional and incredible feat - one that has had a ripple effect across the country.
Pride is also a time to celebrate: our sexuality, our (of course) gender identity, to promote healthy sexuality and to shatter HIV-related stigma. It is a time to be proud to be you.
But in our efforts to honour and respect who we are as individuals, we must respect who we are as an entire community. It has been said many times: there is enough room under the flag for all of us.
This Pride, my hope is that amongst all the revelry that we take a moment to look inward: to shine a light on our own prejudices and to make space in our hearts for the diversity that exists within our community. This is possible because we have seen it before. The truth is in our history.
We have seen it during bath house raids in Toronto, the initial HIV/AIDS crisis across many urban centres and in New York during the Stonewall riots. The LGBTQI community rallied together for a purpose: to fight against injustice and we did so as one one loud and impenetrable voice.
In my personal journey and my many Pride celebrations since I was 16, I have seen change and I have seen division. However, I have seen proud voices speaking up to celebrate how far they have come and who they are today.
That is exactly how I plan on celebrating this year.