A few weeks ago, I took part in what’s become something of a tradition for some friends and I – a sneak preview during Pay What You Can Night at Neptune Theatre, where, for $5 dollars, a small donation to the Food Bank, and a 2 hour plus wait outside in all kinds of weather, you can see some very talented people put on some energetic, thought provoking and wildly entertaining performances for basically a steal. This particular night was for their take on La Cage Aux Folles. Being a fan of the movie “The Birdcage, and the hilarious performances of Nathan Lane, Robin Williams, and Hank Azaria, I was eager to see the original stage production on which that movie was based. As we settled into our seats, I couldn’t help but notice, with a bit of disappointment, that the crowd seemed smaller than usual. I could also see, aside from a few exceptions, the audience appeared mostly straight and decidedly senior-ish in age. In the row behind us, however, I spotted two young gay men, one with his arm wrapped fiercely around the other, as he laughed a bit too loud, while his friend looked warily about as he sat stiff and ram rod straight in his seat. As I caught his gaze, his eyes suddenly grew alarmingly wide and he appeared frozen as he stared back. We’re actually about to watch a love story about drag queens, I thought, and this poor guy is afraid to look gay! Giving him a slight smile and a nod, I could see him exhale and relax slightly as the lights slowly faded and the music came up.
As the “girls” first took the stage, I could hear a smattering of uncomfortable laughter amongst the audience, and worried, for a moment, the play would somehow “cater” to this predominantly straight crowd. That they would simply titillate the audience and give a wink and a nudge their way with the very idea of a man – who is clearly, by all appearances, still a man -in a dress and high heels. And as a huge fan of that classic diva RuPaul, and in an age when RuPaul’s Drag Race is perhaps by far the most compelling hour on televisions week after week, I felt an urge to stand and shout to the rooftops for the rights of these queens to sashay and shante their way across this or any other stage – when, suddenly, the nervous whispers and giggles soon erupted into joyous, heartfelt laughter. Clearly the love and affection the two leads displayed for one another was soon almost palpable, and the romantic storyline that culminated in a passionate embrace and deep kiss at the end of the play resulted in the biggest standing ovation I’ve yet seen at this fine theatre. Turning around to give my fellow ‘mos a mental high-five in the row behind, I found they were far too busy macking down on one another (to which, if I’m not mistaken, they were receiving an ovation for as well!. And as corny as it might sound, I remember this warm feeling settling over me as I revelled in the warmth and acceptance felt all around. Thinking back, this was one of the best nights I’d had in the GAYborhood in a while.
On the contrary, one of the worst experiences in the gayborhood happened about a year or so ago. My boyfriend and I were at Pogue Fado, a local Irish club I’d spent many hours of drunken debauchery and a good portion of my pay cheque in years past (the night my friend Elaine and I drank vodka and red bull til closing while I helped her maneuver about on crutches with a broken ankle while singing and celtic dancing is STILL legendary!) This particular night, we’d stopped by to catch the last act of some cover band I was a fan of, and stayed to have a few ciders and draught and to dance away admist a fun, friendly, and very crowded dance floor. And so indeed, through the course of the night, we laughed loudly, drank (to be fair) a rather large quantity of alcohol, and danced our way to a sweat soaked frenzy, all the while making friends out of our fellow dancers along the way (so much so that one girl was so completed enamored with Shawn that once he excused himself for the washroom she said “um, you sooooo don’t deserve that guy!” When I asked why she said “because you’re not enthusiastic enough….LOOK at how much fun he is!” So when he came back I tried to be my enthusiastic best, to which she whispered “nope, still not good enough!)
Now, I love dancing with Shawn – he’s a great dancer, with a very fast, energetic, and carefree style, and being 6 feet tall with a football player’s build, seeing his moves in action can be quite a sight to behold. And beholding this sight that particular night were a couple of tall, burly bouncers on the far side of bar. I whispered to Shawn that perhaps we should take a break, but he glanced in the direction I was looking, laughed, and gave me a hug and a quick kiss on the cheek said “don’t be silly, it’s cool, we’re just having fun!” But literally seconds later, one of the watchful bouncer was at his side, tapping him on the shoulder and motioning us towards the door. Shawn asked f there was a problem, but the stern-faced bouncer kept repeating “you just need to follow me sir”. Once at the door, he told us we had to leave for the night. When pressed for an explanation as to why, he wouldn’t give one, and just insisted, more heatedly, that if we wanted to be able to come back another night then we needed to leave RIGHT NOW. When Shawn posed the question “Answer me thiis….are you asking me to leave because you think I’ve had too much to drink, or as you asking me to leave because I’m gay? ” He received only a silent, stone faced reply. But that stone face? It spoke volumes.
Shawn and I will often text or message each other during the day, most often about those trivialities in life-like “will you pick up some cat food so the cat won’t howl all day he doesn’t have ALL his groceries?” (he’s only happy with his crunchies and his meaty food AND his honey ham laid out before him), or “there ARE at least two socks that match here, right? I mean, they were once pairs when they came home from the store, no?” or – my favourite – “I think you took just about every set of possible keys we own to work for….what purpose exactly??” But when he called midday last week, I knew from the sound of his voice that something more serious was wrong.
“Have you heard the news yet today? A poor man was beaten to death. On Gottingen. In front of Menz Bar”.
The words seemed to hit me like a blow.
He told me the victim’s name was Raymond Taavel, and that I’d seen him around and would likely recognize his picture. That he was tall and friendly and always laughing and smiling. That in the past we’d often seen him at the bar, laughing and dancing wildly. And that he’d gotten to know him a bit personally, although many years ago, when Shawn was working as a DJ at a local bar. Raymond had been a former editor at Wayves Magazine, and a tireless advocate for the gay community. Someone, by all accounts, who awoke every day in an effort to live his life for the true betterment of his fellow-man.
As the grisly details began to emerge around Raymond’s death, I found myself confused – angered – over the debate around whether this heinous attack constituted a hate crime. As I imagined this poor soul’s last moments being pummelled by the bare hands and brute strength of some vicious stranger, screaming FAGGOT as he sneered down at him on the street, punching and kicking him, over and over, I wondered how it could be considered anything but the very epitome of hate.
My anger over the day’s events, however, quickly dissipated once we arrived at the candlelight vigil on Gottingen Street held in Raymond’s memory. With reportedly a thousand people in attendance, we listened with heavy hearts as Raymond’s friends gave testament to the wonderful person he was, and the loving legacy he was leaving behind. And as fellow writers and political figures, singers, performers and drag sisters all gathered to pay tribute, I was astounded by how quickly the feelings of grief and despair were replaced by an overwhelming sense of love and community. And more astonishing still, the compassion and forgiveness extended by Raymond’s loved ones to the perpetrator of this horrific crime. Because, as most speakers noted, that’s exactly what Raymond would have wanted. Despite this senseless tragedy, or rather because of it, this was truly a proud, unifying moment for Halifax’s diverse “rainbow” community.
I didn’t know Raymond. I don’t know what his laugh sounded like to my ears, or how he took his coffee in the morning, or what his favourite brand of beer might be. I don’t know if he was a sports fan, or a movie nut, or an art aficionado, or if he liked to sing along badly the way I did to his favourite songs on the radio. I don’t know what subjects of debate he was most passionate about, and whether or not he usually won that debate. I do know that he was loved, and from this great outpouring of affection from his community, that he will be truly, deeply missed. A bright shining light….gone too soon.
Yesterday I wandered the makeshift memorial to Raymond outside of Menz bar, decorated with colorful cards and hand drawn notes, with pride flags and bouquets of flowers, and with candles and small teddy bears. In a store front just down from the memorial I read a quote of Raymond’s that first appeared in a Wayves article years ago, when he was then a victim of gay bashing. In it, he said:
“It’s tempting in this day and age of legislated liberties to think that a personal or collective vigilance is no longer required. It’s easy to lull ourselves into complacency, thinking there’s nothing more left to fight for, or nothing more to achieve. Fighting back comes in many forms: reaching out, building bridges, educating and, if need be, defending ourselves from physical harm.”
I didn’t know Raymond. But I know lots of “Raymonds”. The gay men and women in my life, those I’m proud to call friends, are some of the brightest, funniest, kindest, and most sensitive, caring and compassionate people I know. I don’t have to look any further then my partner Shawn to see all of those wonderful qualities. Now tell me…why would anyone want to see that kind of light gone from this world?
In many ways, it would be easy for gay people to just hide from this horror. To keep to the shadows, so to speak, to not laugh too loudly, to not dance too wildly. Or, as Raymond himself noted, to lull ourselves into complacency and to feel that motivation to bring about even greater change is no longer required. We’ve come a long way….that cannot be denied. But days like these show just how much farther we need to go. And how vital it is that we get there.
I pledge to fight back against homophobia. I pledge to be visible, to be seen and to be heard. To laugh and dance and sing whenever I choose, as loudly as I feel. To walk down the street in broad daylight holding hands with my guy if the mood strikes me. To show affection when I please to the people I love.
I pledge to do whatever I can to make this world a safer place for all the Raymonds and all the Raymonds in waiting out there.
That’s the least I can do for Raymond.
Won’t you join me?
In memory of Raymond Taavel, April 17, 2012.