I grew up gay in a conservative home. The emerging anti-LGBTQ+ agenda horrifies me.

 "Parents are calling for a return to the dark age I grew up in, devoid of nuance, compassion or understanding" 
Maurice Vellekoop
Photo illustration_Maclean’s_Lito Howse iStock

Maurice Vellekoop is a cartoonist, illustrator, and the author of graphic memoir I’m So Glad We Had This Time Together, forthcoming from Random House Canada in February 2024.

In the past few months, I’ve been distressed to witness a relatively new phenomenon: social conservatives, inflamed by fear and misinformation, are advancing an anti-trans agenda. Last June, parents’ rights groups in New Brunswick scored a victory when they updated Policy 713, which now forbids trans and non-binary kids to use their chosen names and pronouns at school without parental consent—a policy that could force students out of the closet at home before they’re ready.

Recently Saskatchewan passed a similar law, which goes further: in addition to the parental consent rules, Bill 137 allows parents to withdraw students from sex ed classes that have LGBTQ+ content they deem inappropriate. I’m also seeing efforts to ban books with queer material in school libraries. Mental health experts in these provinces are concerned: studies have repeatedly confirmed that young people who aren’t supported in their gender identity are at far greater risk of poor mental health outcomes, including anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicidal ideation.

READ: This student is stuck in the middle of Canada’s gender policy debate

Of course, it’s only natural for parents to want to shield their children from exposure to potentially harmful ideas, imagery and information. The problem is that it’s practically impossible—and it has been for many years. I should know: the recent swing back toward silence and suppression is eerily reminiscent of my childhood experience in a conservative Christian household. 

Picture this: a suburban backyard in 1970s Toronto. Two girls and a boy are playing with Barbie dolls. The girls look on nervously as the boy ties a shirtless Ken doll to a stake and has Barbie and Francie flog him, all the while laughing maniacally. That boy was me. And the scenario was inspired by the campy 1960s TV show Batman, where the the obvious romantic attraction between Batman and Catwoman manifested through tongue-in-cheek scenes of bondage and torture. The tongue-in-cheek part went right over my head because really, I was absolutely clueless about sex and sexuality growing up. 

My family were members of Rehoboth Christian Reformed Church, or CRC, in Etobicoke, Ontario. The CRC is a strict Calvinist sect, composed almost entirely of Dutch immigrants, that places great emphasis on knowledge of the Bible as the complete and final word of God. The CRC subscribes to the doctrine of “total depravity”—that is, because of Adam and Eve’s sin, all human beings are born inherently sinful, incapable of good, unless they accept the Lord Jesus as their only hope of salvation. 

In the hermetic world of my childhood, education was everything. My family went to church twice on Sunday and us kids attended Catechism class one night a week. CRC boys joined the Calvinist Cadet Corps, a version of Boy Scouts that included Bible study. Meanwhile, in place of Girl Guides, there were Calvinettes. My dad was a caretaker for the Etobicoke Board of Education and my mum was a hairdresser. They made huge financial sacrifices to send us to Timothy Christian School, a private school run by the CRC, not far from our home in Rexdale. Sex ed was limited: in Grade 6 or 7, the girls at Timothy were excused to watch a film, presumably about menstruation and changing bodies. No explanation or further information was offered to us puzzled boys in the class. I was dying to find out what the film was about, but my girlfriends refused to tell me. Smug and superior, they teased, “You’ll find out… someday.” 

Around the time I finished Grade 8, I realized I was attracted to boys. Soon after, my mother decided it was time I learned about the birds and bees. She handed me a book on sexuality for CRC teens, titled God’s Temples. I scanned the book, first, for information on what constituted heterosexual sex—boys’ washroom rumours confirmed—then quickly skipped to the entry on homosexuality. There, I found confirmation of what I’d suspected: homosexuals, the book said, were sinners whose same-sex attraction was unacceptable in the eyes of God. Their only hope for redemption was to lead a life of celibacy and repentance in order to receive God’s grace.The alternative? Eternal damnation. (This remains the church’s official view to this day.) Such was the sum total of my sex education. 

After reading that book, I was left with crushing fear and sorrow that if I were to come out and lead the sinful life of a “practising” homosexual, I might risk rejection by my family and expulsion from the church—which, at that point, was the only community I knew. These were people I’d known and loved my entire life. I tried dutifully but unsuccessfully to suppress my feelings. I was filled with shame.

Most of the kids at Timothy went on to Toronto District Christian High School in Woodbridge. Perhaps feeling the financial strain of private school tuition, in Grade 9 my parents sent me to the local public high school, Thistletown Collegiate, where I endured slurs like “faggot” and “queer” all day, every day. I found refuge in the art room, where I befriended the Rocky Horror Picture Show fans and the theatre kids, who offered safe cover for a shy outsider with emerging queer sensibilities. Later, at Ontario College of Art (now OCADU) I met a very out, gay professor who became a close friend. And yet, at 18, I was still attending Catechism class. The goal was for me to make my Profession of Faith, a public declaration of my belief in and love of God, which granted full membership in the CRC. 

I was increasingly torn between mindsets: sinful gay fantasies, observing the freedom my new secular friends enjoyed, and trying to be a pure-minded Christian. When I read the Bible, the words blurred together. The more I tried to embrace the concepts, the less sense they made. At long last, I decided I needed to leave the church, which was a terrible blow to my parents. But I was filled with a calm and optimism I’d never experienced before. Then, time for the next hurdle: coming out, and working up the nerve to deliver a further shock to my parents. My usually volatile and unpredictable father received the news well, saying that, though it would be a difficult life, I was always welcome at home. My mother, who’d known about me all along (those Barbie dolls!) couldn’t accept me and tearfully expressed her hope that I would follow the church’s direction on celibacy. 

It was the early 1980s, right at the dawn of the AIDS era. I had a couple of negative experiences with men. Suddenly the pursuit of sex and love seemed too difficult and dangerous, and I shut down. I endured periods of depression, living with unsatisfied longing and self-medicating with alcohol. Yet it was a mystery to me what had gone wrong. I had plenty of gay friends and I went out to gay bars. I had a great career as an illustrator and cartoonist. My work was very much tied to promoting a playful, joyous vision of gay life that I believed was possible, right and true. But what I yearned for most–finding a partner–eluded me. Ironically, I spent the next 15 years being exactly what the church (and my mother) wanted me to be: celibate. In the late 1990s I got into therapy. At age 35, I began to have fun dating and having sex, things most people do in their teens and 20s. But though I seemed, at last, to be leading a full queer life, I still unconsciously carried a great amount of guilt and shame. These combined with fear to form a deadly triangle. I was afraid that if I fully embraced my sexuality that I would forever alienate my mother. 

Over the years there was always an unspoken weight hanging over our interactions, and our relationship suffered greatly. I found myself unable to breathe when I was around her. I wished she would loosen up, while she feared for my eternal soul. Once, at the end of an otherwise pleasant outing, she handed me a pamphlet that, once again, urged homosexuals to embrace celibacy. I realized it had to stop. I needed to definitively, officially break from that harmful doctrine, even if it meant potentially losing her. So I wrote her a letter. In it I offered my own credo: that I was proud to be gay, that I believed it was a sin not to be a “practising” gay man and that being queer was a gift that gave me compassion for all outsiders. I asked her to consider her identity as a wife and mother, both intimately bound up with sex. If the tables were turned, would she be willing to sacrifice her sexuality on the altar of her faith? I confirmed my love for her, and told her I respected her beliefs, but I needed her to respect mine. After that, a few miraculous things happened. 

First, my mother wrote back an intensely emotional letter of her own, in which she poured out affirmation of her love, while acknowledging the worry she’d felt for me since I was a child. She apologized for not being more supportive when I was being bullied in high school. Amazingly, she declared that she didn’t see why gay people shouldn’t adopt children, and most crucially, she gave her blessing for me to find a partner. The second thing that happened was even better. Exactly five weeks after receiving the letter, I met a wonderful man and fell in love. We have been together ever since, now clocking in at 22 years. I’ve never experienced a prolonged period of depression in all the time we’ve been together. My mother and the rest of my family fully accept my partner, and my mother even said she thought of him as a son. She and I became closer in the years leading up to her death in 2021.

I’ve just completed a graphic memoir that largely deals with this painful material (it’s not all bad—there are some laughs, too!). When I began working on it, in 2012, President Obama was in the White House. Gay marriage had been legal across Canada since 2005. The western world, at least, seemed to be serenely and irrevocably moving forward on progressive issues. I thought that my story, of a cis, white, gay man’s struggle for self-acceptance against some stiff odds, would be interesting, but not necessarily of any vital social importance. Then came Donald Trump, the overturning of Roe v Wade, the book bans and the fierce backlash against trans people. It’s a depressing time, in which the advances for gay and trans rights, made by so many groundbreaking activists past and present, are suddenly in peril. I worry that, without a safe environment and fearful of how their parents might react, queer kids in larger parts of the country are becoming as isolated and afraid as I was growing up. 

What these parents are calling for is a return to the dark age I grew up in, devoid of nuance, compassion or understanding. A world that enforces wilful ignorance and denial. Suddenly and unexpectedly, my book seems to contain a vitally important message for our times.

Do we really want to go back to a climate I thought ended long ago? I urge concerned parents to consider the consequences for their queer children’s mental health and happiness. Because here’s the thing: my lack of exposure to any meaningful sex education at a young age made zero difference to the fact that I am a gay man. Identifying as gay was not a “lifestyle” I chose. It is an inherent part of who I am. Denying that part of myself led to years of depression and loneliness and decades of bitterness and quasi-estrangement from one of the people I loved most. My story is an example of the outcome that awaits those seeking to “protect” their children and return to a world that is best gone by.