Manny is a gangly 20-year-old youth with a deep voice who learned about the project through his welfare worker. I interviewed him in the house he rents with two room-mates just outside downtown Lakeville. It was clean, sparsely furnished and obviously housed heavy smokers. There was a list of tasks on the dining room table, where we met, and the yard was well kept, so my conclusion was that a rather grizzled old guy who came into the kitchen to get a cup of coffee while we were meeting is the roommate or landlord who pro-actively manages the property. Manny monitored the screen very closely and seemed intent on producing a well-phrased narrative. He careened into odd humour on occasion and then edited it out. I didn’t ask about mental health diagnoses because he had very affirmatively written ‘healthy!!!’ on the information form, where it asked about health, including mental health and substance use. He indicates he was a client of the local children’s mental health agency for much of his childhood.
FM: Okay, so start with telling me a bit about where you were raised, who was in the family, how they made a living, etc.
I was always raised within Cottage County. I was essentially with my parents all the time, particularly my mom, who was unemployed for a very long time. She actually just got off welfare the other week, found full-time employment.
FM: And your dad?
My father has essentially always worked and drank, and I never really spent much time with him until moving back to Cottage County and I lived with him for a bit until differences put us apart.
FM: What kind of work did he do?
He used to be a carpet layer, used to lay carpet, and has worked in the retail industry.
Yes, I’ve got a younger half-brother and a younger sister.
FM: And were you brought up with them?
FM: And where in the county?
Riverville area, near Riverville for the most part.
FM: In the country?
FM: Okay, so talk now about when you first thought about either staying here or going away, what were the things that were on your mind?
I was having severe difficulties with the authority at the high school I was attending. Insurmountable differences between us. And my youth worker, my guidance counselor person, told me about essentially a school program in Toronto for LGBTQ youth. After an interview process I was told I could go there, and my only issue was that I had no place to live within Toronto. By then I had basically dropped out of school, was no longer attending...
FM: Let me interrupt: how old were you at this time?
About 16. Moved up to my Grandmother’s place for a couple of weeks. The seclusion and the feeling of stagnation prompted a moment of clarity and I realized I had to move forward in my life. So I moved to Toronto.
FM: And where did you find to live there?
I was at a shelter for awhile.
FM: Which one?
Covenant House, which on a side-note, is an excellent place; I had no complaints. While in the shelter I ended up taking too much MDMA and my friend who I was getting to know at the time, strongly suggested I vacate from there lest I be busted by the staff. So he took me to another friend’s house who I’d met once before, an apartment, where I managed to ride out the ordeal and through a chance encounter in the shower ended up staying there.
FM: I think you need to expand on that a bit…
I was showering in her house, a trans woman, and she ended up coming in the door while I was shaving myself, and just had a moment of looking at each other until she came into the shower with me. Although we never had intercourse or anything, that was the start of a relationship between the two of us.
FM: Will you go back a bit to when you first became aware of sexual orientation issues
They were never really an issue for me, just for other people.
FM: What other people and in what way was it an issue for them?
Anyone who lived in the area, like in Cottage County. I was always a lot more comfortable with myself than they were. That was the issue, might have made people uncomfortable.
FM: Can you explain maybe one example of that, so I understand it better.
I would dress outrageously, probably intentionally against the norm. Acting out in that sense. Probably as an attempt to get attention, in retrospect. Just bullying and the like. I used to have nail polish and would take any excuse to cross-dress myself. Like Hallowe’en. The people I kept company with were very comfortable with this, but [they were] a select group, maybe 3 out of a town of 3-5000, a small minority.
FM: And were these peers, or people older or younger than you?
Yeah, peers but older than me. Almost all my friends were older than me through elementary school. And actually, it wasn’t until graduating high school and having most of my friends leave that I started to hang out with people younger than me.
FM: Okay, so how old were you when you started ‘dressing outrageously’?
Um, fourth or fifth grade, I think.
FM: And what did your mom make of this?
Entirely fine. Was not encouraging, was not discouraging. Okay with it.
FM: Was it said out loud that you were gay or–
Not necessarily. I’ll share a personal anecdote. I was very young, like, we were driving. My mother and I used to have slumber parties and stuff, like things like painting Clear-Coat on nails and stuff, things of that nature, just all instigated by me. So we were driving and I was talking – like my mom and I were having a discussion I suppose on nail polish and she said something along the lines of if you keep wearing nail polish, you’re going to have to go and become a girl. And I said something like Okay. And she said I don’t think you’ll like that, because if you go to become a girl, they’ll do a surgery where they cut off your penis. And this really shocked or horrified me. I replied to her, Fine, then, I’ll just be a girl with a long penis. Ludicrous, like I was 7 or so. Very young. Pre-puberty. I never really knew one way or the other if I was gay or not, or committing to an orientation.
FM: Some people say they knew at a very young age that they were ‘in the wrong body’, that is, they’d gotten put into a gendered body that didn’t fit with them. D’you think that was where you were at?
No, not at all.
FM: Just confused – maybe just liked nail polish?
I used to have the credo that to feel beautiful I would turn myself into what I perceived as beautiful. Just change my appearance to what I considered beautiful or beauty.
FM: And beauty had a female face?
FM: Okay, so cross-dressing or being–
FM: Yeah, that’s a good way to put it… from a young age, and your mom more or less took it in stride, but you ran into some pressure in the community – to be more conforming?
Maybe when I first started, but by high school there wasn’t much anyone could say at all that would cause me to change.
FM: And were the irreconcilable difficulties with the school about your sexual orientation, or about other things?
That certainly played a role in it. And I was very oppositional to any imposed authority, so that certainly contributed a lot to it as well.
FM: Okay, so 16 you decamp and go to Toronto. Were you fairly drug-involved before you left?
A little bit. I used to be a chronic pot smoker and tried a few other things. I’ve drank on occasion but I used to not like it, drinking. After moving to Toronto I quit pot smoking, actually, and haven’t started back again. An on-and-off thing with the quitting but I’ve quit now. Once getting to Toronto, though, I did just about everything. Except for heroin.
FM: How did that work? Was there the sense that you were catching up with the Big World that you’d missed, or was there peer pressure to do stuff? How’d it work?
Essentially, a continuation of my exploration of mental alteration. I used to be very interested in why the human condition is the only one that seeks to alter or change itself through substances. In the same way that a deer might go to a salt lick, for pleasure or something, why do humans do this? That held interest for me, so upon having the access to chemicals, I sought to explore them, maybe benefit and grow from it. Unfortunately what I ended up getting into, which was methamphetamines and ketamine were not beneficial at all, until I stopped doing them. Which probably helped me grow a lot more as a person, overcoming those addictions.
FM: So you felt you were addicted… for how long?
Ketamine, probably a year and a half. Did it every day almost if I could. And meth was about 6-7 months, about that.
FM: And what else were you doing in your life at this time?
Trying to attend school, find a consistent place to live.
FM: So you were couch-surfing?
At times, yes.
FM: And shelters?
Never went back to one, no.
FM: Why was that?
The restrictions didn’t interest me. Although they are obviously great resources, great places, there were other places I could be so I chose those places instead.
FM: I’m hearing you got ‘adopted’ into a street ‘family’ or group that facilitated this prolonged exploration of life – drugs, sex, rock ‘n roll?
Yeah.. techno. We used to have drugs, sex, rock ‘n roll, and now all we have is AIDs, crack and techno.
FM: That’s progress of a questionable sort… So talk a bit about what agencies or other resources than the street family you used at this time.
Resources – welfare, my mom would send me my baby bonus until I turned 18 to help out so I’d be able to rent places, which I did. OCAP, tried to use that, they find really cheap apartments. The Oasis Alternative School.
FM: Talk about that a bit.
That was the program I was accepted into, the Triangle program which was billed as the only LGBTQ etc school in Canada or the world or something. Pleasant, but I personally found some of the assignments so subjective as to be silly or irrelevant to really furthering oneself in the world. Although I think I might have that opinion of most of the curriculums now, of education, I don’t think it’s too useful for children to just talk about themselves so much. Which is ironic considering this interview.
FM: Well, you’re talking about yourself in front of – electronically speaking – a group of people, so it’s not so much an exercise in self-awareness.
Sometimes I might say self-absorption. But hey, if this can benefit someone, then it’s beneficial and there’s nothing wrong with a positive benefit in the world.
FM: Right. Okay… so we have you in Toronto at age 16, briefly at Cov, then staying in a variety of places. By yourself or with others?
Sometimes by myself or with a room-mate in the house. Almost always with roommates of some nature.
FM: How’d you find them?
Relationships or connections. My mom gave me a tip about a room to rent once.
FM: So although you’d left home, your mom was very much involved with you, keeping a close eye on you from afar?
No. We talked as much as we could, which was maybe once every week or two, but I was very free to make my own decisions.
FM: And how was that? Was that scary or free-ing, or some mix?
Never scary. Excellent, perhaps. I would not be here today as I am without the freedom to make the decisions I have.
FM: Even though you were addicted to a pretty scary drug, you weren’t scared.
No. No, not at all. The lack of fear may have stemmed from the people I associated with. But kicking it wasn’t much of an issue. Is there ever a purpose for fear, really?
FM: So I’m hearing that you didn’t feel alone, you felt part of a group that you trusted more or less to have your best interests at heart?
FM: And you mostly found them by bumping into them?
Yeah. Meeting people and meeting other people through them. Or in social situations. I used to attend electronic dance parties a lot. Where I met the person I actually consider – if there is such a thing – is likely to be my soul-mate.
FM: Okay, so in Toronto, going to school more or less… how’d you get back here. And why?
Literally, by a bus. Otherwise, I was by this point very addicted. It had been a while of consistent use. I was a little bit of a mess mentally. And my girlfriend – the aforementioned I consider to be connected to in that manner – suggested that I go get clean, sort everything out. So I got in touch with a close friend who in the past I had led to move to Toronto and stay in my house for a bit, so I asked him if I could stay with him. And he lived outside of Riverville. And I consider him to be my best friend, my closest friend. Went back, lived with him, got myself clean.
FM: And when was this?
A couple of years ago, trying to recall exactly. I think I was 19 already.
FM: And how long a process was it, in your opinion? Getting clean.
In entirety, probably 6 months, 8 months, before I really became solidified as a human. There was a lot of sleep to catch up on.
FM: Any helpers in this process?
No. in what regard? Like a support system, no. there’s always the support of your friends and stuff, but there’s never a need for that.
FM: So didn’t use [local agency that deals with drug use] or family doc
FM: And was that because you didn’t feel the need, or didn’t know about them, didn’t trust them?
Both, I guess. Never heard of [that agency] until right now. Never viewed anything of that nature necessary.
FM: Okay. So what were or are you doing since you returned, other than getting yourself straightened around?
Graduated high school finally, last year.
FM: At Adult Ed Centre?
FM: How was that for you?
Excellent. Joined the band. Found a love in music. Started playing and graduated. That’s excellent.
FM: I’d agree. How long did that take?
Well, I graduated last year so the moving up till now which is about 2 years, I suppose.
FM: Still doing the music even though you’re out of school?
Yes, all the time, as much as I can. Still go to the Adult Ed to play with my band members who haven’t graduated yet.
FM: How did that band come to be? Was there any support from teachers or
Yes. The music program is probably one of the best of its kind in any Adult Ed facility.
FM: Would you say it was a life-saver for you?
Something like that, yeah. Music is my anti-drug – not particularly. I think I really enjoy drinking Scotch and playing music. It’s given me a hobby, it’s given me a purpose in life. It’s given me something productive to do.
FM: Do you see it leading to employment, or is it a hobby?
I wish. We’ve made an album and sold copies of it but we’re not tight enough to be a bar band or anything, can’t make too much money from gigs at the moment. I’d like it; I don’t think I’d be opposed to it.
FM: It’s a hard business to make a living in. What other options or plans do you have?
I would like to pursue post-secondary in the field of social work, probably. Maybe. I haven’t figured out what sub-field of that. I’d like to be able to help adolescents out but I’m uncertain if I’d be able to put up with the developmental changes and the changes in their brain; they tend to exhibit extreme behavior and thought processes, and I don’t know if I could put up with it. I’d love to be able to help everyone, but people have to ask for help. People have to take that step in order to be helped, and that age group may not be able to take that step, to listen to …. Yeah, I just don’t think I’d be able to lend an ear to egotistical problems, much as I’d like to. At the same time, with the as aforementioned education system going the way it is, it might be the only way to make a difference with children before they don’t, I suppose, are retarded in their development. Impeded in their development. Because if one doesn’t fully get to the next step within adolescence they can kind of be there for awhile and get set into patterns and ways of living that would essentially be destructive to the global community at large.
FM: You’re quite right. But from the outside looking in, you were one of those youth heading down the wrong path for a couple of years.
Most years, actually. I used to be the most self-absorbed, especially in high school. Very vain and egotistical.
FM: So are you saying that there should be interventions to help kids like you were but you don’t think it would be very effective because of the nature of adolescence?
Yeah, that’s fairly concise, succinct.
FM: But you asked for and received help, maybe not from the agency system, but from your informal system. And the formal system as well, re Adult Ed… was that an age thing, you just grew up enough?
Part of that, certainly. I think I might have just started becoming more conscious of the world.
FM: Okay, can we talk a bit more about where your nail polish interests have led you. How do you now think about your sexual orientation?
Open to interpretation. I’m currently in a monogamous relationship with a female, but if that wasn’t the case, I’m not opposed in the slightest to having a homosexual encounter, even a relationship with someone if I cared for them enough to do that. The world is composed more of people than their genitalia.
FM: You said you learned something at Triangle, if only a broad exposure to the world of identity
Yes. It also helped to further my education of current issues and how far the gay community has come, like civil rights and things of that nature, terminology. A lot of the program was very progressive as there’d be units where they’d bring in outside experts to teach part of the curriculum and such.
FM: Did it make you feel less ‘different’?
I suppose. I never really felt different per se but it was nice to meet some people who were a lot more flamboyant than I, I guess. I met some really cool people there.
FM: So it was a good thing for you to do?
FM: I’m interested that you came back to the country to sort yourself out, that the city was good for you – the school – but also bowled you over a bit. I’m almost thinking that you learned to be comfortable enough with yourself in the city, where you weren’t by any measure, probably, the furthest out, and you could then return to ‘home’. Anything to that?
The city is very energy draining if you’re not in an optimum setting. It can be very draining, and to come back here was to recharge myself, re-centre myself. Out or in had nothing at that point. It didn’t really matter to me what other people thought of me or what I thought of other people. I just needed to get back together. But it was very nice to be in a place where the freedom of expression was very apparent.
FM: Thanks for expanding on that. I know, wanted to ask whether your current girlfriend was from here or the city, where you met.
Current one, from here.
FM: Met her at school?
No. Met her through someone else I was temporarily dating, I suppose. I hadn’t been with anyone in a relationship sense since I moved back, and now I’ve been with my current girlfriend for about 5 months and a week. We’ve been living together almost that whole time.
FM: Talk a bit about your living accommodations here in the county. You said stayed with your friend in his place outside Riverville, and then what?
My father for about a season or a season and a half. Winter to mid-summer. And then I stayed with another person I met, in Lakeville proper for a bit. And then moved here.
FM: Where you rent with you said two room-mates, one your girlfriend.
And the landlord.
FM: Talk a bit more about the time with your dad. Was that just a roof over your head, or was that part of you getting yourself together?
No, I was mostly together by then. I may have started drinking too much at that point, because I was capable – newly 19. Mostly a roof, and I hadn’t seen him for awhile. Ended up moving out because he got a new girlfriend – to delve into it would be another interview. There were severe differences in personalities. I’m super-happy for my dad. It’s really radical that he’s finally found someone. I’m really happy that he’s getting his dick wet, that’s super rad, but I don’t talk to him anymore. Maybe that’s what happens when you date a stripper, I just don’t know…
FM: And what about your current relationship with your mom and sis?
Radical. Super fine. They live pretty far away now.
FM: Where do they live?
Two and a half hours north of here. [names an area].
FM: What took them there?
My mom splitting up with one of her boyfriends who lived kind of near there so she stayed up there essentially. Her leaving one of her partners and finding another one, that’s what prompted the move.
FM: So she wasn’t here when you came back ‘home’
FM: If she had been, do you think you would have stayed with her rather than your buddy?
I’m not totally sure. I really don’t know.
FM: Okay, reviewing my little check list. We’ve covered – oh, I know. Haven’t it on the record how you pay the rent these days.
Social assistance. Which despite its name does not mean they introduce you to new people. They do not assist with social life at all.
FM: How have you found doing business with them? They supportive?
As in life, it’s composed of humans and it’s entirely the person that you’re [dealing with] – whoever that person may be.
FM: Do they hassle you to move along, get a job, etc?
Not in an unreasonable manner. There’s not much more in life I’d like at this moment than to have a job. I do look. There’s not very much work available in the County, especially during the winter. And it’s kind of a fact of life. It’s been an issue here for going on 30 years, finding affordable housing and finding regular work if you’re not an entrepreneur or a female. I’m pretty sure if I had breasts I’ve have a job. No bias or misogyny but that’s just who they hire for working a position at a front counter or waitressing or something of that nature. Between restaurants, convenience stores, grocery stores, the tertiary industry essentially, that’s all there is. Except for hard labour, which I’d like, just they tend to have their teams already set out. And during the winter there’s not much going for that.
And I don’t drive. Which very certainly disadvantages me in the employment front.
FM: And why don’t you drive?
There was never a purpose for it. By the time I was old enough to get a license, I was in Toronto so public transit was available. And upon moving back, I just haven’t gone for it yet. I’m in no position to afford car insurance. A license would be nice but it’s likely that within a year or two, I’ll be back in some sort of urban infrastructure to pursue my post-secondary, thereby rendering a car more of a hindrance than a help. In my opinion.
FM: And certainly not an expense you can afford on welfare.
Not at all.
FM: Can I explore about affordable housing? You mentioned it was a problem. What was your experience?
Trying to find a place, essentially, it’s very difficult, especially not driving, for one. Most of the places available are like renting a house which is easily $1000 or so. There’s not much available in the way of rooms, really.
FM: Is sharing with room-mates an okay option? How have you found that?
It has the potential to be excellent, depending on the room-mates you are with.
FM: How much choice do you have?
A little to a lot. If one is to find room-mates, with the intention of going to rent a place, there is a lot of choice. If one is to find oneself a room, one has very little choice. If it’s possible to find one. In the past I’ve had no concrete choice over my room-mates while renting in Lakeville.
FM: Right. So that’s a vulnerability, a challenge.
FM: Have you had any experience with employment? You haven’t mentioned it.
Yes. I’ve had jobs before. Had a job in a kitchen a while ago, which I – not again. No longer want to work in kitchens, got that checked off the list. I’ve done many other types of jobs, mostly centred around construction or labour. From most aspects of contracting to even just digging holes and stuff, yard maintenance, I’ve turned over plots of land for gardening, a very eclectic list of pursuits.
FM: And any experience with the legal system?
In what sense, incarceration?
FM: No, anything – getting picked up, charged, night in the drunk tank, whatever.
No. not really. Briefly talked to cops when there was a shooting in the apartment next door in Toronto. Talked to the cops before I moved, over my dealings with the school administration. Before I moved, a friend and I were suspended from school and during the suspension, the administration called my house from their land line at their house. And in the advent of the modern age, I decided to demonstrate to my younger sister how it is quite possible to find someone’s address through the internet with nothing other than a phone number. So I 411’d his phone number, found his address, and in the spirit of freedom of information, I shared this information with my friend who was also suspended. In a private message in FaceBook, with nothing other than this is his number, a statement of fact. Nothing implied, nothing else. Upon being at the school, I was forced to go through my FaceBook, which is probably an invasion of privacy, by this same administrator who, in between all the other messages, came across this one. I suppose took it in a very paranoid light. As a result, I was stopped by the police while biking down my road that I lived on, and told that if anything happened to this administrator’s house in any regard, that I would be the first one they came to. That was my dealing with the legal system. Who it supports and who it does not. This same administrator had read an outdated child psychology book and really took it to heart. This book was called When Good Kids Do Bad Things, and he definitely found that it resonated with him, as evidenced by the language he used.
FM: Okay. I’m going through my list mentally. Did you ever have involvement with the mental health system?
Yes, [local children’s mental health agency] and things of that nature.
FM: And how did you find it?
Fine. Nice resource.
Yeah, for the most part. Entirely dependent on the worker you get. But I wouldn’t have been able to go to Toronto if it hadn’t been for the worker I had at the time. It certainly helped.
FM: How long were you hooked up with the worker from [that agency]?
The most recent one? I’ve had workers all the way through school, pretty much, since grade 2 or 3, so there’s been a few case workers. The most recent one is about a year, 8 months before I left for Toronto, maybe a bit more than that. Very positive impact.
FM: Okay I think I’m ready for my finish-up questions? Okay. In order that the people who read this story understand in the way you intend, to give it focus and shape, would you say what you think is the Most Important Event in the narrative. Could be something that happened, or something that didn’t happen, an absence or a hole.
Most important Event? Picking up a guitar. And figuring out what I wanted to do with my post secondary.
FM: Who, if anyone, are you working with to figure out the details on post sec?
Admin from Adult Ed giving me a hand.
FM: And they’re continuing even though you’re finished?
FM: Okay. Next question: People who read this story will form an opinion about how it ends up, good or not so good. What do you think?
How this story ends? Certainly with the cessation of my respiratory functions. Um…Viking funeral.
FM: I mean – as you well know – how it unfolds going forward: upward trajectory?
Yeah, totally. Le ceil!!!!
FM: Now, two advice questions. First one: What advice would you give your younger self, whether or not that younger self would take the advice, that you think would help this story unfold easier or better or smoother, or whatever…
Don’t be a ho. Avoid that abusive relationship that you were unaware of unfolding while it was. And definitely don’t cheat on your f’ing girlfriend. And basically appreciate the world; don’t try to be what the world appreciates.
FM: Do you want to say anything more about the abusive relationship? Up to you.
It’s sort of a really long story. What it boils down to is I didn’t realize how much power my partner of the time had over me emotionally, through guilt and that ilk.
FM: Okay. Last advice question. What advice would you give to those of us who would wish to be helpful to young people like yourself, that would make this transition, these challenges , easier or have a better outcome, whatever…
Hm. If it’s in your power, create opportunities of employment. Give kids the chance to contribute to the world, to their community. Educate them. Empower them. Teach equality.
FM: Good. I’m done. Anything more?
Nothing I can think of.