Yes, it gets better.

The sad and disturbing increase in gay teen suicides is depressing, but the response to Dan Savage’s It Gets Better project is nothing less than inspiring.

Watching the It Gets Better Canada video, the descriptions of gay life in high school echoed my own experience growing up in Australia.

No, I’m not gay. I’m not even a visible minority; you’d be hard pressed to find a more pasty-faced WASP outside of Wales.

My defect, so to speak, was that I wasn’t Australian.

I pray that things have changed, but in 1970s-era Oz was extremely xenophobic. If you weren’t born and raised in “The Lucky Country,” you were an intruder.

I was four when we moved to Tasmania, but my Canadian accent earned me the nickname “Yank” or “Seppo” (Australia rhyming slang for septic tank = Yank). And trying to point out that Canada and America were separate countries didn’t win me friends.

When I turned 11, my mother pulled me and my sister out of school and we spent a glorious year playing hooky in England.

I no longer had to read boring textbooks dictated by the school system. My mother took us to museums and art galleries, ballets and fringe plays, concerts at the Royal Albert Hall, and street festivals in Covent Garden and Hyde Park. It was the most culturally-enriching year of my life.

When we returned to Australia a year later, I’d swapped my Tasmanian-Canuck accent for a plummy marbles-in-the-mouth “toff” one. Once again, I was the subject of abuse at my new school.

No one would sit with me at lunch, an agonizing hour that felt like a lifetime. I did my best to avoid eye contact, and tried to hide in the library as long as I could. Boys called me a “fucking Pom” and girls made fun of my haircut and “daggy” clothes.

Perhaps worse than my accent, though, was the fact that I actually enjoyed learning. I excelled in English, Music, Art, History and Geography, but subjects like these are anaethema to Australians. It’s probably the most sports-centric nation on earth – and I was terrible at Phys Ed.

Kids put chewing gum in my hair, wrote nasty graffiti on my locker and around the school, tripped me up and made fun of me in class. I cried almost every day for two years, and begged my mother to take me out of school again.

The only kid whose life was more hellish was the school’s only Jewish kid, Benny.

The beatings, both physical and verbal, that he endured on a daily basis made me wonder how he didn’t commit suicide. And while I didn’t join in the verbal attacks, I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t befriend him, either.

Things let up when we moved again, and I was put in an all-girls school in Wollongong. Without all the rampant testosterone, I was finally allowed to be myself in peace.

A year later I came to Canada. The first questions I asked my first Toronto friend were, “What poisonous snakes and spiders should I be aware of, and what kind of initiation ceremonies do schools have for new kids?”

Thankfully I enrolled in Central Tech’s art program, where for the first time in my life I was surrounded by other artists, oddballs and outsiders. I was so happy after my first day, I almost cried again, this time with relief.

But as miserable as my school years were, I can’t imagine the pain and fear that must go with growing up gay. Even in a liberal environment like Toronto, the pressure to conform from parents, as well as bullying students, must be overwhelming.

To all of my friends, gay or straight, flamboyant, eccentric, and unique, I’m grateful to have you in my life. Thank God we made it here.


My Rotten Childhood

My mother taught me some irrefutable facts.

“The British make the best comedy in the world, and the worst.”

“Tom Jones doesn’t sing. He shouts.”

“Flared trousers are vulgar.”

These and countless other gems became part of my lexicon. But one just never quite struck me as plausible.

“Comics,” she declared, “rot the brain.”

Jean (as she preferred to be called) had very definite ideas about what constituted suitable reading material for an eight-year-old. A Clockwork Orange and The Gulag Archipelago were OK; Archie and Jughead were not.

Undaunted by the possibility of encephalopathy, I decided to test her theory. Unfortunately I forgot to hide the evidence.

One morning while I was dressing my dog in a scarf and sunglasses, she flew into a rage.

“What’s this?” she demanded, brandishing a Jughead Digest. “I told you I don’t want you reading this rubbish!”

“But why?”

“Because…” she sputtered, “it ROTS the BRAIN!”

I was flummoxed. Whatever Betty and Veronica got up to, it had to be more wholesome than The Benny Hill Show. And yet, my Ms. magazine-reading mother allowed me to watch it with impunity.

I hated the show, but we only got two TV channels. When the choice was Benny Hill or the news, Benny won every time. To this day, I still cringe when I hear “Yakety Sax.”

Another program that repelled yet fascinated was The Black and White Minstrel Show. The dullest half-hour ever conceived, it consisted of bland English roses and men in blackface strolling around in period costume, singing songs of the Old South. I knew there was something wrong with that picture, but my mother never batted an eyelid.

But perhaps the worst fodder for impressionable minds was a book she gave me one birthday.

An Aussie institution for over a century, Cole’s Funny Picture Book was the unfunniest book imaginable. There were three volumes, each divided into chapters like “Funny Land,” “Smoking Land,” and the fascinating “Pussy Land.”

“Naughtiness Land” was filled with poems like “Sally, The Lazy Girl,” “Selfish Edith,” and “Girl Who Wouldn’t Comb Her Hair.”

A few pages later, the more upbeat “Girl Land” featured “Stupid Jane,” “Careless Matilda,” and “Girl Who Wouldn’t Eat Her Crusts.”

Meanwhile over in “Boy Land,” readers were treated to Cole’s views on manhood with “Whining Willie,” “The Little Coward,” and “Dirty Dick.” My favourite though, was a woodcut illustration entitled, “Boy Meddling with Galvanic Battery.”

Throw in some pieces about “Our Serious Sambo” and “Little Chinky Chow Chow,” and it’s hard to believe these were once touted as tomes of childhood education.

To be fair, I’m not sure my mother ever scrutinized the contents. I just hope Aussie kids have something better to read now. Like internet porn.

Apology To The Snails I Kept In My Fisher-Price Barn

Dear Snails:

Sorry about that. I don’t know what I was thinking. I was only five or six at the time, so I was probably thinking a lotta crazy shit.

Like, for instance, back then I thought people lived inside our radio.

When the DJ said, “Now here’s Helen Reddy, singing I Am Woman!” I thought she was actually there, behind the mesh speaker.

I pictured pop stars patiently waiting their turn to step up and sing. Sometimes I’d try to peer inside our transistor, to catch a glimpse.

Radio People, I theorized, looked like the rest of us, only tiny. The fact that I’d never seen any walking around didn’t faze me. Presumably they were hard to see. Either that, or radio manufacturers bred them overseas.

But back to the snails.

One afternoon there was a thunderstorm, and millions of snails appeared in our garden. Big snails, little snails, great-great-granddaddy snails.

The temptation was too great.

I started collecting them. Pretty soon my hands were full. I looked around for somewhere to put them.

The barn.

When I was four, my parents gave me a Fisher-Price barn that went “moo” when you opened the door. As I sat on the floor enjoying my new toy, my older brother came over.

“How would you like me to get rid of that sound?”

I stopped to contemplate for a moment. Here I’d been thinking the moo sound was cool, but my brother was grown-up and therefore (I reasoned) much wiser.

“I don’t know.”

“C’mon. It’ll be better without it. Here, let me show you.”

Somewhat reluctantly, I gave him the barn and within minutes he’d silenced it. I opened the door a few times.

“Can you put it back now?”


Years later I found out that Bruce has Asperger’s, which explains why he was always taking things apart. But the barn thing was just pure asshole, in my opinion.

Where was I? Right, snails.

Whether it was early-onset Alzheimer’s, or a testament to the Power of Now, I don’t know, but after filling the barn with snails, I forgot all about it.

Months went by.

One day I was playing in the yard when I saw the barn on its side where I’d left it.

The snails!

A wave of guilt and fear washed over me as I imagined the snail carnage. Slowly, very slowly, I opened the moo-free door and looked inside.

There, calmly sliding around unperturbed, were the snails. Dozens of snails with no food or water, and not a fatality in sight.

I was so relieved, I ripped them out and tossed them all back in the garden.

So guys, forgive me. I honestly didn’t mean to torture you.

And Bruce? I’ve got a stereo that needs fixing.

The Years of Shopping Dangerously

Forgive me Father, for I have shopped. Oh, how I have shopped.

Not lately, at least not for myself, but over the years I’ve shopped plenty. Just ask my ex-art director. I ran into him recently, and he introduced me to some friends.

“May I tell an embarrassing story about you?” he asked.

“Which one?” I replied.

“When Sally and I worked together, she had so many handbags she had to keep some at work, so she could ease Cameron [my husband] into each new purchase.”

“Not true,” I protested. “I didn’t have room in our closet.”

“It’s probably true,” Cameron said when I told him the story.

OK, so I’m still in a bit of denial. If Fashion Rehab had existed five years ago, I would’ve been Jeff Conaway to Perdy and Alison’s Dr Drew.

Back then I shopped morning, noon and night. Online, on the street, and even (horrors) on TV, from the home shopping network.

I’d always been a fashion fanatic. In my first year as a copywriter, I came to work dressed like Mozart, Madonna, the Cat in the Hat, and a Victorian wench, among other things. Luckily my boss had a sense of humour. In fact he loved showing me off to clients, no doubt to prove what a crazy, creative ad agency it was.

By my 30s, my fashion schizophrenia had settled down, but my disposable income had shot up. What to do, what to do?

I developed an interest in vintage clothing that quickly became an obsession. Halston, Lanvin, Pucci and Gucci took over my vocabulary. I dropped casual references to Castelbajac and Jacques Fath into the most mundane conversations.

At the height of my powers I could scan an Ebay page faster than you can say “Buy It Now.” It was a feat made all the more impressive by the fact that I didn’t own a computer.

For a couple of years I went on a tear, amassing a small museum of vintage gems. But just as quickly as I’d gotten hooked, I started to lose interest.

A vintage crocodile bag that was perfect when I bought it would disintegrate when exposed to sunlight. And that darling ‘60s Pucci shift started coming apart at the seams when I wore it to an awards show.

I sold or gave away most of my pieces, and as time went on I found myself less and less interested in dressing myself. Instead, I focused on building my man’s wardrobe.

Cameron could be in an ad for Tom Ford. He’s all high cheekbones and broad shoulders, with long legs and a boyish smile. Clothes hang on him like leaves on a willow branch.

Shopping for men is so damn civilized. It’s all “free alterations” this, and “Which side does sir dress?” that. In all my years of shopping for myself, I can’t remember anyone asking me which boob is bigger, or whether I’d like a little more room in “the seat.”

I began collecting business cards from all the toniest men’s boutiques. Where once I was on a first-name basis with Stella, Proenza and Miuccia, I now favour labels whose working-class names belie their price tags: designers like Paul Smith, Ben Sherman and Ted Baker.

Last year I fulfilled a long-time dream of custom closet organizers. But when I open the door, it’s my husband’s shirt collection that catches my eye. And the funny thing is, I’m fine with that.

While I still have a thing for designer purses, my bag addiction’s under control. Good thing, too. As Dorothy Parker said, “You can’t have everything. Where would you put it?”

I’ll give you a hint: not at work.

Clothes Horse Cameron

Big Spender

The first book I ever read was The Grasshopper and the Ant. When I got to the end the moral was lost on me, frankly. The Ant just seemed like a boring conformist, while the Grasshopper had all the fun.

Cut to the early ‘90s. I was just starting my career, and up to my eyeballs in debt. Like the Grasshopper though, I wasn’t worried. When people talked about RRSPs, I joked that my retirement plan was a beanbag chair and a big bag of hash.

Then I lost my well-paying job. Riding home in a cab (why start penny-pinching now?) I blubbed as the radio DJ chortled “…Statistics Canada announced today the recession is officially over!”

Fortunately, I was working again within weeks. Naturally, I celebrated by charging up a storm. My closet was bursting with Gaultier, Ghost, and more Boy apparel than Morrissey’s London flat. And although I eventually smartened up, I squandered money on boneheaded purchases for years. For instance…

A bilious green Dita Von Teese-style dress. Price: $300

I could fill a Goodwill with my fashion disasters, but this one stands out for my loathing of it from the get-go. Looking back, I bought it out of sheer embarrassment. If that doesn’t make sense, well, neither did most what I did in my 20s.

It was hanging in one of those chichi boutiques; the kind where the clothes are spaced two feet apart and the handbags shriek like car alarms when you fondle them. As I scanned the merchandise, I did the one thing you should never do in a store like that.
I paused.

“That’s a gorgeous dress. Wanna try it on?”

A skunk-haired salesgirl appeared out of nowhere. She wore matte black lipstick and a t-shirt that read ‘Kill Vegetarians And Eat Them.’

“Sure,” I mumbled.

She smiled, revealing teeth a shade of white not found in nature. “Great, I’ll get you a fitting room.”

She led me to a cupboard at the back of the store. Locking the door, I realized too late I was trapped: there was no inside mirror. Fuming, I grabbed the form-fitting dress and squeezed it over my frame. Breathing was not an option. But before I could tear it off, the salesgirl hollered.

“Let’s see it!”

I opened the door a crack. “Over here.” In the middle of the store, a good 15 feet away, stood the only full-length mirror. I hobbled towards it.

“It looks awesome!” my new herbivore-hating friend gushed.

I peered at my reflection. The green that had seemed innocuous on the hanger had a powerful pigment-sapping effect on me. I looked like an Evil Dead extra. Worse, every lump, bump, ripple and freckle was magnified by the skintight fabric.

Another salesgirl sidled over. “It really brings out your complexion.”

Fearful of drawing a crowd, I blurted, “I’ll take it.” Yes it was stupid, but my primal brain had taken over and rational thought had departed; something I can’t blame for my next waste of cash…

Budget Living magazine. Price: $5.99

After years of racking up credit card debt, I finally decided to rein in my spending. And what better way than by perusing the pages of Budget Living?

At $6.88 with tax, Budget Living cost more than Vogue. More than Vanity Fair. More than Wallpaper magazine, for fuck’s sake.

On the other hand, Wallpaper didn’t have helpful tips on how to make a coffee table out of milk crates, to complement your $2,000 Noguchi lamp.

I bought two issues before it folded.

I wish that was the worst of it, but judging by this last item I must be a magnet for irony.

Intelligent Make-up. Price: $350 and change

No matter how many eye shadows I own, I can always justify more. As any make-up junkie will attest, the number of taupes alone is staggering.

Intelligent Make-up was “a complete cosmetics system.” It consisted entirely of different coloured pencils, all of which fit into a customized case. The case was so cute and the concept so appealing, I found myself handing over my Visa before you could say “obsolete.” Which it was, just weeks later.

In the meantime I’d bought a case, three lip pencils, a sharpener, two blush pencils (plus a sharpener specifically for the blushes), and four eye shadows. I’d only intended to buy the case and some lipsticks, but the empty slots looked so lonely I had to fill them.

It seemed like a good idea in theory. In reality, the pencils were either hard and waxy or broke at the slightest pressure. When I went back to complain two weeks later, the Intelligent Make-up counter was gone.

These days of course, I only buy things I either love or need. Or both. Like taupe eye shadow.