Background: One of the many things I love about The County is the fine work done by the Prince Edward County Arts Council in promoting the arts in our community. One of its signature projects is the annual “Wind & Water Writing Contest”. This year’s theme is ‘Transformation’, and the judge is the acclaimed Canadian writer Kelly S. Thompson. Both Bill and I submitted non-fiction pieces to the contest. Bill’s piece, “The Part Where I Tell a Story That Used to be a Secret”, was selected for the long list of finalists. It is both hauntingly beautiful and deeply moving. The short list will be announced on May 19th and the winner revealed on May 26th.
My piece, “The Orchid Boy of Sudbury”, is a memoir about Spencer, my late husband, and his spectacularly defiant late-1960s dance routine at a Sudbury High School talent show. It was an exorcism for all the homophobia and bullying Spencer had endured during his troubled years at Sudbury High. He took all his pain and suffering and transformed them into healing and triumph. I believe my version of the story honours his audacity and courage.
The memoir is 1600 words long and takes about 11 minutes to read.
The Orchid Boy of Sudbury –
A love letter for my late husband
Conjure this: A packed Sudbury High School auditorium, late 1960s. Disco music pumps wildly though the loudspeakers. The music stops abruptly. A glittering young man wearing purple bell bottoms and a pink feather boa wafts his way on stage elegantly, turns to the audience, and bows deeply. He snaps his fingers. The throbbing music begins anew. In swift response, the glittering young man gyrates and twerks up an erotic, hyperactive three-minute cyclone. The audience watches in stunned silence. The music ends. The glittering young man once again faces the audience, bows deeply, and marches off stage in triumph.
Or at least that’s how Spencer, my late husband, described his Sudbury dance debut to me in that same auditorium thirty years later on a hot summer afternoon. What you’re reading is my version of Spencer’s story, based on what he told me that afternoon. It is as faithful to the essential truths about Spencer, his high school experiences, and his disco dance debut as I can make it. Let’s call it the truth/slant, with a high-five to Emily Dickinson.
My late husband was not just gay – he was flamboyantly, ‘obviously’ gay at a time when such things got him bullied and assaulted, especially in the hard-scrabble northern Ontario mining towns where he grew up. Physically, Spencer was 5’ 6” tall, slight, and attractive, with an ethereal, other-worldly air about him. He was also stereotypically effeminate.
Accompanying him in public meant getting used to hearing young men yell, “Hey! Faggot!” I fell hopelessly in love with him when we met at a 1983 Quaker Gathering. By that time, he was active in Toronto’s lesbian and gay community – and he was a force to reckon with. “A force of nature,” he liked saying. For him, being effeminate was not only how he navigated the world, it was also a political statement and a challenge to the heterosexual norms that closeted the lives of Queer people.
Spencer was born in Sudbury in 1950. He spent his early childhood there before his family moved to Elliot Lake, where his father worked in the mines. In the early 1960s, the family returned to Sudbury. The rugged northern beauty of Elliot Lake and Sudbury left an enduring mark on Spencer’s soul. For the rest of his life, he felt restored by returning to that landscape. We often travelled to the area during our 29 years together, the last time being in 2011, when he knew he was dying. Whether it was Sudbury or Elliot Lake, he insisted on re-visiting the houses he lived in, the schools he attended, the libraries that nourished him, and the forest haunts where he went to hide and renew. His childhood was a jumble of joy, sorrow, and dread. He had a mother and sister, whom he adored. He had a father, whom he feared. Elementary school was a blend of loving teachers, who nurtured his sensitive soul, and snickering peers, who mocked him. He spent his teens in Sudbury before escaping to Toronto in the early 1970s.
Spencer was a ravenous reader, a loyal friend, a fierce defender of the underdog, a talented writer, a gifted speaker, and an attentive listener. And he was brilliant – off the scale brilliant – and one of the most emotionally literate people I have ever met.
Moreover, he was an Orchid Boy, the somewhat joking/ somewhat not-joking moniker he gave himself. It grew out of his lifelong experience of being told that he was “just too sensitive.” That comment always hurt and always hit home. For him, being sensitive meant being self-protective, vigilant, and aware of threats. It was literally a survival skill. Sadly, he was accustomed to being laughed at by those who understood neither his complexities nor his gifts.
Beyond all that – and maybe because of all that – Spencer was also just plain fabulous. His shirt collection alone was the envy of countless gay men. He could go into a menswear store and, within minutes, locate the chicest clothes, uncover the buried bargains, and spot the cute clerks. It was awesome to witness, and I got to do it on many occasions, in many cities, on four continents.
And he loved Motown Music. Oh my god, did he love Motown Music. Diana Ross and the Supremes! The Temptations! Martha and the Vandellas! The Four Tops! The Marvelettes! He had all the Motown records, knew all the lyrics, and could do all the dance moves. Not only did he love the music, he also related to the underdog status that Motown artists had to deal with. In the lives of these artists – fraught with disadvantage, condescension, and appropriation from main stream white culture – Spencer gleaned hope, courage, and self-determination. In them he glimpsed a template for fierce resilience and powerful resistance. A template that nurtured him and lent him nobility.
He enjoyed nothing more than spending hours with his beloved sister listening to Motown music and trying to stump each other with Motown trivia questions. Happy times for both of them.
Which brings us, peculiarly, back to Sudbury High School. Which was not about happy times for him.
High school in the 1960s was a special kind of Hell for Queer people. In ways that only marginalized people can fully grasp, the daily, unending torrent of abuse, bullying, and shaming at Sudbury High School wore down Spencer’s soul. And this abuse didn’t only come from peers. Shockingly, it sometimes came from teachers too. Abuse from teachers fell into two corrosive categories: the first was failing to step in and defend Spencer when he was being openly bullied in the school corridors; and the second was actively participating in the homophobia themselves by sneeringly calling him a faggot – to his face. Nice. No wonder he struggled at school and vowed to cut loose as soon as humanly possible.
Not everything at Sudbury High was negative. There were islands of kindness and care. A special English teacher who encouraged his writing. A few friends – mostly girls – who helped protect him. An understanding math teacher who cut him slack when he couldn’t face attending school in person. But mostly, his time at Sudbury High School was bleak and soul destroying.
Except for that late-1960s school talent show...
As Spencer related the story to me, there was an annual student talent show at Sudbury High School. It was a highlight of the school year and always sold out. In Spencer’s last year at the school, he decided to enter the show and make a defiant, in-your-face exit statement to SHS – a modern-day exorcism. In his words, “I just wanted to shout, FUCK YOU, SUDBURY HIGH!”
Spencer hinted there was subterfuge involved in the audition process. He didn’t tell me the details, but he knew that if he auditioned the act he had planned, he would never have made the cut. In any case, he was able to secure a place in the show.
For him, preparing for this exit performance was a healing process. He took all the elements of his persona that had made him the object of derision at the school – his effeminate demeanour, his swish hand gestures, his flamboyant clothing, his love of dance – and turned them into a spectacular routine.
First, he chose the music. Motown – of course! He ran through the options and chose Diana Ross’ “Stop In The Name Of Love!” It was his favourite song, and he had already done countless solo dance routines to the music in his basement. There was more to his choice than that, however. He wanted to have Diana Ross and the Supremes – and all the other Motown greats – on stage with him during his performance. He wanted to draw on their love, courage, and glittering fabulousness.
Next came hours of secret rehearsals to get the moves just right and perfectly timed with the music. Swishing and sashaying! Pelvic twisting and booty shaking! Sensuous moves with a feather boa!
And lots and lots and lots of attitude.
Then came the clothing and accessories. And, let’s be frank – Spencer did love to accessorize. After hours of fretting and fussing, his ‘ensem’ was prime-time ready: Purple velvet bell bottoms. Pink feather boa. Glossy patent-leather platform shoes. Gucci gold sunglasses. Paisley shirt with billowing sleeves. Leather vest – with tassels. Wide brim leather hat – with tassels. No doubt about it: it was a fabulously flaming jubilation!
And then – finally – the big night arrived. Spencer was nervous, to be sure, but he was also aware that this WAS his moment to shine.
And shine he did!
He tells me that his performance was extraordinary – a true launch into the next phase of life. The fact that the performance was greeted with absolute silence mattered not a whit. He finished his routine, took a deep, elegant bow, and left the stage triumphantly, with his head high and his soul intact.
And he never looked back.
Until...about thirty years later on that hot summer afternoon when Spencer led me into the hushed silence of the Sudbury High School auditorium. He wanted to revisit the exact location that he had left the pain of high school behind.
What an honour it was to have shared that moment with him.
“Stop in the name of love/before you break my heart.” Too late, dear Spencer, too late. By the time you died in 2012, you had already broken my heart. Many times over. Ten years later, I hope you have found the inner peace that so often eluded you while you were alive.