When I was three or four years old, in the mid ’80s, I fell in love with My Little Pony. I begged my parents for the little plastic figurines, but they were reluctant to indulge my overtly girly interest. Being a boy, there were clear, acceptable expectations for my play habits: Batman and Transformers yes, ponies no. I can imagine my parents worried thoughts about how my subversive pony phase would play out through the rest of my life: would other kids make fun of me? Would that make me unhappy? Would I turn to drugs to compensate? Would that ruin my chances at university? Would that mean I would be living with them until I was forty?
Note: This is a (mostly) fictional account of a sheltered, Canadian university student arriving in notoriously violent Johannesburg for the first time. Enjoy.
By the time I arrive at Tambo International Airport, it’s midnight. My flight is almost seven hours late. I was hoping to catch Johannesburg’s legendary crimson sunset from the plane, but the sky is black as I land. More worrisome, the driver who was supposed to pick me up and take me to my hotel downtown is no where to be found. I wait in arrivals until it’s almost empty — save for a few security guards — before I accept that whoever was supposed to meet me has long ago come and gone and isn’t coming back.
It’s June. When I left Toronto it was warm and summery. South Africa feels like winter. I’m wearing a black fleece zip-up, gloves, dark wash jeans, hiking boots and a hat. I’ve come for a two-week student workshop on urban design in post-apartheid Johannesburg. Its tagline is Can the Divided City be Reunited? I watched Sarafina as a child and Tsotsi as a teenager but otherwise didn’t know anything about the city or the country when I signed up four months ago. I was half way through my third year of architecture school and sick of sitting in a classroom. I wanted to feel some dirt beneath my finger nails. I wanted to see the world. Plus, my professor said I could use the conference for extra credit. That’s why I came.
This week, The Grid — a free, weekly magazine in Toronto — ran a cover story about the debt habits of twenty and thirty somethings. Written by a former colleague of mine, Carely Fortune, the piece suggests that easy access to credit and financial illiteracy has lead my generation to spend all of our hard earned cash, as well as a great deal of borrowed money, on all of life’s inessentials — trips to Cuba, new iPads, expensive jeans. We’d rather have instant gratification — lattes and cupcakes — than long term financial stability, retirement at 60 (let along ever) and living debt free. In short, we’re screwed.
The story opens at Woodlot, with Carley’s mom looking around the artfully under-decorated Little Italy restaurant, wondering how such a young clientele can afford the near $30 entrees. I know the scene all too well.
Last week Canada’s Federal Government, in its first majority budget, announced that it would cease funding Katimavik. I’m sad for all the future young people who will not be able to participate in this great, 35-year-old program—an invaluable volunteer-leadership initiative that enables Canadians between the ages of 18 and 21 to get hands-on work experience while traveling the country.
I did Katimavik between the winter and summer of 2004. Over seven months, I lived in Tweed, Ontario, St. Stephens, New Brunsick and Lorette, Manitoba. I volunteered at an elderly care facility, a charity second hand store, in a primary school and for a municipality. I learned, among other things, how to bake bread, tend a lawn, grow vegetables and organize a charity fashion show. I even published my first piece of paid writing. It was a short article for a Winnipeg magazine called Swerve (now OutWords), and was about coming out of the closet and marching in my first Pride parade, two of my biggest Katimavik firsts (next to my first piercing—my tongue!). My Katima-group, which consisted of 11 young people from across Canada, had three gay guys and two bisexuals. I couldn’t have come out in any better, more supportive circumstances. I (almost) had my first real sexual encounter too (if drunkenly molesting a housemate counts—sorry Cody).
Today, I read about a young gay athlete from Ottawa named Scott Heggart, and have just watched some of his many YouTube videos detailing how he came out to his friends and family. I am really impressed by how articulate he is, especially at such a young age. He started making his video journal when he was 15, and he’s now 19.
I’m also impressed by how brave he is. As an athlete who plays aggressive team sports like hockey, he must have felt immense social pressure (whether explicit or implicit) to suppress his feelings and try to be straight. He seems like a regular, quite masculine teenager (the kind that no one would ever suspect of being gay), so he could have probably coasted for years and years without ever needing to tell anyone. No one would have blamed him if he had chosen to wait until after college, or after he moved out of his parent’s house, or until after he relocated to a bigger, more gay-friendly city. But in choosing to be open about his sexuality at such a young, vulnerable age, he’s done something extraordinary, and will no doubt inspire others.