Coming out in rural Prince Edward Island

Gay students learn to have thick skin in high school from teasing and violence directed at them for their sexuality

Steve Sharratt comment@theguardian.pe.ca
Published on July 31, 2014

This is the third in The Guardian's series looking at LGBTQ issues in Prince Edward Island, Pride in P.E.I.

Angelina Jolie may be considered one of the most desirable female celebrities around, but she didn’t do a thing for a young Island boy.

“I was watching this movie and discovered that I found Brad Pitt really handsome and I remember wondering if there was something wrong with ºme?”

The 2005 flick was about two married assassins, and while his buddies drooled over the curvaceous female lead, Tyler Dockendorff was trying to cope with something he didn’t understand. It was just the start of the heart-wrenching battle of bullying, depression, name calling and physical intimidation involved in growing up gay in rural P.E.I.

John MacCormac endured the onslaught as well, went on to acting school and is currently performing as a Father of Confederation this summer in Charlottetown.

“There were no role models for us then and sex education in school barely mentioned homosexuality,’’ said McCormac. “There was violence towards me, but usually when no authority person was around.”

For the 23-year-old Dockendorff, now living in Montreal, it was years of fear and loathing that are now behind him.

“I want to share my story because I don’t want it to happen to someone else.”

Dockendorff had girlfriends and a circle of school buddies to hang out with but sorely lacked the “normal” interests.

“I don’t like trucks and I don’t like hockey ... and if you don’t fit the norm on P.E.I. you are labelled gay. I didn’t even realize I was gay so it hurt terribly to be called a fag ... I couldn’t understand how people calling me those names could even tell I was gay.”

Dockendorff comes from a family with strong religious beliefs and he felt his gay interests betrayed them.

“I actually panicked and I wondered if I was gay. I had been told that gays were perverts and pedophiles and I was terrified.”

During his teen years, he said gay people were described in his circles as bound for hell. He didn’t dare tell his parents while living through some of the darkest periods of his life.

“It was always secretive and not to be talked about ... the message I got was that it was not good to be gay.”

Trying to cope with his sexual identity saw Dockendorff wracked with guilt and praying relentlessly. He sank into depression, took burning hot showers to punish himself, turned to drinking to escape and believed he was going to hell.

For 22-year-old MacCormac, the gauntlet of guilt wasn’t quite as severe.

“My family had difficulty but were more open to it,’’ he said. “And it gave me resilience ... I went to Sheridan College in Toronto after high school where there was never a negative reaction.”

MacCormac said he came out early and developed a thick skin in his high school days where he was teased, called a fag and sucker punched more than once.

“My teachers were very helpful and I had lots of friends who didn’t care whether I was gay or not. But I didn’t fully understand at the time what I was doing.”

With no one to talk to about his sexuality, Dockendorff tried to fend off being gay by praying.

“I thought it was a choice and I could be cured if I prayed enough. I felt like I was a murderer and had gotten away with it and had to live with the sin.”

When Dockendorff came out last year, his immediate family struggled with the knowledge, but were quickly supportive.

“They were taken aback, but I know my family loves me very much and I love them and now I couldn’t be happier,” he said, noting that he’s now living with both gay and straight friends, interested in his studies, and comfortable in his own skin.

“I felt like I was the last unicorn or the last dinosaur on P.E.I. before I came out,’’ he said. “Now I have many gay and straight friends who like me for me ... I’m just a work in progress.”

MacCormac is best known as a Father of Confederation and an actor with the Young Company in Charlottetown.

“In the theatre world, there are lots of gay people so this has allowed me to find a comfort zone ... when I went to Toronto that circle expanded.”

He realized early that once he stopped reacting to people and homophobic slurs, the criticism would stop.

“I’d say yes I’m gay ... and that was it ... as if they suddenly realized it didn’t matter to me.”

MacCormac says Facebook has been a strong connection for gay teens and he often gets messages from young students asking for help and guidance.

“They have heard my name or know that I was a gay student at the high school and seek some help with their own issues. I think if you leave things out for kids (like sex education) you let kids fill the blanks with what might be the wrong answers.”

MacCormac likens homophobia to racism and says while things have improved, there will always be those opposed.

“I had to fight every step of the way and I’m glad I did,” said MacCormac.

“I’m not ashamed ... you have to follow your heart because you will find people who love you for you.”