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Pride 30: Michael Thorner

Michael Thorner by Rannie Turingan 06.02.10

Michael Thorner by Rannie Turingan 06.02.10

I remember my favourite Pride moment (to date) like it was yesterday. In the summer of 1996, I was just coming off the transformative high of admitting to myself that the wizard design genius I met in March of that year, I actually considered – in my mind – to be an actual boyfriend; and in that actualization could be presented to the world as such. It was a big step for me. Everything leading up to him was a grand, compartmentalized experiment. I was already 30. To say my personal evolution occurred at a snail’s pace, would be an understatement.

My coming out story started four years earlier, and was complex and complicated; all the things many of my generation of repressed, small-town Catholic boys experienced, due to the era and environment in which we were raised. My surroundings as a child were very different from those of my urban contemporaries. I was a product of my environment. Growing up in the 70s and 80s in Sarnia, Ontario, I had no positive gay role models, other than comic television personalities such as Jonathan Harris (who identified as straight), Paul Lynde and Charles Nelson Reilly. At the time, I wouldn’t have been able to put a finger on what made them special though, other than their impeccable comic timing and wit. I buried myself in super-hero comic books until I hit art college.

For awhile, I was a fence sitter who believed – in my Kinsey scale-studied way – I had no aversion to the beauty of women. My more fulsome orientation was a murky half-awareness hampered by rural surroundings and history. I was a somewhat slow but comprehensive learner though. Trial and error was how I got through my 20s. I now admit I was unevolved and self-possessed in how I discovered who I was, hopping back and forth, to and fro over orientation fences again and again, unaware of the impact upon myself and others my behaviour might generate. Toying with people’s emotions and bodies in the quest for self-actualization does not endear oneself to others, nor are many people influenced by one’s inability to drive the proverbial stake into the ground and admit to oneself who one is. For several years, I was an indeterminate man. I questioned if I was projecting this. Sure, I was all for equal civil rights, free expression and free speech, yet I somehow couldn’t equate or advocate those liberties upon myself in a more expressive way, because I couldn’t admit to myself on which side of “the fence” I truly belonged, not realizing that the only fence which existed was the perception I had imposed upon myself in my mind. I was conflicted, you might say. A familiar story to those of my generation.

Once I encountered my own gay role models as a young adult – shining stars and lifelong friends like Paul Bellini, Scott Thompson, Gary Ponzo and Noah Cowan – things started to make better sense in my mind, but those guys were so far ahead of me it took me years to catch up and find my queer equilibrium. Although I endured many a rolling eye (deservedly in some cases), thankfully, they were all quite patient with me, as I figured my proverbial out. I’m grateful to them for that. I did envy though the clarity of thought and purpose Bellini, Thompson, Ponzo and Cowan seemed to enjoy as secure, out gay men.

In the early years, my indeterminacy affected my ability to create and build a fulsome life, and create art and work that was honest. Instead, I supported the arts and artists as a facilitator, appreciator, and spectator, inert in my inability to reveal myself in my art. I watched my creative peers excel and grow, and a lot of that kind of progressive growth comes from a centered, confident self-awareness. It’s a high price to pay, thinking one can have his cake and eat it too, from a pan-sexual perspective, given we only live once, with a subsequent understanding that life is shorter than we think. I have lived and learned. I eventually did evolve and grow into the proud queer bisexual man I am now—it’s wonderful to see out queer bisexual role models like Alan Cumming courageously identify themselves in a way I have chosen to identify myself for two decades—but my 20s were a confusing time, as I was a late bloomer. I knew first hand how challenging it was to identify as bisexual, with occasional vilification coming from both heterosexuals and homosexuals. The concept of orientation was still in its latency period in the early 1990s. I was also aware of the associated stigmas related to sexual health, as they relate to perceptions of bisexuality. I was careful about my sexual health, and was grateful for the existence of the Hassle Free Clinic. This was the era when AIDS was still considered a death sentence.

Coming to terms with one’s life actions as a result of how one deals with one’s sexual orientation is a completely separate issue from the actual orientation issue itself, and this is something I had to untangle over the years, to learn the true meaning of pride. I’ve come a long way.

But all this navel-gazing preamble sets the stage  for the year 1996, and the story of my favourite Gay Pride weekend. It was a turning point for me. The inimitable Paul Bellini had corralled a stable of talented friends to be his backing band on the Pride stage, including comic talents Gord Disley and his partner Samantha Bennett, straight boy drummer god Kirk Hudson, rawker lead guitarist dude Al Miller, and myself on keyboards. Bellini had just released his first album of music; a comic gem now considered by many to be a collector’s item. It was our role to translate his songs in a live setting. If I’m not mistaken, I believe current Mayoral candidate hopeful Keith Cole introduced the band on stage, wearing a deliciously colourful, patterned sundress.

We all dressed for the show at my place, and I can recall filmmaker Josh Levy complimenting my all-white attire. I was wearing the tightest white jeans I’d ever managed to paint onto my body. I was a gay cliché, and I reveled in the moment.

I somehow talked local musician heartthrob Kirk Hudson into taking his shirt off after the second song, promising I would do the same. For some reason I chickened out when the time came. He’s straight, so he just went ahead and disrobed, no big deal. For some sophomoric reason, it was a big enough deal for me just to be on the Gay Pride stage.

I have a lot of funny friends. I am queer, and have perhaps been prone to narcissism in the past. Therefore I sometimes perceive life as a sitcom. A dramedy perhaps. I am a product of my time. Throughout the 70s, the “That Girl” theme song (written by Earle Hagen and Sam Denoff, natch) played in my head as I bicycled to elementary school every day. For many years, I appropriated that well-orchestrated, ebullient piece of music as my “life as sitcom” theme song. It ran through my head as the Bellini band made our way over to the Pride stage.

Bellini entered the stage wearing a black patterned shirt adorned from top collar to waistline with large yellow sunflowers. They bounced when Paul danced and sang, and seemed to grow larger and fuller when the sun shone down on them, and the sun shone brightly that day. As a band we were tight, well-rehearsed, and we killed. The audience went wild, they ate it all up with glee, and the rest, as they say, is history.

I hosted the after-party, which ran late into the night. It was probably the best party I ever threw. At last, to paraphrase one of Bellini’s songs, my long dark twenties were over. I was out. The fences stood on the horizon for a few more years, but I had a better perspective on it from that point forward.

The design genius boyfriend couldn’t make this gig because he was in Vancouver visiting his family at the time, but he certainly heard all about it, and giggled over the phone when he could sense my wide-eyed enthusiasm for it all. He and I stopped seeing each other later that fall for reasons too complex to share here, but our friendship endured. He became world-renowned and quite successful. He passed away recently, at far too young an age. I look back to 1996 and I’m filled with such joyful memories. In my mind I become one of those blooming sunflowers, reaching up to the summer sky with petals extended, reliving the endorphin rush of acknowledged self-awareness. How’s that for a flowery metaphor?

“Diamonds, daisies, snowflakes, that girl!” Great theme song. ‘Cause that’s how I roll.

[Addendum: A version of this piece was originally posted on June 3, 2010, as part of Rannie Turingan’s Pride 30 photo blog project. I had just learned two days earlier that my first boyfriend, with whom I dated in 1996, had died. Writing this reminiscence helped to distract me from what was an emotionally heartbreaking period. 1996 was one of the best years of my life.]

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