Monday, November 2, 2009

Memories of a Beautiful Soul

It is with penetrating sadness that I write this entry. Vincent, a colleague and friendly acquaintance of mine, one whom I greatly admired, passed away recently from his struggle with cancer. I was shocked to hear the news; I had known he was sick, but not to the extent or severity that he apparently was. I can only send him my fondest thoughts and reflect on how he touched my life, often in the subtlest of ways. It is regrettably on occasions such as these where we realize just how much these people, who blend into the background of our everyday lives, mean to us at the end of the day. One would be hard-pressed to find another man so calm, logical, practical, casually professional, and intelligently straight-forward. Furthermore, while I’ve never been one to look to role models, I can say that Vincent was probably as close to a role model as one could get with respect to my sexual identity. He was gay, and married, and it was through observing his life from my discreet perspective that I began to think more broadly about my own sexual identity and its place in my workplace.

As far as my workplace sexual identity management, I had always been “passing,” or probably more aptly, strictly “asexual” in speech and demeanor. Other people talk quite openly about their heterosexuality, about their partners, love lives, sexual preferences and romantic adventures, but I always remained neutral with a rather ‘don’t ask-don’t tell’ mentality. I work in a global community of few, a career path where a worldwide network of contacts is necessary to be fruitful and successful. It is a relatively congenial group overall; however, these individuals come from a variety of cultures and backgrounds. Furthermore, like the people I describe in my post “Small Town Blues”, these colleagues are rarely confronted directly with, or prompted to think critically about, sexual identity and similar forms of ‘unconventional’ social behaviour. Furthermore, as an individual projected onto the world stage in this manner, being out on the job in one country necessarily means accepting being out in my profession in all countries and settings (as word travels quickly, and my colleagues in Montreal will be lifetime contacts spread across the world), which may explicitly affect recommendations and limit job opportunities. Even for people who think they are entirely free of homophobia, heterosexism is still likely to be a factor, and subconscious, irrational human biases will often be justified through cloaked arguments that do seem professionally relevant (when, in fact, they are only afterthoughts after concerns of a prejudicial nature had been considered). Despite these difficulties, I’ve accepted that I may decide to be more out at work at some point, either in the case where I find myself in a stable relationship or on a particularly stable career path (or some combination thereof), but currently it doesn’t make much sense for my particular situation.

Vincent worked as an administrator; he essentially oversaw the operations of the whole ship. He did not have to worry about cooperating on the world stage as I did; he was more the man behind the scenes, making sure everything ran smoothly for the rest of us, and he was superbly efficient and good at his job. His name was the signer on my contract, and he often sent friendly e-mails to remind me of important engagements. He would sometimes take extended breaks to have friendly conversations with me, and we often chatted about his vacations in the Caribbean and his work on his new home (which he always recounted with such drive and enthusiasm).

When Vincent and I had our first extensive, amicable conversation, I noted that he had a photo of himself with a man about his own age, turned toward him (and not outward toward us) sitting on his desk. It was then that I realized that he was probably not heterosexual, although I didn’t want to assume anything. Perhaps, after all, it was him and his brother on a family vacation--but they looked a little too happy to be in each other’s company for that to be the case. It was comforting, the very possibility that, in my straight-as-an-arrow workplace, someone with a moderating temperament was there who could understand and proudly defend my perspectives and interests when I felt at an utter loss to do so. Coming from a land where workplace protections against the discrimination of LGBT persons are limited or non-existent (and prejudices are a very real, career-determining factors to consider), I was happy to see for myself that I no longer lived in such a place. He was a reasonably reserved and quiet person, somewhat like me, and quite rationally, as befits the semi-casual but professional demeanor of a workplace environment, did not discuss the details of his life story with me. He would talk unabashedly about it, however, if asked directly (which I came to learn later).

My knowledge of his sexual identity was confirmed a year or so later when we got an announcement that Vincent was marrying his partner of several years, Jean. Normally, I wouldn’t give much of a damn if I learned that someone in my workplace was getting married, but this was obviously special for me. While I had met a gay married couple through my volunteer work in the community, this was the first time I ever witnessed a gay engagement and wedding actually unfold, and my instincts were to be as discreetly encouraging as I could be. His right to marry his partner in Canada had been much shorter-lived than his actual relationship with Jean, which spanned the decade. Personally fascinated, I had a couple of conversations with him about his wedding; he was getting married in the traditional sense, in a lovely downtown church, as part of a reasonably small ceremony of family and friends. The way he talked about Jean, the way his eyes lit up, the smile that spread across his face, I could just tell he was still, after these many years, madly in love underneath the calm and matter-of-fact façade.

I gladly, proudly gave money to the communal wedding gift we were giving him and signed the card, almost with a sense of defiance. It was my way I could be a part of, or at least contribute to, that seemingly rarest of joyful outcomes of a diverse sexual identity: a gay wedding. But the most pleasant moment of all was when the workplace had a party for him to celebrate his wedding. I went up to the party expecting a smaller function (based on who I had seen signed the card--I had no idea what kinds of prejudices might be at play at that point). So you can thus imagine my surprise when I saw that the entire workplace showed up! No one seemed to miss it; people were flowing out the door to congratulate him, to toast his crowning achievement in love. In any case, I’d like to think that people were there for more than the free food and wine. It was then that I realized that my work environment was not the strictly harsh, heterosexist world that I had perceived it as, but rather that it could be a sensitive place where homosexual love is celebrated with all the fanfare and acceptance of any heterosexual union. I would never have realized this had Vincent not had the courage to be himself, and through his example I saw how beautiful my own life could be, if I were ever to be so lucky as to follow in his footsteps.

After the wedding we seemed to interact on increasingly amicable terms, often in passing (especially when he was out for a smoke). My last extensive conversation with him was only a month an a half ago in our workplace common room. He looked tired, although I suspected that weight loss was contributing to his appearance. I gleefully discussed the projects that I was working on; even though he was not an expert, he seemed intently interested in understanding my work. Then I asked him about his home remodeling, which he had been engaging in with his husband ever since they got married (they moved to a new home to celebrate their new life together). He told me how supportive his family had been toward him and Jean in working on the home, including providing vital practical advice, which was encouraging to hear. There was so much longing and hope for the future in his voice as he continued to talk about building his home with Jean. I had no idea of the personal struggle he was undergoing at that time to simply stay alive. We talked about that for over an hour, and he was just about to start talking more about his husband Jean when he got wisked out of the common room by a phone call. That was the last time I saw him. In Zola-like realism, our conversations terminated there forever with an uncomfortable lack of resolution, like so much of life and death. When I learned that he was gravely ill, I bought a ‘thinking of you’ card for him (although I didn’t know where I should send it, so I delayed). Only a few days later, I received the very sad news that he had passed away.

So it is with both sadness and gladness that I write in this post about Vincent. Here I characterize my experiences with him just within context of the theme of this blog, when in reality the subtle, human joys of our discourse was of an entirely asexual nature. He never knew that I was gay, nor did I ever try hint to give myself away, and I certainly didn’t think about his sexual orientation on a regular basis or its meaning to me. He was, for me, simply Vincent. But his example gave me hope for the future, and even a newfound level of confidence in my sexual orientation. If I ever asked myself, “Is a homosexual lifestyle a hopeless and worthless endeavor?” I had no choice but to logically conclude, “No, simply look at Vincent and the richness of the love in his life.” “Would the world be over if I was outed at work?” “No, look at how Vincent’s life turned out, and Vincent’s there, he would provide the voice of reason and sensibility that would be needed if I felt overwhelmed by harsh reactions against that aspect of my identity.” Perhaps Vincent didn’t want to be my beacon of hope, my source of comfort, my shield of courage (and respectfully I never put that weight on his shoulders), but that’s what he apparently was to me. In this context, the healing and strength he afforded me was a gift I never had the opportunity to return. May peace and love always be with him, and to echo Socrates' dying breath (Plato, Phaedo), I also now “owe a cock to Asclepius,” thanks to Vincent.

No comments:

Post a Comment