Dale: Can you tell me where you’re from?
Steve: I was born and raised in rural Saskatchewan right near Swift Current, a small town near there. Population 900.
Dale When did you leave there?
Steve: As soon as I got out of high school and never looked back.
Dale: Where did you end up going from there?
Steve: First degree was at the University of Regina, journalism degree. From there, I realized I really didn’t want to do it but I was invested in the program, and I ended up working for the national park service doing historic sites work. Ended up in Rocky Mountain House, Alberta. And that’s where I think I came into my queer identity, somehow, somewhere. It really hit me that this was inescapable. I was facing the prospect of living in this small town with absolutely no prospects of finding someone that I wanted to share my life with.
And I ended up going to theatre school at Red Deer College. And very cleverly, had my job declared bilingual imperative so I didn’t qualify for it anymore, so I got laid off with severance pay and went on to study theatre in Edmonton, and museology at the University of Victoria. And from there, just sort of continued on working in theatre and in the arts, and in different theatres and galleries across the country.
Dale: Can you describe yourself in three to five adjectives? And describe yourself as you are today?
Steve: Conflicted? I’m going to come back to that one.
Steve: That’s just a tough one because at any given point in the day I would have very different adjectives for it.
Dale: Can you describe your family dynamic growing up?
Steve: Conspiracy of silence, perhaps. I come from a mixed race family. My great grandparents on my mother’s side left the United States to escape a number of things, among them racial intolerance because they were a mixed race couple. And they came to Canada I think very much with the aim and desire to become as white as possible because that was just a cultural shame they carried with them. Enter my mother, who marries a full Chinese man and is summarily dumped from the family for years because of it. So there is that dynamic, that I think I probably struggle with more than queer identity, frankly, dealing with my own racial shaming, self-shaming I guess I would say.
Queer, for me, addressing the problem, that’s not even the right word. Addressing the issue of being queer never seemed as difficult as it was for me to address the issue of being of colour. The problem of being queer was finding a community to share that with. But I mean, I look back at photographs of myself growing up in the 70s and I had this big kick ass Afro and I did whatever I could to escape the stigma of being labeled as Asian or Indigenous. That was a bigger shame for me actually.
I was really lucky growing up in the 70s insofar that, in a way it was good my parents kind of ignored me growing up because I did find solace in sitcoms like M*A*S*H*, All in the Family, and Soap that actually had very sympathetic depictions of queer people. So I realized there was something outside of that box that was rural Saskatchewan.
Dale: Now you mentioned that you have conflict within yourself. Did you find once you became part of the LGBTQ+ community that your cultural background caused you any issues?
Steve: Oh god yes. All you have to do is take a look at Grindr to see how men of colour are marginalized, ridiculed or fetishized. So I think in my years of trying to find acceptance within the queer community, that was very difficult. It was like being marginalized and ostracized, persecuted over and over again. So I think those issues are still very much with us and very much need to be addressed.
Dale: Do you remember a time or a point in your life where you first realized that you were part of the LGBTQ+ community? Or you first started to identify as queer?
Steve: I guess entering the theatre world. As much as I wanted a creative outlet, that was my gateway into the queer community, because I knew there were a lot of queer people who were in this community. Quite ironically, I found my partner outside of the the artistic community. Breaking out, I think that drove me as much as my creative desires to enter that professional world.
It’s hard to say (there was) a particular moment I felt at home. I think I’ve largely had to make my own opportunities. And I think in creating a queer theatre company and creating queer experiences I’ve done that. And I think in terms of a comfort in it, maybe I feel like I’m at a point in my life now where I have friends who are incredibly diverse. I have gay friends in their 20s, I have gay friends in their 70s. I feel like I’m sitting in one of the more comfortable places in my life right now because of that. I have that intersectionality. I don’t think I had that. When you’re young, I think you seek your own, and I think that’s a very difficult place. So I’m feeling good about it right now because of that intersectionality.
Dale: Was there ever a time in your life you felt you had to hide who you were?
Steve: I think there were times I downplayed it. I don’t think there was a time I felt I had to hide it. It’s interesting, I look back at photographs of myself as a little kid and I had Barbies. And in a weird kind of way, that was my parents’ sort of tacit acceptance that there was something a bit unusual about their little boy. I had a very feminine identity when I was little. So I never felt shame over that. I never felt that I was shamed because of it. I think there were times when I just couldn’t find relationships and I had to declare myself asexual. But I never hid the fact that I had had sexual relationships with men or attraction to men.
But I think we are driven in the queer community to define ourselves by our relationships, and I guess especially as men, our sexual conquests. When that wasn’t happening, I think that’s probably the closest thing I ever felt to shame.
Dale: How did you come to a place where you felt comfortable coming out to those around you?
Steve: I don’t know, I guess it sort of depends on who you’re speaking to. I think it’s always a place of discomfort and maybe it needs to be a place of a bit of discomfort. I don’t feel bad about the fact that it’s difficult; nothing good comes easy. I guess it was never difficult to talk about it when I was university, or I guess I should say college because I wasn’t dealing with it when I was in university in my journalism degree, but theatre school for sure. Let’s face it, I was having sex with my music professor. I guess I just put that on the record. He was kind of a bastard at the time, so that’s okay.
What was that question again, comfort? I remember there was, unfortunately, alcoholism in my family. And I remember coming out to my sister, the first person, and we were having an argument about my mother. And I’m the first to be critical of my mother for a lot of things, but there were times when she needed to be defended too and I remember my sister, my older sister getting very angry at me over defending her. And she had said something to the effect of “You know what mom is saying about you?” And I said “What?” “Well, you know, that you’re a homosexual.” And my response was “Well thank god someone figured it out.”
Dale: What was her reaction to you saying that?
Steve: There was a stunned silence and there was – I understand now why – but there was shaming coming back. Essentially saying “Your mother will drink herself to death if you tell her this, and people in the town will turn on your father if they find out so you have to swallow this.” And she would never say that to me now. She and I are fighting over another homophobic relative right now but we’ll get through it.
Dale: What was your relationship like with your sister previous to that conversation and then post that conversation?
Steve: There’s seven years of difference between my older sister and myself and my younger sister and myself, so it really also is almost a bit of a different generation in some ways. I mean, I know they care about me. They love and adore my partner. But there is a generational divide there. I think they don’t completely understand. They live in rural settings too so it’s a little more difficult for them to comprehend the complexities. My sister’s husband has a cousin, David Hallberg, who actually just published an autobiography about working with the American Dance Theatre and Bolshoi Ballet, and he’s out and gay and she’s very celebratory of that. So I think she’s as enlightened as you can be in a town of 900 people.
But we did just have a bit of a spat last night. A fundamentalist cousin of ours has met my partner several times. For three years running, she sent me a Christmas card and has deliberately excluded my partner from the card. And that’s a very conscious thing to do when you’ve met him time and time again and you send a Christmas card and you do not put his name on it and you do not put his name on the envelope. So I was telling my sister about that and her response was “I’m going to step aside from this because I really love Coralea and she’s good to me,” and my response back was “Well, that’s called privilege when you can step aside, and I can’t because I am the conscious target for her bigotry and intolerance.”
Steve: I know she’ll get it in time. It will take possibly even a few months, but she will get it.
Dale: What struggles did you face in the years after you came out, if any?
Steve: I think you anticipate when you come out, everything’s going to be roses and sunshine and you’ll be fine, and you will find the love of your life and that the problems are all within yourself. And they’re not. When I came out would have been, I guess the mid 1980s. And I guess I just thought that when I came out I would immediately find the love of my life. I would have complete and total confidence in everything I did. And then I came to realize that there were legal obstacles that presented themselves to me. In Alberta, I could still lose my job for being gay because I had no legal protections in that way.
I think as I referenced sort of pre-talk, I found myself in a new community that marginalized me. The gay white male privilege. My apologies because you’re a gay white male but yeah, it’s very difficult when you’re a little man of colour, being recognized, desired, wanted, within that aesthetic. So finding my way in that. The most accessible points of contact really at that point were the bars. And you’re incredibly marginalized in that setting.
And then I guess just finding vulnerable, open people to talk to. It wasn’t as easy as it seemed at that point, anyway.
Dale: Do you think things have changed? With the apps available, such as Grindr that you mentioned? Do you think because of those that it’s gotten worse or has it gotten better?
Steve: I think there are more resources for people of colour but I think they’re hard to find. And I think the bright, shiny, happy ones are the hookup apps. So I think a lot of people go there first. And I think it’s pretty traumatic for them. I still think you have to dig to find support and you have to dig pretty deep.
Dale: We’ve already touched on your cultural background and how it influenced you at an early age. How does your cultural background continue to influence your life within what you do and within the LGBTQ+ community?
Steve: I think I’m still struggling with my Asian identity, and I think what’s difficult is about that is it’s still a very closed community in terms of acceptance of queer issues. Much more so than the other side of my family. I think if you take a look at Indigenous identity, you can very easily find traditions of two spirited people being elevated and being celebrated. It’s not really that far back you go to pre-colonial times to find that. And it’s been documented incredibly well. I think the idea of two spirit being a gift from the Creator, that you have an objective perspective on things, multiple sides, and I guess a responsibility to share that knowledge and wisdom with people is just a really great template for me on what being “queer” should be. So I think I found a lot more peace with that. I think more of a sense of purpose too.
I do still struggle with the Asian side of my family, and I think I maybe struggle with that a lot more because that was the racial prejudice that was thrown at me when I was younger. The Indigenous side of my family was quite invisible in terms of an initially recognizable aesthetic so I never had to deal with that until I went onto university and Regina was identified as that. So that’s a big part of my journey, is to accept myself as a part Asian man. And again also, getting back to the idea of fetishization of Asian men, to be considered to be desirable as an Asian man because you’re considered to be weak and submissive.
Dale: Interesting, I’ve never heard that before.
Steve: I mean that’s the thing with the lure of the Geisha, the Japanese Geisha. You were demure, you were weak. You were submissive. And I think the same kind of conceit or stereotype applies to gay Asian men. You’re assumed to be the bottom. You’re assumed to be the weak one. You’re assumed to be subservient.
Dale: Do you mind me touching on whether you have religious beliefs or not, and if so how they influenced you?
Steve: Yeah, I was raised in the United Church, which is a fairly liberal church. I think I’ve gravitated more towards the idea of a universal spirituality. And I think I hold a lot more stock in terms of an Indigenous perspective on spirituality. It’s hard to reconcile the idea of Christianity, and I see such incredible and unproductive power in religious institutions. I get myself in trouble on Facebook for bashing Christianity. I do have Christian friends and I have to step back sometimes and apologize for that, because I think I’d be kidding myself if I didn’t admit that Christianity has served as kind of a moral compass for me in certain things. But no, I don’t attend church anymore and I think I embrace certain tenets of Christianity but I don’t subscribe to it as a faith.
Dale: What do you love about the person you are today?
Steve: I have a lot of experiences to draw from. Not enough that I have certainty. I can still fit into my grad suit from 1979. I still have my hair. Oooops, sorry.
Dale: lol, I don’t like hair anyway. I’d love a picture of you in your grad suit. Maybe we can use that for the project, if you can find it.
Steve: At Christmas I can probably get it. I’ve banished that from my current collection. Oh my hair, fuck.
Dale: Okay, so the fact that you can still fit into your suit, and your hair.
Steve: Those are the superficial things. That I’ve collected all of these great experiences in my life and I still have enough health to have them further on down the road. I’m happy I’ve found this marvelous partner who’s so incredibly forgiving of all of my faults. I’m happy that, I guess, I think I’m a good listener. I’ve been told that and I think I am. And in being that kind of person, I have amassed such an incredibly variety of friends that I don’t feel concerned about going out for coffee with 20-something friends or afraid that I won’t be able to address their issues or have anything to talk about. In the same way that I have friends in their 70s and have that same level of comfort with them.
Dale: What does it mean to you to be living an authentic life?
Steve: I guess, setting aside your fear to me, is a key tenant, and I struggle with that from time to time. But an honesty of who you are. An honesty around the ability to change and evolve is authentic. Having the vulnerability to allow people and experiences to change you. And having the courage to change with those experiences.
Dale: Was there a defining moment or a series of things that happened to you that allowed you to step into your true self and to live a more authentic life?
Steve: I think those have to happen to you constantly. I worry about defining a moment. Actually I do have a moment and it doesn’t necessarily have to do with being queer. I was on a bus in Los Angeles with my partner. And as I’m prone to do, I was talking very excitedly and loudly about something we had seen that day, maybe in Disneyland, maybe in Laguna Beach, I can’t remember. And an older woman who was sitting in front of us kind of looked over at us, and I thought disapprovingly. And finally she turned around and said “Young man,” and I was sure I was going to be chastised by her. She said to me “You have a lovely speaking voice. I wonder if you sing as well?” After I was born, Dad brought home Judy Garland’s Live from Carnegie Hall and that sealed my fate as a show tune queen.
And she said “Well would you sing something for me?” And so I have this huge canon of the Great American Songbook to draw from, so I did; I sang The Way You Look Tonight to her, and she stopped and said “My late husband always used to sing that very same song to me. Thank you.” And I remember kind of stopping and thinking oh my god, this is a momentous occasion for me. It’s transformative; I’ve done something great with my art. And then I stopped and said no, this should not be treated as monumental. This is something we should do with our lives every single fucking day. If we have something good to contribute to the world, we should give it unflinchingly and treat it as not monumental. Because the minute you treat it as monumental, it becomes something else.
So I think that is probably one of the most transformative moments for me. I just went no. You just have to live each day authentically and generously and not make a big mountain out of it. So that is probably one of the key moments in my life. And I think that’s informed a lot of work I’ve done with kids in terms of art and theatre education too. I can do a big freaky musical up at the Citadel Theatre but nothing touches the experience of sitting in a group of grade two kids and talking about art. And how it can change your life and how to figure out how to plan colours or just figure out that a physical gesture they do in some way translates into what an artist has done on the canvas, and that what they have to say and what they feel authentically has meaning and validity.
Dale: What happened when you decided to shed your disguises and step into the light?
Steve: God, we all do wear so many disguises and I think we do it every day, too. God. I mean, there are, and it’s almost too soon to talk about it with my partner and we’ve been together for 22 years and we’ve built a lot of junk. And about two weeks ago we cleared a lot of that junk. And it is so liberating when the elastic band snaps. It’s a tension release. It gives you permission to like yourself when for so long, you haven’t. And again, sort of too soon to be specific. But I don’t know if you – it hasn’t been released in Canada yet – saw it at the film festival. Call Me By Your Name; have you heard of it?
Dale: Oh yes.
Steve: With Armie Hammer?
Dale: I couldn’t remember his last name.
Steve: I saw it in September. I would say that was a bit of a transformative moment too in terms of understanding what love is and how there can be so many different degrees and shades and variations of love. And that love does not come – authentic love does not come without a certain degree of pain as well. And that if you don’t risk something, you’re not going to grow. I think there’s a scene, just this beautiful scene between father and son. I wish I remembered the exact quotation, but he says to his son that he realizes what’s going on with this professor. The quotation was “I don’t envy your pain but I envy you the pain.” And the wisdom that’s imparted in that is that you should never try to shirk away from painful experiences that will make you grow.
And I think I am coming to realize that, that there is growth. I think it’s awful to experience it, but as long as you have supportive people around you to nurse you through them, we do grow through that vulnerability.
Now that I mentioned it to you, there’s another parallel story to that, and it came through the arts as well. In 2002, I was working for the Glenbow Museum and one of the things they hired me to do, they would always hire actors to play people associated with the exhibits. So at each exhibit they would have (for example) Queen Nefertari of the Nile welcoming people and saying “I’m Queen Nefertari of the Nile.” And I hated it. It was so phony and bogus.
So there was a Pop exhibit coming in and I played Andy Warhol. What I did, was I created a play, wrote a play where I, over the course of 45 minutes, turned into Andy Warhol. So I started as myself, talking about my experiences, knowing about Warhol as a kid. And assume different characters. And in the last scene, put on makeup and became Warhol and then interacted with the public as Warhol. I used to do crazy ass interventions too, such as one day I was laying on the floor as Warhol in the gallery. And people were walking around me thinking I was just incredibly weird. But a young man, probably late teens, came down and lay down on the floor and we had this amazing conversation about art, and whether the ceiling tiles were art, or the holes in the wall were art. And for about half an hour we sat and talked. We talked about his desire to go to art school and such, and it was kind of like the LA bus experience, just this crazy-ass intersection of two people, just talking about these amazing and beautiful and profound things.
And he ended up leaving me a watercolour that he did of Marilyn Monroe. He just left it – not anonymously; he identified who he was – but just left it for me and never spoke to me again. I have a pretty amazing art collection but that’s the one I would save in a fire.
Dale: How do you embody transformation?
Steve: Oh god, that’s a tough one. Not always with ease. But when I accept it wholeheartedly, it’s interesting. I was in Toronto recently, and met a professor from a college in Massachusetts. And this really beautiful gay friendship emerged over the course of three days. We were deeply honest about so many things, but we both lied about our ages. So I guess I’m having some difficulty transforming into being an older gay man right now. There is some discomfort. But with conviction, as I come to realize that time is something that we can’t stop, that we’re not in control of everything, you have to resign yourself to certain circumstances in your life. There are certain things – god, this is sounding like an AA confession, which I kind of loathe; the culty aspect of that – there are certain things you are in control of and some you aren’t. And I think I’m getting better at accepting those two things.
I almost feel like there has to be some sort of ritualistic celebration of transition, too. Maybe that’s why I love that in theatre you often ceremoniously do something to celebrate those transformations.
Dale: Do you embrace your birthdays? Do you celebrate your birthdays?
Steve: Not so much anymore. My partner and I have birthdays that are five days apart, so I think that kind of helps because it becomes something else. It just becomes a great excuse for us to go for supper. I don’t think of them as birthdays anymore. I think of them as sort of our intersection, more than a birthday. But yeah, given the option, birthdays are a great thing. Because not having them really sucks.
Dale: Because you’ve been out for awhile, have you experienced ageism or the likes?
Steve: We live in an age of mass media, so it’s inescapable, the iconography of the smooth, buff, fit male. I guess because of media saturation, that’s inescapable. To constantly hold yourself up against a standard, an impossible standard. An impossible standard even if you are in your 20s. I’d be dishonest if I’m saying that I’ve completely been able to isolate myself from that. I think there are people who struggle more heartily with it. I’m so blessed to have 20-something friends who don’t deliver judgment based on this; I think they respect the fact that I’m a survivor and that I have wisdom that they just haven’t had the chance to live yet. And that’s what I do cherish about being where I am right now.
Dale: Who do you choose to surround yourself with? You’ve mentioned that you have a diverse circle of friends from 20s and older than yourself. But what is the sort of person that you choose to surround yourself with?
Steve: Great talkers, great listeners. People who are going to be gently critical of me. I don’t like to surround myself with yes people who will just coddle me and agree with whatever I say. I like people who will say “Steve, did you consider this particular point of view?” I tend to surround myself, just because of my profession, with artistic people. Big thinkers. But I guess that’s not totally true, about artistic people only. I have a very good friend who’s an IT guy, and we have some of the most amazing conversations.
I guess the ultimate leveler is vulnerability. And skills in terms of critical analysis. And people who push themselves to be better people. That’s the criteria there. People who are critical of the world but also embrace the world.
Dale: Do you find that your friends are more male, female?
Steve: I was anticipating that question just as you were posing it, and I would say that my very close friends are sort of split equally on gender lines right now. I wish I had more transgender friends. I have one very good one, James Demers from Fairy Tales. And I think I’m not as tied to that community right now as I’d like to be. And I know that I have some transgender biases. I find it easier to relate to transgender people who have transitioned from female to male than the other way around. It horrifies me to admit that; I question why that is and suspect that it’s rooted in my own misogyny and sexism. So. That’s something I would like to fix in myself. Those are relationships I want to expand and get to know better.
Dale: Can we go back to the three to five adjectives?
Steve: Okay. Inquisitive, conflicted, curious, expressive, and metamorphizing.
Dale: How do those differ than when you were a child?
Steve: Probably not a whole lot. I just think I’ve given myself more permission. I think a lot of these things were there from the very beginning into time in adult life. Singing with Judy at Carnegie Hall. But we teach children to censor. We don’t teach children to be creative. We teach them to censor themselves. And so I think that’s part of authenticity, just this wonderful mix of DNA and blood and ovaries and testosterone that goes into our genetic makeup. I think that we have to give permission for that expansiveness to continue to grow. A lot of it is there. You just have to give permission. And that’s why I think working with kids is the most rewarding work I do.
Dale: So that’s it for the questions that I had. Is there anything else that you want to add that you think is important to your story of being your authentic self?
Steve: I’ll quote Oscar Wilde because he is way smarter than me. “No great artist” – and I’ll include queers in that mix, because if we’re doing our job, we’re helping transform the world they way artists should – “ever sees the world as it is. If he did, he would cease to be an artist.” Ultimately, it’s all about possibility.