LWD: Can you describe yourself in 3 to 5 adjectives?
Leigh: The first one that always pops into my mind and that I describe myself as is passionate. I have a short list of things that I’m seriously impassioned about and that I seriously want to do in my life and that includes civil rights within the LGBTQ community because there’s a lot of work that needs to be done and a lot of awareness that still needs to come to Calgary and Alberta. I’m also passionate about music, cooking and things like that.
I’d say inquisitive because I’m very curious about how the world works and what makes people do what they do, stuff like that. Psychology and sociology are very interesting to me, but it’s by no means something that I would want to pursue as a career. Instead, just something to study.
Third adjective, compassionate. I always try and think of other people first. I look at situations and confrontations from multiple standpoints, so I can pick apart my own perspective and my own thoughts as well as try to put myself in other people’s shoes and walk that mile. I try to understand their thoughts and feelings and usually adjust my opinions and thoughts on what I say to be able to keep them comfortable in the conversation. Because that’s the one thing with conversations, if you make a person feel uncomfortable or backed them into a corner then it becomes more of an argument or a confrontation, and the best way to have a conversation is to keep it calm and keep it civil. And so, to follow any of my passions with education and to bring awareness to them, I need to make a lot of accommodations for where people are at with their thoughts, feelings, and emotions on certain issues.
LWD: How are these adjectives that you used different, from when you were young?
Leigh: When I was younger, because of the environment I was living in… My parents were both extremely introverted and quiet people. So, because of this I also sort of took that on in my personality. I was very quiet and reserved, I didn’t speak my mind, but I was still inquisitive and all that and trying to learn and understand things. But it wasn’t as I do it now. Now I’m quite active in what I do. Whereas when I was younger adolescent and kid, I was pretty quiet and not really active in it. In fact, very inactive on how I was going about learning things. So, I guess throughout my process of coming to terms with who I am and becoming the most authentic person I can be, I am now more active and accepting of all parts of myself and pursuing that.
LWD: Can you describe your family dynamic growing up?
Leigh: Currently, my parents are in the process of divorcing. There is a lot of hurt and pain between my parents and a lot of sore feelings specifically to my dad. As I look back now, I can see that he was a very neglectful person, so there’s a lot of serious mental harm that he inflicted upon me, my sibling and my mother. Part of that neglectfulness led to the fact that I was so introverted and quiet. I picked up a lot of really negative traits from him and right now it’s a long process of trying to unpack those traits and change them to become who I was supposed to be. If I had an optimal upbringing and optimal parenting towards me, then I could probably have been even more colourful than I am now. It’s taking me a little extra time to parent myself to get to that stage where I’m the person I was meant to be. I’m still introverted, reserved and anxious and that will just take time to build that confidence and comfort within myself to become the more extroverted confident person, that’s exactly it. And part of that was creating a persona for myself to be more outspoken and more extroverted. Myself at home is quite a bit different than myself on stage, or in an interview where I feel I need to be confident or outspoken. This is one of those interviews where I feel I can be closer to myself; it’s a lot more intimate and a little bit more personal with all the questions and answers. I’m definitely closer to my authentic self at this point than with any sort of performance I do, that’s definitely the extroverted persona I have for myself.
LWD: Do you find when you’re on stage that you get to play to how the audience is reacting, as opposed to where in an interview like this, it’s more of a more relaxed, intimate setting and there is only us?
Leigh: I think you’re right there because I am super passionate about music. I’m a musician, I play a lot of different instruments, so when I’m on stage and performing music I become an extreme perfectionist to what I am doing. If I make any mistake, it’s nagging me in the back of my head, and after the show, I would think, ‘Well I fucked that up, or that’s something I could do better, or I can scrap that…’ -That sort of stuff. Same thing with dramatic acting on stage. If I screw up a line or if my character isn’t quite as good as good as it should be I go, ‘Oh well, next time I’ve got to do that.’ So, my performance persona is still the outward character, but that’s more of a mask or suit I wear. Whereas my personality under that my performing personality is very critical and very specific and nitpicky about everything. Whereas in a conversation it does relax my personality and makes it more of a stream of consciousness and flow of words and thoughts all just vomiting out at whatever time. Sometimes it’s prepared thoughts, and I can deliver them comprehensively and easily to understand that really, it’s just word vomit, and you just need to sit there and pick apart everything that’s being said to get a comprehensive thought. Those are my two states of conversation.
LWD: Can you tell me about the first time you realized you might be queer?
Leigh: That’s kind of a funny story because, in Crossfield and Alberta, general sex education didn’t include anything about sexually diverse people. Starting in grade four you get taught about the parts and all that, but then through the years of sex education they never mentioned what being gay is, or what a same-sex relationship looks like. It’s not really addressed in any of it. That’s something that I’m really impassioned about, working towards changing that. It was around grade 9 where I started, pretty much where everyone starts going through puberty and trying to figure out or discover their sexuality. If you’re straight, it’s pretty easy, but if you’re LGBTQ, it becomes a whole mess of years of struggle and trying to make sense of it all. It all started with me being uncomfortable around friends and family if we were watching a TV show and they would be like, “Hey look at that girl, isn’t she hot?”. And I’d uncomfortably go, ‘Yeah’ or something like that. I knew something was up, but I didn’t know the words. I really didn’t feel it like was normal or okay, because it was never talked about before. Hell, in my vocabulary “gay” didn’t mean being attracted to a person of the same sex it, in my vocabulary, it meant, ‘Oh that’s dumb, or that’s weird’ or stuff like that. That’s just how it is in elementary and high school. So, it took a while for me to discover the words to really describe it, but I knew something was up. Then when I finally did discover the words and my friend circle understood the real meaning behind it and like got that other true definition for the LGBT community, gay being attracted the same-sex, that’s when I came out to my friend circle through a joke of all things [Laughs]. I told a joke, and they all had to take a second and go, ‘Oh wait a minute… are you coming out right now?’ So, I was comfortable enough with them and with myself to do it comedically. Whereas with my family it was more of an accidental coming out. I told my sibling that I might be bisexual, because as I was discovering those words and doing my own research, I’d first discovered bi-curious, and thought, ‘Maybe, I’m that.’ And after a little more time discovering and defining my tastes I said, ‘Maybe, just maybe, I’m bisexual.’ And then a couple more months of going into it even more, and really, really trying to unpack everything and, ‘Maybe, just maybe, I don’t think so, but maybe, I’m gay.’ And then a few months later I was like, ‘Fuck it, I’m completely gay.’ And thats how I came out to my friends with a joke [Laughs]. Yeah, at first, with my family, I came out as bisexual because my sibling accidentally forced me to come out. There was a family discussion, and my sibling said, “Is there something you want to tell mom and dad?” I just froze and then said, “Yeah, I’m bisexual.” A really uncomfortable and not an optimal situation where I was definitely not in control. It turned out all right. My parents were… well my dad didn’t really give a shit; he just went back to watching TV, my mom was like, “all right” and then gave me the STD talk [Laughs]. That’s my story of first coming out with my sexuality and understanding that. With my gender identity, that’s a whole other story and a lot more frantic and panicky on my part. So, I had a really big identity crisis at the end of 2016 that came out of a camp I went to during the summer. I went to Camp fYrefly, which is run by the University of Alberta that’s all over Canada, being there, it was like my first real exposure to a full community of LGBTQ individuals of sexually diverse and gender diverse people. So, I was around the most trans people I’d ever seen, I’d never met a trans person before that. I was around people that were lesbians, gay, asexual, pansexual, bisexual take all those diverse orientations and in the four days I was there, it was completely overwhelming because I discovered a world that I never considered or thought about before. I’d thought I knew what was up, but I didn’t know because I hadn’t personally experienced it or been around people. Before I went to camp, I was already wrestling with the idea of starting a QSA in my high school, which is a queer straight alliance. And I found a teacher advisor to help me do that and already in the process of going to the administration getting that setup… this was before the Alberta government had passed the QSA bill – so it was a little bit more difficult at that point. So, when I went to this camp, I was going in with a bit of knowledge that I had accumulated from being out for a few years and just discovering a little bit. And then by the end of the camp, I was like, ‘I’m not confident anymore in my sexuality and in my gender identity.’ So, for a while, I was struggling to try and unpack and understand what I was thinking and what was going through my mind and that all led to a couple of big panic attacks and crises, where like I had the thought, ‘How do I identify myself?’ ‘What am I?’ Those sorts of questions and that led to an anxious logic loop in my mind feeding into my anxiety and all that. My first boyfriend who I was dating at that time and a friend who at the same time was trying to figure themselves out they helped me to discover the possibility of what I could identify as. Because of my upbringing in Crossfield in such a small town, I had a lot of internalized transphobia and internalized thoughts. Like the knowledge, that gender binary is a thing. I was still very set on male/female gender binary. I knew people that were androgynous, agender, non-binary and all of that but I hadn’t considered it for myself because there was that internalized phobia towards it. With enough time and conversation and enough community interaction, I finally found the words that I felt best described me. I knew for damn sure I wasn’t male or female, I didn’t feel like transitioning or anything like that, I don’t have too extreme dysphoria, I do have some, but it’s not like too extreme with many trans people that end up causing other mental health issues. When I discovered the words to describe myself – I use genderqueer non-binary – it felt like I finally had something I can describe myself as. Because that internalized need to have a label, I couldn’t just sit back and be, ‘Oh I’m just me.’ No matter how much people would be like, “just be you,” or “you are enough.” I couldn’t accept that because I needed to make sense of it, rationalize it and find the words to describe it. So, throughout my process of first coming out as gay and second coming out as genderqueer, it was that struggle of, I need this word. And I’ve got to the point where I know that’s just my personality, and that’s not a negative trait I picked up from anyone, it’s just a part of me. Like I need to rationalize things to get behind them, so any of my opinions it takes a long time, and a lot of rationalization and lot a conversation for me to get to the point where I’m confident, or I can say I’m confident in this. It was the same experience with trying to label my political ideologies, religious identities and stuff like that. It was very much a process of me trying to find the word to help me. So that’s where I’m at, a point where I tell people if you need a word to describe yourself, that’s fine. Outwardly your identity is your identity, and I will respect it, you can use words if you like or not use words, that is your prerogative. But for me and for some people I know those words are really important to try and place ourselves within the community and really feel a connection to other people. Without calling myself genderqueer and non-binary, I wouldn’t be able to feel that same sense of community that I have with some really close friends. So that’s sort of my experience with discovering my identity and coming out.
LWD: How have you embodied your transformation?
Leigh: Right now, I feel like I’m in the best place I’ve ever been in my life. Since the beginning of the year and since I’ve been struggling with my gender identity, I’ve also been suffering some severe mental issues. I’ve been diagnosed with chronic depression, so it’s a long-term milder depression, but doesn’t hurt my life, it just makes everything multitudes harder. So, through all that I’ve been doing as much as I could to really just chase my passions and loves. So, starting in September last year I went and did a training workshop with Calgary Sexual Health Centre. They have a program for educating on gender identity and sexual orientation in the Calgary area called fYrefly-in-schools. I did their training and volunteer with them, I go to schools and help educate on gender identity and sexual orientation. I’ve been to five different schools to present about ten different workshops, where I was helping to educate, be a panel member and share my experience and my identity with elementary, middle school and high school students. So that was the biggest thing that I wanted to do and did to push myself and find my way to describe myself and understand myself because through this fYrefly-in-schools experience I was presenting and learning at the same time about the vast amount of diversity that’s present in our society. So, I could unpack questions that students had and try and make sense of them myself in my own worldview and through that discover which labels I wanted to use and then using those labels and identifying that way and help me be a better-educated presenter. So, embodying who I am really meant first making sense of who I am and then using that as an advantage. Same thing with my QSA at my high school, if I didn’t have my personal experiences like being really uncomfortable with using public washrooms and just the idea of segregated change rooms and stuff like that, it pushed me to keep on my principal asking to get a gender-neutral bathroom. My old high school is currently going through modernization; they got a couple of million dollars to do renovations of the school. I pushed my principal who pushed the architects for the renovations to include a gender-neutral washroom in the school. Part of that debate was choosing whether it be a single stall washroom. It ended up being single stall accessible washroom. And part of it was debating that or converting a bank of washrooms to gender-neutral or unassigned washrooms. I really, really challenged the principal on that, really pushing him and asking as many questions and being a thorn in his side about it. Without my personal experience, without my experience educating through the fYrefly-in-school program, without my experience at the coming out monologues or without my experience around 100 other queer people at Camp fYrefly, I wouldn’t have been able to push my principal that much. I wouldn’t have been able to spearhead different events that I was a part of with my schools QSA. So again, it was all about discovering those parts of me and using them as an advantage.
LWD: What hindrances do you see to continuing to live as your true self? And what of these past experiences will help you move forward?
Leigh: I think the biggest stumbling block right now is feeling valid in my gender identity. I present very masculinely, and I’m comfortable doing that. I don’t present particularly feminine because I can’t really buy female clothing because they don’t fit me. I’m a big guy and largely built, so they don’t really fit me. The last time I was in the hospital it was a really big struggle for me because even after I told the nurses the name on my Alberta Healthcare card is not my name and telling them to write in Leigh, I was still ignored. I was completely ignored by doctors and nurses; they would still come up to me and refer to me as Connor, calling me by my birth name. I even looked at the chart that they had by just looking over their shoulders and saw the name Leigh and Connor had been crossed out on the chart. So, the fact that medical professionals would completely ignore that and call me by my birth name was super devaluing to me. When I was in the hospital, I started feeling the least valid I’ve ever felt in my entire life. I didn’t feel right; I didn’t feel like I was doing the right thing. It felt like I was just being dramatic and that my gender identity was just a phase. The same thing happened with pronouns; I specifically asked them to write in that I wanted to be referred as general neutral pronouns they/them. And I was also ignored. I didn’t know how hard I would be affected by it until it happened. Little microaggressions like that have turned out to be instead of stumbling blocks, more like walls for me. I know that this is a common feeling for a lot of trans people, little microaggressions whether they’re done purposefully or accidentally, these events turn out to be a mountain rather than a molehill. It’s something very psychologically difficult. And because of the anxiety that comes out of my mental illness, I’ve had troubles also calling people out and pushing them to use the right name and the right pronouns. The last time I was with my family for family dinner, my grandma who is really struggling to use the right name and pronouns; so, when I first went to the house, she called me by my birth name. I just didn’t have the strength to say, “That’s not my name.” With my friends and mother who are trying and most the time get it right, I can call them out, but with my grandma, you can tell it’s she just completely forgot about it. It becomes a whole other issue. Another big thing for me that really hurt me was when a family member of mine who is an extremely liberal person, part of the radical feminist movement, started posting rhetoric and articles saying that being transgender is antifeminist and calling male to female trans women are actually men in disguise and part of the patriarchy. Her complete transmisogyny within the radical feminist community really alienates me. We had a really long explosive argument where I was trying to educate as best as I could and really try to push myself to understand that side. But my cousin and her friends that were taking part were just so concrete, ignorant, close-minded in their beliefs and unwilling to open their minds. They were more than willing to share biased rhetoric and articles as evidence to argue my personal experience in my life and my chosen family. I’ve never experienced anything like that; it was complete transphobia. I’d never experienced anything like that because I present so masculine, nobody will ever look at me and be like, ‘You look weird.’ My gender identity is sort of something that’s under what I dress up as. I dress comfortably in the clothes that I like and that just so happens to be a masculine presentation. But experiencing that complete denial of my personal experience was something that took lots of mental strength and energy to try and comprehend in the first place. How could this family member that is so liberal and progressive but then completely denies who I am and say, ‘Who you are is offensive to my ideologies.’ It’s completely unlike anything that can be logically described. For me to get past those stumbling blocks and those walls, it becomes that situation where I need to build those doors myself. This stumbling block to the microaggressions comes down to me having the confidence to outwardly say, “This is who I am; these are the words I use, please use them.” And then if they choose not to, I have to try to let that go. I found after speaking to a psychiatrist and going back to Socrates’ idea of the soul, when you’re angry or when you’re hanging on to something that unbalances your soul and therefore makes your life harder. So, then it becomes a struggle to try and let that go, so you can rebalance yourself and become the most authentic you that you can. And with some people, I’m there. I can let things go; there were some detractors back in my high school that would yell slurs at me. Not commonly but definitely with intentional harm, I could let that go knowing their ignorance. Ignorance is unbalancing to their soul, so I need to let that go, so I could remain good, remain healthy and balanced. And through that, I could go to authorities and say this person said, “Such and you can deal with it.” And then with complete denial of trans identities and non-binary entities by my cousin, I just blocked them. I’m not seeing their post on my Facebook anymore. I know the next time I interact with them it will probably be awkward, but I’d be confident enough in myself and confident enough in my knowledge of their ideologies to know I will not be able to change their minds. It’s their problem. So, to balance my soul and let it go is to shift the weight to the other sides and that’s how I’ve been building my doors and getting past those stumbling blocks.
LWD: Did the people that you met through fYrefly help you with understanding how to build your doors and your coping mechanisms?
Leigh: No, it wasn’t. Because a lot of the people that I met through Camp fYrefly and Coming Out Monologues also severely suffered from various mental illnesses and personality disorders. These people also have negative, harmful views of the medical system and mental health system, with good cause. But I didn’t want to take on any of their ideologies and thoughts on it because I hadn’t had that experience yet. My experience in the mental health system and speaking of that psychiatrist, like specifically to the staff I was working with were fairly progressive. They still needed some strong words to actually start using the correct name and pronouns… a lot of prompting. But it was really through that one conversation with the psychiatrist to give me the tools. The psychiatrist asked me what my idea of life was. And at that point, I was the lowest point I’d ever been in my entire life. I was admitted to the mental health unit, and that’s how I met the psychiatrist and spoke to him. But after I gave my thoughts, which was wanting to leave the world having made an impact. I don’t believe in an afterlife, to me, an afterlife is the impact you leave on the world and people’s memories of you. You live on in people’s memories, not as a soul or a consciousness in heaven or purgatory or whatever people believe in. That was the philosophy I shared with him, and he shared back, with his years of life experience and time working in a palliative care unit that his meaning of life and ultimately now my meaning of life is always going to come back to people and relationships. If you hold those grudges that are going to cause a lot of harm in your life. So, to cut off relationships, that’s totally fine, but to preserve your own balance and mental health you need to forgive. Forgiving doesn’t mean that was okay what you did; it just means letting go and just saying they did that and I’m okay with that. It was really just that one philosophy in that one conversation with that guy that really changed my life. I still struggle with my mental health, but I have that one tool in my pocket as well as a variety of other mindfulness tools that kind of work. I have my support system, I’ve got a counselor now, I’ve got a lot of people I can lean on and go to as well as that philosophy. And that’s what’s really helped me in the last couple months.
LWD: What sorts of things will allow you to really thrive in the future?
Leigh: At Mount Royal, they have the pride centre, and I feel like getting in involved in the pride centre with volunteering and helping with events, and that’s going to help me out with that. I also want to be involved with the Coming Out Monologues next year because that was such a great experience for me and I’d like to share chapter 2. As well as continuing the work I was doing with Calgary Sexual Health Centre, I want to do more with them. My two growing passions are for music radio and education about LGBTQ issues. If I can someway get involved just a little bit more than being a volunteer panelist with the Calgary Sexual Health Centre that would be just a huge step and huge impassioned, empowering thing for me. I’m also working a lot to grow my friendships and relationships with my friends here in Calgary. Now that I’m living in Calgary, I have the means to be a better friend. I find it difficult to maintain a friendship through texting and social media; it’s straining for me. I need that personal interaction face-to-face to maintain a strong relationship. Growing those relationships, keeping the contacts, I have that have experience in the community and experience in areas that I want to get involved in, stuff like that is help me go a long way. Through the Coming Out Monologues, I met plenty of people with years of experience from all different walks of life. Amelia Newbert the chair for the Skipping Stone Foundation is a close personal friend of mine now. So, I could get involved with the Skipping Stone Foundation which is for trans youth if I just went to Amelia; Can I get involved? In knowing her and knowing the relationship we have, I think she would be delighted to have me on. I know four other board members of the organization. I also have connections to the One Voice Chorus, the LGBTQ choir here in Calgary, I know a few people involved with that. I still have my connections with the Coming Out Monologues. I have a couple of connections with the Calgary Sexual Health Centre. I just want to work on networking, growing those connections and get myself in the right place. I think that’s what’s going allow me to excel further than where I’m at right now.