Growing up on the Musqueam Indian Reserve in Vancouver, I was surrounded by my dad’s huge extended family: nine aunts and uncles and 21 first cousins. Out of the latter, I spent nearly every day with Josh, Malcolm and Clarke. Born within a year of one another, we were best friends before we could even walk or talk.
While being so close in age meant an instant connection for us four boys, it also laid the foundation for unnecessary competition and comparison amongst our parents. “Why didn’t Bryan join the community soccer team?” “How come he hasn’t helped you out on the fishing boat?” “Why isn’t Bryan playing with Hot Wheels like the others?”
Being from an Aboriginal community, it was expected of me to love all things stereotypically “male” and follow in the footsteps of my father and one day join the family fishing business. But as I began making my own choices, it was apparent to my relatives that I didn’t share the same interests as my cousins, which for some reason became a point of contention for everyone.
I was reminded of how I felt as a child during a Ryerson professor’s recent discussion, “Breaking the Mould,” about the negative consequences of grouping children’s toys into gender categories. Laurie Petrou’s presentation focused on eliminating the gendered toys and activities for today’s children, and I couldn’t help but think how useful this information would have been for my parents when I was four years old. Although my father never voiced his opinion, looking back I can tell that not having a son that acted like his siblings’ children really bothered him. Had he known back then that a boy that likes the colour pink doesn’t equal a lifetime of weakness, our relationship could have been very different.
Luckily my mother did nothing but support my offbeat choices growing up. She had no problem buying me virtual pets, an Easy Bake Oven or Spice Girls concert tickets for me on birthdays or Christmases. She even encouraged me to cry my eyes out over the sad SPCA commercials that came on TV when everyone around her insisted that I “toughen up.” Not wanting me to be ashamed of myself, my mom nurtured my every interest, habit and emotion to instil the confidence I needed when facing her in-laws.
Instead of going to soccer practice after school like my cousins, I opted to ride the bus downtown with her to her nighttime fashion school classes. Quickly becoming a regular in her illustration section, I’d draw new and exciting outfits for my favourite Disney princess, Ariel, or offer my professional opinion to any and all of her classmates. Being surrounded by all the pretty fabric swatches and talented students, I finally felt at home. The nights I spent there sparked in me a love of art and design that would shape my life forever.
With the birth of my sister when I was in kindergarten, playing with dolls and doing so-called “girly” things became the norm in my household and I was thrilled. I could watch Sailor Moon or jump around and serenade my sibling with my favourite S Club 7 song in peace. Rather than looking at me like I was the black sheep of the family, my aunts and uncles, for the time being, saw me as just a good big brother. The pressure to do more masculine things faded away until the three cousins I called my best friends learned the meanings behind the words “homo” and “faggot” later on in elementary school.
Realizing that my appreciation for girl power and all things cute and fluffy was not a phase I was going to outgrow anytime soon, I once again faced backlash from my family for thinking, acting and saying things that did not line up with the male stereotype. Instead of calling me names like “sissy,” my peers turned to insults that questioned my sexuality. I couldn’t fathom being attracted to anyone at the age of 10, nor could I understand why that would be something to make fun of someone for. Yet I was still taunted for enjoying the so-called effeminate things in life, like acting, drawing and fashion.
If my immediate family had not been so supportive, I probably would have been very bothered by the torture that my cousins, aunts and uncles put me through. The few times I let their words get to me and I would come home crying, my mom would, without hesitation, hug me and remind me how proud she was for expressing my feelings. She could have easily told me to bottle it up and “be a man” to appease everyone around her, but that would have meant abandoning her progressive style of parenting.
Studies like the one discussed in Petrou’s TED talk show that repressing a boy’s emotions and boxing him into a stereotypical category can have lasting negative effects on the individual. According to a popular parenting blog, PhD in Parenting, laughing off violent behaviour with a “boys will be boys” attitude encourages aggression, devalues the word “no” in taboo situations and promotes inequality amongst the sexes.
Looking back at my childhood and adolescence, I can’t help but be proud of myself for paving my own path in the Sparrow family. Had I given into the criticisms and snide comments, I don’t think I’d be where I am today – 4,379.9 kilometres away from home and on the brink of graduation. Out of my nine aunts and uncles and 21 first cousins, I’ll be the first to complete a degree and move away permanently from the reserve in pursuit of a career outside my Aboriginal community.
While I’m sure my family doesn’t know how much I struggled with their words growing up, it feels good to know how happy and supportive they are today, even if I’m not joining the family business. It gives me hope that they’ll begin celebrating their sons, daughters and grandchildren for being themselves rather than worrying so much about the toys in their playrooms.
This story was first published in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on February 26, 2014.