Jeff with a J and Peter with a P
/ Author: Geoff Dueck Thiessen
/ Categories: Blogs, Newsletters, National /
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Jeff with a J and Peter with a P

Two related stories illustrate the power of empathy and the need for diversity, in every aspect of life

By Geoff Dueck Thiessen, Regional Director

Note that this blog deals with topics of a sensitive nature, such as suicide.

As Pride Month begins, I have been thinking of two stories that have become very important in my life. This time of year, when we strive to show our support for those who may have been marginalized, they serve as an important reminder about the power of empathy. I hope that they inspire you to think about how your actions and beliefs can affect others, in your personal life and in your workplace.

The Story of Jeff

Jeff and I were born in the same year in a small community where our mothers knew each other. Jeff was born first, and thus I was called “Geoff with a G.” (My mother, in a bid for originality, had given me the British spelling of Geoff, leading to a lifetime of introducing myself to anyone in customer service as such.)

Jeff and I attended the same schools from grades one through 12. We were always friendly but never close.

Jeff was musical, as was I. We both got good grades and were both nice kids who stayed out of trouble. In our community, it was always best to keep your head down, lest you get singled out for bullying and some beatings.

Jeff was braver than I, though. He made more friends, played in the school band when it was cool to wear an Iron Maiden t-shirt, and was our student council president in Grade 12.

Twelve years ago, I stumbled across Jeff on Facebook and sent him a message full of warm well wishes. Much to my surprise, Jeff responded promptly, asking me to phone him. So I did.

Jeff was living in California, and shortly into our call he shared how much he was struggling. After high school, Jeff had become a teacher. In time, however, the judgment and rejection he experienced accumulated, including the loss of his teaching career. His life had become chaotic.

Jeff revealed that he was gay, and all the rejection he experienced had caught up to him. He was mired in mental health battles as he searched for acceptance.

In high school, I had never considered that Jeff might have been gay. Being gay in the early 90s was probably the worst fate I could have imagined upon myself or anyone I knew.

Yet on hearing it, I wasn’t surprised. Like a key fitting into a lock, the Jeff of my childhood now made more sense to me. But tragically for Jeff, it was the worst fate.

In May 2010, Jeff died by suicide.

I’m very thankful that I had the chance to demonstrate my acceptance of Jeff to him on that long phone call. I wish I had been his union rep when he lost that teaching job. I might have been able to make a difference.

The Story of Peter

In the spring of 2019, at the prompting of my 18-year-old daughter, I planned on attending the Winnipeg Pride Parade. Taking a bit of a risk, I invited members of my church to join us.

On the morning of the parade, nearly 20 of us met at the parade staging grounds. In our group was a man in his sixties named Peter, who had recently started attending our church.

Had I met Peter anywhere else, I would have pegged him as an older Mennonite who grew up in Paraguay (due to his subtle accent) and likely had traditional beliefs and values. I would not have expected to meet him at such an event.

Not surprisingly, I was a bit unprepared for the event. We didn’t realize that a group of people cannot simply march in the Pride Parade—they must be registered and have a sign to identify them. Our group walked around and eventually found another church group that seemed similar in spirit and like-minded. Their banner was also lovely, so we walked with them.

The Winnipeg Pride Parade is a festive event. If there is any negatively charged drama, it wasn’t evident to me. The day was a beautiful celebration of the diversity that I am grateful for in our society.

Some months later, I learned Peter’s story. Peter grew up with a brother who was gay and who eventually severed family relationships due to the rejection and judgement he experienced.

Peter had originally believed that his brother needed to change, but over time had found a way to accept him. Still, the wounds were too deep for his brother to trust that Peter’s acceptance was sincere and lasting.

On the day of the parade, Peter’s brother was in the audience. Imagine his shock when he saw Peter not only attending but marching! Peter’s brother ran out into the street and the two embraced. All the chains of pain that had kept them apart fell away.

At the time, I had no idea any of this was happening, or how powerful Peter’s choice to walk in the parade truly was. I learned some valuable things that day.

In reflecting on these two stories, I can’t help but see the damage that can be done when we choose to exclude and the healing that happens when we include.

I continue to be committed to creating safe spaces for those around me who need it and taking a posture of curiosity so that I can learn from perspectives different than my own. I know I don’t have all the answers, and I know I can’t fix everything. But if I can prevent another Jeff from feeling so alone, then I am committed to trying, whether it happens in my role as a union representative, a colleague, or a friend.

Diversity is good. People are beautiful. And we are always better together.

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