Reclaiming a Word and Remembering a Friend

Matt Tatham, 1957-2009

Matt Tatham, 1957-2009

Author: Tim Nethercott, YYC Campus Ministry Chaplain

I love the word “queer”. One of the first times I heard it was when I was a teenager on the football team. “So and so is queer.” It was an insult of course. “Queer” has always meant differing from the norm in some less-than-desirable fashion. It conveyed a sense of distaste and--not so much contempt--but of dismissal, as if the person or thing one is describing as queer is beneath contempt. When it began to be applied to homosexual people it was more than an insult, it was a way of rendering that person invisible.

I don’t remember who was the object of that insult. Certainly, it wasn’t my brilliant, aristocratic, uber-athletic best friend Matt, who was also on the team. He couldn’t possibly be queer and no one would think to call him that. And yet, as I realized a couple years later, he was queer. Not an easy thing to be in 1972, or whatever year it was.

Matt got out of town as soon as he could and never looked back. We met up sometimes in Toronto when we were both living there. I was always eager to demonstrate to him how non-homophobic I was. He never seemed all that impressed, but then, it was really hard to impress Matt. He had such high standards.

Matt died in 2009 with a smile on his face, minutes after crossing the finish line defending his title as world Triathlon champion in his age group. He died of a recently-diagnosed, and unfortunately ignored, heart murmur. He left behind to grieve his partner John. His partner, mind you, of twenty-four years. Nothing queer about that. That’s love.

By the time he died Matt and John and their generation of queer folk had done a remarkable thing. They had taken a term of opprobrium and turned it into a badge of honour. And they took the rainbow as their symbol as if to say: “We will not be invisible.”

There is something Godly in that reversal. The first shall be last, the last shall be first, the meek will inherit the earth. That’s why I love the word “queer”.