Liam Finnegan is used to having a lot of eyes on him, but not like this. When he is the centre of everyone’s attention, it’s usually while he’s performing on a theatrical stage, not a political one.
But last week the bubbly 16-year-old was thrust onto the national stage, speaking out with eloquence against his high school’s policy on homosexuality.
Finnegan and his friend Shara Layne, both openly gay students at Vanier Catholic Secondary, were featured last week on CBC’s The National and in the pages of the National Post .
But Finnegan didn’t ask for the spotlight, and he bristles when people call him heroic. To him, it was just something that needed to be said.
“When people say that I’m brave, I think it’s just completely bogus. To me, when people stand up for something they believe in, it shouldn’t be brave. It should just be the normal thing to do. When a minority is being put down, it should be normal for someone to say, ‘This is wrong, and this needs to end.’ Shara and I talked about it, and we decided somebody had to do something.”
The two students have criticized the school’s bishop for policy he wrote that says being gay is “disordered” and labels homosexual acts an “intrinsic moral evil.” When Finnegan tried to start a Gay-Straight Alliance at the school, he was told it wasn’t allowed. He’s since been attending the GSA at F.H. Collins.
It’s been a steep learning curve for Finnegan, and one that he says he didn’t really see coming.
“I’m used to stage production. I’ve done acting since I was three, but I’m not used to talking about myself,” he says.
Finnegan grew up in Vancouver, where he first got involved with one of his biggest passions – theatre. He moved to Whitehorse with his father five years ago, and while the adjustment was a challenge, he says he loves the Yukon.
Until recently, Finnegan’s sexuality was never the source of difficulty in his life. He says he knew he was gay before he even knew what the word meant.
“I came out when I was 12, and my dad, he already knew. My stepmom knew, too. She even had this book ready for me with stories of people coming out and their struggles with sex, family issues and everything.”
But that doesn’t mean he had an easy childhood. Finnegan’s birth mother died when he was little, and when his father remarried his stepmother hired a nanny to help around the house.
When he was seven, the nanny started to beat Finnegan. He hid the abuse from his family for years, but finally the fallout from that trauma grew to encompass almost every part of his young life.
Finnegan says he’s struggled with depression and flirted with thoughts of suicide, and the thing that he realized is the need to break the isolation so many kids feel.
“I get it. I used to just put a mask on. I would just say I was fine. But I’ve realized that you can’t just keep the mask on all the time because it doesn’t last forever. It backfires and it’s not pretty,” he says.
Finnegan says he’s still dealing with some of the issues from his early childhood, but he’s come through the darkness stronger. His experiences also stoked him with a fire to help other kids who are dealing with trauma and emotional hurt. He wants to be a psychologist who specializes in early childhood trauma.
“I feel for kids who went through things that maybe they shouldn’t have had to, that maybe made them grow up too fast. There’s this wall between children’s voices and accepting it, and that’s what I want to do with my life.”
For him, all the attention around his and Layne’s stand against the bishop feels like misplaced praise. When Layne’s locker was vandalized in October, Finnegan said he felt partially responsible because he helped convince his friend that Vanier was a safe place to be out.
Instead, someone scratched the word ‘faggot’ into Layne’s locker. When she reported it to principal Ed Frison, she says he laughed in her face and refused to do anything about it.
“When it comes to the Shara issue, I was quite shocked. I’ve had people try to tease me and bully me, but I never let it get to me. I never had anyone vandalize my locker or anything. I told her that this wouldn’t happen to her because it had never happened to me and I’d never heard of it happening before. I felt guilty. I made her feel safe when she apparently wasn’t.”
Neither the bishop, the school nor the school council have responded to Layne’s allegations. Principal Ed Frison has not returned the News’s repeated calls for comment, and a spokesperson for school council chair Paul Flaherty said all questions must be directed to the bishop, who also has not returned repeated requests for comment.
In the meantime, Finnegan has no plans to slow down anytime soon. He’s already spent most of his March break doing media interviews and co-ordinating with other LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning) student activists across the country. Next week he’s heading to Ottawa for a school trip, and when he gets back there won’t be much time before the next Vanier school council meeting, which he plans to attend.
Even if he shies away from the moniker, many parents and politicians are still calling Finnegan a hero for speaking out when so many other people won’t.
“Politicians are afraid of voters who might support the bishop. Adults are afraid of friends and co-workers who might turn on them. They might be fired. There are all sorts of consequences when you’re an adult, but when you’re a student at a high school, they cannot kick you out. It’s illegal.
“If they want to write faggot on my locker, well, I am one. I’m an openly gay, homosexual teenager and I don’t take it negatively. I’m not going to be affected, and it’s not going to stop me.”
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