I’ve taught at several Canadian colleges and universities for more than twenty years. I still do, online. The highlight of this teaching career came when a young student arrived at my office, needing to speak with me. I had no idea who this learner was. I had 750 students, and schools like to cram them all into the lecture hall at the same time. It makes for a bad education but it saves money, which is what governments want. So, with so many students, I didn’t know one from another.
Then this one showed up wanting to tell me he was a homosexual and that he lived in student residence, where he feared for his safety. Where he was afraid some redneck dickhead was going to beat him with a baseball bat. After calming him, the rest was easy – the school made sure his concerns were addressed, and his studies supported. Today he’s got a great job in Florida.
Why was this event my career highlight? Because it meant the world to me when that student trusted me – when he realized his situation was safe with me, and that I would work to help him overcome his very real concerns. And he figured all this out in spite of a terrible teacher/pupil ratio of 750:1.
But that was 2001 in liberal-thinking Southern Ontario – not 70s and 80s Newfoundland, where the comic Tommy Sexton of CODCO fame was living an openly gay way in a period of pathetic prehistoric prejudices.
Born in St. John’s in 1957, Sexton, an honours student, quit school in grade 10 to pursue an acting career. CODCO was a Newfoundland comedy company that began as live theatre called ‘Cod on a Stick’. Broadcasting on CBC from ‘87–92, CODCO starred Sexton, Greg Malone, Cathy Jones, Mary Walsh, and Andy Jones. With a focus on Newfoundland’s incredible capacity to laugh at itself, the show lasted five seasons for a total of 63 episodes.
In 1991, with the Mount Cashel Orphanage child abuse scandal all over the Newfoundland news, the CBC decided not to air a CODCO sketch called ‘Pleasant Irish Priests in Conversation’, in which three Catholic Priests discuss their sexual preferences. While CODCO continued, some Newfoundlanders considered the CBC’s decision not to air the skit, a betrayal, and a cowardly act that weakened the show.
Following the end of CODCO, several cast members went on to create the long-running TV comedy, ‘This Hour Has 22 Minutes’, while Sexton wrote a film entitled ‘Adult Children of Alcoholic Parents: The Musical’. ‘Adult Children…’ was in production in 1993 when the 36-year old Sexton died of AIDS-related illnesses.
In 2001, Tommy’s sister, film-maker Mary Sexton, produced an honest documentary called, ‘Tommy… a family portrait’. And the Tommy Sexton Centre – a housing complex for people living with HIV and AIDS - was opened in St. John’s in 2006.
But as a late-comer to Newfoundland, I’ve only just discovered the talents of Tommy Sexton. I’ve only just realized the people of this province had a clever, creative, comic genius living among them. But I’m not convinced that most Newfoundlanders knew that at the time. Yet, looking back at Sexton’s colleagues, and some of his siblings, I have come to conclude Tommy had an admirable support group surrounding him, in an era when many gays didn’t. Here’s hoping everybody who is different than the majority today, can find the safety and the support they need.