06/24/2014 12:20 EDT | Updated 08/24/2014 05:59 EDT

Pride Week Helps Me Cope With a Lifetime of Homophobia

Norberto Cuenca via Getty Images

The first time I knew I had to speak up about my sexuality was on my 17th birthday. My then-girlfriend had decorated my locker, complete with shiny wrapping paper, bows and signing sheets for friends to leave birthday wishes. Up top, a sign -- "Happy birthday Erica Lenti!" -- made my locker an easy target, but I was too overjoyed by my lover's kindness to consider what could possibly go wrong.

I should have: As one of very few openly gay students in my Catholic high school, I was a walking bull's-eye. At 14, I was outed by friends, who later uploaded a video entitled "Dyke!" mocking my mannerisms. At 15, classmates told my teachers to call me "Mister." At 16, one of my staunchly religious teachers told me to look to Jesus to "correct my path," while my peers nicknamed me "Dykerica."

Seventeen would be no different.

It only took about an hour for my girlfriend's hard work to go to waste, for the wrapping paper to get crinkled and the signs defaced. The kind messages left by friends were covered by a single word in thick, black Sharpie: DYKE.

I approached my vice-principal -- my locker was in front of a security camera, and I knew the culprit could be clearly seen. Together, we sat in a room with a monitor, skipping through footage until we saw two younger students go up to my locker, write something and walk away.

I insisted they be punished.

Instead, administration decided the footage wasn't comprehensive enough. No students would face the consequences of their homophobic actions. I told the VP I was sorry for wasting his time.

That same year, I attended Toronto Pride for the first time.

The word "dyke" was painted on signs all around me in glittery bubble letters. It wasn't meant to hurt -- instead, it united. I walked along Church Street with people just like me, and for the first time, I didn't feel alone. I didn't have the urge to apologize for who I was.

I felt at home.

For a majority of Torontonians, Pride is just another big-city party, one that reels in a lot of cash from wealthy gay tourists. For straight teenagers, it's an opportunity to get drunk in the middle of the day without getting strange looks from passersby. And for a select few -- including Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and his brother Doug -- it's a week of partying with "buck naked men" who tarnish the reputation of our city.

But beyond the booze and the naked leathermen, Pride is an inherently political celebration of freedom -- for LGBTQ people just like me to be who we are without fearing we'll be the target of yet another verbal assault or hate crime (and even during Pride week, hate crimes persist). It's the one week every year that we can actually embrace our identities -- a privilege most straight people tend to forget they have.

There's a misconception that because Canada is a rather liberal country -- we were, after all, one of the first to legalize gay marriage -- there is no longer a need for Pride, that as Canadians we have embraced LGBTQ culture. But even with legislation in place, there remains a disconnect: As a journalist, I have written stories about young men who were pelted with eggs for holding hands, young trans men who were turned away by doctors, queer business owners who fear their homophobic neighbours. And as a young lesbian, I fear the next time someone calls me a dyke they will beat me, rape me or try to kill me.

More personally, I wake up every day knowing my traditional Italian family will never accept me, watch me walk down the aisle or even meet my future wife. In the past, when the daughter of a family friend came out, my grandparents applauded their decision to disown her. I fear one day I'll be the next one shunned by the family.

But all those fears seem to slip away when I'm surrounded by a community of people who know the same fear and sense of injustice I do. And when we are banded together, marching down Yonge Street with flags and Super Soakers, we are practically invincible.

Pride, for me, is my vacation, a chance to get away from the constant politics and fear of my own identity. It is a getaway from coming out every time I meet a new person and the knot in my stomach every time I'm forced to do it. It's a break from reality, or at least the opportunity to live in a reality where every day life is a bit easier.

This year, Toronto celebrates WorldPride, which makes this break all the more important. With homosexuality still considered a criminal offence in 81 countries, our city is more than just a safe place for its own inhabitants this Pride -- it's a haven for people who could die for loving someone of the same sex or for opening up about their desire to live out their appropriate gender expression.

While I walk along Yonge Street this year, I won't be thinking about the parties, the drunken kids or those who choose to march nude. Instead, I'll be thinking about my own injustices -- the scribbles on my locker, the ignorance of my superiors, the words that pierced me as a teen -- and how I finally fit in, among people from around the world that know exactly how it feels to live life on the outside.


Gay Pride Around The World