Of Phantoms and Facades

Illustrations by Kara Pyle

I was a deeply gay child.

My voice remained firmly lodged about an octave higher than my male peers long after it was supposed to have dropped. It was just my mom and I at home and together we would alternately spin Madonna’s and Shania Twain’s greatest hits whenever a CD player was nearby. At recess, my weight and sheer lack of athleticism prevented me from running properly with the other kids, so I usually opted to skip instead. I loved it so much that I started to skip everywhere. Walking was so slow, and running was exhausting. I saw skipping as a happy medium and didn’t understand why the other kids glared at me while I did it.

Being called a faggot became less a threat and more a promise for most of my childhood. It didn’t happen daily, but the word was hurled my way regularly enough that I could expect to go to bed most nights with it ringing cacophonously in the space between my ears. 

Other cruelties were less conspicuous. I was always picked last during gym class, I always ate lunch alone. I dreaded days when the teacher would have us group together for projects because I’d either end up alone or be stuck with some kid who could barely stand my presence.

Granted, I was never much use on a sports team, nor was I any good at striking up conversations. I threw daily in-class tantrums and my wardrobe pretty much consisted of unflattering T-shirts, baggy shorts and Walmart sneakers. But in my seven-year-old solipsism, I was convinced that I was the main character of everyone’s story; the other first-graders just hadn’t yet picked up on my star power.  

I was lucky to have some reprieve when I got home. Although it was just my mom and I growing up, she made every effort to indulge my gayest interests — Madonna and Shania included — and I felt unconditionally loved and comforted in her presence. 

But summer was always my El Dorado: a gleaming golden destination at the end of every slog of a school year. Summer meant sun-soaked trips to the park and days wasted on Pokémon amid crisp air conditioning.

But the summer after second grade was different. That summer, I went to New York City. It’s the first trip I can really remember. I used to think the sprawling fields in my school’s playground were huge, but nothing could have prepared me for the enormity of New York. I may have been wider than the average seven-year-old, but I was shorter than most of my classmates, which made the city’s towers even more impressive. 

I remember waiting in line to buy tickets to a Broadway show. I did not yet fully understand what Broadway was, and erroneously assumed that a Broadway show was just some sort of fancy movie. It was 2006, and my mom was desperate to see Jersey Boys, the then-new musical about sixties doo-wop group The Four Seasons (although Wicked and Spamalot were still hot at the time and would have made for excellent alternatives). When we got to the front of the line, my mother was crestfallen when the ticket seller informed her that most of the Broadway shows were sold out. She could only buy tickets to something called The Phantom of the Opera

We got to the theatre just as the show began. A massive chandelier, intricate and glimmering, hung precariously from the centre of the ceiling. It gave the theatre a much more luxurious vibe than the USS Enterprise that hung in the foyer of the suburban cineplex that I was used to. I lapped up the luxury, took my seat next to my mother, and awaited the start of the movie. 

There wasn’t really anything in my life up to that point — not Madonna, not Shania and certainly not Pokémon — which could have prepared me for the confusing yet exhilarating performance that was about to reshape my childhood. I was still waiting for the previews to start when an unseen orchestra came to life with the hammering of keys on an organ. Then came people — real people! — walking onto the stage, and before long they were all singing and gesturing to each other in ways I never thought possible. I was immediately entranced by the narrative and the spectacle. 

There was something about Christine Daaé’s story that sang to my seven-year-old self. She was just a shy chorus girl whose talent I recognized from the start, but which only seemed to get noticed by her opera company after its resident prima donna — the overblown, hyper-emotional Carlotta — stormed out of their production in a huff. Christine had been receiving lessons from a mysterious tutor, or so her fellow chorus members whispered, and she’d become quite good. She performed the hell out of the show’s big aria and secured a spot as the new star of the company. 

I was all in on the show even before the ghost problem kicked in. I didn’t know what to make of the strange entity known as the Phantom when he began to demand hefty stipends and premier seats from the company’s new owners — especially after they foolishly dismissed his demands and he retaliated by wreaking havoc on the theatre.

Even at seven, I was old enough to recognize that things were taking a turn for the strange when Christine was lured into a misty underground dungeon by her mysterious tutor, who had thus far solely communicated with her as a disembodied voice in the cracks of the ancient opera house’s wall. Upon descending deep beneath the theatre, I was as surprised as anyone, even Christine, when we discovered that her tutor and the Phantom were one and the same — a man whose face was obscured by a strange white mask. He dwelt in a candlelit lair, his only company an obscenely large organ. He said he’d been composing his masterpiece — an unlistenable opera called Don Juan Triumphant — and Christine was to be the star. But first, she needed become his bride.

I sat in my nosebleed seat, straining to make out the details of the actors’ faces, transfixed by what I was experiencing. When the lights came up at the end of act 1 — which culminated with Christine and her handsome lover Raoul exchanging sweet nothings in the epic love ballad “All I Ask of You” — I found myself positively stunned. The orchestral swells and unbridled melodrama of Phantom were satisfying some primal craving within me — a craving not even “Like a Prayer” could temper. 

As the lights came up and the people on stage disappeared, I glanced desperately at my mom, who assured me that we were only halfway through the show. Minutes passed, and the significance of all that had transpired before me started to sink in. The sparkling chandelier. The thunderous organ. The indecent wedding proposal. The Phantom! The intermission went on for what felt like a century. I began to panic. Then came act 2.

As the Phantom’s obsession for Christine and his jealousy of Raoul grew, I became tense at the thought that all of this might soon come to an end. Suddenly the chandelier was crashing to the stage, people were screaming, and soon it felt like it was just me, Christine and the Phantom descending quickly to his lair of darkness. I knew Raoul was close behind, hounding us à la Gaston, the overzealous, hyper-masculine suitor from Beauty and the Beast. Then there was more screaming (and singing) and the Phantom’s mask was ripped from his face to expose his hideous deformity. Then came the kiss. That softening kiss. From Christine to the man with the deformed face and then — nothing. Poof. He was gone, leaving just the mask and Christine and an angry chorus mob.

The curtains rose and the actors took their bows. I came to, staggered by the emotional intensity of the story. Tears rolled down my cheeks; they stained my shirt as I rose to my feet. I slapped my hands together as hard as my chubby palms could manage. My mother and I stayed in the theatre long after the rest of the audience had dispersed. A grey old usherette came up to me, eyes wide, wrinkled hands gesturing to the stage. 

“Do you want to see something cool?”

I nodded, still speechless from the spectacle. We watched as the chandelier was hoisted back to its original spot, regal in all its incandescent glory.

We returned to Ottawa and summer wilted away, but my love for The Phantom of the Opera continued to bloom. If I was in the car, my mom and I were belting out the soundtrack. My voice hadn’t dropped yet, so I ended up singing Christine’s parts. There’s a bit in the title song where the Phantom demands Christine sing for him, and she launches into some vocal runs that can only be described as completely bonkers. I hit every note. 

If I was at home, I was rapturously watching and rewatching the Joel Schumacher-directed movie adaptation, which cranked up all the gayest and horniest elements of the musical: Christine spending most of the movie running around trying to keep her breasts in her shirt, while Raoul’s clothes, always about a size too tight, are torn to shreds on multiple occasions. The Phantom — played by a tone-deaf Gerard Butler — seemed equally as keen on caressing Christine as staring at Raoul’s chest. I didn’t fully appreciate what I was watching until much, much later, but it’s now clear the film is the Platonic ideal of Schumacher’s uncanny ability to wring queerness out of any popular intellectual property, including Batman. 

Schumacher’s Phantom became my Phantom — a campy meditation on the power of unbridled libido. It connected the dots between what I saw on stage in New York and how my closeted brain interpreted it. In Schumacher’s hands, the characters weren’t just acting out some stilted Victorian soap opera, they were dissecting their own relationships to beauty and sexuality through the power of song. The Phantom’s mask wasn’t just concealing a deformity; it was hiding his queerness. That might seem like a reach, especially given queer folks’ seemingly irresistible tendency to imprint our identities onto the movies we like, but Schumacher’s unshakable, profound gayness cannot be understated. He was the queer Midas — everything he touched turned gay.

The Phantom movie was both my sexual awakening and my cozy hearth, equal parts horny and homey. I zealously clung to it all summer, watching it on loop until each lyric and line were burned into my brain. 

As the school year approached, I took sanctuary in the music of the night. Grade three began, and with it came the old bullies. But I felt different. I’d discovered strength and resilience during the summer. I was growing into myself, slowly but surely. I even made a friend, a boy named Will who shared my love for video games and was always available to duke it out in a Pokémon battle. School became less hellish with each passing day, and I finally had a buddy to keep the loneliness at bay.

I took up piano lessons, in part because they reminded me of the Phantom and his organ, and also because I wanted to take part in my school’s end-of-year talent show. My mom gifted me a wearable replica of the Phantom’s white mask. And although it was made for an adult and was far too big for my prepubescent face, I wore it around the house with pride nonetheless. As my piano lessons progressed, I began to teach myself some of the songs from the musical. The Phantom’s big number, “The Music of the Night,” was my go-to. 

Having a single mom meant constant stress over who would supervise me while she worked, but luckily my school had a before- and after-school program that allowed her to put in a full eight hours at her government desk job. One day, as I waited for my mom in the after-school program, I met Jesse, who was a year older than me. An imposing figure, he stood several inches taller than most of the kids in his grade, and was even taller than some of the more pubescent kids. He and I had a somewhat tepid relationship, but we would often play cards together and, slowly but surely, a hesitant friendship began to form. I confided in him about some of my more feminine interests, including the Phantom. He generally shrugged me off and kept our conversations superficial, but it was nice to have someone to talk to when Will wasn’t around.

Around this time, some tests administered by the school informed me I was “gifted,” and my teachers got me into a grade two/three split so I could skip ahead. I was mostly bored with my newly advanced education, but being in a two/three split meant I got to use the grade-three bathrooms, the walls of which were regularly marked up with juicy gossip. On my first day as a newly minted splitter, I marched to the washroom, eager to read up on the latest buzz. I entered the gossip stall and was greeted with five words I was all too familiar with, scribbled crudely in black marker: KC Hoard is a fag.

I bolted out of the bathroom and back to class, my eyes hollow, my shoulders slumped. I was used to hearing that word volleyed my way, but there was something about reading it that got to me. It was etched into the stall, where everyone could read it. Spoken words are ephemeral — they disappear into the atmosphere just as quickly as they coil off the tongue. But writing is forever, and I understood written words to contain fact.

That was the worst part: knowing they were right. I was a miserable, irritating, disgusting, fat, lonely little gay boy, and there was nothing I could do to change. 

I went to daycare the next day and saw Jesse. I told him what I had read in the bathroom stall. His eyes darted to the side and his cheeks turned red. He muttered an excuse and awkwardly inched away, all but confessing to having written the message. 

Mercifully, the day eventually ended, and my mom picked me up. I had begun to act out on a regular basis — throwing tantrums in class, needling other students until they flipped out, throwing pencils — and my mother was just about at her wit’s end with my antics. When we got home, I fled to my bed, tossing around restlessly until I fell asleep.

As I lay in bed I thought of Christine Daaé and her troubles in the early days at the opera house. I took solace in her story and how she was celebrated for her talent and lauded for her beauty, picked from the chorus to single-handedly steal the spotlight. She was universally adored and undeniably excellent. Above all, she had immense charisma and unwavering confidence. She had all the talent but none of the unbearable vanity of Carlotta, the diva she had replaced. I wanted so badly to assume Christine’s status at school. I wanted boys to love me, I wanted to be envied and beloved by my peers.

But I was trapped in my body and imprisoned by my circumstances. I couldn’t strip off my rolls to reveal a gorgeous woman, and I couldn’t hide my limp wrists or my soprano vocal register. I had been relegated to a social dungeon — a sad, damp thing lit dimly by orange candles. I knew, deep down, that I could never be Christine. I was despised. I existed at the base of my school’s social ladder and I saw no prospect of ascent. I had more in common with her captor. So I put Christine out of my mind and concentrated instead on channelling my inner Phantom. 

I spent the next few weeks preparing for the upcoming talent show. Hours slipped by as I sat at my piano, my Phantom mask resting gently in the space beside my sheet music while I hammered on the keys. I wanted flair. I wanted drama. In retrospect, I wanted camp, though I didn’t yet understand what camp was — which is campy in its own way. 

On the day of the talent show, nerves flooded me as I waited backstage. My mother graciously waited with me until I stepped into the spotlight, my cape flowing behind me. I peered through my mask and saw a legion of kids staring at me, obviously confused by my getup. It was a mandatory event, so the entire school was sitting cross-legged on the gym floor. I caught Jesse’s eyes; he was seated about halfway to the back wall, but he was tall so he stuck out.

I swept my cape to the side and sat at the piano bench. I set my sheet music on the piano and ran my fingers across the faux-ivory keys, drawing power from their musical potential. Then I began to play.

The opening chords of “The Music of the Night” rang out from the piano, soon joined by my voice. “Night time sharpens, heightens each sensation,” I cooed. “Darkness wakes and stirs imagination.”

I’m sure it was a strange sight: an overweight second-grader practically drowning in a black cape, attempting to simultaneously play the piano, belt out a musical theatre standard about the power of spooky opera, and keep an oversized mask from falling off his face. Perceptions didn’t matter to me, though. The entire school remained hushed, forced to pay attention to me. I’d never had so many eyes on me before. Suddenly I knew what it was like to be Christine.

I kept going, fumbling my way through the chords. I’m sure it sounded awful — my squeaky voice mixed with the school’s out-of-tune piano. I really only had a rudimentary grasp of piano at the time, so I was probably just haphazardly smashing the keys and howling out the song like a dying wolf. But I couldn’t hear myself or feel the keys or notice the spectators scrutinizing me. I was floating above it all, experiencing elation like never before. I wanted to stay there forever, pummelling the piano, my heart springing from my chest, my soul soaring beyond the gymnasium.

I reached the song’s big finale, where the Phantom holds the note for the final lyric “night” for a full twenty seconds. I think I got about five seconds in before my lungs surrendered. I finished up the final chords and returned to my body. I stood up, swept my cape to the side, and bowed deeply, soaking in the applause.

Jesse, the gossip stall, the word — everything plaguing me had vanished. My stardom was finally being recognized. I was getting my own Don Juan Triumphant. The mask was off, and the garish light of day was beating down on me, exposing me for all I was. The kids that I thought hated me had listened to me pound out my favourite song. I was cloaked in a cheap vampire cape I got from the Halloween store, imitating a middle-aged basement goblin with an aptitude for melodrama. And for a fleeting moment, that made me the centre of the universe.

What could be gayer than that?

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