Dunk the faggot
|HE TAKES FLACK. Mark Elliot hosts People Helping People.(Image by Joshua Meles)||
story by Ian Mackenzie /
Mar 18 2004
Mark Elliot’s voice is deep and gravely with no sign of the gay lilt. If you’ve heard his show on CFRB 1010, People Helping People, in which he coaches drug addicts and their friends through tough times, gay is not the first characteristic that comes to mind.
But on weeknights from 10pm till 2am, Elliot sits in front of a microphone at the station’s Yonge and St Clair studio and tries to talk distressed callers back from the brink of hell. His credentials for doing so are impeccable: At 50, this sexual abuse survivor, former drug addict and 519 Community Centre counsellor knows a thing or two about hell. And after four decades of fighting it, Mark Elliot is finally ready to be gay.
“I went through sexual abuse when I was a kid, when I was about five,” says Elliot. “I was abused by another kid [a 12-year-old]. And the bastard went out and told everybody.
“So I was six years old and here I was walking down the street in my little housing project in Weston [in North Toronto] and I was a queer. Everybody knew I was queer. I didn’t know what queer was at that point, I was totally naïve, but I was catcalled and taunted and I went through hell.”
The confusion surrounding his sexuality lingered, and Elliot spent his early teenaged years in and out of the Clarke Mental Heath Centre, where doctors tried to cure him of his homosexuality.
“I walked into the Clarke [in 1968] and I said I’m gay and I need help, and they put me on 80 mg of Valium a day,” he says.
In hindsight, it was a prescription for disaster. Over the next 30 years, again and again Elliot would retreat to drugs as a way of dealing with the shame he felt about his sexuality.
By age 16, Elliot abandoned Valium. He turned to religion and reverends Bob Wolf and Troy Perry, who were in the early stages of setting up the Metropolitan Community Church.
“It was the first time I ever sat down with someone who actually knew what I was going through,” says Elliot of his early experiences with the church.
Elliot became increasingly comfortable with his sexuality, and by 18, he was hanging around with some of the movers and shakers of Toronto’s early gay movement — Jearld Moldenhauer, Gerald Hannon and George Hislop. But his newfound sense of belonging didn’t last. Elliot suffered a major setback when, at age 18, he decided to tell his family that he was gay.
“My family threatened to reject me, and it scared the living shit out of me. It pushed me back into the closet,” says Elliot. “Rather than risk losing my family, I did what any guy at that time would do who was terrified of abandonment, I went out and within two years I was married.”
Over the next 10 years, Elliot had kids, moved to Ottawa and became a top-rated radio DJ. He also got addicted to drugs.
“I ended up getting very famous very fast,” says Elliot. “It was very confusing. But it was made a lot easier by smoking your brains out, and doing all the dope and drinking every ounce of alcohol you can find. And I did.”
At the height of his career, and toward the end of his marriage, Elliot discovered cocaine.
“It was love at first sniff,” he says. “My marriage was over within a month.”
It was the mid-1980s, says Elliot. Boy George was topping the charts, and coke was the drug du jour. Using cocaine to bolster his sexual confidence, Elliot entangling himself in a web of self-destructive partying and sexual adventure.
“My career kept going up and I kept going down. The ratings [for my show on CFRA and later on CFGO] got higher and my problems got much worse. I was literally out of my mind and everybody around me knew it.”
The party lasted until ’87, when CFGO’s new general manager fired Elliot, and asked him to go into drug rehabilitation.
“She took a look at me and said, ‘This guy’s sick. If we don’t get him out of here he’s going to die.’”
Weighing in at 150 pounds, the 6’4’’ Elliot, had three different sexually transmitted diseases and was suffering from jaundice. “It was a mess. I had all kinds of shit wrong with me.”
Elliot checked into a six-month treatment program. While he credits this move with saving his life, he wasn’t able to resolve the sexual identity problems at the time: There was a second marriage (to a lesbian). And a cocaine relapse in 1994.
“It was always lifelong struggle to settle the question in my head of who I was. I mean, am I a straight guy, am I a bi guy? I was a very confused man and I had no idea what I was, up until that point.”
After the relapse in 1994, Elliot finally came clean about his sexuality. He decided once and for all that he was gay.
Today Elliot says he’s been sober for 10 years. And he has taken his experiences and his sexuality back to the airwaves. After a career of hiding behind on-air euphemisms, last year Elliot became CFRB’s first openly gay radio personality.
“If you ever listen to my show, I take flack,” says Elliot of his phone-in show People Helping People. “I get the homophobes calling me left, right and centre. Last year during the gay marriage debate I felt like a punching bag after every show. I just had this venom coming out of the phone. It was like dunk the faggot every night.”
But now he’s stabilized his own life. He’s got a boyfriend, a fish tank and four kids. He says he’s finally ready to stand up for who he is and give back to the community; as a gay role model on the radio and as counsellor at the 519 Community Centre (519 Church St).
“I always felt bad when I walked away from the gay movement back in the ’70s. I’m glad that I’m able to give back now.”
And many of the people he helps, he says, are just like him.
“Probably the largest number of people I see [at The 519] are middle-aged men like myself, just barely coming to terms with being gay after coming out of bad marriages. I’ve lost count of how many I’ve seen,” says Elliot.
“They are coming to terms with something that is very difficult for them because when we think of gay we think young and cute, but you and I both know that’s only a phase. There’s also old and gay.”