Cst. Brendan Harkness’ full-circle journey

It started in Amsterdam as a young man trying to find his way in life, becoming a Mountie and back in Amsterdam 10 years later to lead the Europride World Police Boat in the parade.

It all started roughly 20 years ago, around the time that I was 15. I remember driving down the highway in my parents Ford Aerostar, and just passing the Whippletree Junction Auction House in Duncan, B.C.

At the time the highway was not divided and there were four lanes, in what today’s standards, would be considered narrow and very dangerous. We were driving to Victoria to visit my sister who had recently graduated from high school and moved out to live with her boyfriend and go to college.

It was a busy afternoon with traffic, and I was sitting in the far rear seat of the van. I was minding my own business and distracting myself like any teenager does, completely disregarding what was happening around me.

My dad was driving and my mom, as usual, was reading one of the many novels she has, and continues to, polish off every month.

A few seconds passed, when my dad suddenly slams on the brakes. I distinctly remember that moment because my dad looked in the rear-view mirror at that same moment, which I later found out, was because he was looking for traffic that was coming up behind us.

My dad stopped the van, and both he and my mom jumped out.

A head-on collision had just happened in front of us. A small yellow Honda Civic had been hit head on by an oncoming vehicle that had wandered into our lane. I remember there being a dog, and I remember the driver spilling out of the driver’s side of the vehicle.

Both my mom and my dad sprung into action, without hesitation, as if they had done it so courageously 100 times before. I will never forget that moment. The reason I will never forget that moment is because that was the day I realized that my parents are heroes, and that was the day I vowed I would never, ever, be in a position where I would feel complete and total helplessness where I didn’t know how to help another person.

Mom was a registered nurse, and dad was a police officer. Not just a police officer, but a Mountie. Ever since I can remember being alive, I have been gazing at that yellow stripe on my dad’s “blues”, and wondering what it all meant. Yes, I knew he was a police officer and yes, I knew he drove a police car, but I never really knew what he did beyond being my dad.

Same thing with my mom. She would come and go to work in her scrubs, and then would come home and be mom. I never really realized what their jobs meant until I was in that moment on the highway with them, and they went in to help. It was unforgettable, and frankly, it is a moment I revisit more and more as the years pass.

So there I was, a 15 year-old teenager who just got slapped across the face with some reality, the beginning of an understanding of what was important to me, and what made my family special.

Over the next several years, I started to shift my focus and get some direction. Although my parents still had a few years of petulance to deal with in me, nonetheless, I had an undeniable and uncontrollable urge to learn how to help in emergencies, and become good at it.

I decided I wanted to be a Mountie.

I grew up in the 90’s. I grew up in small towns in British Columbia where country music, beer, trucks and masculinity were what were expected. My parents never expected that of me, but it was the social norm at the time.

Compounded on that were a few relocations at times in my life where I was trying to fit in, trying to make friends, and trying to figure out whom the heck I was.

Now, enter homosexuality. Great, I’m gay and it’s the early 90’s where that stuff doesn’t fly. The AIDS crisis wasn’t too far in the past, “gays” should have been ashamed, and people were just generally not okay with it. Well, at least in my world, that is what I thought. None of this came from home, but it came from school, media, and generalizations that I had developed based on what you hear and see.

I knew I was gay when that person got hurt in the Honda Civic, but what I didn’t know is how I would ever be able to become a Mountie, being gay.

Picture it. The son of a Mountie growing up in small towns, realizing he is gay, hiding it, feeling ashamed by it, acting out because of it, seeing and hearing the intolerance toward it, not understanding it, but wanting to be a Mountie so bad in a world that doesn’t accept any type of “weakness”.

I can’t describe to you the pride I felt, and continue to feel about being the son of a Mountie. Contrasted to that is the incredible shame and resolution that it was impossible to achieve. Call it what you may, I just didn’t think it would ever happen.

Brendan is gay; therefore he will never be a Mountie. I struggled with that.

For several years to come, I struggled. I was gay, ashamed, living a lie, not out, not happy and felt like I was doing something wrong. So, naturally, I buried my head in the sand. I traveled a path that, while not too scary, made my parents uncomfortable for a long time.

Why? I’m not sure, but I can speculate that it had something to do with my constant distraction, apathy and general confusion about what I was doing. On top of it all, all I wanted to do was help people, but because of something I can’t change, it just was not going to happen. Period.

I pulled my head out of my rear-end somewhat over the next few years, and ended up working as a summer student with the RCMP while I was in college. I had never experienced something more satisfying.

I was literally doing, and had the confidence and (some) training, to help people. I was as green as could be, but what I did know I knew well, and I knew when and how to use it. It was a youthful innocence that I will always feel grateful for. But, wait. I’m gay.

This intense feeling of being able to help people in the way I had been dreaming of was going to stop at the end of the summer. Despite my boss praising me and telling me I needed to become a Mountie, I rationalized it in my head and said “but he doesn’t know I’m gay. If he knew that, he would turn me away”.

There was nothing more devastating to me than the idea that I would be turned away for something I couldn’t control. Believe me when I say, I just knew it would never happen.

So now what? Being gay is a crime, right? If they find out, you’re done, right? I created stories in my head about how I would be judged, but at the same time, there were some legitimate stories of people being discriminated against, called out, transferred, run out of locker rooms, etc, for being GAY!

I turned my back on policing because I didn’t think I had it in me to try, to be confident on the job, or to accept the (perceived) rejection I would face. When they say no, what would I do then? The desire didn’t go away, but I got used to the reality.

With all of that behind me, I did what any gay man would do, I went and worked for a fabulous and luxurious hotel company. Not only did said hotel chain introduce me to many of the finer things in life, it also dragged me out of the closet.

In January of 2003, I made the, what I will call, “grand declaration” to my friends and family. After reading a book about coming out while listening to a Jimmy Eat World song on repeat, I blew down the doors and told everyone that I was gay.

It was the start of a step in the right direction. For a few years after that, I worked in three different hotels, in four different jobs, that ultimately developed my professional skill set to something I am forever grateful for. But, it wasn’t enough.

Brendan Harkness

Brendan poses with three Amsterdam police officers in 2006. This would become the catalyst for his journey to becoming a Mountie as an “out” gay man.

It was fantastic, but it wasn’t my dream. The pain I felt knowing I wouldn’t be accepted would not go away. I needed a change; I needed to travel…

On August 3, 2006, I arrived in Amsterdam (see picture above). I had a Eurail pass, a large backpack, a money belt, travel insurance, and a few thousand dollars. It was the first day that I would begin my travels around Europe, alone, completely unfettered, naïve and insecure.

This was the moment that we all talk about in life; backpacking around Europe, staying in hostels, and (apparently) finding out about yourself. I remember it well, because I was completely overwhelmed by everything that was happening.

Not only had I never been to a Pride celebration before, I had never been to a European city like Amsterdam where tolerance and diversity was expected and people were being themselves.

That day, I saw a group of three police officers from Amsterdam who were participating in the events. I couldn’t believe that they were there, so I got a picture with them.

That time in Amsterdam set the stage for a very important, very fulfilling experience. That first day stands as one of the earliest and most important experiences of my entire life. I watched the pride parade that week and a United Nations float was participating in the parade.

I remember looking to that float and thinking to myself, “There must be hope for me in the RCMP if the UN has a float in this parade”.

The next several months changed my life in ways I can only really appreciate as I get older and farther away from the experience.

An equally important memory came at the end of my time in Europe. I was sitting with my friend Louise, a British girl, outside of the Oxford Castle in Oxford. The town had just celebrated its 1000th anniversary that year, and her and I were eating a piece of pizza outside of Pizza Express.

Louise looked at me and said “Brendan, are you going to stay in Europe, or go back home”? I looked at her and said, verbatim, “I have given this a lot of thought. I love Europe, but I need to try and be a Mountie. If I don’t, I will always regret it”.

I left for home a few weeks later.

My sister was married that summer, August 2007. I had been away almost a year, and had come back to Vancouver Island. My sister got married, and was off on her honeymoon when I made the decision.

It was a very empowering moment in my life that I remember well. I don’t remember the thoughts leading up to it, but I remember, in an instant, deciding that I was going to apply to the RCMP.

It wasn’t a fleeting or hesitant moment, it was definitive and powerful, “This is it. It’s time”. I walked out on to my parent’s balcony, sat down and said “I’m going to do it”.

My folks looked at me perplexed, wondering what I was talking about. I said, “I’m going to apply to the RCMP. It’s time and I’m going to be myself and see where the cards fall”.

It’s now March 7, 2016. It’s 12:59 am, and I am sitting in a house in Pangnirtung, Nunavut, writing this out on my laptop. I’m in my long underwear and my RCMP shirt, and I’m writing this story.

I’ve been a Mountie for 7 ½ years, and I have helped hundreds of people. Today, I am just like my dad helping the man in the yellow Honda Civic, on the highway by Whippletree Junction.

I would not change one second of my life, not even the poor choices that I made. I am here because of the sum of the person I am, as a result of the life I have lived.

It’s funny how things come about in life. Some say it’s fate and it happens for a reason, while others may say it’s a combination of preparation, opportunity and divine influence.

But, what I can tell you, is that the struggles that I felt have become the most important message of my career.

My parents taught me to always lead with kindness in any part of my life, but I taught myself to be myself. That is the key; be yourself.

My struggle was real because I believed it to be real, but the lesson that I had to learn, above all else, was that the person I am is what makes me who I am.

Period.

On August 3 of this year, guess where I’ll be? Amsterdam.

I have been selected, from an entire force of Mounties, to represent the RCMP at the 1st Annual LGBT Conference for Criminal Justice Professionals.

So, literally 10 years to the day I first began a journey of self-discovery, I will be standing in Red Serge, representing Canada’s national police force, on a world stage, as an openly gay Mountie.

At World Pride in Amsterdam. I will have a spot in the parade where I will look to the crowds of people and think of how I was a 25 year-old boy, who stood in the crowds 10 years earlier and wondered how it could ever happen to him.

They say everything happens for a reason; I say it happens because you make it happen.

Be yourself. Be strong. Don’t give up and lead with kindness.

Coming full-circle, Cst. Brendan Harkness - 10 years later almost to the day - in full red serge uniform proudly leading the EuroPride World police float in the parade.

Coming full-circle, Cst. Brendan Harkness – 10 years later almost to the day – in full red serge uniform proudly leading the EuroPride World police float in the parade.