Daniel Pillai was in Grade Two when the words were hurled in his direction.
He had just boarded the bus to go to school and noticed the older kids sitting in the back, as they did every day.
But as he walked to his seat, a Grade Five student called him a name that would change the course of the next several years: she called him a “he/she.”
“It was a traumatic moment for me,” Pillai said.
“She called me a he/she, simply because I exhibited feminine characteristics and that phrase sort of followed me around and kind of haunted me my entire life.”
Global News anchor Farah Nasser spoke with Pillai about this experience as part of #FirstTimeIwasCalled – a series of interviews with high-profile Canadians about the first time they experienced racism or discrimination and how that experience affected them.
Pillai said the words caused him to struggle with his sexuality throughout his adolescence and he often felt like he needed to suppress who he was.
“I would keep very straight. I wouldn’t try to show off too much character as I was walking. I tried not to talk to anybody because I didn’t want to be noticed for the things that made me feminine. So I think I became very closed off,” Pillai said.
“I went into a shell and I wasn’t so social. I loved to talk but I didn’t talk at the same time because I was too afraid of what people would say when I did.”
He said that he grew up angry and that it would take years before he was able to embrace his sexuality.
WATCH: Daniel Pillai speaks about #FirstTimeIWasCalled
“It was the first time that I knew I was different and throughout my childhood, throughout my adolescence, throughout a lot of my early adulthood, it reminded me that I was different in a negative way,” he said.
In 2010, Pillai decided to abandon those feelings of negativity and came out as a gay man.
“I was so tired of being a bitter, miserable person,” he said.
“I loved Shania Twain and I wanted to just go off the rooftops and just talk about my love for Shania Twain, or I wanted to wrap that pink blazer, and I was so tired of being confined.”
Pillai, who works as a Canadian media personality, said he also took ownership of the term he/she and founded The He/She Project, a campaign meant to reclaim the phrase, he/she, and transform the meaning behind the words.
“I celebrate it, but it took a lot of work to be in that place of celebration,” he said.
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