It’s hard to believe the outgoing man with the bright smile and big personality, who knowingly greets the baristas at the local coffee shop and exudes self-confidence, was bullied so badly as a teenager he tried to kill himself.
But for 28-year-old Harrison Oakes his past is what drives him to learn all he can about bullying and to be a leader in anti-bullying research.
“When I share my personal story of my bullying I went through as a teenager in high school and then I tell kids…how I’m turning around and doing everything I can to help people, they get really inspired,” Oakes says.
In collaboration with the Family Channel and PREVNet (a network of researchers committed to bullying prevention), Oakes authored a teachers’ guide that was distributed across the country for last year’s Bullying Awareness Week.
He also frequently speaks on the subject of anti-bullying and often shares his personal story, which he describes as “less than optimal.”
At the age of 12 his family moved from Manitoba to southwestern Ontario, where his parents started a church.
As a gay teen in a small town Oakes was bullied relentlessly, which eventually led to a suicide attempt.
“I struggled with depression and the idea that I wouldn’t make anything of myself.”
Oakes saw what he believed to be inherent hypocrisy within the church – members of the congregation acting one way while in church, and another the rest of the week.
He was also sexually abused by a member of his parents’ congregation. When he came forward with the allegations, his parents kicked him out. He then jumped from place to place, ending up in foster care for a time.
“Trying to find a way through that at the age of 15 can be tough,” he says.
It was then he decided to “strive to live on the outside the way I was on the inside.” This has led to his lifelong motto – requiro verum.
“To me, it represents ‘to emphasize and seek out truth’,” he says. He has the Latin phrase tattooed on his back.
Amongst others, Oakes was recently profiled in the Winnipeg Free Press about his support for Bill 18, the province’s anti-bullying bill. The bill has proven controversial as it allows for Gay-Straight Alliances to be formed in all schools, including faith-based institutions.
Although it is strange to see his life laid bare in the public arena, Oakes believes it is vital to put a real face to the debate and to the issues.
“It was important just to show how detrimental LGBT bullying can get…so we need a bill to address this.”
“It feels good. As satisfying as doing the research can be, it’s more satisfying to see the information getting to those that need it.”
You can read more about Harrison Oakes in this month’s Working Together magazine, published by The Winnipeg Foundation.