To many, small towns represent the idyllic dream. Popular culture shows them as brightly lit Main Streets flanked by small, family-run shops filled with smiling and loving people. Parents often talk about moving away from the city to a small town to raise their children—a place that’s safe and far from the corrupting influence of the cities.
Small towns are often not how television portrays them. Shocking, I know, that pop culture would lie to us! Some small towns are hotbeds of racism, homophobia and general ignorance for those different from the “norm,” meaning white and straight. They’re basically a modern version of the 1950s. Growing up in a small town can be a challenging experience when you’re openly queer, or trying to keep your queerness hidden. Sometimes staying in the closet is all that keeps you safe. Frequently, stories come out about gay students being beaten or kicked out of their homes. But surely that doesn’t happen in Canadian rural areas? For many people, high school is a time of self-discovery and coming into oneself. This can be an exciting and life-affirming time, but for members of the queer community, it can be a time of stress and ostracism.
…certain members have even tried to get them fired from their teaching post for corrupting children
Peter, who is genderqueer and gynesexual, admits that growing up they were confused about their thoughts and preferences. “I was very aware that I didn’t fit the stereotypes or expectations for ‘male’—my interests and preferences were a mix of the two genders that I was aware of.”
Peter currently lives and teaches in what they call the “Bible Belt” of southern Manitoba and has had many negative experiences with members of the community there. “Condemnation is relatively easy to find, usually from certain Evangelical Christians who have ‘given’ me bible verses that said I should be murdered,” Peter says. They add that certain members have even tried to get them fired from their teaching post for corrupting children, simply because of their gender. They say that the community has the expectation that such identities should be out of sight and mind.
Peter stresses the importance of allies in these kinds of communities and urges people who are supportive of people in the GLBT community to be more vocal with their support, but to be cautious at the same time. Peter and their wife regularly get asked why they still live in the community considering how people act. It is their belief that if they leave, there will be less safety for other people in the community, and that the queer population needs all the support it can get.
Jocelyn, who is bisexual, had varied expe- riences in high school. For her first year, she felt accepted. Then her family moved to a small town in the prairies. She never really came out, but people eventually discovered that she wasn’t straight. “Some guys tried pushing me into same- sex relationships so they could watch, and the girls thought that I was checking them out in the change rooms and would tell the teacher. Eventually, I started get- ting changed in a separate room.”
Jocelyn never had a traditional coming out, she says. “I’ve always just been me.” She spent part of her growing years in Ontario, where she says everyone she knew was open-minded and accepting. Everything changed when she moved to the prairies. People, once they found out, would give her funny looks and act awkward around her. Her best friend, a girl, would always remind Jocelyn that she was straight and to not hit on her when they hung out.
Suffice it to say, they have been drift- ing apart. Her mom, who raised Jocelyn after a divorce, has always accepted it, but her mom’s current boyfriend is ex- tremely homophobic and makes Jocelyn feel uncomfortable. Her grandmother, whom she is close with, doesn’t accept or believe in same-sex relationships. Even when Jocelyn was dating her now ex-girlfriend, her grandmother would never recognize the relationship. She says people accept half of who she is, not all of her.
Preston, who is gay, never came out dur- ing high school, and admits that he was well-liked by his peers. He did take part in the teasing of others, a fact he regrets because he knows that he hurt them. “I sort of even took part in some name call- ing,” Preston says. “I did it to fit in and to maybe help mask my own sexuality.”
Preston grew up in a small town in Saskatchewan. He came out after mov- ing to a city. Homophobic slurs were commonly heard in his Saskatchewan school’s hallways, and he felt safer not letting people know. He didn’t have any supports in the area, and didn’t know of any other gay students, or even adults, whom he could speak with.
“I really can’t think of any positives to growing up gay in such a rural town,” he says. Since he’s come out, he says that no one has treated him any differently. In fact, his sisters and their friends have stopped using the word “gay” as an in- sult, and made others stop using it. Two of his sisters even walked in the Calgary Pride Parade with Preston in 2015.
His mother took a while to come to an understanding and told him not to tell his dad until she had processed the news. She would ask him if he was sure, and say that she “really wanted grandkids.” She eventually accepted it, but Preston still had not told his father. He eventually did, through a drunk text, and his dad told him that he loved Preston and was proud of him. Preston described his com- ing out as opening the closet door and no one was there, so he just came out and no one really noticed or cared.
Samantha, who is panromantic asexual and recently had her final transition surgery, recalls that her community had no role models or education about different sexualities or genders. High school was a rough time for her as she was bullied fairly regularly and could barely focus on herself during this crucial period. “I learned to avoid bringing attention to myself and just get through the day.”
Samantha grew up and currently resides in a religious area of Manitoba. She says this has affected her personal life. Her extremely religious family has told her “that the self-disparaging voices in (her) head were demons.” When they found out she was getting transition surgery, they said they would pray to pre- vent it. Her family has told her if she lives a life that’s acceptable by their religious standards, they would accept her back into the fold.
“I’ve never figured out what they personally think of me, but I don’t really care,” Samantha says. “I don’t think they can accept that I’m happier without them.” After she came out, her co- workers treated her as a joke, and some terrible things were said. “I think they were all expecting me to give into pres- sure and go back in the closet.” Despite everything that’s happened since she’s come out, Samantha plans to continue living a life that’s true to who she is. “Once I experienced the freedom of being myself, I couldn’t give it up.”
It’s not worth hiding. You can’t be happy hiding who you are.
You can’t be happy hiding who you are.”
“It’s not worth hiding. You can’t be happy hiding who you are,” Jocelyn says. Samantha says you should never stop want- ing to learn about yourself and understanding who you are. “When you feel like you can’t find any support or resources to get the help you need, don’t give up, they are out there,” Samantha says. Peter thinks people need to decide for themselves what is right and save for them in terms of being open about their identity. “Tell a friend first that you know won’t care; their support and love really means a lot,” Preseton says.
Life in small towns can be challenging and stressful for members of the queer community, whatever ate one may be. It’s saddening to see how close-minded and hostile some of these prairie towns can be toward the queer community, while being so accepting and friendly toward tourists. Canada, as a nation, projects an image of love and acceptance to the world, while ignorance and mistrust fester in some of its small towns. This is something that can be changed, and it is something that has already begun to change. There’s still a long way to go toward true equality and acceptance, but we can do it.
Zak Hiscock is an asexual writer and vlogger living in Saskatchewan. You can nd his vlogs at: youtube.com/shran100, and follow him on Twitter @zakitudevlogs.