A little understanding goes a long way

🕔Sep 23, 2009

Shane Parker told his best friend he was gay in Grade 7.

“I told him in confidence, but then he told everyone,” says the 21-year-old Terrace resident. “It was a death sentence, essentially. When Grade 8 came around, I was an outcast. All of a sudden I was ‘the enemy.’”

As a result of his honesty, Parker’s teenage years were full of bullying, razzing, and name-calling—physical, verbal and emotional abuse from his peers. “This entire image was pushed on me,” Parker explains. “It was so isolating. I just had to take it.”

Not surprisingly, Parker suffered from loneliness and low self-esteem. At one point he became suicidal and was sent to the hospital for depression.

Though he has become more comfortable with who he is and whom he can trust, Parker still deals with the emotional affects of his experiences today. He still deals with prejudice too.
Earlier this year, while leaving Terrace’s only nightclub, Parker and his partner were beat up. Their assailants shouted derogatory remarks about the couple’s sexuality as they punched and kicked.

“It was a hate crime,” Parker says, with no doubt in his mind.
Parker’s nightmarish coming-out story and its aftermath is not everyone’s tale, but it’s not necessarily uncommon either.

Common experience
His feelings of being different—with its consequential alienation—are pretty standard for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in Northern BC.

Patrick Levesque, 28, was born and raised in Terrace. He left to go to university in Victoria and now lives in Vancouver, where he sells his own line of skincare products for men and writes for homorazzi.com, a gossip column for gay men.

Levesque waited until he was moving south to admit to a couple friends in Terrace that he was gay.

“I didn’t have anyone I knew of that I could relate to in Terrace. I had grown up in Terrace as a teenager hiding that part, questioning it myself,” Levesque explains.

Jen Jones, 26, was born in Terrace but moved away and back a few times while growing up. She identified herself as a lesbian when she was 17 while living in Williams Lake. A housemate overheard her on the phone with a help line in California, and at that point she decided there was no use denying it.

“Some people were assholes about it,” she says, “but there’s assholes everywhere.”

Jones puts it candidly. “There’s no resources whatsoever for gay people in Northern BC. You’d think you could have at least one gay resource.”

As soon as Jones came out of the closet, she started working on forming a gay-straight alliance in her school. These alliances aim to educate the school community about homophobia, gender identity, and sexual orientation issues in an effort to fight discrimination and create a safe environment. She even appeared in the town’s newspaper promoting the idea, but her efforts didn’t pan out.

“Schools generally don’t want to get involved,” she says. She believes educational institutions are worried about the reaction of parents, especially religious ones.

Though heavily debated, a commonly held best guess is that 10 percent of the general population is homosexual. Living in northern communities, however, this may be hard to believe as most residents don’t know who is or isn’t gay.

“Lots of people are scared to speak up,” Levesque says.

“Lots of people are still in the closet trying to fit in,” adds Parker. “It’s fearful, definitely fearful. It’s easier to not talk about it.”

And Jones believes elder, more established gay residents don’t want to rock the boat. “They don’t realize they sort of have a responsibility to create a supportive, safe environment for the younger population.”

Levesque thinks education is necessary to heighten awareness and acceptance. “There needs to be a lot of education and understanding so people don’t judge you and put you in a category and ostracize you,” he says. “So many times people said I was the first gay person they knew. I felt really good about being that person…opening their eyes.”

He suggests schools host speakers that address issues of sexuality.
“They could show that the gay people are your brother, your sister, successful business owners, your best friends, the number one talk-show host on TV (Ellen DeGeneres),” he says. “They could do an exercise that puts you in a gay person’s shoes.”

Although Parker can only presume his teachers knew what was happening to him, none stood up for him or talked to him about it. He believes a closer teacher-student rapport could open dialogue so students wouldn’t be scared to talk.

“I just needed one person to tell me it was okay, that I was normal,” he says.

Pride of the North
Prince George, northern BC’s largest city, does have several gay organizations. Pride Prince George plays host to the largest gay pride celebrations in northern BC including its annual Pride Parade, Snowflake Ball, and Hero Awards. The organization aims to bring the community together in a safe and positive environment.

Valentine Crawford, president of the Prince George Pride Society since 2003, estimates past parade numbers at 300 or so participants. “But this year we had 500 to 550.”

Also, for the first time in its 13-year history, local unions, organizations and businesses sponsored the parade, showing acceptance and support from the general population. “We don’t know what happened this year, but the overwhelming response we’ve received from Pride 2009 is incredible,” Crawford continues.

“It’s been about building. In a small town, you can’t just drop a bomb. There has to be that education.”

The progress that has been made in Prince George is encouraging. Still, similar to the rest of Northern BC, the city also lacks a go-to support group and resource centre for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people.

It’s at the top of the list of priorities, Crawford says, but many barriers still exist including lack of leadership and funding.
“There’s been a serious inability to set up a centre because we don’t have a staff person to coordinate it, and we don’t have an office,” he explains. “All the gay and lesbian organizations are run from people’s homes. It’s very ineffective.”

The situation is especially concerning, Crawford says, when young people dealing with intense questions and emotions ask for help and he has nowhere to direct them.

Another challenge in bringing the gay community together, as in any community, is the diversity among the group. It can be hard anywhere to find people who share your interests, and this is especially true in small towns because of their lower populations. Being gay is just one more factor to consider.

Most importantly, just because two people are gay, doesn’t necessarily mean they are alike. “In a smaller community you don’t feel you fit in anywhere,” Crawford says. “It happens to heterosexuals too.”

The diversity makes it hard to bring people together for a cause. It’s also a factor in developing real friendships, as well as more intimate relationships. 
Even a gay person who has full support and acceptance from family and friends can still feel alone in the north due to the lack of a life partner.

“It is pretty much a death kiss for a single queer person,” Jones says.

Jen Jones wants to live in a small northern BC town, though she left Terrace for Victoria last year for an excellent job opportunity. She moved for her career, but was relieved in other ways too.“I like being here in Victoria, but a big part of my decision to leave was the recognition that by staying up north I would probably be consigning myself to perpetual bachelorhood.”

She hates that some people might expect her to move to a big city though, just because she doesn’t fit the mould of a typical small-town girl.

Parker expresses the same feelings about staying put in Terrace. “It’s my home too. I’m entitled to be there just like anyone else.”
When Levesque reflects on his fears of coming out in Terrace, he wonders if he was just as guilty of prejudging others as they might have been with him. “The stereotype of small towns is that everyone is a bunch of hicks,” he says. But no one treated him differently when he came out.

He thinks it’s because he was finally comfortable and confident with himself. “More people are there for you than you think,” he concludes.