In the film Brokeback Mountain, Alberta stands in for Wyoming. The mountains, the big sky, the casual homophobia. Wyoming and Alberta are similar, but Alberta’s priced in Canadian dollars. Alberta also has great skiing, so this spring, as the country song says, I found myself “Alberta Bound.”
In my consciousness, Alberta is home of the Conservatives. I lived in Alberta briefly in 1990. The town I lived in had the highest ratio of men to women of anywhere in Canada — not just my opinion, Statistics Canada says so. While you might think of that as a gay heaven, it didn’t work that way. The white men in town were either big men from the oil fields, or big men in the military and everyone was out to prove their heterosexuality. It had the most aggressively unpleasant bar culture I had ever seen. People got beaten up for suggesting that someone was gay.
This time around I was nervous about living the cinematic mix of Brokeback Mountain meets Boys Don’t Cry. I suppose it could be a sequel to TransAmerica — TransCanada: Tranny Boy On Skis. I was nervous, on my guard and ready to be defensive.
Alberta failed to live up to my fears. While not exactly sensitive, most people weren’t homophobic either.
Take the graffiti inside the men’s washroom in the youth hostel in Lake Louise. It read, “Did you hear the one about the gay midget? He came out of the cupboard.” I laughed. When I came home I repeated it to friends.
I shared a dorm room in the hostel with three young straight guys from Calgary, who asked if I had a boyfriend, or girlfriend. No judgment, just making conversation. Telling them I was queer got “cool” as a response. Where they changed didn’t change; the room remained comfortable and friendly.
I tend to keep my ID close to my chest so to speak, but air travel and the like necessitates showing it to others. At the airport there were no problems. I checked into the men’s dorm in the hostel: female ID, tranny-boy body — no problem. At the liquor store things went smoothly. Ontario doesn’t treat me this well. Perhaps they have learnt not to mess with boys named Sue and his female-named brothers.
In the lineup for the chair-lift I overheard two kids behind me discussing Brokeback Mountain. They looked like hardcore snowboarder guys and I listened in, ready to step in and give them a schooling. They didn’t need it. They discussed the movie. They thought the story was a bit slow, and that there could have been more action. They thought there should have been more sex.
Just as I was getting comfortable, I shared a table with strangers at a buffet. The woman sitting next to me began with, “I’m not homophobic, but….” She looked at me and continued, “But I think this gay marriage thing goes too far.” I hear the line, “I’m not homophobic, but…” as “I’m homophobic and uncomfortable with my own views.” I also took it as an invitation to further conversation. I talked about couples I knew, about kids I knew, and by the end of the conversation she agreed that all couples should have the right to marry, even her lesbian cousin.
I caught a lift back to the Calgary Airport with the Rocky Mountain Sky Shuttle. It was me and three het couples on the shuttle and the driver was in a chatty mood. I listened as he complained about antismoking laws and told sexist stories about women. The het couples continued talking with him and expressed no concerns. Then he got on to the issue of “those gays” and the nature of the law. The bus got quiet. He seemed not to notice and continued about how angry he was about how they (the gays) took over the last election with “gay marriage.” The het couples intervened. They disagreed with him and shut him up.
As the plane took off from Calgary they played Paul Brandt’s “Alberta Bound,” the chorus describing Alberta as “this piece of heaven that I found.” I wouldn’t go that far, but it wasn’t the hell I expected.
As I write, however, I am reminded of why Alberta has a redneck homophobic reputation. A bill that would deny same-sex couples the right to make discrimination complaints to the Alberta Human Rights Commission managed to pass second reading. Will the couples on the bus, the boys in the hostel, the woman at the buffet, the snowboarders take a stand against such a bill? I expect not. It is one thing to say to someone else in person that you support their human rights, it is another thing to stand up and tell a homophobic government gay people are okay. Until the Albertans I met, and others who think like them do, the legal situation for queers in Alberta will remain rocky.