Ottawa
3 min

Finding community in the country

Being out and proud in rural Ottawa

Credit: Capital Xtra files

It’s been six years since we bought a summer house in a small Renfrew County town. At first we were nervous. How would people react to two gay men taking up residence? We appear to be accepted in the village and nearby communities. But we are middle-aged men not living there full-time. What about gays and lesbians who grew up or live in the county?



Last year, a local paper carried an article about the formation of Pride Renfrew, a community group for GLBT people in the county. Affiliated with the advocacy groups PFLAG and Egale Canada, Pride Renfrew provides opportunities for county queers to connect.



I posted an announcement on their website asking individuals to speak about their experience. Two replied – Scott, a 35-year-old health worker, raised and living in Arnprior and Amelia, a 19-year-old raised in Burnstown, a short distance from Renfrew, where she now lives and works in a pizzeria.



Scott has been out for a number of years. As a teenager, he faced discrimination from fellow students. He stays in Arnprior because that is where his work is and he is only 35 minutes from Ottawa, where he frequently travels. But although he now feels little discrimination, there is a sense of isolation.



“To my peers, my gayness makes no difference,” Scott told me. “To younger people, it is cool. There are other gay people in this town but they are older, reticent about being open or claim they are bisexual. There is still a belief here if you are gay, you’re a pedophile. It is difficult to meet someone. People from urban centres don’t want to move to a small town.”



Amelia came out at 16 in high school. Students had written “fag” on her locker, left her incriminating notes. In response, she said she was bisexual because it seemed easier. But when guys asked her out, she couldn’t do it. A depression followed, until, through counselling, she learned to accept who she was.



“I had to learn to say fuck it. I couldn’t be what traditional culture wanted me to be,” she said. “There are other gays and lesbians in Renfrew, but they’re in the closet. When I am faced with homophobia, I confront the people on it. I try and get them to be more accepting of diversity. I find people curious to learn more about the gay community. They ask a lot of questions.”



Although Amelia participates in gay and lesbian marches, her main focus is with peace groups. These groups, with an emphasis on politics, welcome diversity. She feels at home with them.



The mention of Pride Renfrew made Scott bristle. He feels it pushes too hard on same-sex marriage, a non-issue for young people. Pride Renfrew, he stresses, needs to move beyond a website with a discussion group. Its members need to meet and determine what their common goals are.



Amelia felt she was the only gay person until she read about Pride Renfrew, went home and Googled it. But rather than connecting her to others, she feels the internet allows only superficial communication. However, she is thankful for the efforts of Peter O’Rourke, who single-handedly oversees Pride Renfrew.



Peter is a 45 year-old bisexual, married for the past 22 years. Originally from Toronto, he’s lived in the town of Calabogie for 11 years. Pride Renfrew started in bits and pieces. Having begun a local chapter of Canadians for Equal Marriage and PFLAG, Peter brought it all together as Pride Renfrew, an umbrella group. There are about 50 members, half of whom he knows personally.



“Renfrew County is a large geographic area,” Peter told me. “In urban areas with more queer people, it’s easy to create distinct interest groups. In rural areas, we remain an invisible minority. Pride Renfrew is trying to be all things to all people. It is a challenge.”



But he pointed out that even in rural areas progress is being made. Pride Renfrew has made presentations to town councils, school boards and health clinics. He counselled one young gay student to speak to his high school principal about bringing his same-sex partner to the prom. The principal welcomed the couple, as did fellow students to the after-grads party.



He acknowledged that there is a need to move Pride Renfrew forward. An annual general meeting will be held on Thu, Sep 16 to discuss common issues. But he points out the organization needs to be led by someone willing to lend his or her name to the cause.



“Peter has been facing a lot of putdowns,” Amelia said. “Since Stonewall, the gay community has come far but in the rural areas we need to keep on moving. We will only flourish when there is acceptance of diversity and freedom.”



For more information on Pride Renfrew, e-mail Pride-Renfrew@Canada.com or visit www.renc.igs.net/~orourkes/-pride_renfrew/portal/.