They are queer, rural and proud, and they have been living a quiet and comfortable life in Lanark County — until now. On Saturday, June 18, the recently formed LGBT Lanark County group will hold their first Pride celebration in the small town of Perth.
Spokesperson Shelley Montreuil says the group was formed in response to the spate of teen suicides last year. She says that members were concerned that many teens saw suicide as a viable option for not being able to deal with their sexuality.
“We decided we needed to step up to the plate and start being a little loud so that the young people in the area would have some visible role models and a place to go to feel like they are not alone,” she says.
The LGBT Lanark group was set up in October 2010. Since then members have been flying the rainbow flag across the county.
“We wanted to reach out to youth on a broader scale. Being in a rural area, that provides a whole set of hurdles,” says Montreuil.
The group has teamed up with local community groups — the Youth Action Committee and Open Doors for Lanark Children and Youth — to offer workshops on diversity and to share knowledge.
“We are working to integrate the resources we are bringing to the table with their resources — they are opening their arms,” says Montreuil.
The group also plans to hold a dance to celebrate the occasion.
Montreuil is careful to emphasize that the LGBT Lanark group wants to do things differently, as they are in a rural community.
“It’s all about working together to promote a diverse community,” she says. “We have, from the beginning, always invited everyone to our dances and to our events. Every dance has had at least 25 percent people who are LGBT-associated, and they are just there to enjoy the dance.”
The group decided not to hold a Pride parade.
“The town has been so receptive, and just having Pride alone is kind of an overwhelming concept for people, so we just didn’t want to make ourselves unwelcome by pushing it that far that quickly,” says Montreuil.
But even having Pride Day has sent the town into a spiral of controversy.
Montreuil says she emailed Mayor John Fenik at an event-planning meeting to ask if he would proclaim Pride Day. Although the request caught Fenik by surprise, he did, making the announcement at a city council meeting on April 19.
“This is a pretty white, homogenous conservative community, and I guess I was a wee bit surprised, but I am also cognizant of the fact that we are in a day and age where, thankfully, this kind of stuff is no longer in the dark ages,” says Fenik. “It is positive, it is all about human rights, and I have always firmly believed that consenting adults have every right to practise their sexuality in whatever way they feel is appropriate for them.”
Although both Fenik and Montreuil say they have received a large amount of support for the day, there have been some negative reactions. Fenik has received a number of personal letters condemning him — and saying that he’s going to hell.
“This has probably stirred the most controversy — certainly in my time,” says Fenik. “I thought that this would have some discussion, but quite frankly, the surprising part was the degree of intensity… But if I had to do it again, I would do it in a heartbeat.”
Montreuil says that most of the negative press has not been around Pride Day but around the parade that they are not going to have. Instead the group has opted to integrate Pride with other events happening the same day, such as Doors Open Perth and Art in the Garden.
“We want to show appreciation for our community. We already feel the community accepts and appreciates us. We want to talk about it, and we want to make it a more cognitive experience for people,” says Montreuil.
Organizers approached businesses to ask if they would support Pride, either by displaying a rainbow flag sticker or advertising in the Pride handbill that will be distributed throughout Perth.
“That’s what it’s about — it’s a different take, and we are trying to get that message across to the community that we are not just going to come, blow you over, dance naked down the street and leave again until next year,” says Montreuil. “First of all — we’ve always been here.”
In the evening, the official Pride event will be a dance that is open to everyone; even the mayor and his wife say they will pop in for a beer.
For Fenik, Pride is an act of community building and a way of showing support for all his constituents.
“My bottom line on this is as mayor of the community, I represent all of the people of this town — regardless of race, colour, creed, sexual orientation. And as mayor I have made an oath and a promise to myself to defend and protect those citizens. That means everybody. So that’s why that proclamation was made.”