We queers think cities are so great. Nowadays most urban Canadian straight people seem to accept us without blinking. Straight city people accept that their neighbour is gay like they accept, say, the unusual cooking smells emanating from the apartment next door. We’re all different, we’re all the same, c’est la vie, so long as they don’t make me eat what they’re cooking.
Whether urban people like something or not, they usually just suck it up. That’s tolerance and urban people can tolerate a lot. For example, while nobody would tolerate a shooting in their own neighbourhood, it’s possible that they could very well tolerate a shooting on the other side of the city. They might not like it or choose it for themselves, but they can deal with it.
So urbanites look down at rural and small-town Canadians because they don’t seem to be able to tolerate things as well. Rural Canadians seem to squawk every time queers make any advance, seemingly prepared to fight us over every little thing. Our image of hell looks something like Drumheller, Alberta with Ralph Klein as the devil.
In Prince Edward Island, where I’m from, the provincial government dragged its feet in changing its forms to permit same-sex marriage. (PEI’s first same-sex marriage eventually happened on Aug 19, between two men from California who were married by a PEI minister.)
Back in 2000, a PEI bed and breakfast owner refused to rent a room to two men who wanted to share a bed together. (The B&B owner eventually lost a human rights complaint by the couple.) PEI is devoid of much aboveground gay life and, if you wanted to do some reading, you’d be lucky to find three-month-old copies of Wayves, Atlantic Canada’s gay and lesbian paper, hidden in the back corner of a sympathetic bookstore in downtown Charlottetown.
But the thing is that since gay liberation burst onto the scene in the late 1960s, our social advances and increased legal recognition in this country have progressed with a speed that no one could have predicted. Canadians who live outside Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal and Ottawa (and Calgary?) are not so much regressive as they are a few paces behind their cosmopolitan counterparts. Urbanites have forgotten they weren’t so accepting, oh, three years ago.
There’s a strangely positive side to this lag. For rural people, tolerance usually isn’t good enough. The interdependence of life in a rural community, the small circles of people available for socializing and the gossip mill all mean that no neighbour is, as in Toronto, just “that guy next door who might be gay.” Rural people need to fit their neighbours into the social matrix: who is related to who, where they’re from, what they do for a living, where they buy their groceries and which church they attend. There’s no safety zone of “Don’t go there.” All that is a much bigger commitment for straight people than mere tolerance. When a minister from the countryside shows up to marry you, you know you’ve won over a good friend.
This bar of acceptance is so high that it’s tough for queer people who live in the sticks. To come out is an invitation to scrutiny. Many queer people just stay closeted or else flee to big cities, leaving their families and friends to believe that gay people don’t exist among them, so there’s no need to stretch their social matrices.
I really don’t know how to make it easier for rural people to come out – social excommunication is a palpable punishment – but when they do, the rewards can be rich. Coming out to a rural person is a “Really?” compared to an urban person’s “Whatever.”
Last month one of my relatives in the Maritimes started to talk about his niece and her “friend,” but then corrected himself and said “partner.” A Toronto-nian might roll his eyes and wonder why he mispoke in the first place. But If we’re measuring social progress, I think my relative’s “partner” is worth 10 times more than an urban person’s use of the word.
At this rate, the Maritimes will soon be the best place in Canada for out queer people to live. That’s if you measure “soon” in decades.