When Justin Bisson was growing up in the Cariboo town of Quesnel, he felt “like a freak” in high school. He didn’t know he was gay — in fact, until a particular Melrose Place episode, he didn’t even know what “gay” was — but being different made him a target for brutal bullying.
Around the same time, Quesnel high school counsellor Chris Kempling was spouting anti-gay propaganda in the local newspaper and on radio and endorsing so-called “conversion therapy” for gay people.
Kempling was suspended by the BC College of Teachers in 2003, had an appeal based on free expression rejected by the courts, ran unsuccessfully for federal election in 2010 and has since dropped off the public radar.
Bisson went to university, came out, became a high school teacher in Delta and will head to Quesnel next month with his husband and two sons to speak at the town’s first gay Pride celebration.
In a coincidence that is probably not such a coincidence in a small community, the parade and festival is being organized by a teacher who was very close to Bisson and his family growing up.
Angie Heenan has been teaching in Quesnel for 25 years. She defines herself as “straight but not narrow” and took it upon herself, after seeing a generation of kids like Justin suffer in the school system, to make a change in Quesnel.
Last year she went to town council to seek permission for a Pride parade. Council approved in January and a new organization, Quesnel Pride, has since been formed. Quesnel’s first Pride celebration takes place Saturday, June 6.
“There’s a very young, enthusiastic group involved with the society,” says Heenan, who will hand over the organizing reins to Quesnel Pride next year. She now teaches adults and alternative high school, but her experiences years ago drove her to launch the Pride event.
“When I was teaching high school back in the ’90s, there were kids who were just so fearful and had to move away just to be themselves,” she says. Now, the city council and the school board are very supportive, she says. Still, nobody is quite sure what to expect in a town with a bit of a cowboy reputation.
“I think Quesnel’s ready for this event,” Heenan says. “It’s going to be interesting. We just really don’t know what the day is going to bring us — but I think it’s going to be a great, fun day.”
There will be a march through town beginning at 2pm, then a festival in the park, with live music, food and drink, and a couple of speeches — from Bisson and from Vancouver West End MLA Spencer Chandra Herbert, among others.
Bisson got involved when he heard about plans for Pride in his hometown — and was even more thrilled when he found out Heenan was behind it. Heenan was a teacher-leader on a European trip Bisson took in high school, and the two hit it off. When Bisson was in university, his father died suddenly and Heenan was a pillar of support for Bisson’s younger brother and the whole family at that time.
“I was very proud of Angie for taking on the role of trying to get something like that going in that community,” Bisson says. “To hear of that happening — a Pride parade — it just made me think about my time there and growing up and some of the things that I had to overcome.”
Bisson met his partner, Robert Madden, in 2003 and they married in 2008. Last January, the two boys they are adopting, ages 11 and six, moved in with them. They hope the adoption will be finalized this fall.
“I feel really happy,” Bisson says. “I feel a sense of happiness for the kids that are growing up there now and having a whole bunch of support systems in place for them that I didn’t have. I feel really good about going back and sharing my story and showing them that sometimes life sucks and sometimes you do get beaten down but it does get better.”
The Pride parade has particular resonance in a town that was once home to one of BC’s most notoriously anti-gay school counsellors. Heenan doesn’t think the school district today would tolerate anti-gay letters from a counsellor.
“I think that’s how far we’ve come in such a short time,” she says. “A counsellor would not be able to publish anything like that in the newspaper now.”
She remembers the impact Kempling’s anti-gay stance had on students. “I think most certainly kids felt that they could not come out comfortably in the high school,” she says. “How could they go see him? It was a very negative impact. People still talk about it.”