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Meet the straight woman queering Campbell River, BC

Why Heidi Cuff helped save Pride and create new space in a small coastal city

Heidi Cuff and a team of volunteers painted a rainbow crosswalk for Pride 2016 in Campbell River, BC, on the east coast of Vancouver Island. Credit: Courtesy Heidi Cuff

Heidi Cuff remembers the year Pride almost didn’t happen, at least in her part of the world.

Far from the sometimes lavish affairs of cities like Vancouver or Toronto, the blue-collar island town of Campbell River, BC had launched its inaugural Pride festival in 2015, aiming to do it their way. The fledgling event was small, described by some as “down-home” but honest. No corporate sponsorship, no floats: just queer folks celebrating their history and embracing their community.

Hoping to capitalize on last year’s success, organizers planned to make this year’s Pride event bigger. But a shakeup in the festival’s leadership left the event stalled, and, with only two months to go before Pride, there were fears that Campbell River’s first Pride festival might have been its last.

Among those who rose to shoulder responsibility for saving the festival was Heidi Cuff, program coordinator with the local theatre and a fervent champion of LGBT interests in Campbell River.

But unlike the other two who stepped in as stewards for North Island Pride 2016, Cuff identifies as neither queer nor questioning, which may seem a bit surprising given the list of victories she has tallied up for the queer community during her relatively short stay in town.

“I think for me, working in the arts and working in a theatre, I truly believe that we in arts have a responsibility [to] foster positive change in people’s lives. And the theatre that I work for is bright pink, so if anybody should be championing Pride and the LGBT community it should be the big pink theatre downtown,” she laughs.

The 39-year-old successfully petitioned city council to raise the Pride flag in the downtown core; she also organized drag shows and spearheaded the establishment of Campbell River’s first, albeit temporary, rainbow crosswalk.

Shaw TV North Island captured the painting of Campbell River’s temporary rainbow crosswalk in on June 23, 2016. (Courtesy Shaw TV North Island)

But for all the good work Cuff has done for the queer community in Campbell River, she certainly took her time getting there.

Raised in northern Ontario but originally hailing from California, Cuff spent most of her 20s in New York City, even working for a time as a personal shopper at the famed Saks Fifth Avenue. And though she speaks fondly of her time there, both she and her husband decided that if they were to raise a family, they needed a change.

While she cites the cost of living in the Big Apple as a factor in her move — she readily admits the cost of living in BC is hardly an improvement — ultimately, she says she fell in love with the island’s beauty, believing the laid-back pace of life in Campbell River to be more conducive to raising children than New York’s four-minute mile. Though she says she does find herself missing the city’s energy from time to time.

“Being there in my 20s, being single and going to school and, of course, being involved in theatre there was a lot to see and do,” she says.

As a child, Cuff’s love of the thespian arts took hold of her at an early age and never let go. The self-described drama geek credits the theatre, a historically inclusive space and one typically earmarked as being safe for exploration, with giving her motivation to make Campbell River more inclusive for the queer community.

“After the recent massacre in Orlando, I feel an even greater sense of urgency as a straight ally to champion and support [the] LGBTQ community any chance I get,” she adds.

The New York University alumnus has had queer friends her whole life, both inside and outside of the theatre — the majority of her makeup-artist friends at Saks Fifth Avenue were drag queens, she says.

Heidi Cuff at the photo booth in 7B, a bar on the edge of Tompkins Square Park in the East Village, a few blocks from one of her New York City apartments. (Courtesy Heidi Cuff)

Cuff says she has seen first-hand how difficult being queer can be without support from friends or family, which makes her fight for LGBT-friendly spaces even more important to her.

“To come to a small town, and discover that there was no sort of safe place or connectedness, felt really shocking after being in LA and New York for 10 years. So, I kind of felt a responsibility to try and put something together, to make something happen,” she says.

There’s another connection: Cuff’s birthday falls on Pride weekend, and every year she and her friends went to Pride in New York to celebrate. While her new home might be the furthest thing from the Big Apple, by her own account Campbell River was doing little to observe the day, and Cuff felt an itch to keep with tradition.

As the big pink theatre we should be hosting some drag or some burlesque. You know, something fun. And there just wasn’t a lot of that going on,” says Heidi Cuff, program coordinator at the Tidemark Theatre, above. (Courtesy Heidi Cuff)

So she tried to get in touch with the queer community. But after being directed and redirected between organizations, the underlying thread in all of their responses was there was little funding to support such a venture.

“Then I found out there was no queer-straight alliance in the schools, and the more I started digging, the more I was uncovering that there was this deficit in the community,” she says.

For Cuff, her discovery solidified the necessity of organizing some form of Pride day celebration, and when she came across a similarly-minded young woman who wanted to throw Campbell River’s first Pride festival, it seemed like fate.

“I said, ‘That’s fantastic. I’ve already booked this drag show. Let’s join forces,’” Cuff says.

But there were unexpected complications on her end, particularly when it came to the burlesque show’s turnout. It wasn’t that nobody showed up; just the opposite: Cuff had to turn people away. Why? Burlesque tends to be performed in bars for patrons 19 and over, and the majority of people who came out for North Island Pride were the town’s youth.

Youth like Sheldon Falk who, frustrated by an apparent lack of local queer representation and culture, hoped to spend a night in a comfortable setting with other queer folks — something they say is harder to find beyond the bright pink pillars of the Tidemark Theatre.

Sheldon Falk credits Heidi Cuff as a catalyst for change in Campbell River. (Supplied by Sheldon Falk)

Falk was raised in nearby Black Creek by a conservative Mennonite family in which support and education about sexual orientation were non-existent.

“I didn’t know what gay meant. I didn’t know a lot of those important things that are key to someone’s identity and I definitely — based on what I had been told when I was being raised — hated myself for quite a long time,” Falk says.

While Falk admits the severity of his upbringing is most likely the exception to the norm, the narrative of the area’s queer youth facing hardship because of their sexual orientations is not uncommon.

Jasmina Majcenic, a youth outreach worker with AIDS Vancouver Island, describes Campbell River as a city in transition.

The town is soon to offer fibre-optic internet in hopes of attracting tech startups but for the moment it remains blue-collar and homogenous. While some in the community say it has an underpinning of artistic flair, Majcenic says it’s also still very rural, adding that old-world mentalities abound and that Campbell River can be less than welcoming of diversity.

“Queer or people who are gender-variant have talked to me a lot about not feeling safe in Campbell River,” she says. “That’s the big one that comes up.”

Majcenic also describes visibility as a considerable hurdle to get across. A sizable chunk of Campbell River’s queer community is middle aged and older, she says, and their networks are extremely close-knit and underground. “So for the young people, they’re like, ‘Where’s the queers at?’”

Which is what made turning away eager but underage patrons to her burlesque show so difficult for Cuff. The youth who turned up were craving a genuine slice of queer culture they weren’t able to find any other day of the year.

But that’s changing.

North Island Pride is applying for non-profit status, bringing grant funding for queer youth programming, like harm reduction through art, within reach. Majcenic, the organization’s chair, explains the goal is to make these programs and spaces accessible year-round.

“Pride is one day, but we’re queer every day of our lives,” she says, adding that events like Heidi’s drag and burlesque shows — now all ages — have affected the lives of the queer youth she works with. “I can’t even describe how special it was for them. It was huge.”

Jasmina Majcenic says Campbell River can be less than welcoming of diversity, but that may be starting to change. (Supplied by Jasmina Majcenic)

So when North Island Pride 2016 found itself stuck in limbo, it seemed only natural that Falk, Majcenic and Cuff would volunteer to steer her back on course. None of them claimed it was easy, but all three agree their efforts were worthwhile.

Falk, now North Island Pride’s treasurer, vows to continue planning events as a means of starting community dialogues.

He says he hopes to spare kids being raised in similar situations what he went through, and show them instead that it’s perfectly fine to be who you are.

“And I certainly hope that Heidi is a big part of that going forward,” he says reverently, calling Cuff a catalyst for the recent changes in Campbell River, and a driving force for good.

Cuff continues to insist she’s merely a card-carrying member of North Island Pride, seemingly uncomfortable with the praise her colleagues readily shower upon her.

“I’m blessed to be surrounded by such dedicated people,” she offers. But despite what she says, when the mothers of queer or questioning kids feel out of their depth, it’s still Cuff they call for advice.

For now, Cuff is back to business as usual. With a successful Pride in the books, all that’s left to do is clean up, keep pushing and plan for next year.

And while downtown Campbell River’s rainbow crosswalk — painted by volunteers with donated supplies — only lasted for Pride weekend, Cuff isn’t bothered. It existed, if only for a moment, unapologetic and for everyone to see.

“This is so much bigger than me,” she says, “so much bigger, even, than this event. Now that we’ve started, we can’t stop.”