“I think it’s important that the people who are technically leading our city recognize that there is a queer community and support us, and I think that’s what they’re doing,” says 22-year-old Jen Granneman.
Granneman is watching the rainbow flag raising at Port Alberni’s city hall, Jun 23. Beside her stands her 18-year-old sister, Christa.
“Freedom is important,” says the younger Granneman, emphasizing the importance of being out in her hometown. “That way you’re not hiding part of yourself that you shouldn’t have to hide.”
“This is the third year the city’s said, ‘yes, we’ll declare Pride Day in Port Alberni,” notes Antonia Botting. The 53-year-old Botting is a rarity here–an out, adult queer activist in this small logging/ lumber town in the middle of Vancouver Island. She’s been mentoring the town’s queer youth as a facilitator for the Wilde Youth drop-in ever since she helped revive the old Youthquest group seven years ago.
This is Christa’s first time asking her city councillors for a Pride Day proclamation. “That was definitely exciting and I thought it was really neat because everybody there was really supportive.”
“We were very well received,” Jen agrees.
Botting recalls what happened the first time the group approached city hall for the proclamation: “Christians brought petitions to the next council meeting. They got 96 signatures saying ‘you shouldn’t do that,'” Botting rolls her eyes.
The youth felt a need to respond, she continues. “They wrote a letter to council saying, ‘Thank you for doing this and having the courage to stand behind your citizens.’ And we got 150 people to sign that one,” she grins. “City council is a pretty okay group of people.”
The youth decided to ask for the proclamation because, says Jen, “there is a pretty large gay community here, we want to do it, and because nobody else is doing it, so why not?”
Though there are a few publicly out gay adults in town, they’re not organized into a visible, cohesive community like the youth.
Allan Wright tried to change that five years ago. The 55-year-old ran a newspaper ad with his phone number, calling all local lesbians and gay men to monthly social meetings. “The young people had Youthquest,” Wright points out. “We needed something similar for adults.”
He worried about the public reaction to his ad but “ultimately I thought it would be worth what adversity comes with it because there are times you just have to go out on a limb and take some risks.”
Monthly meetings attracted six to 10 people and created a small, temporary queer network in Port Alberni. “It got things started. People connected,” Wright recalls.
But the meetings didn’t last long.
“Many members didn’t really have issues, they’d been out for a long time so they didn’t really need a support group,” he explains.
Recently Wright pulled his name from the ad. He says he just doesn’t feel he’s political enough to run with it any longer. The ad, now managed by another member, runs with only an e-mail address.
“The thing with our adults is that there isn’t a political desire to go to city hall and put the gay flag up and that sort of thing,” he reflects. “The kids do it, and that’s fine.
“It’s not that they’re afraid to be seen,” Wright continues, referring to the adults. “It’s just that they don’t have the desire to get involved in that way, I guess.”
Jen doesn’t buy it. “I think fear is a big issue for the adult people in this town,” she states.
Botting agrees. “In terms of a happening little gay community, it’s tough and it’s kind of closety and it’s frightened,” she says. “I talk to people who are frightened. Not just kids. Especially not the kids. The kids are cool.”
Jen and Christa’s brother, Dan Granneman, 21, is also in Wilde Youth. The siblings all came out in their teens. None of them lives at home anymore. They were a little reluctant to talk about their family’s reaction to all of them being queer. Suffice it to say that mom was okay with it and dad a little less so.
“In a small town, if one person comes out, it makes more of a difference than one person in the giant city,” says Dan. “And the fact that there are some out people in a small town like this, it makes it relevant.”
Dan says he didn’t take a lot of heat in high school for being gay. “I kind of lucked out, I don’t know exactly how. I never got a lot of it. I would maybe have people drive by and yell ‘fag’ or whatever. It was never really a big thing. No one would actually come up to you and say it.”
Christa says she hasn’t experienced homophobia directed at her in her hometown, either. Still, she says, “you hear stuff like ‘fag’ and people making fun of other people and calling them gay and stuff all the time.”
Erin Dale, 31, has lived in Port Alberni for three years. She and her partner discovered the town of nearly 20,000 after planting trees nearby. “We thought this town was kind of a hole,” she laughs, but on a whim she applied for a cabinet-making course here and was accepted.
“Houses were really cheap so we bought one, and we didn’t know anybody at all,” she says.
Her only homophobic confrontation so far was outside a bar one night; it ended in an apology. Dale was smoking a cigarette with a friend when she overheard a man’s voice swearing about “that fucking big dyke over there.”
“I had been drinking a little bit and realized this could get ugly,” says Dale, “but I went over and said, ‘um, excuse me, actually I’m quite a small dyke.’ And I walked away.”
One of the man’s friends later approached Dale to apologize. “That’s not what I expected,” says Dale, adding “I don’t generally feel unsafe here.”
The degree of homophobia in Port Alberni has dissipated in the past decade, says bookstore owner John Templeman. The 52-year-old is one of the few publicly out business owners in town. He says he has occasionally been the target of homophobia in the 15 or so years since he moved here from Victoria.
Templeman recalls the spring of 1994: “Someone heaved a rock through the [bookstore] window and yelled ‘fags’ and drove off. Later on that year I remember a school bus going by with a whole bunch of kids hanging out the windows [yelling] ‘faggots, kill the faggots.’ The front doors were wide open and I had a customer in the store and she was shocked that could happen in her community.”
“We don’t have much of a gay clientele,” he continues. “There are not a lot of openly gay people in Port Alberni.”
Templeman sighs, but he’s done hiding. He came out of the closet when he was 42 years old. Today, the young people describe him as a role model, an example of being openly gay and successful at the same time.
“Port Alberni was always kind of a redneck place,” says Duane Mottle, 42, “but it’s better than it used to be. More open-minded people live here now. People are more educated, aware, and not so afraid of queer.”
At the same time, he continues, “there’s no way in a million years I would walk down the street holding hands with Richard. It would not be comfortable.”
Mottle was born in Port Alberni but moved to Vancouver to attend the Emily Carr art institute in his 30s. He came out during his three years in the city, then came back to the island to live.
“My biggest fear, coming back to where I grew up, is that people would treat me differently and ignore me,” he said. “And some did,” he adds, shaking his head without elaborating.
Yet in his eight years as pharmacy manager at the Port Alberni Zeller’s store, Mottle has never had a homophobic reaction from a customer or co-worker.
Legally married for two years, Mottle came back here to stay to buy a home and be close to his parents. He enjoys living in a “laid-back” place close to nature, the lakes, hiking, and bicycle trails.
Besides, he says, “Nanaimo, Victoria and Vancouver aren’t far away–it’s having my cake and eating it too.”
In fact, one thing the local queer youth and adults all agree on is that one of the reasons to stay (or come back) is the proximity to the wilderness aspect of Island living.
Christa thinks she’ll come back to her hometown. “I am planning to leave but mainly for school, and I would definitely want to come back because I think our community has a lot of potential to blossom and I think that by doing this we’re helping it do that.”
Her older sister is sticking around. “I haven’t decided to leave yet. I’m staying until I find a reason not to,” Jen says.
“I’ve actually already left once,” Dan laughs. “I went to Vancouver and lived there for half a year, and when I did come back I kind of came to the realization that, sure, this place isn’t all I want it to be, but it could be, eventually.
“One of the problems of being a youth in Port Alberni is that there aren’t any jobs for youth. I’ll move away, work for a while, probably go to school and then maybe I’ll come back.” Dan predicts.
Dale still misses her friends in Vancouver but says she’s made friends here too. Finding a job has been her biggest problem. “The houses are cheap and the cost of living is great and if I could just find a job that I liked then it would be perfect.
“I love that I can walk around town and see people I know,” she continues. “I like the mountains, the water, the access to trails. I like having a house. And the summers here are great. I made plans last year to go to the city and never went once.
“Why deal with the ferry and city chaos,” she grins mischievously, “when I can just go to the lake and go naked swimming?”
Wright says he stays in Port Alberni because “I’ve got my elderly folks here. I really don’t want the bars and that scene.
“There’s homophobia everywhere,” he continues. “I think the town has been really supportive. Port Alberni is a safe, comfortable place to live.”
Botting believes “Port Alberni will grow up, but for that to happen it helps to have some sort of identifiable community working together. It can certainly happen here, but somebody, at some point, has to step up to the plate.”
She’s been handing out little rainbow stickers to people for years saying, “put it on your door, put it on your window. Gay people can see that little sticker from 500 yards.”
Despite her efforts, very few businesses fly the rainbow flag in town. There is virtually no visible gay-friendly space here.
“It’s true there’s less queer community here,” Templeman concedes, “but Port Alberni is a good, safe, small community to live in.”
And it’s inexpensive compared to Victoria or Vancouver, he adds. “It’s very hard to get ahead in a great big city where the smallest of bungalows is three quarters of a million dollars when you happen to be a waiter and your boyfriend happens to be a hairdresser,” he says. “But you can do that in Port Alberni. It’s just a great place to be.”