Jess Pedersen still remembers the first time she saw a lesbian couple in the grocery store.
“I was shocked,” the 17-year-old chuckles. “I’m not a big city girl. I had no idea there were gay adults in town.”
It was an even bigger shock to her when 23 people showed up to Prince Rupert’s first Queer Youth Alliance drop-in session a few months ago.
“I was so excited,” she says. “There’s been nothing like this before in Prince Rupert.
“A lot of kids don’t have anyone to talk to,” she continues. “It helps to know there’s actually other queer people here.”
“Nothing like this has ever happened in Prince Rupert,” confirms the group’s co-founder, Jo-Anne Lee.
Lee works for the Ministry of Health, in the department of Mental Health and Addictions Services. With co-worker and former Vancouverite Heidi Deagle, and Jane Wilde, a public health nurse with the government’s Options For Sexual Health Program, Lee is pushing the limits of familiarity in this northern fishing town of about 15,000 people, located about 450 miles west of Prince George.
Since last November, they’ve been creating a space for Prince Rupert’s queer youth to gather, to socialize, to be themselves and find new role models.
Their first step was to promote the drop-in at both high schools and the local college and social services offices. They got a little government start-up money, did some postering, notified social workers and news of the first meeting slowly got around.
None of them expected such a high turnout.
“We were blown away,” Lee laughs.
So was Pedersen. “It was the most awesome thing,” she says.
Before this group, there was no support, she explains. Now, with the help of the alliance’s twice-monthly meetings, Pedersen has taken her first steps towards coming out.
She still has to break the news to her father, brother and grandparents. “I’m slowly working on it,” she confides.
But her friends and her mom have “been really awesome,” she says.
For Pedersen, the most important part of her hometown’s new queer youth organization is the effect it’s having on the people around her. “It’s not so much my life that it’s changing,” she says. “It’s the community.”
Still, she says, that hasn’t eliminated the homophobic slurs like “that’s so gay” and “you’re a homo” that fly through her high school’s hallways.
“The teenage boy attitude stuff bothers me sometimes and other days I don’t give it a second thought,” she says bravely.
Homophobia in Prince Rupert comes as no surprise to FJ Hachkevich.
Sometimes, he says, “people here don’t like us.”
The 19-year-old is now a second-year science student at Northwest Community College with his eye on a future in the psychiatric field. But a few years ago, he was a local high school sports hero who blew people away when he came out of the closet.
Born and raised in the northern BC town, Hachkevich says he’s never been confronted by racism here but he has been dealing with homophobia since he came out.
“I was the kid on the track team, the kid on the soccer team…” he trails off.
People were floored when he came out, he says, “because they knew I was a normal kid, not, well, weird, and that’s what they thought homosexuals are.”
Hachkevich says he still hears derogatory remarks when he holds hands with his partner in public. “I’ve gotten into scraps but nothing really big or major,” he says.
“A lot of men think that just because you’re a homosexual you’re weaker and they can pick on you — and that’s not the case,” he says quite matter-of-factly. “People have misconceptions about what homosexuality is and it’s our duty to inform them of who and what we are.”
Hachkevich says he welcomes the support he’s found in Prince Rupert’s new queer youth alliance and he appreciates all the work the co-founders put into creating it.
“I tried so many times to start a group like this and it didn’t happen — until they came,” he says. “I don’t know what we’d do without them. They really know what they’re doing.”
Just knowing there’s support in town makes it easier for him. There are people at the meetings he can relate to, he says.
It’s exciting knowing he’s “spending time making the town more gay-friendly,” he continues. “We’re here to be a presence in town, to show we’re here, we’re queer and we’re not going anywhere.”
Some people were afraid to come to the early meetings, he notes. “They knew what their friends would say,” he explains.
Now, more and more youth know the group is here to support “kids in the process of coming out to family and friends,” he says, adding, “Not everyone has a family as supportive as mine.”
Pedersen points out that not everyone who shows up at drop-ins is queer. Some are straight friends of questioning members, others are activists who want to support the group and change their community.
Eighteen-year-old Frances Roeloff describes herself as “a straight and proud supporter” of the group. “I’m one of those people who doesn’t understand discrimination and prejudice. I like to be involved in any way to support diversity.”
In Grade 12, Roeloff is on the board of the anti-poverty society, involved with anti-racism and environmental groups, and is on student council. “I give my time to what I believe in,” she says.
Queer youth in Prince Rupert need recognition from the mainstream community, she believes. “Don’t pretend there’s no homophobia. Don’t pretend there’s not a large gay population in town.”
She says she doesn’t think Prince Rupert is homophobic exactly. People “just don’t realize,” she thinks. “People ignore stuff if you don’t tell them.”
To suggest northern BC is simply redneck and not queer-friendly is an unfair generalization, agrees Deagle.
But other than the rainbow flag on the door at work, she says there was no visible sign of a queer community when she first arrived and there still isn’t.
Still, it didn’t take her long to meet local gay people, she says, and she has been publicly out since she moved here, without incident.
She even notes that City Hall responded favourably to a request from the Queer Youth Alliance to add a Pride float to this year’s Seafest parade.
Deagle says she feels accepted in Prince Rupert and not fearful. “I can be out at work and in the community and do queer activism in the community without worrying about my personal safety and professional reputation. There’s jerks everywhere but there’s also loving and accepting queer and straight people,” she says.
Pedersen says she looks forward to the Queer Youth Alliance meetings now. “Group is somewhere to go and a lot of fun,” she says.
Tuesday’s drop-ins are more like meetings, she explains, where everyone talks about ways to make the straight community aware of the queer community’s presence in a positive way, “and ways to get Main St businesses to display Pride flags and posters.”
Thursday’s drop-ins are more of a social event, she continues.
She especially likes the group’s “no-pressure” atmosphere, she says. There’s never any pressure to definitively identify as queer or not.
“It’s a comfortable environment and comfortable people to be around.”