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Out and trans in urban Alberta

Finding acceptance in unlikely places

He was already halfway through his incomprehensible diatribe of epithets and nonsense when he stormed into the store.

He wasn’t making any effort to keep from making a scene — in fact, he seemed intent on doing just that.

It was the early morning rush in a paint store that specialized in trade as well as retail sales. He was one of the typical contractors that we see at the start of each day. But for all the confused looks he was garnering from others in the store, he might as well have been an escapee from Dr Frank-N-Furter’s laboratory.

Four of his painters trailed him in, one a bit more distant than the rest, looking both angry and humiliated at the same time.

“That is so sick,” the contractor babbled, winding his way back toward the tinting counter, but making sure that his voice carried behind him. “Just disgusting.”

And then to others in the store: “Can you believe that? She thinks she’s a guy!”

It helped that nobody could tell just who the contractor was talking about. As far as anyone saw, four male painters had followed him into the store.

Or at least, the painter with no facial hair and a bound-and-flattened chest was not immediately obvious to most.

I was positioned at the tint bench with one of my co-workers. I’m assuming he’d walked up to us with the intention of eventually placing an order. But instead, he turned to look at me.

“That’s so sick, isn’t it? She wants to get surgery and everything!”

My co-worker had previously lectured another contractor about some disrespectful dyke jokes, so I figured she’d likely stand behind me on this issue too, that is if she understood from the disjointed rambling exactly what the issue was.

I simply looked back at him and said, “And if he does, does that really hurt anyone?”

Now, the contractor wasn’t prepared to be challenged. He looked at my co-worker for validation and, finding none, looked around the store to realize that everyone was gaping at him as though he were an idiot.

He was silent for a few moments, opened his mouth, reconsidered, and finally mumbled, “No, I guess not…”

Defused, he whispered a few more scattered words that could barely be made out, wrinkled his nose, looked around again, and then let me talk him into placing his order.

I’ve come to believe that when confronted with an environment of acceptance, those who feel compelled to hate will feel even more compelled to take a reality check. Even in reputedly “redneck” Alberta, and even when it comes to something as visible and taboo as transsexuality.

Peer pressure (or herd mentality, or whatever you prefer to call it) can be an amusing thing to watch when it reduces grown adults to farting contests; it’s not so amusing when it rears its ugly head in the form of bullying or even violence.

Fortunately things change, and there are now pockets of acceptance on the Canadian Prairies where no one would have expected it.

Sometimes, in between bemoaning the sinkhole-sized potholes, dirty and neglected sidewalks and drivers who are obsessed with retaining pole position, someone realizes that Edmonton can often be a small-r red, somewhat culturally liberal oasis in an often capital-B Blue Conservative sea.

That is not to say that Edmonton is entirely GLBT-safe, but the social climate is frequently far more temperate than the one we get on the weather map.

OutTraveler Magazine recently selected Edmonton as one of the top five gay destinations in Canada, and when asked about the article, editor-in-chief Ed Salvato remarked, “It’s a bastion of progressiveness. It’s surprisingly gay-friendly.”

That’s not to leave Calgary out of the equation, necessarily. Having recently hosted the 2007 North American Outgames and provided both backdrop and support to the film Brokeback Mountain, there is considerable work being done to improve Calgary’s queer cityscape too.

Perhaps what it lacks most is the small-town friendliness that has allowed our Prairie oasis to feel a bit more welcoming.

Of course, trans people are not as visible as some might hope, even in Edmonton. In my 18 years with a paint company, I’ve only known or known of four transgendered painters, mostly because they felt comfortable coming out to me.

Still, my own transition from male to female has been relatively smooth. In fact, I met with far less resistance outside work — from the city at large — than within, and the resistance at work appeared to have come from higher up the corporate ladder than my own boss. Local staff had little or no issue with it at all, at least not that they indicated to me.

True, I had the awkward experience of being unintentionally outed to the staff when I was living as female outside work but being told to “wait until we have a policy from Head Office.” Shortly after closing time one night, I received a panicked phone call from an employee who was having trouble with the lockup procedure and had to leave right away for a school exam. I had little choice. Mercedes had to make an emergency appearance at the store.

The employee’s response? “Hi (old male name), nice hair.”

The following morning, when we had more opportunity to talk about it, she started off by saying, “I hope you’re not worried that what happened is going to change my opinion of you…” Cute kid.

Not what one would expect from a reputedly redneck province, historically home to some of the most radicalized views in the country.

In 1985, social studies teacher and former town mayor Jim Keegstra made national news when he was prosecuted for teaching students that the Holocaust never happened. In the late 1980s, Terry Long led the Aryan Nations in Canada and provided a camp for “training and instruction.”

Even homegrown renegade evangelical minister and later prime ministerial-hopeful Stockwell Day made waves for defending a fundamentalist school curriculum that a government commission eventually determined to have “a degree of insensitivity towards blacks, Jews and natives.”

Then, in 1990, skinheads Daniel Sims and Mark Swanson attacked Keith Rutherford in his Sherwood Park home, nearly blinding the popular former broadcaster. Perhaps this provided the turning point: the skinheads were shunned and pushed largely into exile, Long packed up and moved, and the traffic of white supremacists to and from middle Alberta mostly abated.

That is not to say that extremism is gone entirely. Residual hate lingers in the nest of communities in which Aryan extremism thrived and perhaps beyond.

Progress is fickle. The pendulum swings. Hopefully, those who currently enjoy the pockets of acceptance in Alberta now will be there to fight for them whenever times get tougher.