Gays have come a long way since Bronski Beat sang about a “Smalltown Boy” who left with everything he owned in a little black case. The 1980s gay anthem struck a chord because it was a story so many of us had lived – loneliness, bullying and rejection. But also the eventual and painful escape from small-town hell.
Painful, because flight meant leaving family and loved ones. Yet running away and turning away also resulted in a new life of sexual freedom in the big city. It was a tradeoff. And one that seemed permanent. Once we experience the gay bacchanalia that awaits us in big cities, we don’t return to small-town monotony and homophobia. Or do we?
Xtra recently spoke to musician CC Trubiak about his return from Ottawa to Flin Flon, Manitoba. Trubiak, who was struggling to find work in Ottawa, remembers feeling “physically sick” when his mother proposed returning home for a year. But once there, Trubiak realized Flin Flon had changed. He found other gay people in a town that had become more inclusive.
Trubiak is not alone. The most recent Canadian census found that between 2006 and 2011 the number of same-sex couples in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver had dropped by almost 10 percent. This suggests that some gay people are migrating away from Canada’s three biggest cities and moving into the suburbs and even beyond, to small towns.
Rural, Tim Hortons-guzzling Canada is changing, just like the rest of the world. In a recent Globe and Mail column, Doug Saunders noted that Western countries have embraced the gay rights movement faster than they did the women’s rights and civil rights movements a generation ago. He cites a 2006 World Values Survey, which found that those who believe homosexuality is “never tolerable” fell to 34 percent in 2006 from 59 percent in the early 1990s. These numbers comprise folks in small towns like Flin Flon.
Of course, this doesn’t mean every small town has become Stratford, Ontario, which was named the “gayest small town” in Canada by Outlooks magazine in 2009. For every Stratford there is a Morris, Manitoba, where in April a gay couple made the tough decision to close their restaurant, Pots N Hands, after they were threatened with homophobic slurs.
And gay kids continue to struggle in small-town schools. A 2012 American study, Strengths & Silences: The Experiences of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Students in Rural and Small Town Schools, found “heightened incidents of student victimization based on sexual orientation and gender identity/expression in rural schools compared to suburban or urban schools.”
Yet even where homophobia persists, it feels like there are an increasing number of small-town allies standing up and saying, “Not in our town!” In Morris, Mayor Gavin van der Linde made a point of speaking out against hate in his community, heading afterward to lunch at Pots N Hands to show his support. It didn’t save the restaurant, but it sent a message.
Similarly, after a kissing lesbian couple was told to leave a Blenheim, Ontario, Tim Hortons coffee shop in 2011, members of the community responded by organizing a kiss-in to express their support for gay rights and equality. And earlier this year, after a lesbian student reported to Xtra that a teacher had allegedly bullied her at her Windsor, Ontario, Catholic school, community members there organized a similar rally. Meanwhile, Pride events and rainbow flag-raisings are flaming up all over the country, from Elliot Lake, Ontario – which held its first Pride weekend in May – to tiny Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, which last year raised a Pride flag at its city hall.
Small-town gay boys and girls may soon no longer feel the need to run away and turn away. While this doesn’t bode well for the health of the big-city gay village, it goes a long way to making all corners of our huge country more inclusive and diverse.