Many of Yellowknife’s hip and cool converge at the Black Knight, a darkly furnished Irish-type pub decorated with local trinkets and beer paraphernalia.
On Fridays, just shy of 5 pm, the place fills with young bureaucrats, a reliable contingent of pilots, teachers, lawyers, media-types and workers on their biweekly break from the diamond mines.
Glen Rutland is a 31-year-old recently promoted policy director with the territory’s justice department. It’s after 6 pm, and we can’t find a seat or a square of space anywhere in the pub not already inhabited by boisterous partiers or speed-walking waitresses.
Unlike Vancouver and other big cities where queer folk tend to congregate in specifically gay bars and districts, Yellowknife’s gay community mingles with a miscellaneous crew at a handful of mostly dismal watering holes.
Rutland came north a few years ago, eager to escape his workaholic existence in Toronto. In Yellowknife he found, to his relief, not only an accessible gay network, but also a newfound and unexpected surge in his quality of life.
Now, he says, he finds it surprisingly easy to be “gay and fabulous in Yellowknife.”
Before moving to the subarctic, Rutland did some research, for like most Canadians he held embarrassingly uninformed notions about the Northwest Territories’ capital city.
Most importantly, he wanted to make sure there were gay people there. Because, he says, “if there was nothing, I wouldn’t have gone.”
Online he found Out North, a local gay, lesbian, bi, transgendered and two-spirited group, which holds awareness-raising events a few times a year and celebrates Pride Day by handing out cake in front of the post office. It was all the reassurance Rutland needed.
He quickly found his stride in Yellowknife, plunging into work and outdoor pursuits.
A 10-minute drive from downtown takes him to a landscape rutted with pretty blue lakes and complete isolation. Out in the wild, Rutland says he found “his inner straight man,” as he learned to canoe, put up a wall tent and hunt caribou.
“My friend from Toronto almost fell off her chair when I told her I bought a Ski-Doo,” he says with a wide grin.
While he easily befriended the gay community, he found himself mixing with a more diverse crowd-older, conservative straight men, and even a few gay women. “It was surprising how casual the scene is and the mix of my community. In Toronto, gay people hang out with gay people.”
Like an earnest and mildly irritating co-worker, this little town of 18,000 is growing on Rutland. “I have a really good life here: interesting work, good friends and I can be in the middle of nowhere in 10 minutes,” he says. “I can get off work at 5 pm and be in a canoe by 5:15. I like that I can walk to work and drop in on a friend’s place unannounced. If I was in a relationship, then I could potentially stay here for quite awhile.”
Despite Yellowknife’s abundant charms, Rutland admits that lacking love prospects will eventually send him packing. “It’s hard enough to find good people who are compatible, but try that in a small pool,” he says.
Like Rutland, Lorne Gushue came to Yellowknife for a new job and some new life experience.
He took a teaching job in 1991 intending, like most people, to stay for a few months and return to his real life. But he quickly found other things to do.
He joined clubs and local theatre. He started his own bed and breakfast, catering to the swarms of Japanese tourists that come to Yellowknife to see the aurora borealis. In the afternoons, after he’s prepared breakfast and changed sheets, he does communications work for the territorial government.
He calls his move to the north “a rebirth,” leaving behind his devout and close-knit community in Cape Breton and his teaching job in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. “Cape Breton was a small town in a bad way. Yellowknife is a small town in a good way,” he says.
Gushue’s active social life and volunteer pursuits have spurred a new confidence.
“Being involved gave me the courage to be visible about myself,” he says. It helps that Yellowknife, for its size, has an unusual convergence of young, educated, progressive folks.
“People in here don’t care about what you are, only who you are,” he says.
Despite being a longtime singleton, Gushue doesn’t plan to leave Yellowknife for the deeper dating pools of big cities. He says it’s easy enough to get laid, and all the travel he does for work sates his appetite for urban perks. For him, it’s not worth giving up all that Yellowknife offers.
But what about Yellowknife’s gay locals, who are likely immune to and no longer wooed by its small-town charms?
Lance Morrison spent most of his life in Yellowknife, apart from a year in Edmonton during college. He returned home after graduating and became one of the most popular and booked hairstylists in the city.
He recently left his home turf for the mean streets of Toronto, to expand his career horizons and to escape Yellowknife’s seemingly perpetual winters.
But despite the shopping perks and endless choices in ethnic cuisine, Morrison isn’t much more impressed with Toronto’s gay culture.
“Toronto is like a large-scale version of Yellowknife. And sure there’s gay bars, but they’re half-full of straight people,” he says. “I’m not gayer here than I was in Yellowknife.”
For Gushue, it’s a greater feat to be proudly gay in a small place where anonymity can only be achieved if you wear a bag over your head.
“Anyone can stand on a street corner in a big city Pride Parade, but it takes real commitment to stand on the busiest street corner in Yellowknife and hand out cake in front of the post office, in front of your neighbours and colleagues.”