A lot has changed in Smithers, BC, since 2011, when Shaun Hunter-Mclean moved to the rural town to finish high school at the age of 17.
Earlier this year, the Bulkley Valley school district amended its anti-discrimination policy to specifically address gender and sexual orientation.
It was a huge victory for the students who are part of the gay-straight alliance at Smithers Secondary and for Hunter-Mclean, who now attends Concordia University in Montreal.
Hunter-Mclean, who prefers the gender-neutral pronoun they, experienced a culture shock when transitioning from the open acceptance of gay culture at a fine-arts high school in Metro Vancouver to the blatant homophobia they encountered in the hallways of a rural secondary school.
Back in Smithers for the summer, Hunter-Mclean noticed other things are changing as well.
“There are a lot more out individuals — not just in the school, but in the community,” they say. “The GSA is continuing to grow as well and is becoming more involved in the community.”
Also a singer/songwriter, Hunter-Mclean spent part of the summer performing at local music festivals.
“I decided to perform in full drag,” says the 19-year-old, whose outfits were part country, part biker. “My goal is to soften the edges around the concept of talking about sexuality and gender.”
“People [in Smithers] are okay with accepting people for who they are, even if they don’t fully understand their identities,” they say.
“You don’t hear people talking about it — it’s still sort of an awkward subject — so now it’s a matter of getting people more comfortable and getting over that fear of understanding.”