3 min

Why returning to Belleville was bittersweet

The town is the same, but it feels different

Whipping along on the Via, the scenery passing my window is both nostalgic and quaint as we near Belleville. It always strikes me how beautiful my hometown appears on the train. The land is soft and green and sweet looking, creeks winding through fields where cattle and horses graze amid sun-bleached fences. The little towns we rush through have ancient corner stores and tiny streets. Dark crows perch atop the old-style street lamps. When the train pulls into Belleville, it comes through a rail yard first, which, despite being a little dilapidated, has a rustic charm.

I spent a few days in my hometown earlier this month, to visit some friends and relatives. It’s been a full year since I left Belleville and came to Ottawa. It’s funny to think about it in those terms — a year doesn’t seem like a very long time, when you consider that I spent 20 years before this one living there. I’d like to think I’ve grown up, but I’m not sure that’s the right phrase, because getting older does not necessarily mean getting wiser or even becoming a better person. Nonetheless, I think it’s safe to say that, if I’m not necessarily better, I’m different now that I’ve spent a year in Ottawa.

What really struck me this time, driving home from the train station with my mother on the old familiar streets, over the Moira River and past my old high school, was that my hometown was exactly as I had left it. I’ve changed — but my hometown hasn’t.

There are little alterations, certainly. The old Ponderosa Steak House — the last one operating in Ontario — has been shut down and converted into an Applebee’s. Some houses have been built and others torn down, some roads have been paved and others have fallen into a state of disrepair. But the people are still the same, as are the attitudes and the way of life.

While visiting a friend, I was walking down the street, a street I used to live on, actually, in a particularly run-down part of the city. Out of nowhere a black Ford pick up sprang out of a side street, tires squealing, kicking up dust and gravel, two men in trucker caps hanging out the windows smoking, country music blaring. As they drove away, oblivious to my well-placed middle-finger waving at them in their rear-view mirrors, their bumper sticker read, “Silly faggot, dicks are for chicks!”

I find this sort of thing heartbreaking. I’ve never seen — and probably will never see — a rainbow sticker in a window in Belleville, or see two men or women walking down the street holding hands. People here use “gay” and “fag” as curse words. The religious right will always have a strong 1950s style grip on this place. This will never be a friendly place for me. But going back there, no matter how good of a time I have or how great my friends are, reminds me of the sense of alienation, unhappiness and shame about myself and my sexuality that I grew up with.

Truly, what bothers me now, knowing there are communities, such as those that exist in Ottawa, Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal, where queers are not treated as anomalies and we can exist in relative peace and safety, is that there are people out there who still feel the way I did growing up. There are gays and lesbians, bisexuals and transsexuals, thousands of them, living out there in other small, backwater towns, feeling lonely and maybe even a little frightened, who, for whatever reason, cannot or do not want to leave. It’s not that my hometown is a bad place to live, or that the people there are inherently bad — if you’re a white heterosexual.

I hope that being safe and happy doesn’t require moving away from the people who raised you and the friends who loved you, but for the moment it appears to be so, at least for me.

Our precursors fought for the rights we, as a community, enjoy today, creating out-spoken and powerful enclaves of safety and sexual freedom in our nation’s major metropolitan areas. The areas outside these safety zones, however, will have to wait for liberation to come to them — or they’ll have to come to liberation.

In memory, though, it’s all too easy to vilify this place. It’s easy to lay down the blame and say, “This place is no good and the people here are no good.” Despite how some of the people think and act, it’s not everyone. I have friends and family there who love me very much, and I’m thankful for that. Whether I like it or not, that place — backwards, unaccepting, quaint, clean — is home. And regardless of how I felt growing up here, I will never stop returning to my hometown, from time to time, because while the culture of the place is cold towards me, there are people here who will always be warm — no matter how far away I am. Beginning a new life if one thing — but you can never leave the old life completely behind.