Fort Saskatchewan, Alta. — I learned how to be queer in small-town Alberta before the invention of the internet.
I did so through my father’s old sociology textbooks; the back issues of Ms. magazine my mom kept from her radical feminism days; the three or four books on adolescent sexuality that were available at the Fort Saskatchewan Public Library; a discount VHS tape of Cabaret I found in a Safeway discount bin; asking religious figures leading questions; a book about curing your homosexuality called Born This Way?; the odd issue of Details or Spin; Marlon Brando on the cover of a school edition of A Streetcar Named Desire.
Queerness was not just an act of personal discovery, however. It was also imposed on me. I was told repeatedly, in ways subtle and harsh, that not only I was queer, I was to be admonished for it. For me, learning how to be queer was a lesson in self-policing, and integrating my emerging self into a continual refusal of a queer imaginary was difficult at best.
Despite my mom warning me to pick my battles, I would often argue the politics of class and sex through a lens of radical queerness — much to my well-off high-school classmates’ dissatisfaction. Perhaps I picked a few too many battles at once.
I had slurs yelled at me from the windows of pickup trucks. I was beat up after school one day, quite severely. Teachers and other instructors told me not to come out, and when I wore nail polish, I was marched into the school’s cosmetology classroom and forced to remove it.
The town had between 12,000 and 13,000 people when I lived there. It was very white, very middle class, and very dull. There were several petrochemical processing plants and a medium-security prison. Forty-five minutes’ drive one way took you past a maximum-security prison to the outskirts of Edmonton. Forth-five minutes the other way, you’d reach a Hutterite colony.
I am sure that the kids on the Hutterite colony had many fewer resources than I had. I had the words for queerness, had the ideas and concepts. No matter how miserable or lonely (or under-sexed) I was during my high-school years, I felt that I could move to Montreal or Toronto or Vancouver and live a life that was bigger than the town I grew up in. This was what suburban queer folks were supposed to do — I lived almost a decade in Toronto, a few years in Montreal, and now Hamilton, which is 35 times bigger than the town I grew up in.
In May, Fort Saskatchewan had its first Pride festival. Describing Fort Saskatchewan Pride Week, one of the organizers said “It’s really for everyone — the whole community — to come support and show what we’re worth.”
If queerness is disruptive, if it is sexual, if it is a push and a shove, a set of refusals, if it is weird or strange, then Fort Saskatchewan will never be any of those things.
The festival has church services, drag queen story hours, events for families. There is not a bar night or a social dance. There are no places for adults to have fun, and no idea that queerness might have a sexual component. As the town positions its brand as a place to raise children, there is also the sense that if you are the “right” kind of queer — if you are married and have kids — that you will be safe. There is no seeking reconciliation for the violence against queer people that has occurred here, as in other cities.
“There were consequences for a Pride that was thought to be too white, too middle class.”
Edmonton has had fights this year about including cops in Pride. It has had young queer activists, often of people of colour, push to be included in the choices that were made for them. The Edmonton Pride Festival was cancelled because of these debates. The stakes were recognized as sufficiently high, and there were consequences for a Pride that was thought to be too white, too middle class, too far from Pride’s roots.
But Fort Saskatchewan cannot imagine a Pride whose politics are disruptive. As someone who got out, but who is not married, and who is committed to a radical Pride, this simplified narrative of queer acceptance makes me feel like the violence done to me by the people of the Fort was my fault. If only I had behaved and kept my head down, if only I never mentioned the politics of sex and class, I would have been safe and welcome in my queerness.
I feel this disconnect more deeply having a family member who did exactly that. She married, she had kids, she kept their head down and lived a modest life.
My sister came out later than I did. She was more private than I was with her inner life. I am glad that her experience of queerness was safer than my own, and am glad that her baby will be safer than either of us ever were. I can’t pretend that this happiness isn’t tinged by bitterness ― that she was successful at passing, and I failed to do so.
I am less angry about this than I used to be. Fort Saskatchewan Pride has a lot of possibility. There are more books about queerness in the town library, kids are coming out earlier in life, people can make their lives in spaces that previously excluded them.
Maybe there’s hope to be found in this newly open town.
I wonder what happens to populations without Pride events or a sponsorship from Dow Chemical (if something in the Fort isn’t sponsored by Dow, it’s sponsored by Sherritt). I wonder what’s left for the Hutterite kids, the rural working-class kids, the kids of immigrants, kids who want their drag to be more Taylor Mac and less RuPaul, the adults who want their whole adult lives — including their sexual lives — to have a place in their hometown.
It is an ongoing conflict, then: how to be queer, how to be political, how to allow people to live their lives, how not to be bitter in the abstract when concrete facts are sitting right next to you, grabbing hold of your finger like a little niece might.
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