The Rainbow Connection

Who knew it would be such a powerful catalyst?

I suppose I had an inkling of an idea, a suspicion that a brightly coloured crosswalk could prove both evocative and provocative; what I have only come to understand over time is that the dialogue it inspired proved exactly why its existence is so critical.

Not long ago I wrote about Fort McMurray’s first Pride crosswalk, a brightly coloured rainbow of colour gracing one of the most neglected and ignored crosswalks in downtown Fort McMurray. Even as I was writing that post, the topic exploded on local social media as photos of the crosswalk began to proliferate, and the response seen was everything from expressions of pure support to expressions of pure rage and hatred.

It was very, very clear that the crosswalk, a simple stretch of pavement, had prompted a conversation that desperately needed to be had.

The negative responses to the crosswalk varied widely in tone and intent, but most fell into one of the following categories:

  • When is straight pride day and when do straight people get a crosswalk?

The funny thing is that straight pride day is every day when heterosexual relationships are held up as the norm in movies, television shows, magazine ads, song lyrics and every other aspect of culture. People only get all twinge-y about thinking their “straight pride” is being infringed on when it seems LGBTQ people are expressing themselves about their orientation. And for the record, the rainbow crosswalk is open for use to anyone.

  • Gay people are accepted in 2017 and don’t need any recognition like a crosswalk.

Huh. The people who say this are straight people with exactly zero idea what it is like to be LGBTQ in 2017, and particularly to be a LGBTQ youth. The suicide rates in LGBTQ youth are staggering and seem a strong indicator that LGBTQ people continue to struggle with acceptance and understanding, despite the year. And some who say this will refer to a token “gay friend” who says *they* are perfectly accepted, which is fantastic except that one gay person cannot speak for any others and indicate that none have faced discrimination solely because they haven’t.

  • Gay people need to quit shoving their lifestyle down other people’s throats.

You mean completely unlike how heterosexuality is constantly present and yet nobody complains about it being shoved down their throats? Please.

  • I don’t care if you’re gay, but stop forcing me to listen to you talk about it.

These people are my favourite. They will argue FOR HOURS about how they don’t care, the irony of them being so involved in the argument and yet claiming not to care completely escaping them. And the funny thing is nobody is being forced to listen; if you really don’t care, then stop paying attention to it.

  • A Pride crosswalk will just prompt people to say hateful things.

See, I think what prompts expressions of hatred is hateful people. And frankly, I am a big fan of shining bright lights in dark corners to see what scurries out, and what has scurried out in this case is something we all need to understand is still happening: discrimination against LGBTQ people.

  • Being gay is unnatural – thank a straight person for you being here today!

These people missed a biology class or two. Not only can LGBTQ people have children, but the evidence that orientation is determined before birth and thus eminently natural is overwhelming.

  • What a waste of money!

When the cost of the crosswalk was revealed, people went BANANAS. Trouble is, not one of them could indicate what a typical crosswalk costs, and yet they were all suddenly crosswalk experts because they knew the cost of paint. The truth is that even if the cost were to be high (and to be frank, we still don’t know the comparison of the cost of the Pride crosswalk to a typical crosswalk) I think it was money well spent to do two things: ensure LGBTQ youth in this community realize they have support and begin a conversation that was clearly well overdue.

Shortly after the Pride crosswalk was finished, the first set of “burnt rubber” tire marks appeared on it (and there were many on social media who suggested they would do exactly this to the crosswalk). I initially found this a bit disheartening, as it is clear we have individuals in this community juvenile enough in thought processes to think this kind of vandalism to be “making a statement” or amusing.

All I could do is wonder if they had a “Fort Mac Strong” sticker somewhere on their vehicle and if they had so quickly forgotten the lesson we learned in 2016 that taught us that what makes us similar is so much stronger than what makes us different; had they really learned nothing at all during a time when we came together as a community to support each other without caring anything about each other’s gender, orientation, religion or race?

The truth though is that those burnt rubber marks are simply visible reminders as to why this community needs Pride crosswalks and Pride events; so all those on social media decrying the crosswalk, the ones who burnt rubber on it and the ones who expressed everything from “not caring/yet caring a lot” to hate? They just ensured that Pride crosswalks and events are here to stay for a long time, because until we truly reach a stage when they are not even a blip on our radar they need to keep  happening to provoke these conversations.

It has been a truly interesting experience. One poster on my Facebook page shared passive-aggressive comments on how things like Pride crosswalks “emboldened” gay people, as evidenced by the fact that they had witnessed gay people be rude to other people; you know, because straight people are never rude. What orientation has to do with being a rude person escapes me, but the reality seems to be that some people continue to be so uncomfortable with LGBTQ people that we would prefer them to be less bold (and maybe they could just climb back into that closet, like good gay people).

My kid’s theory is just that a couple of generations need to die out and that after this occurs a new state of acceptance will be reached, as she advises in her generation it is a non-issue. But until that, we need these conversations and dialogues, even if at times they are painful or angry-making.

Because the conversations can, and do, make a difference.

After my last blog post I received messages from people who said I provided a perspective that helped them to understand why the Pride crosswalk is in fact a reason for overall community pride in that it showcased our community as accepting, particularly to LGBTQ youth who may be struggling.

And in every single social media dialogue I saw, every nasty comment was countered by other expressions of support, kindness, acceptance and love.

I think what I mostly saw through all of this, though, is that society has come a long way since I was a young adult; but there is still a long way to go. And I saw people who continue to struggle with the changes society has seen, not realizing that times have changed and their way of thinking is being discarded by a more accepting and progressive populace. Part of the struggle I suspect arises because they know things have shifted and they have no way to shift it back again, and their beliefs are now exposed as not only antiquated but lacking in basic human acceptance and understanding; cognitive dissonance is a tough thing with which to contend. But the way to break through it is through dialogue; not arguments and fights, but honest dialogue with those who are willing to engage in it from a place of respect.

So, about that Pride crosswalk? It’s here to stay. And about that Pride event in August? I hope it becomes an annual event. Fort McMurray didn’t just take a step into the future; we took leaps and bounds into showcasing our nature as a welcoming and accepting community in northern Alberta, a place which I am so very proud to call home. I am even prouder to do so when we engage in the hard conversations and when we must face not only our strengths but our weaknesses; I believe we can only grow in strength when we do exactly this.

This summer Fort McMurray grew in strength. It grew in acceptance.  And in some strange way, despite the burnt rubber and the hateful words, it grew in love because it prompted us to think not about what makes us different, but what makes us the same.

And the catalyst?

A rainbow connection.

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