In 1984, an obscure British band named Bronski Beat released a song called “Smalltown Boy”. On their debut album, the song not only went on to secure them fame in the 80’s New Wave scene, it also became an anthem for millions of young adults coming of age in that era. And for some, like me, while it wasn’t my anthem, it opened our eyes to the stark reality of the world: young people felt forced to leave their homes and communities for one sole reason – because they were gay.
In 1984, I was in my final year of high school. Growing up in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, I had friends who were gay, although the letters we now use (LGBTQ or some variant of) were not yet in common use, and in my limited understanding I believed people were either gay or straight; it’s all I knew at the time. And thanks to my parents, who might have been older, hard-working German Canadian farmer types but yet the very embodiment of never judging others on anything other than their actions (were they kind? Were they friendly? Were they good?), I never judged my gay friends and in my clear naivete thought this was true of others, too.
I left home at the age of twenty, leaving Saskatoon behind as in my existential-crisis-white-suburban-middle-class-straight mind, I knew the answers I sought couldn’t be found there. I went to Toronto for the adventure and the mayhem, to grow up and grow smarter, to finally begin to realize how fortunate I was compared to those who left their families and their communities solely because they were not accepted due to their sexuality.
I never experienced that, as even though I had perfected the 80’s goth-before-it-was-a-thing look, the discrimination I experienced was so mild it was laughable, and in reality it was all a faux-rage based on an appearance I could change in a heartbeat, unlike my friends who would remain gay as long as their hearts beat.
It was Smalltown Boy that woke me up, and as one after another of my gay friends left my city, I knew it was because they felt that had to and not necessarily because they wanted to. To find acceptance and a community, they would go to cities like Toronto and Vancouver and Montreal, places where they could blend in instead of standing out, and hopefully minimize some of the discrimination they experienced on a daily basis.
And I suppose that is one of the reasons I find myself somewhere on the verge of angry and sad tears every time someone questions the need for things like Pride events; because while we have come so far, my little city of Fort McMurray still has a very long way to go.
There are people who claim being LGBTQ is no longer a big deal, and that therefore there is no need for events to celebrate it; and yet I KNOW that there are still smalltown boys and girls in our own community who turn away and run away from this place because the answers they seek will never be found at home in a community where prejudice still exists.
And it takes me back to 1984, over three decades ago when an obscure band wrote an anthem for a generation, and I feel heartbroken that even now the song has relevance instead of seeming dated and reflective only of the past and not the present.
There are so many examples of this; the people who say they are tired of “gay lifestyles” being shoved in their face, and yet who don’t blink an eye at the landslide of heterosexuality in movies, television shows, books, songs and advertising; the people who object to student-led GSAs, which may be the only safe place for our smalltown children to express who they are; the people who suggest there is a gay agenda, despite never being able to articulate what exactly that might be; the people who think being LGBTQ is somehow contagious, as if they can catch it and as if it somehow in some way impacts their own existence, which it does not and cannot unless of course they happen to be LGBTQ.
My parents were simple folk. I don’t know if they know how many of my friends back then were gay; I doubt they cared. What mattered is that I loved my friends, and so they did too, feeding them and helping them fix their cars and giving them a glimpse of the kind of home some of them did not have; and when they turned and ran away from my community, my parents felt their absence, as did I.
And that is why I have become such a staunch supporter of events such as Pride YMM and GSAs in local schools and our LGBTQ community; because until no smalltown boy or girl feels the need to run away from our community, we have failed. Until the day when they leave only because they want to, and not because of prejudice, discrimination and lack of acceptance, we have failed them as the adults upon whose shoulders the present and future of this community rests.
And I refuse to allow us to fail. I believe my home is one of the most amazing places in the world, but it is not perfect, and the ongoing exodus of some of our best and brightest because their sexual orientation differs is sharp evidence of that. And please don’t try to tell me this isn’t happening, as I know it is. I have witnessed it, and no matter the strength of your denial, the truth prevails.
This month we will celebrate Pride YMM. I will be there, as will my daughter. And while I will take great pleasure in the smiling faces and the positive atmosphere, I know I will still on occasion hear the strains of that Bronski Beat song running through my head as I reflect on how much has changed and yet how much has stayed the same; and I will know that true success will only be found when there are no more smalltown boys or girls who need to turn away from their homes, because instead of prejudice all they see is welcoming and acceptance – and pride.