For LGBTQ in rural communities, pride festivals can be key connection but pandemic is raining on the parade

After Joe Wickenhauser came out, he believed that to live successfully as a gay man he had to move to Toronto. But when he did, he learned the big city life wasn’t for him.

A master’s student at the time, Wickenhauser felt Saskatchewan calling him home, so he packed his bags for Moose Jaw and started building a Pride festival in 2013.

“What I realized … was that you put a bit of rainbow fabric on a pole and people flock to you,” said Wickenhauser, now in his mid-30s and the executive director of the Yukon Pride Centre.  

“It’s like a lightning rod for community and people saying, ‘I want to be a part of that.'” 

Wickenhauser grew up in Strasbourg, Sask., a small town an hour’s drive from Regina. While he knew he was gay from a young age, there was little, if any, visibility for the LGBTQ community — and few role models.

“What we were able to offer in Moose Jaw that [first] year was just a kind of awareness that there are LGBTQ2S+ people in this community, because I think many times people imagine that we only live in Toronto,” Wickenhauser said.

Joe Wickenhauser co-founded Moose Jaw Pride in Saskatchewan in an effort to bring greater LGBTQ visibility to more rural parts of the province. (Submitted by Joe Wickenhauser)

There’s a perception within the LGBTQ community that if you grow up queer in a small or remote town, you must relocate to the progressive safety of a metropolis.

“Sometimes, people want to put everything into a category, put everything into a box and say, ‘Rural is intolerant, homophobic and bad, and urban is accepting, diverse and good,'” said Wickenhauser, who has researched the experience of LGBTQ people in rural communities.

“It’s just too simple.”

For many LGBTQ Canadians, a life in the big city — where queer neighbourhoods and flashy parades are found — is hardly ideal, even if rural life is imperfect due to a lack of health or community supports and dedicated safe spaces.

That’s why Pride festivals in rural and remote towns can be an important connection point for smaller LGBTQ communities. And this year, the COVID-19 pandemic is raining on those parades, but organizers are finding new ways to connect.

Pride festivals can be an important connection point for LGBTQ communities in rural and remote parts of Canada. But with festivals across the country cancelling in-person events, we asked LGBTQ people on Fogo Island, N.L., in Iqaluit and in Prince George, B.C., how they’re marking pride during a pandemic. 5:54

Launching a small-town Pride

Last August, when a lineup of cars began to double back along the road to Fogo , N.L. — many adorned in balloons and rainbow colours — Trevor Taylor was able to breathe a sigh of relief.

Fogo Island’s inaugural Pride parade would be a success.

(Ben Shannon/CBC, Photos submitted by Evan Parsons)

Taylor, a director for Fogo Island Pride who co-founded the organization with his fiancé, Evan Parsons, in 2019, had no idea how a Pride festival would be received on the small island off Newfoundland’s northern coast. 

“Even when the events went on and they were successful, I still had the sneaking suspicion that the next one is not going to go well. I don’t know why,” he said. “Easy to say that if we went and totalled up the whole week, we definitely got hundreds of people.”

The gay couple moved to Fogo about six years ago and created the Pride festival as a way to support queer folks in rural Newfoundland and Labrador. 

“There is a fear for coming to a rural location if you’re a member of the queer community — at least it’s something that we’ve kind of wrestled with on occasion,” Taylor said. 

“Coming into a small town or knowing that there’s a Pride committee in a small town is all the more reason for those fears to be alleviated.”

Taylor and Parsons organized the first pride parade on Fogo Island last August. (Submitted by Fogo Island Pride)

While Taylor, 32, and Parsons, 34, said that they’ve been wholeheartedly welcomed in their new home, their experiences living in other rural parts of the province haven’t been without hiccups. 

Conversations about sexuality and gender typically go unspoken in their home province, especially the rural parts, Parsons said, and they want to turn what might be considered a shameful conversation into a positive, welcoming experience.

“It’s not a taboo subject, you know. It’s kind of equivalent to sex: nobody talks about it, but everybody does it,” he said.

De-stigmatizing gender and sexuality

Bibi Bilodeau grew up in Toronto’s Kensington Market neighbourhood. A self-described nonconformist, Bilodeau is autistic and says she often felt like an outsider — even in the city’s LGBTQ village.

“The idea of being loud and proud with a bunch of strangers is just like my nightmare,” said the queer comedian and blogger of Aspergirl.

(Ben Shannon/CBC, Photo submitted by Bibi Bilodeau)

After years living in rural Ghana where homosexuality is criminalized, she moved to Iqaluit in 2013.

Not knowing how she would be perceived in Nunavut, she said she was nervous about the move. There are no dedicated spaces for the community to gather, she said, and sexuality and gender identity are still stigmatized — but that’s changing.

For the past three years, she’s produced an LGBTQ-focused event called Arctic Glow — a spin on the famous female wrestling league. But at her event, the wrestlers dive into a ring of lubricant.

“It is making fun of all of those macho sports events that queer people and women just typically can’t participate in, and it’s a gender-blending extravaganza of lube wrestling, drag queens and whoever else decides to jump in that lube pit,” she said.

Bilodeau, right, founded Arctic Glow, a night of ‘ladies lube wrestling.’ Though the event was controversial when it launched, it’s become a popular gathering for the LGBTQ community. (Submitted by Bibi Bilodeau)

Though COVID-19 forced Bilodeau to cancel this year’s event, she has refashioned it into a virtual murder mystery party.

Bilodeau said since arriving in Iqaluit, the perception of LGBTQ people has evolved. Last year, she helped raise a rainbow flag at a school — and the college and a local hotel quickly followed suit.

“If you approach it with the mindset of you just want to help and give back and address issues that benefit everyone, like poverty and hunger, then all of a sudden I think the communities are more welcoming,” she said.

‘People make space for you’

Shaun LaDue spent the past year travelling North America in a truck he calls Mobius, but now, the 52-year-old has settled into a tiny home about 100 kilometres south of Whitehorse in Tagish, Yukon.

(Ben Shannon/CBC, Photo submitted by Shaun LaDue)

Though he’s lived in cities and towns across the country, the bush has often drawn him back to Yukon.

“It goes back generations — I’m First Nations — so being up here in the summer, especially, there’s a sense of freedom that you don’t get in the city.”

Like Iqaluit, Yukon doesn’t offer many spaces for LGBTQ folks to congregate, but it’s a tight-knit community. “People make space for you,” said LaDue, who is trans. 

“I find up here it’s like, ‘Oh, you’re queer? Let’s hang out.’… It’s more about who you are, what your character is.”

There have been Pride festivals in Whitehorse in the past, but because of COVID-19, there will be no parade this year, and events have moved online.

But LaDue is already cooking up a plan: a private LGBTQ film festival in the bush.

“My truck has very white walls, and I think we might pull her out of where she’s parked and hook her up to a sound system and watch some gay movies out here late at night,” he said.

LaDue stands with a trans Pride flag on a matching crosswalk in Whitehorse. (Submitted by Shaun LaDue)

Going virtual

On Fogo Island, Taylor and Parsons are working to take their festival digital as best they can — internet connectivity there is limited, but connecting people is more important than ever.

“There might be some queer youth that are out to their family … and it might be a bad home situation. And now, they’re locked in their home with their family, and they can only reach out to people online,” Parsons said.

The couple hope to host a panel discussion about issues facing rural LGBTQ people and offer some online drag performances.

“We’re really trying to leverage technology as much as we possibly can to create an interactive experience, even though we can’t all be in one place together,” Taylor added.

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