MIDWESTERN ONTARIO – Research on the importance of Pride celebrations in rural communities based on responses from over 300 respondents in 95 rural communities across Ontario was recently conducted by AJ Adams, a social change advocate who works to enhance LGBTQ2+ efforts in small towns.
Adams, who now lives in Stratford and is the chair of Stratford Perth Pride, grew up in Kincardine and he recalls an absence of visible representation of the LGBTQ2+ community when he was younger.
“I think (for) a lot of the LGBTQ2+ folks who are from rural communities… it was hard to identify with anything to do with gender identity or sexuality and… just seeing something like a rainbow flag in your city hall – it just resonates with you,” he said. “That would have helped a lot of people figure out sooner about their sexuality and their gender identity and that’s something that I’ve seen through my research and my work and speaking with folks in Pride organizations, it has helped create that conversation and create that dialogue, not only for the community as a whole but for youth who are in high school or younger or even for older folks who are now realizing … that flag resonates with (them) and they start doing a lot of self-discovery.”
Adams works full-time as a communications and marketing professional for a health research institute, but in 2019 he also decided to tackle university for a degree in Community Leadership and Equity, Diversity and Human Rights as well.
“So this research was part of an introduction to research course but it has grown into more than that,” he said. “In doing this project it made me realize there’s a huge gap in understanding the LGBTQ2+ community in rural settings and obviously with my personal experience, being gay from Kincardine, it kind of really just lit a fire under my butt and made me realize… it is something I am very passionate about.”
The response to his research from across the province showed that the LGBTQ2+ community exists in small towns.
“They are not just in downtown Toronto,” said Adams. “I think a lot of people are realizing too how great small-town Pride parades and festivals are. I don’t know any small town that doesn’t do festivals and parades well. It’s a huge part of small-town culture so I feel like Pride just naturally fits in that way.”
He was very fortunate when he was sharing his survey that a lot of rural Pride organizations shared it with their contacts and on social media.
“Some (respondents) are straight, some folks are gay, lesbian, transgender, what have you,” said Adams. “But there are over 95 rural communities all across Ontario, not just southern Ontario, up north too. There is some remote First Nations that had some representation in this survey.”
When discussing the results of the survey, the first thing that comes to his mind is that over 75 per cent of LGBTQ2+ respondents said they experienced some form of hate speech in their hometown.
“Whether they were walking down the street and they got called a slur or they get discriminated against for being gay in their workplace – 75 per cent of rural folks experienced that,” said Adams. “So hate speech is quite prominent for LGBTQ2+ communities in small towns, however for those individuals that live in rural communities that now have Pride parades or Pride organizations, 33 per cent of those respondents said that Pride has decreased hate speech, so we’re seeing that just having something like Pride or a Pride flag flown, it’s creating dialogue and creating conversation and it’s decreasing hate speech which I think it just a wonderful thing.”
He said there may always be some discrimination so he doesn’t expect it to be true when people say things like ‘oh racism doesn’t exist in our small town anymore’ or ‘homophobia doesn’t happen in our small town.’
“By that logic in a city like Toronto which is one of the most multicultural cities in the world, it has a high LGBTQ2+ population, you would say there is no homophobia there then, but it does exist there,” said Adams. “We see hate crimes on the news. So in a small town there is a smaller population of LGBTQ2+ folks. There is still going to be people who will be hateful but I think… they are being forced to question their hatred towards people.”
He said many families in rural Ontario have never necessarily had to talk about gay views, or if they have, it was negative.
“That’s always been their belief but now they are seeing gay folks in their small towns in a positive light,” said Adams. “Now they are starting to question themselves and they are seeing other people differently so I think that’s where the decrease in hate speech is. It’s not necessarily being wiped off the map.”
The responses to the survey were anonymous but he said there were several responses from the North Perth and Minto area.
“Perth County was pretty well represented,” said Adams. “Just being from Southwestern Ontario I do have contacts throughout… what I call the Lake Huron range, so Perth County, Huron County, Wellington County and Bruce County.
“There is representation from there and Listowel, with North Perth Pride which just started up this year.”
He said rural organizations like Kincardine Pride and Minto Pride have set a good example for groups like North Perth Pride to look at and use as a road map.
“That’s what I’ve been seeing a lot when I’ve been sharing my research and talking to different organizations,” said Adams. “They can duplicate what others are doing… In my research 81 per cent of individuals said that if a Pride organization existed in their youth it would have helped their coming out journey.”
He said the stereotype was to stay in the closet while in high school in a rural community and then come out in the big city while attending college or university, but Adams says there is a shift in some communities because youth are feeling more accepted and welcome seeing people in their towns marching in parades and holding rainbow flags.
“It’s helping people’s journey and the majority of folks are saying Pride would have helped them in their coming-out journey in their younger years,” he said. “I came out the weekend after my college graduation, I would have been 20 then.”
Around that time Kincardine Pride was started, and in the years since its inception, it has completely changed the culture of Adams’ hometown.
In 2016, Fort Papalia, founder of Kincardine Pride, read an article in the Kincardine News with the headline “London street preachers bring anti-LGBT message to Kincardine.”
“The article and video confirmed they were unwelcome by those that saw and heard them, but the article’s headline was ambiguous,” said Papalia. “People Googling Kincardine and only reading the headline might think they were welcomed and we were some rural homophobic outpost here, where I have lived, raised a family, belonged to various community groups.”
After giving it thought, he figured a Pride parade in Kincardine might be the best response.
“I had never been to a Pride event before,” said Papalia. “So I mentioned this to my theatre colleague, Sandy Blackwood, and she said ‘let’s do it,’ thinking even if we were the only two people walking down the sidewalk with a rainbow flag (it would) let any observing LGBTQ2+ youth know someone cared.”
He said from there, as people heard about it there were mixed reactions, but mostly excitement and people eager to support and sponsor.
“The main talking point I usually say is rural communities a lot of the time, folks just don’t know where to begin,” said Adams. “They want to be accepting and welcoming to the LGBTQ2+ community but… in this sort of controversial political correctness time a lot of people are super nervous about things like pronouns and gender identity and they don’t know how to navigate it so just start educating yourself.”
He said there are many videos available online and suggested a series of Out in the Country videos he made for Kincardine Pride on gender identity, pronouns and inclusive language.
“That’s how we have things like rainbow flag raisings and Pride parades,” said Adams. “It’s because conversations occurred and now we have these full-fledge welcomings in small towns.”
Adams spoke about how recent political discussions have affected the LGBTQ2+ community. In the recent federal election, Adams said it was disappointing that Wayne Baker, Perth-Wellington candidate for the People’s Party of Canada, could get over 5,000 votes after openly supporting conversion therapy at an all-candidates’ meeting. He also said that some of the Conservative Party’s MPs, such as Huron-Bruce representative Ben Lobb’s stance on conversion therapy and his vote against banning it, were disappointing.
“I am quite thankful John Nater, the (Perth-Wellington) MP voted in favour of banning conversion therapy,” said Adams. “It’s just an odd thing to still support… Gender identity and sexual orientation, it’s a part of who people are and there is no proven evidence that you can ‘pray away’ someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity, and for someone who is trying to seek political office who believes that’s a thing is just so obscene. It’s quite a harmful practice and… it’s trauma and it is torture for LGBTQ2+ folks. I’m quite thankful that it is banned in Ontario but Canada as a whole needs to get rid of it and it is quite disappointing that it still exists in the majority of this country.”
Colin Burrowes, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Listowel Banner