Photo via Moose Jaw Pride.

How Small Towns in Saskatchewan Became More Welcoming to LGBTQ People

This year saw a growing Pride movement in rural parts of the province make some real progress.

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Dec 29 2016, 9:01pm

Photo via Moose Jaw Pride.

Joe Wickenhauser wrote his thesis to the soundtrack of postsecondary discontent.

His thesis is a Prairie endeavour about metronormativity, the idea—as he wrote it—that "LGBTQ people will inevitably abandon their closeted lives in smaller centres and rural areas for the promise of an open LGBTQ life in the metropolis."

"Surprisingly Unexpected" took shape on his computer in Montreal while thousands of students took to the streets for seven long months to protest tuition hikes in Quebec.

It's a contrast he remembers partly for the reaction the protest invoked on his Facebook feed. Friends back home were condemning it, not the cause, per se, but the methods. It was a moment of clarity: what works in downtown Montreal won't necessarily have the same effect in Saskatchewan.

In the land of living skies, many on the frontlines of the fight for equality agree the push to bring Pride to smaller, more disconnected communities is working. And for a rural Saskatchewan guy from Strasbourg (population 752) who picked Toronto (population 2.6 million) for grad school (although he did his writing out of Montreal, population 1.6 million) for the "possibility of living the real gay life," what once seemed unimaginable is finally unfolding.

This year has been a series of firsts: in Moose Jaw, the Pride Parade took over the city's Main Street; in Weyburn, Estevan and Humboldt the rainbow flag unfurled, proud, over smiling crowds; and to the north, Saskatoon won the bid to host InterPride 2018 and Beardy's & Okemasis First Nation hosted a Two-Spirit Festival heralded as "truly historic" by the prime minister.

The events typically associated with burgeoning metropolitan centres like Toronto and Vancouver, have accompanied some noteworthy milestones: In 2014 Saskatchewan added a specific protection for gender identity under the Human Rights Code. That paved the way this year for trans activist and public educator Laura Budd to win the right for herself and trans people province-wide to change their gender designation without requiring surgery.

Laura Budd giving diversity training in Melville in December. Photo via Laura Budd

Organizations across the province are also reporting high requests for gender diversity training, often from groups they would consider atypical: casinos and police forces as opposed to non-profits and schools.

It's no longer a matter of if you meet a gender diverse person, Budd says, but when.

"It's gone from the abstract," she says, "to bringing it home."

Home for Budd is with her wife and kids on a farm outside of Kelliher in rural Saskatchewan. And that last point is important.

"It's not want," Budd says of the work being done to ensure a safe and welcoming space for LGBTQ+ people in their own homes in less urban environments. "We expect them to have it here."

People often think small towns means small minds, but that wasn't the case for Budd. People knew her. They knew her when she was him, when she was a kid, a teenager, an adult, and a parent.

Budd remembers one resident telling her, "I don't understand why the change, why this is so important to you, but you're loved here and we'll figure it out. It's on us to figure this out, it's not up to you to educate us."

And yet, a fundamental part of what Budd and Wickenhauser do as employees of Moose Jaw Pride is educate.

Just recently when the Melville Millionaires made headlines when a woman said she was removed from the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League's billets because her granddaughter was transgender, it was Budd who stepped in to host training sessions.

It was an engaged, diverse group, she says. It was a misstep, yes, but a disrespectful and harmful action that turned into an opportunity to atone, to grow.

And that's what the rural Pride movement is doing in Saskatchewan: calling on people who make mistakes to recognize them and change, and—in the process–creating a home environment safe enough for people to come out, and feel safe staying.

Kevin Seesaquasis during the Two-Spirit Festival. Photo via Bryan Eneas

"I'm a perfect example of that," says Kevin Seesaquasis, a councilor with Beardy's & Okemasis First Nation, who first pitched the idea of a Two-Spirit Festival to his community. Seesaquasis, who is gay, moved to Saskatoon when he was young in part because he wasn't sure he could be himself around his neighbours. After the First Nation's inaugural pride events this past June, he feels he can.

"When we first announced it, people shared it on Facebook like crazy," he says. "There were a lot of individuals who identified as Two-Spirit or gay or LGBT in our community who came up and said, 'this is amazing, we've never had anything like this.'"

The conversations may not be happening as fast as people would like them to, says Autumn Bourque, the executive director and founder of Saskatchewan's newly created Trans Umbrella Foundation, but they are happening.

And Bourque, a New Brunswick native who settled in Saskatchewan by choice, doesn't buy the mentality that big cities are more welcoming just because they have more LGBTQ people.

"A lot of the smaller towns are more open-minded because it's their friends, it's their family, it's their people that are coming out," she says, as opposed to "when you live in the city and you don't know your next-door neighbour or the person down the hall from you."

Bourque is ever the optimist, while still struggling with the negativity gender-diverse people continue to face. Her months-old non-profit has huge Saskatchewan ambitions: a website that includes links to jobs already accepting of trans employees, a centre available to help unemployed people print resumes, staple job applications, and social support, and more.

A photo from the Humboldt Pride Week. Photo via Moose Jaw Pride.

Already, the Trans Umbrella Foundation has given training—and will again—to RCMP cadets in Regina. Bourque's wife was the first lecturer. She remembers asking if people knew someone who was gay or lesbian: many hands went up. She remembers asking if people knew someone who was trans: just the one. An RCMP spokesman says the cadets have had more questions lately about trans issues so the RCMP has been bringing in additional outside experts.

There remains much more work to be done.

Amanda Guthrie, education coordinator with OUTSaskatoon, is enthusiastic about all the positive change this year. But despite the progress, she says miscommunications—particularly with government—continue.

"I think a lot of us thought that we would start to see a bit more momentum around a working relationship with the government," Guthrie says of the days after the Human Rights Code amendment. "[We] have not seen any of that actually roll out in reality."

In September, Moose Jaw Pride heralded the government for funding sex-reassignment surgery "up to 100 per cent." The understanding of the trans people the organization works with was that roughly 30 per cent was funded. The government responded with: it's always been up to 100 per cent.

A spokesman for the ministry said the policy hadn't changed and what was new was the information making its way onto the government website. Decisions continue to be "reviewed on a case-by-case basis," he said, "and coverage is based on medical necessity." For some people, that can mean 30 percent and for others 100.

Such confusion about such delicate, important topics is why, "we need to have an open communication channel," Wickenhauser says.

Joe Wickenhauser in the Moose Jaw Pride offices. Photo via Jane Gerster

Trans activist and educatorBudd's win, while historic, doesn't allow transgender youth (even with parental permission) to change their gender marker. Similarly, Wickenhauser says the province still misgenders out-of-province people who have an "X" for gender. A spokesman for the ministry said it "does not have a formal policy" specific to communicating with gender-neutral people, but a government operations bulletin dated Oct. 1 says that "the sex indicator is a required field" and even claims from out-of-province persons with an "X" marker "can only be male or female."

Saskatoon artist Miki Mappin was fired years ago when she began her transition. As such, she became heavily involved in the human rights amendment and health care discussions. At the time, there was a dearth of information about where to access materials about surgeries, costs and coverage, where you could find a good doctor. Budd says this is now changing.

In an era of cost cutting, Mappin doesn't see the government feeling much pressure to enshrine any other rights or protections.

"I think we've hit a bit of a plateau" politically, she says, but not out in the community.

"Some really bad attitudes linger," permeating LGBTQ+ people's ability to access housing and health care, particularly for those who are trans and non-gender conforming.

Incremental rural change, the kind fuelled by Pride teas in churches and rainbow flags boosted high, "is helping to change attitudes and that's pretty important."

Follow Jane Gerster on Twitter.

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