You don’t have leave your hometown if you’re gay. This was the resounding message at the second annual Walk Away From Homophobia in Campbell River May 15.
Hundreds of people of all ages and walks of life marched through downtown Campbell River last week to affirm the rights and dignity of local gays and lesbians.
“It is getting better,” says Yvonne Buxton, who is organising the first PFLAG group in Campbell River. “It was and still is a little bit homophobic. That’s what we’re trying to change here in Campbell River with our second annual Walk Away From Homophobia.”
The event, organised by Campbell River Pride, began in Bob Ostler Park overlooking the ocean. Sporting a rainbow cape, David Mielke offered some introductory remarks through spoken word and song.
“This park is where a lot of taunting and homophobic things happened to me as a kid,” says Mielke, who helped organise the event to mark the National Day Against Homophobia. “To just get up and sing about this and speak about this today, personally was a rite of a passage, a shifting point for me. I’m showing the little femme boy inside me that it’s okay for him to be who he was.”
The walk, which was led by a bagpiper and a banner, snaked along downtown sidewalks pausing for the lights at intersections. Passing cars honked in support. At least five onlookers waved and cheered in support. There were no signs of protest or opposition from the community.
Councillor Morgan Ostler read a proclamation on behalf of Mayor Roger McDonell. NDP MP Catherine Bell and NDP MLA Claire Trevena also made speeches.
“I think it’s very important to make sure that we are taking the steps to walk away from homophobia in our lives every day, not just one day in the year,” says Bell.
Trevena spoke about the need to walk towards something, rather than away.
“We need [to] walk for inclusion, we need to walk for the sense that everyone is of value,” she says. “Sexuality, it matters to each of us as individuals, but we are all people and that’s what matters. That’s what’s important and that’s what we should be walking for.”
It was a far cry from the “redneck town” some long-time gay activists, like Mike Luoma who was born and raised here, say Campbell River used to be. Events like the Walk Away From Homophobia make Luoma feel more optimistic about the future.
Wayne Campbell, who marched near the front of the line, embraced the day as an opportunity to be more open in his hometown. “When I was growing up here people always told me that there was no staying here if you’re gay — you have to go away as there was nothing for gay people,” he recalls.
Mielke says he’s noticed a definite shift in the town since he grew up here in the 1970s and ’80s. He points to an active GLBT support group, coffee socials, country line dancing nights, movie nights, a lesbian group and the new PLFAG group.
“To be able to come back now and feel like the young people who grew up here and graduate from high school don’t feel like they have to leave anymore. It’s actually made that shift where some of them feel comfortable staying here. It’s amazing,” he says.
Since 2005 students at two Campbell River secondary schools have fought homophobia through the group Youth 4 Diversity. They perform plays and hold discussions and movie nights to increase awareness of homophobia in the schools.
“A few weeks ago I did a count with a clicker on how many times we heard the word gay used in a negative way at our school, and it clocked in at about 50 times in one day,” says Rebecca Bennett, a Grade 10 student who got involved with Youth 4 Diversity.
“People don’t just say ‘that’s so gay,’ they also say ‘that’s so homosexual’ when their pencil breaks. It just doesn’t make any sense. Is the pencil a male pencil that also likes other male pencils or something?”
Bennett knows one student at her school who is openly gay. “He’s pretty open, but not publicly out. He doesn’t announce it but he also doesn’t hide it. People don’t say anything to his face but there is a lot of stuff that is said behind his back.”
Next year she plans to start a gay-straight alliance at her school. She says there was one a few years ago at another school but it fizzled out.
Organisers of this year’s Walk Away From Homophobia are optimistic about Campbell River’s gay future.
“I’m hoping we’ll have Elton John at the 10th Walk Away from Homophobia,” says Buxton.