Rachel Patenaude – LJI Reporter
For many, growing up in a small town provides a sense of community and belonging. Knowing your neighbours, seeing them at local events at schools, legions, and fire departments – all these help form a community bond that can last generations. The towns and villages that make up the Valley have created this sense of belonging for many; however, not all community members have had this experience. For some LGBTQ+ folks, growing up here has left them with complex feelings about belonging, and it has often resulted in a search for community elsewhere.
Youth is a difficult time for everyone – it’s a time of self-discovery and of trying to figure out your place in the world. When LGBTQ+ youth aren’t exposed to queerness as a possibility, that search for self can be lonely and confusing.
“A big part of my coming out was that I didn’t understand my queerness, I didn’t know what it was, I couldn’t imagine that it could be this,” says Mélanie Primeau, a lesbian from Havelock. “[Never seeing queerness] makes it harder [for queer kids] to find themselves. How are you supposed to identify something that you’ve never seen?”
She speaks of how the lack of LGBTQ+ visibility led her to believe there was something wrong with her as she began to discover herself. She notes that even within a supportive and loving home, coming out is difficult in an environment where queerness is treated as “other.” This lack of visibility slows self-discovery and reinforces heteronormative ideals of sexuality and gender, further isolating LGBTQ+ youth.
“I was really unaware of my queerness, especially because I grew up in a really religious and conservative environment,” says Philip Fortin, a gay non-binary man from Hemmingford. “I was only exposed to one concept of how to be male or female, and how those roles should influence my way of being.” When LGBTQ+ youth are only shown one acceptable way to be themselves, it pushes them into further isolation, heightening loneliness, and excluding them from the community bond of the Valley. This causes many to leave for Montreal, as they feel it’s the only place they can live authentically.
“I didn’t think [being gay] existed. I didn’t have any [gay] pop culture references or exposure, I was never even shown it was a possibility until I got to college,” says Devon Watt, a gay woman from Hemmingford. She notes that a diverse environment which encourages exploration is important to the growth and self-discovery of LGBTQ+ youth.
This sentiment was echoed by Mathieu Brault, a trans man from Ormstown. “[Being trans] was always in the back of my mind, but it wasn’t until I left the Valley … that I was really able to start exploring it. I just felt like I couldn’t, in the Valley,” he says. He spoke of his struggle to identify his masculinity amidst the strict binary gender roles imposed on him as a kid, and how it delayed his ability to accept himself as trans.
Fortin notes that his move to Montreal was the beginning of his journey towards self-discovery. “I started to interact with other people in CEGEP and university [and began] to recognize, ‘Oh, THAT’S how I identify’ or ‘Oh, THAT’S how I see myself.’ It was only in those settings that I started to understand myself as queer,” he says.
The ability to recognize your experience in others helps LGBTQ+ folks create a sense of belonging and community that may have been lacking in their rural upbringing. “I wish I would’ve had a ‘me’ character 20 years ago to tell me I was beautiful as I was,” says Fortin. “We need more people to be able to say, ‘you’re beautiful as you are’. The struggle isn’t being ourselves, it’s being understood.”
Watt, since becoming an adult, has moved back to Hemmingford. She makes a point of letting people know that she’s proud of who she is, and she has yet to receive a negative reaction. She does mention that exposure to LGBTQ+ resources when she was a kid would have greatly benefited her self-discovery. “Knowing that we exist would’ve been a great hint; I would’ve figured myself out a lot sooner, and maybe I would’ve had that prom experience I’m jealous of,” she says.
Primeau also speaks of returning to the Valley, saying “When I was young, I pushed myself as far away as I could from my roots. I was uncomfortable living here, so I moved and went to CEGEP in the city at 17. But now, the older I get, the more I reconnect with these roots, and [I] see myself returning and working on my farm. I’m really a country girl.”
While the Valley will always be home for many, it hasn’t always been a place of belonging or community for all. However, it doesn’t have to be this way. “Small towns don’t have to be close-minded,” says Brault. “I think I’m thankful for [my upbringing], but I recognize that there is more in the world than what we see in the Valley.” He says he wishes he had known it is ok to be different, and that people don’t have to fit into a narrow box of sexuality and gender.
When asked what he wishes Valley folks would understand, he says, “Whether they’re trans or queer, just love and support your kids. That’s all they want.”