Small-town gay teens strive for big-city diversity and acceptance

The Canadian Press ~ The News
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HALIFAX - The anti-gay slurs were tossed around Marion Miller's classroom in rural Nova Scotia as casually as paper airplanes.
"People would be in class just throwing out death threats about, like, the two people who had ever dared to come out," recalls Miller, a college student now living in Montreal who describes herself as queer.
"People would say things like, 'My cousin, I don't talk to him anymore since he came out' and 'There's not any gay people at this school because we would have rounded them up already."'
When the disparagement was too much, Miller would slip quietly outside her classroom in Pomquet, an Acadian hamlet some 2 1/2 hours northeast of Halifax.
Miller was around 14 and had only just come out to herself, close friends and family. Her classmates, she figured, wouldn't accept her.
"I was shaken. It was really scary," says Miller, now 18. "I was like, 'Wow, does this mean I could never come out? Is this what faces me in the world, these kinds of people?"'
For young people who identify as LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer), being out and proud in small-town Canada isn't necessarily easy.
Last year, in the rural New Brunswick community of Woodstock, a high school women's hockey team made headlines for banding together in support of two gay teammates. The girls were being harassed on the ice by some members of rival teams.The Woodstock Lady Thunder's simple, rainbow-theme button campaign earned the team a New Brunswick Human Rights Award and a Grace Under Pressure award from the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women and Sport.
Without visible support, one expert says growing up gay in a small town can be an exercise in waiting and loneliness.
"Lots of young people that we talk to really feel like they need to keep their head down, get through the teenage years and finish school," says Jennifer Fodden, executive director of a Toronto-based helpline for LGBTQ youth.
Some 6,000 Ontarians contact the Lesbian Gay Bi Trans Youth Line each year and chat with peers aged 15 to 26 who've shared many of the same questions, concerns and experiences.
Fodden, 36, says the promise of pride parades and support groups in big cities can lure youths from their rural homes before they're financially ready. Some wind up on the street as a result.
LGBTQ youth face challenges in larger centres, too, but there's generally more support and resources are handy, says Fodden, a Toronto native who came out as a lesbian at 21.
"I had more options," she says of her coming out experience. "It was a less personally excruciating process of trying to figure out who I was, for sure."
Miller, who says she's dated women but hasn't closed the door on dating men, transferred from Pomquet to a school in nearby Antigonish in Grade 11.
The switch to Antigonish - a small university town of about 4,200 people - was partly to take different courses and partly to escape what had become a hostile environment.
But it wasn't a seamless transition.
Miller says she fought, and failed, to form a gay-straight alliance at her new high school. When she came out publicly in her graduation year, there were some negative comments. But there was also a local support group for gay youth known as Rainbow Warriors.
In September, Miller moved to Montreal to study arts at a CEGEP campus and seek out "diversity and openness and big ideas."
Ironically, she's discovered that being out and accepted means focusing on more than being young and queer.
"I always used to feel like when I would bring it up in Antigonish, it would be 'Oh, there's the gay one going on about her agenda again,"' Miller says.
"Here, it's like I don't have to bring up my so-called agenda because people get it."

Organizations: Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women, Lesbian Gay Bi Trans Youth Line

Geographic location: HALIFAX, Montreal, Nova Scotia Antigonish Canada New Brunswick Toronto

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