How does a small rural community, a two hour drive from Toronto and with a population of 700, handle issues like LGBT politics and HIV? Bob Leahy lives in one such community and files this report.
“I’m feeling a little queer today” said Lillian, patting my arm while I drank my coffee at the local family diner. Lillian, in her 80’s is entirely not queer in the modern sense, so I seized the opportunity to have a chat about how the meaning of some words change over the years. When I mentioned “gay” was another such word, she understood immediately - and promptly gave me a hug, leaned down and gave me a kiss on the brow.
Lillian knows I’m gay, knows I’m poz and it doesn’t seem to faze her one bit. She’s very supportive, in fact. When our local MP succumbed to the wishes of some constituents and voted in the House of Commons to reopen the same-sex marriage debate a few years ago, Lillian would have none of it. She wrote a strident letter to the press supporting gay and lesbian equality and whereas we were mere acquaintances prior to the same sex marriage issue rearing its head, we are much closer now.
Funny how attacks on LGBT rights draw us together and create love instead, eh?
It’s an accepting community, this one, but that doesn’t mean that some don’t struggle with the changes in larger societal values that have occurred in the past couple of decades. True, our riding is represented by a conservative in Ottawa (this is rural Canada after all) , but the village itself is more left leaning. That’s in part due to an influx of city folks moving here, so what was once an ailing farming community is now borderline artsy and sports a trendy shopper-friendly main street. You can buy twenty kinds of gourmet mustard here, the work of local artists, beeswax candles, 50’s nostalgia, artfully spun glass and artisan breads. If a backwater can also be a destination, we are it.
But we are still a farming community at heart, and as with most farm-based communities, church life remains an important part of the rural diaspora. One church, the United, is actually quite progressive, so much so that this year it became an “affirming congregation” This means welcoming the LGBT population in to its midst and allowing same-sex marriages to be performed in the chancel. Although not the least bit religious, I took part in a panel discussion at the church to discuss LGBT issues, prior to their voting on going “affirming”. (The vote passed with a 97% majority in favour, by the way.)
But there have been setbacks.
Previously in a cordial relationship with the other churches in the community (there are four in total and three of them engage in joint ecumenical services from time to time), the United Church congregation received a letter from the pastor of the local Free Methodist Church, which sent shockwaves through the newly affirming United congregation. Here are some excerpts. . .
”Due to your recent affirmation of homosexuality there can be no ecumenical endeavours (between your church and ours). .. What you have led your church to do contravenes the Word of God”. To call “loving and acceptable” what Almighty God clearly calls “sin” is wrong..”
The letter goes on “Homosexuality is clearly defined as a sin in both the Old and New Testaments. Therefore an “affirmations of the homosexual lifestyle and calling acceptable what God calls “:sins” , this decision to reject the authority of the Scriptures must end the association between our churches.”
This of course created more than a ripple, and not just in our little gay household. But reason and strategizing took the place of anger. The end result? A decision to let things blow over, to live and let live, to turn the other cheek. That doesn’t sound like the activist in me speaking, but it was a decision tempered by a desire by myself and others to see strained relations mended. I’d like to think it was a christian response, whether I’m a believer or not.
How typical is this incident though? Do undercurrents of religion-fuelled intolerance exist under the surface of other/many/most seemingly accepting communities? Probably. Is rural Canada a little bit behind the rest of us? Probably also. But we shouldn’t ignore also that in those very same places, and I include my village in the list, there are also incredibly supportive environments for gays, lesbian and transgendered people, and for social justice issues too in general. And people living with HIV in rural communities like mine can in fact sometimes be made very welcome indeed.
My experience may not be typical. One hears horror stories from other communities. But on the HIV front, I have to say I’ve received nothing but support here from this little farming community, not one instance of AIDS-phobia, ever.
Other measures of support? My partner and I collect A LOT of money here for our local AIDS Service organization from local contacts we’ve made. In fact we’ve been the agency’s top fundraisers for some years, surpassing the efforts of any from the urban centre in which our agency is based. People are generous here, and easily approached. Meanwhile, Grannies for Africa has an intensely committed local branch here and have been highly effective in raising funds for the Stephen Lewis Foundation. Those grannies really care – and not just about orphaned children. Ask them about the progress of Bill C398 (to help get lower-cost, generic medicines to people in developing countries) and they are both knowledgeable and passionate.
I’m scheduled to talk at the United Church service here in the village on Sunday December 2, the day after World Aids Day. I’ve done this at other churches but never in my own community. It kind of means a lot to me that I’ve been asked.
I’m a firm non-believer of course, but I do nevertheless identify with the basic christian values I learned at Sunday School, before deciding it wasn’t for me and going around splashing in puddles each Sunday morning instead. And so I think that will be my theme – how those basic values have served me OK. But I’ll also want to acknowledge the caring and passion in my community, and the good that I think exists in all individuals and how we can utilize that to fight things live HIV stigma or it’s only slightly less evil twin, indifference. Does that sound too preachy?
It’s not unlike what I’ve spoken about before in other times and in other places. Never one to be scaremongering, or worse (“don’t be like me” is a public speaking message which drives me up the wall) or even suggesting everyone use condoms I’ll often ramble on about HIV stigma and in fact all stigmas – what causes them and how we process them in communities large and small. People here know I have a social justice agenda, and I think they respect that. These people are my friends.
So it will be back to church for me next month, albeit as a visitor. And probably later that month too, for their church supper. Did I mention this non-believer in all things holy loves church suppers? But that’s another story.