Filled with PRIDE …

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Marching with the Taber Equality Alliance PRIDE FEST PARADE 2016  Lethbridge

I marched, for the very first time, in the 2016 PRIDE FEST PARADE in Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada  … the largest city nearby where I live in rural Southern Alberta.  I feel badly that it took me so long to do so, because as a social worker, I made a professional commitment to resist social injustice by advocating for those who are relegated to the margins of the dominant mainstream majority. As it states in the final line of my social worker declaration:

“I will act to effect social change for the overall benefit of humanity.” 

And honestly … I not only see sociopolitical activism as my professional responsibility, but as a result of my extensive studies in anti-oppression, it has also become a personal passion to ensure that each and every one of us feels a sense of respect, love and acceptance in our lives … despite any perceived differences between us.  We certainly don’t have to agree on things and/or walk the same paths to be kind and compassionate with one another.

As an ally, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I arrived to march in the parade … but I can tell you that being a part of the incredible PRIDE movement was deeply meaningful to me.  It touched me in ways that I could never have anticipated … and … that are exceptionally hard to describe with these words. You might get a wee sense of the sublime joy stirring in my soul from the smile showing on my face in the picture. My enthusiasm reflects the honor and pride I felt in waving the rainbow flag … both as an act of resistance to ‘othering’ and as an allied voice for inclusion.

It’s difficult to describe the energy of acceptance, joy, love and connection that was both particularly potent and entirely palpable during this event. It struck me that it didn’t really matter who you were … straight, queer, gay, lesbian, trans, bi-sexual, older, younger, married, single, white, black, brown, red, able-bodied or differently-abled.  There was such a rich and deep sense of appreciation for all of our humanity … in all its diverse expressions and equally divine incarnations. I sensed that each and every person in attendance was marinating in this undeniably warm, accepting and welcoming atmosphere.  It was clearly a safe place for folks to stand tall in the fullest expression of who they know themselves to be.

No apologies nor concessions were required in order to feel approved of … and/or … to be valued and recognized and acknowledged and appreciated. I can’t honestly remember being in any other social situation where I sensed such a complete lack of judgment. It seemed so unusual because, quite frankly, although unconditional love is loudly lauded in our culture … in reality … it seems relatively rare for one to actually experience it.  In fact, it strikes me that it can be quite challenging to find a space where people simply connect soul to soul … where hierarchies are suspended, differences are duly honored and each individual gets to feel unequivocally respected as an equally significant member of our human family.

The reality is that because I am a straight, married, white, middle-class, able-bodied, well-educated professional woman I can wander about my life enjoying an ample allowance of cultural acceptance simply because I visibly fit so comfortably into the dominant mainstream.  Not everyone is afforded this unearned grace. I reside in a very small rural town (about 8400 people) boasting a fairly homogeneous heterosexual, white, patriarchal, hard-working, family oriented and conservative Christian majority.  There is nothing problematic about that … unless you don’t happen to visibly ‘fit’ within that demographic majority … because it’s really hard to be anonymous here … unless you are good at hiding.  And, my heart aches because I know there are folks ‘hiding’ out in our little town because, in some way, they do not reflect dominant mainstream cultural norms.  Sadly, I’m aware that those who identify within the LGBTQ+ (i.e. lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, plus more) demographic may feel obligated to trade their personal ‘authenticity’ for the safety of small town cultural ‘approval’.  Yes. It can feel like one or the other for many folks. Many may feel pressured to hide the truth of their differences in exchange for a semblance of acceptance.

In fact, even speaking up so publicly in support of the LGBTQ+ community makes me feel somewhat vulnerable because I risk losing some of the safety and acceptance I currently garner from Taberites who perceive me to be solidly aligned with the dominant, mainstream beliefs of the Christian majority.  But I have to admit that, I too, have been hiding a bit.  I have been relatively silent in the public domain about my own sociopolitical convictions for far too long. It is time, however, as a constructivist, feminist, social worker that I stand in solidarity with those whose voices have been muted and marginalized.

From what I have come to understand, June is recognized as LGBTQ Pride Month due to a rally that took place in 1969 which was touted as the first major demonstration for gay rights.  And so, much to my own chagrin, here I am … finally joining those who have been speaking up for almost 40 years in support of the LGBTQ+ cause.

Yes.  At this point, my relative silence is starting to feel like a betrayal of human rights in general. It feels both essential and necessary to utilize some of my mainstream power and privilege to publicly support those don’t feel safe enough in our community to come out of hiding.  I sense it is important to do so, because it is common for our town locals to believe that we don’t have any members of the LGBTQ+ community living here.  They assume that the LGBTQ+ population resides only in the bigger centers.  And while it is entirely possible that many members of the LGBTQ+ community do, in fact, move away in order to live more honestly and authentically … the Forum Research Poll from 2012 estimates that approximately 5% of adults aged 18 – 59 in Alberta identify within the LGBTQ+ community.  That means, that of the 8428 people residing here … 421 may not identify as heterosexual or cisgender. And, as also noted in the Taber Times (our local newspaper) on April 5, 2017   … “of those numbers, some 194 could be students or youth (based upon a population of school age children and youth of 3, 879)”  And so, if we are not ‘seeing’ obvious evidence of this diversity in our town, then we can assume these adults, youth and children are working hard at ‘hiding’ their differences.

A couple of years  ago, I was super excited to learn that a local group had been started (in our small, rural town) called The Taber Equality Alliance (TEA).  The mission of this coalition is to create a safe space in our community for sexual and gender identity minorities and their allies.  This alliance is focused upon building a more welcoming and inclusive community through engagement, partnerships, social groups and advocacy.  I instinctively knew this initiative was something I wanted to be a part of.  We meet on a monthly basis and are slowly growing in both allies and those who identify as LGBTQ+.  Our membership hit 135 people in May of 2017!  And … we are committed to gaining more visibility in our small rural community. A while back we gained some good press coverage when we acquired our ‘Society Status’.

After participating in the Pride Parade in Lethbridge Alberta, we determined that it would serve our cause well to raise our visibility in our little town.  Our first event was a fundraiser and silent auction.  It was a great evening for LGBTQ+ members and their allies to come out and connect.  And then … we got even braver and decided to put a ‘float’ into our own little community parade.  I wasn’t able to attend but our members donned their new white TEA shirts … and then … we also competed in the Chili Competition at our infamous Taber Cornfest Celebration in August of 2016.

And even though the clouds rained on our parade … the downpour never dampened our spirits!!

Recently, we determined that we should host our own PRIDE event … right here in our own little neck of the woods.  Our delegation of 22 people entered the officious Council Chambers of the Town of Taber to request that the PRIDE flag be raised on June 12th and then allowed to fly until June 30th.  This time frame represents five percent of the year to symbolically  honor the five percent of the community that identify as  part of the LGBTQ+ community.  Two of our delegates were seated up front to provide our presentation to the seven Town of Taber Councillors.  One of our members who identifies as transgender spoke candidly about the pain she experienced:

“The first time I attempted suicide, I was 10 years old.  I had been led to believe that how I felt was wrong and sinful.  I felt a great deal of shame for feeling things I did not understand or control. If I could not be a girl, then I didn’t want to live at all. I hated myself for how I felt, and the fact that I could not be normal. I went into the kitchen and pulled the biggest knife I could find from the drawer.  I held it to my chest and struggled with myself. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t take my own life.  I placed the knife back in the drawer and went to my room.  I couldn’t end my suffering.  I felt completely and utterly trapped in this wretched life.

This wasn’t the only time I attempted. Every day I think about killing myself. It has taken a long time, but I have now finally been able to learn to love and accept myself.  Not as a boy or as a girl but as a being.  I’m now okay with being transgender and wear it as a badge of honor.  My hope is that through the efforts of TEA, we are able to help prevent someone else from going through the same misery that I have felt.”

I have to admit I was a bit dumbfounded to witness these two beautiful souls courageously expressing such achingly hard truths …  from the bottom of their hearts straight to to the tops of the Councillors down-turned heads. Although two of the politicians were visibly engaged and consistently sustained eye contact with our delegates, the majority of them were focusing their attention on the documents on their desks. Perhaps they had not yet read the package we had forwarded to them well in advance of the meeting? Perhaps this is common practice in the political arena? Perhaps I am just too old school …?  I have no idea, but I really struggled to make sense of what I was observing.  In this culture, from the time we are children, we are socialized to look at people when they are talking to you. It is perceived as a sign of respect.  It just doesn’t feel like people are really listening … nor interested in hearing you … when you don’t have their eyes.

It took a couple of motions before they agreed (by a very slim margin of 4-3) to permit us to raise the rainbow flag on a pole behind the Town Office. We had petitioned to raise it in front of the office where it would get more visibility on one of our main streets. It was suggested by one of the politicians that TEA should be “accepting” of their decision. It struck me as kind of ironic that we, the minority, were the ones being admonished to be ‘accepting’. It’s entirely paradoxical because the central issue perpetually facing marginalized groups and minorities (over time and across history) is that they have been silenced by the those in positions of power. And therefore, for the most part, they have had little option but to ‘accept’ the will of majority.

In the final analysis, however, we choose to see this as a small victory and, ultimately, a step in the right direction.  And … we will persist.

Margaret Mead

For some reason, it also seems germane to mention that prior to the meeting, I had noticed that one of the town Councillors had a sign posted in his front yard saying “Protect pre-birth rights.”  It was tempting to hope this meant he might be equally committed to also protecting ‘post’ birth rights … but he voted against both motions … adding verbally, with a slightly perceptible shake of his head, that he could not support this initiative. I do understand that the objections around supporting the human rights of the LGBTQ+ community are often founded upon religious convictions. That said, it is certainly not my intention, here in this blog, to take issue with people’s fundamental rights to stand behind their own tenets of faith. I completely respect every individual’s right to their own opinion.  And so, if the content of this blog offends your sensibilities, please accept my sincerest respect for our differences. It’s just that, from a my own spiritual perspective, I might interpret things a bit differently.   From where I am looking … I am guessing that if Jesus was still physically present among us, he would have joined us for the flag raising … inspiring a spirit of compassion and acceptance for one and all.

I trust that we truly are a small town with big hearts!  I expect that there are many folks in our small town who are also interested in supporting post-birth human rights.  And so, if you feel inclined to help raise the vibration of inclusion in Taber and create more safety and comfort for members of our LGBTQ+ community, please plan to gather with us at our first ever PRIDE event  on June 12th, 2017!  I hope we can come together (both allies and those who identify as LGBTQ+) … have a hot dog, enjoy the entertainment and stand in solidarity so that this sector of our humanity can visibly ‘see’ and ‘feel’ the support that is available within our little town.

With deepest reverence for our human differences and much enthusiasm for all that is possible when we bring our hearts together … Karen

 

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