Martin Ralph knows the problems that can come with being openly gay in Revelstoke. He’s felt nervous walking down the street, counselled young people who were tormented for their sexual identities, and even been threatened himself — notably last year when the Revelstoke Theatre Company performed Dog Sees God, a controversial play that dealt with many teen issues, including sexual identity.
“They were very bigoted,” said Ralph. “I didn’t feel that threatened, but I made it clear that if this person was serious, I could take care of myself.”
At the same time, he’s noticed a wholesale change in attitudes in Revelstoke over the past year, attributed to things like the performance of Dog Sees God and the advent of Safe Spaces of Revelstoke, a society that aims to increase the visibility of the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bi-sexul, transgender and queer) community and allow them to live their lives as they are openly and without fear.
“Invisibility is not the same as integration and acceptance. Visibility is about living OUT, in the open. Free to express ourselves safe from fear, discrimination, judgment and violence,” wrote Samantha Roberts in this paper last year. It’s a statement the society has adopted on its website, safespacesrevelstoke.org.
“Our goal is to celebrate everyone and the lives we all live,” said Ralph.
Revelstoke has long been home to a small LGBTQ community. Many years ago, they had informal social gatherings and would attend events outside the community together. For the most part, they lived their lives quietly. You would have to be brave to walk down the street holding hands with your partner.
“I came from the city, so the atmosphere was quite difficult for me to adjust to,” said Ralph. “I’ve had partners here and how I lived here was way less comfortable than in the city.”
He said there’s “a history of gay bashings” here, and he’s helped people who have been harassed and beaten. “There’s been a couple of severe incidents in Revelstoke. It’s not like it doesn’t exist.”
It took Laura Stovel to spur the community to get organized. She was contracted by Okanagan College to run an EmbraceBC program designed to promote diversity in the community. At around the same time, Ryan Clayton, from Salmon Arm, was set to come to Revelstoke Secondary School to give a talk about growing up gay in a small community. The suggestion came to host a community event. Stovel wanted someone from the LGTBQ community to be part of it, so she approached Ralph.
Clayton spoke in April and Dog Sees God was performed in May to big crowds. In June, Roberts hosted an informal social gathering at Castle Joe Books.
“When we started getting organized, so many people were supportive,” said Stovel. “The high school was absolutely ready for something, and has been incredibly supportive and open and active.”
The Safe Spaces Revelstoke Society was started in 2014 and is chaired by Ralph. The board consists of about a dozen people, the majority of whom are allies of the LGBTQ community. They have a Facebook page and a new website. The board meets monthly.
“Lots of people were interested. Some were parents hoping for a better environment for their children,” said Stovel.
Revelstoke Secondary School is where a lot of the “consciousness raising” – to steal a term used by Ralph – has been taking place.
“What I’m observing is it’s the high school students who are finding the courage to come out,” said Stovel.
Safe Spaces has reached out to businesses, giving out pride stickers they can put in their door to indicate their LGBTQ-friendly. Jill Zacharias, Revelstoke’s Social Development Coordinator, created an information sheet for healthcare workers on how to care for transgender patients.
They want to take part in the Canada Day parade this year and host a Pride event in the future.
“I think it’s a step at a time. You don’t just get in someone’s face. I think it’s about being present being who you are, being an example, but it’s also about standing up for what is right,” said Ralph. “I think what we’ll do in the future is stay engaged, stay visible and stay supportive and helpful.”