By Laura Stovel, Special to the Revelstoke Review
Revelstoke prides itself on being a friendly and safe community that welcomes diverse people from around the world. But even here there have always been people who lived with fear. Fear of being ‘outed’ as a gay, lesbian or transgender person. Fear of violence, bullying or discrimination if their identities were known. Fear of just being themselves, whether they are Aboriginal, a visible minority person or someone who is gay, lesbian or transgender.
Perhaps the group that has lived most in fear in recent decades has been members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual and questioning/queer (LGBTQ) community. As School District 19 superintendent Mike Hooker observed, most LGBTQ youth “commonly didn’t come ‘out’ until they left Revelstoke.”
For Ron Bennison, a gay man who graduated from Revelstoke Secondary School in 1980, the fear of exposure, ridicule and possible violence, prevented him from naturally exploring his feelings and his sexuality as a teenager.
“I was fearful. It’s a rite of passage for teenage boys to pick on each other to establish the alpha male,” he said. Even though he hid his identity, he describes being bullied. “I would get punched or kicked in the hallways. I had to walk a straight and narrow line. It made me a perfectionist.”
It was not until Bennison moved to Vancouver at the age of 18 that he felt safe enough to explore his sexuality and live more openly as a gay man. When he moved back to Revelstoke to work in the 1980s, he kept quiet about his sexuality.
“I was concerned for my personal safety. I could have ended like Mathew Sheppard if I came out in Revelstoke. Because of the fights.”
(Mathew Sheppard was a gay youth in Wyoming who was murdered in 1998 simply for being gay).
Bennison is not alone in this experience. Other gay men in Revelstoke have described being harassed, threatened or feeling the need to look over their shoulder as they walked down the street at night. One visible minority resident described being violently singled out in a bar in a racist attack.
This is a side of Revelstoke that most residents don’t see but which we can do something to prevent. The City of Revelstoke’s Social Development office is leading an initiative, funded by Columbia Basin Trust, to develop a protocol – a planned, community response – to address hate-based incidents ranging from derogatory slurs to graffiti to threats or physical assaults.
Working with service providers, businesses, non-profit groups, and interested residents, social development coordinator Jill Zacharias, consultant Laura Stovel and the protocol steering committee are developing a community-wide plan of action so that if an incident happens there is a recognized process to respond to it.
Businesses and organizations are encouraged to have their own policies, recognized by staff, to address incidents as they arise. For example, do local bars have policies in place to address racist or homophobic insults, threats or violence? If a criminal offense occurs, what is the process to support victims? If it’s not a criminal offense but still a hate-based incident, what is the process to respond to it and to affirm that Revelstoke does not accept hate speech or actions in any form?
Protocol coordinators are organizing a community meeting to help draft a protocol for Revelstoke. Anyone interested in having a conversation about how community members and organizations should respond if a hate-based incident happens is welcome to attend. Those interested in attending should RSVP to Laura Stovel at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bennison describes well what Revelstoke should be aiming for in celebrating and cherishing diversity. “We should aspire not only to make people feel safe but to make them feel comfortable. In Revelstoke it would be a huge watershed change if same-sex partners could kiss and hold hands and not feel uncomfortable.”
Creating a culture where all people can be comfortable being themselves and feeling valued can only enrich the community. “It’s our uniqueness that we’re holding back,” Bennison said.