Out Our Way:
Gay & Lesbian Life in the Country

208 pages,
ISBN: 1896357059

Post Your Opinion
Opening Country Closets
by Helen Forsey

It's an article of faith in many rural communities that the local citizenry is straight. Big cities, we concede, tolerate some pretty weird lifestyles, but out our way, all of us are safely heterosexual. Any suggestion to the contrary is likely to provoke either a horrified silence or titters of embarrassment. The rural closet is large and often unforgiving.
Michael Riordon sets out in this book to debunk the myth that being rural means being straight. He spent two years travelling across Canada, gathering personal stories of gay men and lesbians living in the countryside or in small towns. The result is a composite portrait, not only of a fascinating variety of people, but also of the diverse rural communities that frame their lives.
Here are Jo and Scarlet, farming in Pictou County, Nova Scotia; "Raymond", a chaplain on a military base; "Jean", raising her two teenage sons in a Northern Ontario village; Wayne, a Mountie in Yellowknife; "Desmond", an Alberta doctor. Here is Jim, who operates a small sawmill in the Newfoundland coastal town where he was born; Annie, who drives ambulance and has a small trucking business on B.C.'s Galiano Island; Luc and Jean-François, running a bed-and-breakfast in the Laurentians north of Montreal; Cathy, market-gardening near Winnipeg on land she and her partner share with several other lesbians.
Here are a few famous names, too: the author Jane Rule, growing graciously older amidst what she calls "the gentleness of rural circumstance"; Jim Egan and Jack Nesbitt, whose long court battle led the Supreme Court of Canada to recommend adding sexual orientation to the Charter of Rights.
And here is Riordon himself, with his partner Brian, living on sixty acres in Prince Edward County, Ontario, where they moved from the city nine years ago. Pieces of Riordon's own experience and reflections are interspersed through the book, grounding and focusing the rest. But he does not impose his own interpretations in his accounts of others' lives. He remains present but not intrusive, giving his subjects space to tell their own stories in their own ways.
There is, inevitably, a lot of pain in those stories; notably, the doubt and despair felt by young people growing up "different" in places where such differences are shunned. Not surprisingly, one of Riordon's most poignant chapters is about the lives that are absent from the book: lives missing because of suicide, drug or alcohol abuse, or AIDS. The lives of many of the survivors are still made miserable by prejudice, threatened by the spectre of HIV, impoverished by the pressures of secrecy in a narrow environment. Riordon sums it up: "Everyone knows. No-one's talking. We do what we have to do. And for many of us, that's just how it is."
These are stories, though, not only of prejudice and alienation, but of love and affirmation, the joys of accomplishment, the beauty of the countryside, and the wonderful support that rural communities can offer. "There's an ethic here," says one of the women, "that you have a duty to your neighbours." Says another: "There's always someone around to lend a hand, even if they don't approve of you." Rural gays and lesbians tell of inroads being made against bigotry, of courage and honesty whittling away at homophobia, of children and neighbours learning to respect differences, of community embracing diversity.
What comes across again and again are the commonplace commonalities we all share as human beings: tenderness and self-doubt, love and concern for our kids, partners, and friends, the universal longing for sharing and acceptance. It makes no real difference to most of the stories if you change the gender of the pronouns. Perhaps that is the book's most fundamental message.
Of course there are other kinds of invisibility and marginalization, other forms of silencing. Although Out Our Way includes a number of Aboriginals, there are almost no people of colour or ethnic minorities, and no people with disabilities. For many of them, rural life is surely difficult enough without an extra layer of prejudice to overcome.
This is not a sensational or provocative book. By and large, Riordon leaves the polemics to other people (among them a few of his interviewees). He speaks his truth forcefully, yet with the calm assurance of someone who is comfortable with himself, and can therefore allow others to be themselves too. This is what enables him to take a potentially controversial subject and treat it with sensitivity, respect, and an empathy that the reader is gently invited to share.
Out Our Way is honest, stimulating, and beautifully crafted. Reading it is rather like listening to a gay and lesbian version of Morningside-a variety of voices reflecting back to us a broad slice of our variegated reality. If the essence of Canadian culture is sharing our stories with each other, Michael Riordon does a good job.

 Helen Forsey lives near Ompah, Ontario.


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