I grew up in Nanaimo, B.C., on Vancouver Island. Nanaimo isn’t the small town that it used to be, but in some parts – particularly the south end, where I’ve spent most of my life – it still feels like one.
The neighbourhoods, which were founded by coal mining families, are still thoroughly blue collar and are generally a split between tradespeople and mill workers. Nanaimo has a penchant for giving strange names to things, like Tally-ho, Buttertubs, and Jinglepot (a beer and wine store, a marsh and a street, respectively), and our history is punctuated by an ex-mayor who frequently dressed up as a pirate and initiated the yearly bathtub race, still the biggest party of the year, where Nanaimoites turn old bathtubs into boats and race them. And then, of course, there’s the Nanaimo Bar.
Growing up queer in Nanaimo wasn’t easy. Actually, I can hardly say that I grew up queer there, because it took many years and a move to Vancouver to come out.
I watched other kids be bullied, and I listened to the rough-around-the-edges tradesmen around me tease each other for being fairies, and I learned how to stifle my own queerness to survive. I dated a lot of boys, and more importantly, I wore a lot of dresses. I adopted a sort of doublethink wherein I was able to convince myself I was straight – or at least bisexual – while still planning to one day escape Nanaimo and live the fabulous, open life I was supposed to.
After all, that’s what queer people do: we escape. And then we reinvent ourselves, brand new, in some other place. A few years after high school, my boyfriend and I packed up and left for Vancouver.
The boyfriend didn’t last long. Neither did my identity as a woman. Within a few more years, I found myself smack inside the alternative queer community I had dreamt of, where coming out as trans was easy and there was no end to the demonstrations, parades, and parties. East Van is Shangri-La for the genderqueer, and I owe a lot of my personal journey to having been in this place at this time.
But things aren’t perfect. Part of my scheme to escape my roots has always been to place myself around people whom I imagine to be from somewhere better – my friends mostly have degrees and come from much better-off families than mine.
Over the course of a few years, the acceptance I found in Vancouver eroded away the panic I had arrived with, and underneath of it was a truth I didn’t expect: there is a fundamental piece of me these people will never understand. I became aware of a void between us, and increasingly, I felt lonely.
Just as my family will never understand queer, many of the people in my life now will never understand the working class.
The larger LGBT movement has stood accused many times of leaving certain people behind. After Stonewall, it seemed like the only way to get equal rights from the straight community was to appeal to its values, and so the face of the gay movement became white, monogomous, and upper-middle class. We fight for marriage equality while queer people facing more than one oppression are too often homeless.
It’s no coincidence than the Vancouver Pride parade, and all the rainbow cross walk and banners that go with it, happens in the West End, now one of the most affluent and white neighbourhoods in the city.
Even the alternative East Vancouver, home to a good portion of the city’s lesbian community, revolves around the art scene – something that was off-limits to a kid like me. It seems to me that the queer dream of escaping our oppression really means escaping the blue collar.
You can hardly blame a young queer person for wanting to escape a place like Nanaimo. The social dynamics there are intensely oppressive to anyone who is not a straight white man. But the missing piece is not a bigger city with access to more types of people; it’s an understanding of how oppression works, coming from both sides.
All systems of oppression are linked in a way that sustains the power structure as a whole, with the knowledge that we can’t fight back against the system while we are too busy fighting each other. In short, it’s a divide-and-conquer tactic that I fear is working all too well to keep us from understanding each other, and from ultimately breaking down the systems that keep us all in place.
I spoke a few months ago with someone I knew from Nanaimo, who, like me, had recently come out as a trans man. Unlike me, he chose to stay in our hometown. I was almost angry as I bombarded him with questions: how could he live like that? Didn’t he need his community?
As it turns out, there is a trans community in Nanaimo. There is even a branch of the support group I attend. There are people staying there and doing the work to diversify my hometown, juggling the two facets of identity that more often than not seem like a paradox.
When I finally came out to my family, I made a trip to Nanaimo to see them. I hadn’t been back for more than a day in years. I took a few hours break to read at the waterfront park where I learned about drinking and boys as a teenager. I was nervous using the public washroom and worried about running into someone I know.
But at the same time, there was a certain release for me in being home, in a crowd of people I may not know but who I could count on to know the language. There was a sense of peace and grounding in remembering that I come from somewhere, and I have a past as well as a future.
Transition, for me, is about honesty. It’s a matter of integrating pieces of myself that I’ve kept separate from each other and sharing them with the people around me without the fear of being found out. So it’s fitting that going back and going forward are, in this moment, the same thing. Transition can be poetic in unexpected ways, not least of which that this blue-collar trans man should find himself right back where he began.