A Reseau Access AIDS Network worker says he is humbled and surprised to have won at the Fière Sudbury Pride awards gala Monday night.

Gaston Cotnoir, the manager of education and community resources at the access network, said it was a wonderful feeling to win the community excellence award in the presence of some of the youth he's helped over the years.

Cotnoir's job is to go into schools and workplaces to teach about diversity and sexuality and how to make places inclusive.

He said visiting schools is an amazing experience. Once he tells his own coming-out story, Cotnoir said some students then come up to him and share their stories, often for the very first time.

"They are able to say, ‘I'm gay, I'm lesbian, I'm bi, I'm trans,’” he continued.

“For them, it is like lifting 30, 60, 1000 pounds off their shoulders and you've just helped them to go on for the next few days. Then we connect in our office and we talk about how to improve, how to tell your parents or to get support, [and] what happens if it doesn't go well or what happens if it goes great.”

A lot has changed over 30 years ...

When he was in high school about 30 years ago, Cotnoir said things were a lot different for him.  He attended a small high school in Spanish, Ont., that had just 75 students.

"I didn't tell anyone, kept it to myself.  I told people that I had a girlfriend; I gave her a fake name. .. for three or four years.  I didn't go to my prom with that girlfriend [because] she didn't exist."  

Cotnoir said he didn't come out until university, after he spoke to his twin brother and “he helped me through everything.”

It wasn't until he met his husband at university that he decided to tell his parents, Cotnoir said.

Cotnoir said he's happy that, through his work at the Reseau Access Network, he can help other young people.

"Things are a lot different. Being able to go into a town and celebrate your sexuality diversity and your gender and have fun and be yourself is unbelievable,” he continued.

“That Sudbury has its own pride is unbelievable.”

Reseau Access Network also received the Hall of Fame Award at last night's pride-week gala for its work with individuals who are HIV positive.