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Web series shines spotlight on LGBT folks living their true selves in smaller communities

Karen La Hay wasn’t born female but knew she was as early as childhood. Now in her late 60s, she only came out as transgender three years ago.

Medicine Hat senior recently came out as transgender and is now living her best life

Documentary filmmaker Laura O'Grady, left, documented the experiences of LGBT people in smaller Alberta communities, like Karen La Hay in Medicine Hat, centre, and gay ally Erica Fisher in Grande Prairie. 'Small Town Queer' and 'Painting Pride' are part of the Telus Storyhive series, now on YouTube. (Laura O'Grady/LinkedIn, Karen La Hay/Facebook, Submitted by Erica Fisher)

Karen La Hay wasn't born female but knew she was as early as childhood. Now in her late 60s, she only came out as transgender three years ago.

"It was very, very difficult. I have gone through a lot of bad issues and experiences over the years, trying to be honest with my true identity," La Hay told The Homestretch.

"I faced a lot of persecution and physical abuse as a result."

That was the past though.

"It's the difference between nice and day," La Hay explained of now being out.

"I am so much at peace with myself. I enjoy everything around me now. I am not intimidated and terrified."

And it's experiences like La Hay's that documentary filmmaker Laura O'Grady wanted to capture: People out and proud in smaller communities compared to big cities.

Those stories are told in a four-part Telus web series called Small Town Queer and Painting Pride.

"Often they would tell me they lived in small towns but they needed to leave as soon as possible to live openly," O'Grady said.

"That had me wondering about individuals who live openly in small towns and what it's like for them."

Remarkable woman, immense difficulties

O'Grady said it was a perspective not often told.

"Karen is a remarkable woman. She has overcome immense difficulties from childhood on. I think how the community of Medicine Hat has embraced her is a great story."

La Hay said she didn't want to leave her hometown after acknowledging who she was.

"I love this community. It is so open and accepting. I do a lot of volunteer work and I have a lot of roots here," she said.

"It was a way to educate other people and maybe help younger people who are going through similar difficulties, as I went through."

O'Grady covered a lot of ground in the series.

"In Lethbridge, it's centred around conversion therapy. Devon Hargreaves and Jennifer Takahashi have been pursuing a petition and have thousands and thousands of signatures to ban it at the federal level," O'Grady said.

"It's also about an individual named Jay Whitehead who underwent conversion therapy as a young man."

The experience of three people in Fort McMurray are chronicled in a third segment.

LGBT ally fights hate

A fourth segment that's connected to Small Town Queer but branded differently, Painting Pride, looks at a straight woman's response to a defaced Pride crosswalk in a northern oil and gas town.

Erica Fisher, a manager at a Grande Prairie radio station and news website, is a devout ally to the LGBT community.

The city of about 65,000 has voted provincially conservative for almost eight decades.

When Fisher saw the negative backlash to the community's first Pride crosswalk — a truck driver left skid marks on it — she pushed back.

"I wanted to find a way to amplify the positive response and in a discussion with the mayor, came up with the idea to replace an old mural on the Telus building that had been covered up years earlier," Fisher said.

A public art contest was launched themed "Grande Prairie is a diverse, welcoming, and inclusive community."

Thousands of people voted but the winning piece won by a landslide. The mural was unveiled in the summer of 2018.

About 4,500 people voted in a public art contest for a permanent mural after the Pride crosswalk in Grande Prairie was vandalized. This was the winning entry by artist Serena Love. The mural was unveiled in the spring of 2018. (Lloyd Fischer/MyGrandePrairieNow.com)

"Projects like the rainbow crosswalk, Pride festivities, and the Telus mural help showcase the people in the city who are diverse, welcoming, and inclusive. I'd rather pay attention to those who make our city a great place for all, than to those who choose to remain ignorant or spread hate," Fisher said.

Today, she's the Grande Prairie Pride Society president.

Meanwhile, O'Grady said awareness can sometimes be on a very basic level.

"When I was shooting in Fort McMurray, a gentleman at a pub asked me what I was doing. I told him about the series. He said, 'That's interesting, but we don't have any of those people here,'" the filmmaker said.

"My character was eating french fries 10 feet away from him."

For La Hay, being an out transgender woman in Medicine Hat, even a few years ago, was not something she saw as possible.

"I have always dreamed of being able to be true to myself over the years and never, ever thought it would come to fruition," she said.

"The past three years have been a dream come true for me. It has been so uplifting and exhilarating."

With files from The Homestretch

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