Documentary details difficulties for LGBT people in Fort McMurray

A new documentary series highlights the difficulties of being openly gay outside Alberta's two biggest cities.

Series features LGBT stories in Fort McMurray, Lethbridge and Medicine Hat

Sithara Fernando, left, and Laura O'Grady speak about the Small Town Queer documentary series at CBC Edmonton. (Sheena Rossiter/CBC)

For Sithara Fernando, the 2016 wildfire in Fort McMurray was a catalyst for coming out. 

During the drive to her parents' house in Edmonton, she said felt "devastatingly lonely" as she thought about the life she was temporarily leaving behind.

"That emptiness just kind of engulfed me," she recalled. 

Once she arrived, she tried to pretend everything was OK, but inside, she was struggling. 

Her hardships, including post-traumatic stress disorder, would continue for months after the fire, but at the heart of it all was the realization that she no longer wanted to live in the closet.

Since then, Fernando has married a woman and settled in Edmonton, in part because of access to mental health supports that are helping her untangle her identity and the defences she built up for so long to conceal it.

Fernando's story is one of three featured in Out In Oil Town, a documentary in the recent Small Town Queer series.

The Telus-funded series highlights LGBT stories outside Alberta's two biggest cities.

Watch Sithara Fernando share her story in Out In Oil Town:

Director and producer Laura O'Grady said the idea for the series came to her after hearing so many stories of gay and trans people moving from small towns to larger centres. She wondered about people who chose to instead remain in smaller communities.

"I thought that was really brave," she said Monday in an interview with CBC's Radio Active.

'Under a microscope'

Fernando said she remained in the closet for so long because coming out in Fort McMurray meant coming out to everyone at once, not just certain friends and social circles.

With colleagues and other acquaintances on her women's hockey team, for example, her personal and professional worlds overlapped.

Sithara Fernando's story of coming out as a lesbian in Fort McMurray is featured in the documentary Out In Oil Town. (Snapshot Studios)

"You are kind of under a microscope," she said. 

After she came out, her parents were supportive, but some colleagues started avoiding her and others openly criticized her. 

Finding dates as a lesbian was challenging, she said, with dating apps turning up a limited number of people nearby.

Only after expanding her dating pool to Edmonton did she meet the woman who would become her wife.

Mitchel Bowers, also featured in the documentary, said he too has struggled with dating as a gay man in Fort McMurray and hopes others encounter fewer hurdles than he did.

"I don't want it to be this bad for anybody else," he said in the film. 

'Pockets of acceptance'

Despite the challenges of being openly gay in a smaller community, O'Grady said she and her production team found "pockets of acceptance" in the three communities they visited for the series.

"The individuals I spoke to had found their community and their family, whether it's a family that they were born into or a family that they made," she said.

The other two documentaries in the series feature a campaign to ban conversion therapy in Lethbridge and the story of a transgender senior in Medicine Hat.