Nova Scotia

Stepping into the limelight and finding acceptance in a rural town

Diana Farris is running to become Middleton's youth ambassador, a program a handful of communities have adopted instead of the princess pageants that remain a large part of the Annapolis Valley Apple Blossom Festival.

Diana Farris is the only candidate running for youth ambassador in Middleton, N.S.

Diana Farris wants to use her platform to give others the support she never had growing up. (Robyn Simon/CBC)

Diana Farris is beaming as she rolls down the main street of Bridgetown, N.S., on a float in the town's Ciderfest parade.

The 19-year-old is dressed in a long faux fur coat over a simple black dress and black tights. She's sitting on an imitation park bench surrounded by a white picket fence and oversized pink, blue and orange flowers made of pool noodles.

"I love the fact that I can take part in this," she said.

Farris is the running to become Middleton's youth ambassador, a program a handful of Nova Scotia communities have adopted instead of the princess pageants that remain a large part of the Annapolis Valley Apple Blossom Festival.

The festival has been an institution in the Annapolis Valley since 1933. Each spring, it crowns Queen Annapolisa from among the princesses that represent the individual towns in the region.

While the Ciderfest parade earlier this month still featured tiaras and sashes, the youth ambassador program is designed to give a public profile to a wider range of youth who want to represent their communities.

Diana Farris moved to Middleton in 2018 and found there were people who cared about her. (Robyn Simon/CBC)

The confidence to be paraded through town is new for Farris. It's taken long years of hard work to embody her identity as a transgender woman.

Farris said her journey began with the death of her father ⁠— the person she felt closest with in the world — when she was 11 years old.

"When I lost him, it took me to a place of disassociation. I didn't want to believe it. I didn't have any friends at the time. I didn't have any hobbies that I was really passionate about," she said. 

Farris was living in Coldbrook at the time, roughly 45 minutes from Middleton. 

She was lonely, until one day her middle school teacher insisted she join the after school drama group.

"I was very hesitant at first," she said. 

Stepping onto a stage sparked an exploration of her own character. 

Diana Farris will hold her after school drama program on the third floor of the Macdonald Museum. (Robyn Simon/CBC)

"I was very young. I didn't know I was having feelings toward other boys at the time. Playing a character that was not myself, and delving into their characteristics helped me understand mine," she said. 

The next step was for Farris to tell her family she was transgender.

Her mother had already pushed back when she came out as gay.

This time was no different. 

"My mother … said some things that were incredibly hurtful to me," she said. "When I'd voice my anguish … it would just be pushed back, as if it wasn't as bad as it actually was."

Without a support system, Farris struggled with mental health issues and eventually dropped out of high school at 16. She started working full time. 

Move to Middleton

In 2018, she left home and enrolled in school again, but this time in Middleton. 

"I'd had enough. I didn't want to work to survive," said Farris.

Arriving in a new community was a turning point.

"Just the utter acceptance of people who had never met me before when even people who had cared about me deeply couldn't … it brought me to a place where I felt I could be myself," she said. 

"And many have taken the time to speak to me and let me know that they are proud of me for being out in a community that is rural."

After completing one year at Middleton Regional High School, Farris was on the honour roll, part of the student council and was leading the school's equality club. 

'It was so heartfelt'

Farris hopes to be a teacher herself someday. 

"The people who have affected me so profoundly in my entire life have been teachers," she said. 

But for now, her sights are set on the future, and part of that is giving back to the community that supports her. 

Middleton switched over to a youth ambassador program 10 years ago to be more inclusive.

Lisa Fenton, the youth ambassador co-ordinator for Middleton, was the first person to see Farris's application. 

"It was an amazing letter. It was so heartfelt," Fenton said.

Lisa Fenton, the youth ambassador co-ordinator for Middleton, says Farris has a knack for capturing the attention of audiences. (Robyn Simon/CBC)

Farris is the only candidate running for the position. The confirmation ceremony will be in December.

Fenton said being a youth ambassador is a huge commitment. Almost every weekend is taken up by community events and volunteering ⁠— not to mention public speaking. 

Fenton said Farris addressed a crowd of more than 100 at a town festival this summer. 

"She captured the audience in that first speech unlike we've ever seen before. And the judges were in awe. It was amazing," she said.

Centre stage

In the next few months, Farris will run an after school drama program at the Macdonald Museum in Middleton, just around the corner from her high school.

It's open to youth from ages 10 to 21. 

Farris said theatre was the outlet that allowed her to find her own voice, and she wants to provide a space for others to do the same. 

"She's the bravest person I've met in a very long time," said Janice Slauenwhite, the museum's director, who agreed to host the drama program.

While looking to the future and her role as youth ambassador, Farris continues to think about her father.

"Everything that I've done leading up to this point, I wonder would my dad be happy with where I've landed? Would he be proud of me?.... I wish I could share this with him," she said.