Day 6

Small-town Pride events celebrate community in new documentary

In their new documentary, Small Town Pride, co-directors Riley Sparks and Chelle Turingan show a different side of the LGBTQ Pride movement — one without rainbow-washed corporate floats.

‘You don't have to leave to be open and out and proud,’ says filmmaker

Chelle Turingan, front left, co-director of the documentary Small Town Pride, films during the town of Annapolis Royal, N.S., Pride march in 2019. Organizer Zeynep Tonak, front right, is featured in the new film. (Andrew Tolson/Xtra)

In their new documentary, Small Town Pride, co-directors Riley Sparks and Chelle Turingan show a different side of the LGBTQ Pride movement.

While some of Canada's biggest Pride festivals, like those in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal, are lavish affairs with corporate sponsors awash in rainbows, a number of small-town Pride events have taken the movement back to its basics in recent years.

"We wanted to make sure that people understood that Pride is not just a rainbow co-opted by corporations," said Turingan, who also produced the documentary that premiered last month at the Inside Out 2SLGBTQ+ Film Festival.

"Pride can be 16-year-olds walking with their [gay-straight alliance]. Pride can be painting a rainbow crosswalk across the street from your farmer's market. Pride is raising a flag in your local park."

The Pride flag is raised in Taber, Alta., during the town's Pride festivities in 2019. (Xtra)

Small Town Pride tells the stories of Pride organizers in three small Canadian towns — Norman Wells, N.W.T., Taber, Alta., and Annapolis Royal, N.S. 

Throughout the 60-minute film, the first by Toronto-based LGBTQ2S+ media organization Xtra, the organizers share the challenges — and the joys — of building community and coordinating a march or flag raising.

The film harkens back to the early days of the Pride movement when it wasn't a celebration, but a political fight for human rights.

"Sometimes it can be challenging, maybe, to remember that when you are looking at huge floats [and] everything branded by some corporation, and there's definitely a different vibe, for sure, in larger places," said Sparks. 

"But in the three places that we visited … at the heart, absolutely, this is still a very political and very important movement."

'You can't get away from it'

The film opens with a quote from Zeynep Tonak, one of the organizers for Pride Annapolis Royal, who explains that in a small town, it can be tough to keep secrets.

"I think the anonymity of Pride in a big city is comforting for a lot of people. Everyone goes home from Pride, and on the subway they strip off their glitter and they take off their stickers and they go back to their normal life," said Tonak. 

"But I think in a small town, the best and the worst part is that you can't do that. You can't ignore it, you can't get away from it."

Annapolis Royal has a population of around 500 residents. 

Co-director Riley Sparks, centre, and director of photography Corey Misquita, left, interview Sarah Kelly, supervising teacher of the Rainbow United gay-straight alliance at Mackenzie Mountain School in Norman Wells, N.W.T. (Xtra)

Tonak's perspective isn't surprising to Sparks, who grew up in a small town. "It can be really challenging, for sure, to try to answer any of these questions about yourself in an environment where you just feel like the second I say anything, everybody's going to know, so you better be pretty darn sure that you know what you're doing," said Sparks.

For many of the organizers profiled in Small Town Pride, pushing for acceptance comes from a desire to live and thrive in the hometowns they love. For others, it's a vital need.

"Not everybody has the privilege or the resources to leave, and so they stay and they're trying to make their communities places where they can be themselves," said Turingan.

Taber, a town of about 8,400 in southern Alberta, held its first flag raising in 2017. Jayce Wilson, an organizer of the event, says in the documentary that when she came out as trans, she lost family and friends and felt disconnected from the broader community.

Taber marked Pride Month for the first time in 2017 with a flag raising. Organizers have yet to coordinate a Pride march as they have not been given appropriate permits, says Turingan. (Xtra)

But in turn, she says she gained a new community — one that she feels the need to fight for as local politicians and religious groups in the town make it difficult to achieve progress on LGBTQ rights.

"Taber needs strong advocates here to advocate for the queer community, to advocate for some of the other marginalized communities here. That's why I'm here, that's why I stay, because if I don't stand up and do this work, who else is?" Wilson said.

Three Prides, many experiences

The three towns Sparks and Turingan visited in Small Town Pride all celebrate their communities in different ways. 

Organizers in Taber have yet to get permission for a march, while those in Annapolis Royal and Norman Wells have taken their small but mighty communities through the main streets of town

"In Norman Wells, the kids from the GSA are actually running that event, and so a majority of the people walking in that parade are kids from the school," said Turingan.

In Annapolis Royal, the Pride parade is known as the "100-metre march," added Sparks.

Residents of Norman Wells, N.W.T., march toward the centre of town in 2019. (Xtra)

And while the film focuses only on three locations across the country, both Sparks and Turingan acknowledge the film doesn't cover the vast perspectives of LGBTQ people in rural Canada.

"This documentary could have included 10 different towns from Canada and it still would not grab the whole queer experience of lot of people living their lives in these small towns," said Turingan. 

There's a narrative among some that in order for LGBTQ people who grow up in small towns to live their lives, they have to move to a big city.

Turingan says that the people in Small Town Pride are working to dispel that myth.

"These people are trying to say that's not the only option that exists. You don't have to leave to be open and out and proud," they said. 

"And so I think that's a fight well worth fighting for."

Written and produced by Jason Vermes.

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