“We are trying to open these doors”

Source: Sault Star
Website: http://www.saultstar.com/2011/09/21/we-are-trying-to-open-these-doors

In the last six years, Harry Stewart and Chris Southin have been opening doors for gays and lesbians in the district of Algoma.

The married couple said these symbolic doors will stay open to educate, foster equality, tolerance and acceptance and create a safe zone for homosexuals.

“Some may think we are activists, but we are trying to open these doors and keep them open for the next generation,” Southin said.

Being an openly gay couple in small-town Northern Ontario may be perceived as difficult, but it’s simply their life and one they are not afraid to live to the fullest.

On Sept. 4, 2005, the two made history when they were the first same-sex couple married in a church in the district of Algoma.

Stewart and Southin were wed at Zion United Church in Thessalon, where only one other gay couple has been married since.

Fast forward six years and they are still very much in love and have built a life together in Thessalon, a bedroom community located 100 kilometres east of the Sault.

Stewart, 52, works in Internet technology and Southin, 51, is convenience store clerk.

The couple’s life includes travel, volunteer work in their community and church, and promoting gay rights and education through their work with Focus on the Gay Family Conference.

The two share a home with their two cats, Star and Babette, and one dog, Choco.

Joking that their pets are their children, the two said parenthood was something they considered earlier in their marriage.

“We were not too sure how the community would handle it,” Stewart said. “They are open, but we don’t know how they would feel about two gay guys having a kid.”

Getting married in their mid-40s was also a big factor in not having children, said Southin.

“I think we are a little old for it,” he said.

Being a child of two gay parents in a community like Thessalon might be tough, Southin said. And not coming from a typical family could result in many questions from the school, classmates and the community. It would be very challenging for a child, Stewart said.

“We are not quite there yet,” he said. “Why put a child through that?”

Unlike bigger cities in

Canada, such as Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, the gay community in Algoma district is very small.

Southin and Stewart are a visibly gay couple in the community of 1,400. Often, they have friends or acquaintances who want to pair them up with gay family members or friends.

“People want to introduce you to their gay relatives,” Stewart said. “Because you’re gay they automatically assume you will get along.”

Southin said an assumption is made there will be immediate chemistry or friendship between gay people simply because of their sexual orientation.

“We have met some nice people,” said Southin. “But sometimes just because two couples are gay doesn’t mean there will be an immediate rapport.”

About a year ago, the couple was invited to a social event and introduced to another gay couple.

Southin recalls the two men they were paired with, “a hair-d resser and his boyfriend,” were both very nice, but the couples simply had nothing in common.

“I guess they are trying to socialize us,” Stewart said.

The two agree gay rights have advanced considerably in Canada in the last 10 years, in particular with the legalization of same-sex marriage in 2005, on a global scale with the International Day Against Homophobia in 2003, and locally through a public high school-based gay-straight alliance.

But the couple isn’t convinced Sault Ste. Marie and the surrounding area is gay-friendly.

As a simple measure of safety, Stewart does not walk arm-in-arm with his husband around the city.

“It doesn’t feel safe and it’s nothing we want to draw attention to,” said Stewart. “The only place we can feel safe (with public displays of affection) is on Yonge and Bloor (streets in Toronto,)” Stewart said. “We will walk arm-in-arm there and that’s it. We have no place to show our affection openly.”

In the company of friends, or at their cottage or church, they do feel safe, Stewart said.

“People take for granted placing their arm around their partner at a movie (theatre), but it does not feel safe for us,” Stewart said.

Sault Mayor Debbie Amaroso was “saddened” to hear about the couple’s concerns.

“I think this is a sad statement on our community,” Amaroso said, ” It is my hope that all residents and visitors of the city feel welcome.”

Amaroso said different couples may have different experiences.

“People look and feel through their own lens,” Amaroso said. “Maybe one couple feels a certain way, while another would feel differently.”

Stewart and Southin hope the work they do within their community will go a long way toward what they hope will become a more tolerant and inclusive community.

Focus on the Gay Family Conference will be held at Algoma’s Water Tower Inn and Suites in the Sault from Sept. 23 to 25. The conference will address a host of topics with keynote speakers, panelists and workshops.

Open to the public, the conference takes place every two years.

Keynote speakers on Saturday include Canadian Olympian Mark Tewksbury and Rev. Cindy Bourgeois, a minister of the Central United Church in Stratford, Ont. Bourgeois is an openly transgender woman, the first to be ordained as a minister for the United Church of Canada. Elder Diane Fisher, a local social justice champion, will also speak at the conference.

For more information, visit www.welcomefriend.ca.

Copyright © 2011 The Sault Star