Edmonton's Ruby Swanson wrote a book a few years ago about having a gay son, one she jokingly subtitled "Baby boomer has gay kid. Now what?" For the now 66 year-old, her son Carl's coming out 20 years ago while he was in high school reminds the author that though some things have changed for the better, the struggle goes on.
"When Carl said he wanted to start a GSA in his school, we battled. I said 'Over my dead body' because I didn't want him to be harassed or discriminated against. He hadn't ever been bullied before, but I worried," said Swanson, who said she's glad Carl wore her down. "He said 'If I don't do it, nobody will. There has to be a safe place at school'. That GSA took four months to accomplish, but became the fourth official one in the province. I remember the first meeting, with several teachers attending, and I was over the moon. I thought Carl would be okay having that teacher support."
While LGBTQ+ rights have come a long way in the ensuing decades, Swanson said struggles remain. "Carl lives in Toronto and has been in a serious relationship for six years. But he told me about a Christmas party at his new job where he worried about bringing his partner. He said he was relieved that his partner had his own Christmas party that same evening, so he wouldn't have to address the matter with his employer or colleagues. That makes me sad--that he still has to think about things like that," Swanson said.
For over a decade, Swanson and her husband Leonard were involved with the local LGBTQ+ community, spending years leading the Edmonton PFLAG chapter (originally Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, now 'Family for All') for the peer-to-peer support, education and resources she said are critical to families. And in the 15 years she's been invited to speak to post-secondary students in human sexuality, nursing or psychology classes, Swanson said she's surprised--but also isn't--that the comments she gets remain the same.
"Young people still struggle with shame and conflict around family that won't accept that they're gay. Others are still terrified to come out to their families--and holding that secret is an awful burden," Swanson said.
St. Albert's Terry Soetaert, who with his wife Natalie and daughter Mia (who came out to her family when she was 12), run PFLAG there and created the Outloud Foundation for LGBTQ+ youth and teens, said a large percentage of those who come to meetings still haven't told their parents.
"For youth and teens--there is still shame and bullying, and a whole other level of it through social media. We bring in speakers--successful people in the community--the mayor, MLAs, Police chief--to show that there is support. Though we've had to go online with Zoom meetings since COVID-19, which hasn't been ideal, the kids really need the connection the groups offer: to know they're not alone," said Soetaert.
When his own family looked for resources as Mia was in high school, Soetaert said things like Edmonton's Camp fYrefly (an educational, social and personal leadership retreat for queer and trans youth) were critical, "but they only happened for four magical days once a year. We needed something more."
"Today, kids see celebrities coming out as gay or trans--that's important to them. There's so much more information available on everything from where to find queer-friendly dentists to gender reassignment surgery," he said. "We meet kids wherever they're at."
At the end of her book, Swanson describes revisiting her son's high school GSA meeting some 15 years after he founded it. "The kids now in grade 10,11,12--they don't have a concept of the struggle of what came even a few years earlier. There's always been a GSA in their school; they've known they can marry if they want to. Those changes are wonderful to see."
"Things were different when Carl came out in 2002. I remember rushing downtown to Audrey's Bookstore looking for something on the subject. There was one book that had been written 30 years earlier--completely out of date. It talked about whose fault being gay was, and that my son would likely be a criminal. I put the book straight into recycling," she said.
"When I was encouraged to share my family story in a book, I wanted to create something hopeful for other families. Our experience has been much more positive--there's been heartache, but not heartbreak."
Swanson's book has been translated into Ukrainian, (her family heritage) and she was even invited to speak at a PRIDE event in Prague in the Czech Republic. Due to COVID-19, she and Carl attended the event virtually.
"I do see societal change--from decriminalizing homosexuality in 1969, to the first GSAs and then the same-sex marriage debates--real progress," she said. "But on an individual basis, and within families, there are still huge struggles."
Case in point. Reported just this month, a Cochrane woman was denied an LGBTQ2S+ themed birthday cake by a local restaurant. After it was publicized on Facebook, the restaurant owner apologized. Kindred Cochrane Pride Society president Renita Bartlett said though Cochrane has come a long way, "we still have a way to go in educating the community and talking about how we're ensuring spaces are safe for everyone," she said. "It's hard on my heart to hear that individuals are still being targeted because of who they are and who they love."
A Family Outing is available wherever books are sold, at Edmonton and St. Albert Public Libraries and through Swanson: firstname.lastname@example.org