Coming Home Queer for the Very First Time

For three days in July, queer Newfoundlanders and Labradorians from all over the world celebrated a rural homecoming 30 years in the making.
A number of people mingle in the Salem Community Hall parking lot in the evening sunset. A Progress flag billows softly in the wind.
A crowd mingles in the Salem Community Hall parking lot in the evening sunset. Photo: Alex Stead.

It’s a warm Friday evening in mid July and we are packed in the Salem Community Hall in Small Point-Broad Cove-Blackhead-Adam’s Cove—“the smallest town with the biggest name and the biggest heart,” we are regularly reminded over the next several days. Gerry Rogers, force of nature and master of ceremonies for the weekend, is corralling attendees by clinking a glass.

It’s a full house and one of the largest gatherings of queer women and men ever assembled together in a single room in the history of rural Newfoundland and Labrador. Tonight’s crowd skews older—this is Newfoundland, after all—but there is a substantive presence of younger folks too. The room is buzzing with energy; the feeling is electric. Something big is about to happen: the first ever Come Home Queer, a gathering of the province’s 2SLGBTQIA+ community into this small town of about 360 people in Conception Bay North, roughly 90 minutes outside St. John’s.

The vibe is indistinguishable from the greatest bay wedding to which you’ve ever been. This is our first taste of the celebratory atmosphere that suffuses the weekend. There is a sense of culmination, of triumph, before we even begin.

Like a wedding feast, Come Home Queer not only celebrates the love story that has brought everyone together, but also creates a space to welcome and anticipate all the future possibilities opened up by the recognition of that love. It invites us all to partake in something beautiful. At the same time, it offers a thundering warning to those who still hold hate in their hearts that, what God has joined together may no man tear asunder.

Experiencing the province’s first Come Home Queer Festival felt all at once like celebrating everything that has been accomplished, but also marking what it cost. It felt like laying the foundation for a brighter future by building connections between those who only know freedom and those who bore the torches through a dark and not-so-distant past. Most importantly, it felt like witnessing the creation of a genuinely utopian space of queer community in rural Newfoundland.

It’s really here, and it’s not going anywhere.

*

The festival opens with a three Indigenous drummers (Denise Cole, Carmel Whittle, and Stel Raven) as well as one non-Indigenous ally (Patricia Reynolds) performing The Water Song—and an acknowledgement that the land we’re standing on is the traditional territory of the Beothuk and Mi’kmaw peoples. (“The ochre pit that is very close by here was one of the most significant areas for the Beothuk,” Carmel Whittle explains.) Sage is burned, and the soothing smoke of this sacred medicine cleanses the room.

Denise Cole and Carmel Whittle drum together as part of the Come Home Queer opening ceremony.
Denise Cole and Carmel Whittle drum together as part of the Come Home Queer opening ceremony. Photo: Alex Stead.

“I appreciate all of the queer folk who opened up their community so we could come home here,” Cole, an Inuk Two-Spirit Labradorian, says. “I do want to take a moment for sacred ceremony to bring us to the centre.” 

“This vase of water, and this candle, is very significant for many of us,” they explain. “This is a teaching that was given to me over ten years ago, and I still hold it close. All of us have fire and water within us. For me, I certainly see there’s a warrior side of me that really rises up with that fire sometimes—sometimes it can come across as rage or passion or intensity. Then there’s a water side, I call it my water keeper, and that water side is what produces life, that nurtures—that emotional passionate other side of me.”

“For a long time growing up I was told to be something that I wasn’t,” they continue. “I was never quite girl enough and could never be a man. So I floated somewhere in the middle—in chaos. And when the fire and water teaching was given to me that chaos calmed. I realized that I could honour all that is within me—and so can all of us.”

“We all have fire and water within us,” Cole concludes. “If our fire gets too big it dries up our water, and if our water gets out of control it puts out our fire. So we walk a path on this earth to keep them in balance. Sometimes that’s hard. So we find those things—within us, above us, below us, around us—that bring us back to centre.”

Following the opening ceremony, Rogers returns to take the mic. “First Peoples, First Nations—first words,” she explains. “Welcome home, everyone.”

There’s a pause. “What a bunch of queer sticks,” she declares.

There are a number of dignitaries present. First is Mayor Brandon King, who says this is something unprecedented not only for the town but also the province. Next is local MHA and provincial Minister of Tourism and Recreation Steve Crocker, who can barely contain his enthusiasm.

“I’m thrilled to be here,” Minister Crocker announces. “We approved 380+ applications throughout this province for Come Home Year events. But I can tell you without a doubt: we knew we had something special when we seen the application for Come Home Queer. We knew it was something we had to do.”

Next come festival co-chairs Wanda Crocker and Joan LeDrew. LeDrew is a lifelong resident, while Crocker was the first queer pioneer to move out here and establish the community that would eventually blossom into this festival. (“Wanda says she moved here 33 years ago ‘to get away from everyone,’” Rogers laughs. “And what did we do? We damn well followed her!”)

Gerry Rogers cracks a joke with some Come Home Queer attendees.
Gerry Rogers cracks a joke with some Come Home Queer attendees. Photo: Alex Stead.

“My grandson Harrison was 17 when he called us and announced that he was gay,” LeDrew says. “He’s from Ontario, and so rural to him means ‘go back in the closet.’ So last week when he flew down and visited us here, he was astounded at the number of Pride flags that were flying in this area. He was absolutely overwhelmed.”

“I take great pride in being a Newfoundlander and Labradorian,” she continues. “I’m proud of the values that Newfoundlanders have. And in this small rural part of Newfoundland, we are demonstrating this weekend what Newfoundland is all about: kindness, warmth, including everybody, social interaction, and the ability to open our hearts to other people.” 

“Why did I end up here?” Crocker asks the crowd, rhetorically. “Take note of the energy of this place. Whether you’re walking down the road, or you’re out for a ride on your trike, or you’re out on the barrens picking berries… there’s a sense, there’s an energy in this town that is absolutely beautiful.” 

“Where does it come from? Our people—the way we treat each other.”

After the introductions, we’re treated to a short film from Linda Fitzpatrick called Lynne and Harriet. Filmed in the community roughly two decades ago, it follows the adventures of Lynne Murphy—then Wanda’s partner—as they first adjust to moving around the bay from town. Lynne has a firm conviction that she’ll only eat meat if she knows the animal was raised lovingly and slaughtered ethically—a stance promptly put to the test when she impulsively adopts a pig named Harriet. 

The film follows Lynne’s adventures in rural homesteading. It is punctuated by scenes where she’s taking Harriet out for a stroll through the fields or feeding her Froot Loops, and cross cut with interviews from incredulous friends and bemused locals who question whether she’ll really be able to slaughter and eat the pig when the time comes. It’s a delightfully touching and riotously funny film that both documents the early years of Broad Cove’s ‘queer community’ and asks the question: can you eat an animal you raise? (Spoiler: yes, you can—and it’s delicious.)

*

We get a brief break after the film, so we retreat to the parking lot for a breath of fresh air. It’s a little cooler now, and fog banks are rolling in off the ocean beneath a clear sky and a brilliantly setting sun. There is a real excitement building for tonight’s Shed Party. Already this seems much bigger than just the ‘queer crowd’; this weekend’s festivities have become a major event for everyone in the community.

This is the first moment I sense what is so distinctive about the Come Home Queer experience. It is the feeling of recapturing something that has been lost; a distinct kind of sociality, a community experience unique to rural Newfoundland, but one where I, and everyone here present, can be authentically ourselves.

A Pride flag flies above the ocean on a sunny day.
A Pride flag flies above the ocean on a sunny day. Photo: Alex Stead.

There is more freedom to live authentically in the city, but that is because every city is, to an extent, anonymizing—even a city as otherwise small and close-knit as St. John’s. Town sheds the intimacy and character—and magic—that you can only find out around the bay. But by the same token, for anyone who is ‘different’—whether in sexual orientation, race, gender presentation, ability, spirituality, aesthetic sense, you name it—it can be hard to feel fully comfortable in the often oppressive conformity of white heteropatriarchal rural spaces.

So to be in a rural setting and feel so fully at ease, so seamlessly at home, so freely oneself recaptured a sense of the wonder of childhood, a sense of belonging to a place. It was a feeling I had long ago relinquished because it was the price of being myself. For a long time I and many others had assumed queerness meant a kind of banishment from the rural lifeworld in which we grew up. But here, at Come Home Queer, we are welcomed by a true homecoming, so much more intensely than I expected.

I feel like I am finally home and I know many others feel the same. Suddenly, I recall something my friend Mike Collins once wrote in an unpublished manuscript about the experience of queerness in Newfoundland:

The word ‘queer’ carries a different valence in Newfoundland English. I grew up knowing quite well that certain people were ‘queer hands’ or ‘queer sticks.’ These terms always referred to more general eccentricity, and did not have a particular sexual connotation. ‘Queer hand’ is my favourite: ‘hand’ is a term for a fellow sailor, generalized to mean ‘a member of my community’—so that ‘queer hand’ suggests both eccentricity and belonging. [emphasis mine]

We were indeed all queer hands now. Here, this weekend, everyone belonged fully to this place and to one another. This was the kind of space Come Home Queer has created.

*

After a short break, we return to the hall for a storytelling panel with the “Original Ls”—Wanda Crocker, Lynne Murphy, Beth Lacey, Pauline White, Peg Norman, Sue Rose, Marilyn Cassell, and Reg King—who had first begun living and staying in the community more than thirty years ago (or, in the cases of Marilyn and Reg, helped create the welcoming conditions that made it happen).

“Over the past few years, I’ve had the pleasure to get to know some of the women in this community, and the community around them as well,” moderator Susie Taylor tells the room. “They’re all people creating an extraordinary life in an extraordinary place. I feel like they’re all my role models and I have learned so many things from them—about radical hospitality, about caring, about creating community.”

“Most of all, I have learned some excellent dance moves.”

Beth Lacey, Wanda Crocker, and Lynne Murphy reminisce about the early years in Broad Cove as part of the Friday night storytelling panel.
Beth Lacey, Wanda Crocker, and Lynne Murphy reminisce about the early years in Broad Cove as part of the Friday night storytelling panel. Photo: Alex Stead.

Wanda Crocker and Lynne Murphy were the first to buy a house in the area. Crocker fell in love with the place the moment they came around the bend and glimpsed the ocean against the cliffs, while Murphy jokes, “I was forced.” (“I wanted to be in a hotel having a martini instead of sitting on an old chair in a shed looking at Wanda,” she laughs.)

“I was really struck by this sense of open space here and the energy in this place,” Crocker says. “I remember being out here as a kid, and I thought ‘Jeeze man, this is a beautiful place!’”

“The rest is history,” Murphy adds.

The next ones to follow are Peg Norman and Gerry Rogers.

“Gerry and I were looking for a place around the bay because these guys were out here and we really liked it out here,” Norman says. “I sort of felt an affinity for this shore. So we would come out and spend weekends with them and then Wanda and Lynne kindly offered the option for us to buy in with them in their house.” The four of them insisted on developing an ownership contract that included death and breakup clauses. (“Of course, Gerry Rogers was behind the fucking contract,” Norman quips as the room goes went up with a roar.)

“Eventually, we sold our share and we ended up buying a property in Carbonear first, and then we went to Salmon Cove, and then we went to Perry’s Cove,” Norman adds. “So we’ve been on this shore for over 30 years.”

Then came Beth Lacey and Pauline White, who bought properties in Adam’s Cove in 2000. They moved out there full time in 2001 to “get away from everyone and everything” and fondly recall being “welcomed here with open arms.”

“We were living in town for years and years and years, it was fantastic and exciting and what have you,” White tells the room. “But we came around the turn and we saw the bay and the mountains, and it’s just a complete sense of calm and peace.” (“I joined the darts league,” Lacey recalls with a laugh. “I joined the one up in Western Bay too, but they’re rowdy. They really are! There was always a racket. Down here, they’re much more civilized.”)

“When I first met Beth, she was a powerful, strong, politically-active lesbian in the community long before it was popular,” White says. “This woman was on the news, she was out with her megaphone in front of City Hall, she was the head of marching on Water Street when there was only 35 of us marching in the Pride Parade.”

“I was coming out to my family and extended family, and then this incredible energy force locked eyes on me and she wanted me—and that was it,” she adds. “I was absolutely terrified! It took every bit of courage I had to continue our courtship, and it was absolutely beautiful.”

“We got married here, for those of you who don’t know, 14 years ago just on [July] 12th,” Lacey shares. “I got to tell you, it was fabulous. We had so many people who came—we heard nothing negative.”

“I felt blessed—that weekend was an incredible weekend,” White adds. “I had a lot of religious family, and God love them, they came. And what was so beautiful was after the wedding when the dance started, and all the bog bikes were coming with cases of beer, everybody was showing up and it was just beautiful. You could really see everyone coming together—straight, gay, purple, green, whatever. I felt an acceptance of our love too, and it all seemed to come from that. They saw, ‘they’re the same people. They just want to live their lives and be happy.’”

“We want to contribute to this community because we love this community and the people here are so incredible,” she finished. “And one of the most incredible people that I met is Reg King.”

“I was born in 1936, and I came here in Blackhead in 1955,” King explains. “I built my house in 1960, and I spent 47 years there before I got this phone call one Sunday evening from Susan [Rose]: ‘are you selling your house?’ And I said: ‘I don’t know anything about it!’ She said: ‘I heard you were selling your house.’ And I said: ‘maybe I could think about it!’”

“Anyway, I decided to sell the house,” he says as the room laughed. “I sold the house, but I didn’t sell the shop, because I still have the key. And I go there every day, and I must say I couldn’t have sold it to a better person than Sue.”

“I remember the first time we were coming out, and someone said it might be around the corner, and there was the ocean,” Rose recalls. “It does something to you. It connects you. And I think we all felt that.”

After the first round of speaking is finished, Taylor asks for details about a local legend: “I’ve heard a lot of rumours about these ‘Holy Heart of Mary high school reunions’ that used to take place down in the area. I was wondering if any of you have any memories about that that you’d like to share?”

“That’s how we explained to everyone in the community why we were only like 50 women and no men,” Murphy says. “Because Holy Heart was an all girls school.”

“And they were a part of the Class of ’74,” Crocker jokes. “They all had short hair, glasses. Very sensible shoes. Those parties would happen probably once a year, people would come out and they’d set up tents in the garden. Over across the garden, of course, we had this hill. So when we’d be in the shed—playing tunes and dancing and eating and all that—the boys would start to park over across the way, trying to get a look at what was going on down the field.”

“The ‘Hearty Hole of Mary Reunion’ is what we would call it,” Norman adds to raucous laughter. “This was 30 years ago, and we were so young and so happy to be out here, and it was such a beautiful, physically beautiful place to be.”

Beth Lacey [?] delivers a joke as Wanda Crocker laughs in the background as part of the Friday night storytelling panel.
Beth Lacey delivers a joke as Wanda Crocker laughs in the background as part of the Friday night storytelling panel. Photo: Alex Stead.

And although he could not physically be there, another person was very much present on the panel that night in the hearts and minds of every speaker: Dennis White.

“I want to talk about Dennis White,” Lacey adds. “I can’t be up here and not talk about Dennis White, God love his heart and soul. Dennis was Wanda’s buddy for a long time when Wanda first got here—he looked after Wanda, because she wasn’t used to living out around the bay.”

“Dennis was one of the first people to welcome us,” White says. “We all just want to belong, don’t we? No matter who we are or what we do, we just want to belong. And Dennis was so open and so friendly and so wonderful.”

“In the years I was with Dennis, I watched the terminology about who we called ‘girls’ changed,” says Cassell. “First when the boys used to come to the house a lot—and there was people that weren’t so kind—Dennis would say: ‘Now listen here, they are my friends.’ He’d show them the door.”

“He wasn’t a violent man, he was quiet,” she adds. “He had no hate in his heart. And then it went from ‘the girls’—everyone knew, if you talked about ‘the girls’, who they were. But then over time, they became ‘our girls’.”

“I used to like going over to see Dennis, especially on a day that I’d like to have a cold beer, and Dennis and I would sit and have a chat,” Rose reminisces. “So one day I said, ‘Dennis, I won’t share—what do the boys call us the most?’ And he said: ‘well it’s like all of ye on the lanes, we got a good name for them.’ And he whispered: ‘Lick A Maid Lane’. Well that was it! I almost fell on the floor laughing.”

“He did care about us,” she adds. “He cared enough to share a big secret with us knowing that we weren’t going to say anything to the boys. It’s families that make you feel welcome. It’s families that bring you in. We all need a sense of belonging. When we don’t belong, we have nothing.”

With the panel wrapping up, the evening draws to a close with a ukulele rendition of the Ode to Newfoundland. My heart is bursting as generations of queer women and men are belting out the full version of the anthem—minus the overtly patriarchal final stanza. Then we file out to the parking lot for a makeshift shed party in a big white tent outside.

A projector screen in the back is running through a provincial government-provided slideshow of language lessons in Newfoundland English. It’s replete with images of breaching whales and other tourist tropes. Booze is flowing, music is blasting, and everyone proves surprisingly agile as they tear up a ‘dance floor’ of uneven, lumpy grass.

Things get wild in the shed party on Friday night.
Things get wild in the shed party on Friday night. Photo: Alex Stead.

As midnight nears and the party winds down, I am more sure than ever that this is the most authentic and life-affirming experience of “Newfoundland hospitality” I have ever felt. It’s on a level I no longer thought was possible, except perhaps as a nostalgic fantasy of imagined wholeness. But it does exist: we are building it, here and now, through this intergenerational gathering of queer people who have found and created a home.

*

The second day opens with another spiritual teaching. Denise Cole is back to teach us the Water Song that opened the festival yesterday evening. Meanwhile, a piece of red ochre from nearby Ochre Pit Cove has been laid upon a table at the front of the room.

“Obviously all of you living here know the territory you are on,” Carmel Whittle explains. “But this morning I woke up early and I went to the pit. It was so significant to the Beothuks because they would go to that cliff and take the ochre, and they crushed the ochre up and they made it into a powder.”

“We can’t ever forget where we stand,” she continues. “All of us are connected. We are part of the ocean, the ground that we stand on, the air that we breathe—we are so deeply connected to where we are. In the act of colonization we were separated from that. And I just want to honour our ancestors. We’re here because of them, because they took care of us—because they took care of this land. So come and hold that piece of red ochre in your hands and send your intentions out to the most beautiful place.”

“I’m so grateful to be born here, not just on the planet but on this rock that sits in the middle of the Atlantic ocean,” she concludes. “And to be home here with my Two-Spirit LGBTQ community… there is no word. I love you all.”

Filmmaker Carmel Whittle relates the story of her Saturday morning trip to Ochre Pit Cove.
Filmmaker Carmel Whittle relates the story of her Saturday morning trip to the ochre cliff. Photo: Alex Stead.

After the opening ceremonies are finished, another storytelling panel begins. This one is organized by broadcaster Angela Antle. The idea is to explore what the concept of ‘home’ means to a number of queer Newfoundlanders and Labradorians—some who were born here, and others who made this place their chosen home later in life.

Moderated by author Eva Crocker, the stories we hear are moving, funny, painful, uplifting, tragic, and joyous—and everything in between. Taken together, they help flesh out an idea of ‘home’ and ‘community’ that resonates with what is being accomplished at the festival this weekend.

*

Later in the afternoon, we’re asked to split into three groups for “a guided walking history of the community visiting folks in their yards at their homes.” We only have enough time left in the afternoon for each group to visit one section of the community. I’m torn, because I was really looking forward to visiting Wanda Crocker’s house and learning more about the very first lesbians to “invade” Broad Cove three decades ago. But in the end, I opted to follow the group Peg Norman is leading to Sue Rose’s seaside cottage. Rose’s land features a breathtaking lookout over the Atlantic, and the finest shed I’ve ever seen—which she has rather subversively named the Eagle’s Nest. (“That was the name of Hitler’s hideaway, and I wanted to take the name back and give it some positive energy,” she tells the crowd as we arrive. “There are quite a few eagles around here.”)

Without any exaggeration, Sue Rose is one of the most incredible people I have ever met. A special education teacher for 20 years, she is a tireless advocate for queer and trans students, as well as those with ADHD and autism. She has served as a member of the Small Point-Broad Cove-Blackhead-Adam’s Cove town council for four years, and for her lifetime of advocacy work she has been awarded the NLTA Award for Educational Advocacy, the NL Human Rights Award, and the Order of Newfoundland and Labrador. She radiates an aura of strength, joy, and genuine human kindness that is truly awe-inspiring. Being in her presence for even a few brief hours feels spiritually restorative, and there is no doubt in my mind that she has saved and transformed countless lives.

Sue Rose speaking with guests outside her shed.
Sue Rose speaks with guests outside her shed. Photo: Alex Stead.

Rose leads our small group to a wooden deck overlooking the ocean to begin our history lesson.

“I was very closeted myself, believe it or not,” she tells us. “When I’d first be invited out [here], if there was a dance party, I would have to close the blinds. I would attend Pride parades in disguises. I couldn’t tell anyone that I was a lesbian.”

Despite the lengths she went to hide her identity, in 1992 while teaching at Booth Memorial High School in St. John’s, Rose began facing regular harassment from a colleague who had discovered she was a lesbian. When she tried to seek protection from the school administration, she was told by her Principal that “I’m really sorry you’re being harassed, but if you make an issue I’ll have to fire you.”

Until the late 1990s in Newfoundland and Labrador, it was legal to discriminate against people based on sexual orientation at work, in housing, and access to establishments and services.

“The reality is that the vast majority of young people don’t know what their history is,” Norman adds. “They might know it on an intellectual level, but they have no idea it was illegal to be out as a teacher in 1992. Which was yesterday!”

“I had to deny it,” Rose continues. “It was astonishing, in the lobby at the schools, the homophobia I was exposed to. But what hurt me the most was that there were 55 teachers at that school, and only two or three stood by me. This included three gay or lesbian people who told me that they couldnt support me. So basically I had to deal with it myself.”

Thanks to years of lobbying and activism by Gerry Rogers, Ann Shortall, and many others, the provincial human rights code was finally amended to protect sexual orientation in December 1997. And as soon as her rights were secured, Rose came out as queer on CBC television.

“I went to work the next day, and I was teaching junior high, and I’m in the parking lot going into the school and I hear: ‘Dyke! Dyke! Dyke!’” she recalls with a laugh. “And I started dancing, like, oh yes, dyke, dyke, dyke. So I turned around and I said: ‘hey! Hey! I’m not a dyke! I’m a lesbian! Call me a lesbian!’”

“Why did I feel comfortable coming out?” Rose reflects. “It’s because of Wanda. I saw her take a stand a long time ago when someone threatened her. It made me look at Wanda differently and it made me feel like—I’ve got to stand up for myself, I’ve got to start defending my rights. It changed who I was.”

“They laid the foundation for me,” she continues. “Wanda and Lynne and Gerry and Peg, they were the trailblazers.”

“Listen: none of us should ever negotiate our sense of belonging,” she concludes. “We belong in this community just the same as everyone else. If we start negotiating where we belong, we’re lost. I belong here. If you don’t like me, that’s fine. But I demand respect.”

Then, lighting up again, Rose leads us into the shed. As a firm believer in “positive change over time,” she and the others began hosting regular shed parties for the whole community—”there were times it was just us in the shed and there were times there’d be like 70 people, and oh my Jesus that’s when it got crazy and wonderful”—until they were fully integrated into their new home.

“We have the best music and dances,” Rose laughs. “They’ve got to love us! There’s no way around it! We are the party people, aren’t we?” (“Well, you are, Sue,” Norman deadpans.)

Sue Rose inside her shed.
Sue Rose inside her shed. Photo: Alex Stead.

Once inside, the mood gets serious again.

“The education system is broken and we’re still invisible,” Rose laments. “Invisibility and helplessness go hand in hand. So: we need to be in the curriculum. I did a lot of stuff here, helping to develop the K-12 curriculum—and then Dwight Ball gets in [during the 2015 election]. We had a situation here in Newfoundland where we could’ve [made changes]. And Dwight Ball, our Liberal premier, chose to follow the Pentecostal Church and roll out The Way Forward without us.” 

“I can’t tell you what that did to me,” she continues. “So then one day, Dwight has to give me the Order of Newfoundland. And I couldn’t let it go. I was rude. I stood up and I said: ‘Dwight, you lied to me. You let The Way Forward roll out and you ignored my community.’ I don’t regret it. And I’ll say it ‘til I die. Last year we had two new suicides, so it is really serious. If you are in a home, and you’re not safe, and you don’t have someone in school, you’re not going to make it. The government doesn’t want to deal with the violence that our kids are exposed to—particularly our trans kids. No one is accountable and there’s no changes.”

“We’ve got policy on paper that the 2SLGBTQ+ community is supposed to see themselves reflected in the curriculum,” she concludes. “Well hello! You’re not represented in the curriculum if you got a prayer meeting after school to save the gay kid in your school, like we have in ten communities in the province! I’m telling you—we’re going back in time.”

“Susan has been a hardcore advocate for queer kids in the system for her whole career,” Norman adds. “It’s just a reminder that rights are never given to you, ever. We have gained so many freedoms. We’re in the human rights code. But never, never assume that it can’t be reversed. It’s happening in the US. Never assume that what we have gained is here to stay. We always have to be vigilant.”

“What I’m afraid of with our young crowd is that they walk freely down the street holding hands,” she continues. “But they have no idea how fragile and tenuous that freedom is. It’s completely precarious. So what Susan is doing, and what we all should be doing—all of us—is constantly staying aware and on top of it. Never let the slight go unnoticed. Never turn away.”

“We’re always at risk,” Rose concludes. “So we have to have uncomfortable conversations.”

Peg Norman speaking as part of the Friday night storytelling panel.
Peg Norman speaking as part of the Friday night storytelling panel. Photo: Alex Stead.

After the rest of the group moves on to get ready for the concert that evening, a few of us stay behind to share more stories with Rose. One thing impressed on me that afternoon was the sheer courage of our queer elders. The strength they had to cultivate against a hostile culture is inspiring—as is how hard they struggled, in the very recent past, to create the atmosphere of acceptance that my generation and those after us can now take for granted. 

But even that acceptance has its limits, especially in some rural parts of the province. That’s why creating an openly queer community in this rural town in so important—and why Rose is still fighting as hard as ever to help and protect the queer and trans kids who are still unsafe today.

Hearing Rose and Norman talk this afternoon was deeply galvanizing. They’re right: any freedom queer and trans people enjoy today is incredibly fragile. It is so easy to forget that homophobic and transphobic violence and exclusion is not only a very recent historical presence here but an enduring one. There are still political and religious forces working to overturn this hard-won human right to love; its reversal is a perennial threat, a dark cloud on the horizon threatening to swallow up the sun.

Seen in this light, Come Home Queer is more than just a triumphant celebration after generations of struggle. Gathering the queer community openly in a rural setting is a political statement; a sobering reminder that the freedom we are celebrating is never guaranteed. The home we’re celebrating this weekend was created at tremendous cost by those who came before us, and can only be preserved through the constant vigilance of those who come after.

The moment we forget that, we stand to lose everything.

*

Saturday evening is the big event: a concert on Saturday evening at the Salem Community Hall featuring Kate Best and Wanda Crocker, Zay Nova, and budding superstar Kellie Loder. Having Loder headline the show was such a smash, in fact, that tickets sold out almost immediately and the organizers had to add a second show for Sunday. Once I find my seat at the back of the room and hear them start playing, it is easy to see why—and by the warm afterglow of the fourth standing ovation, we are all fully basking in the Newfoundland dream.

Kellie Loder mugs for the camera outside the Salem Community Hall.
Kellie Loder mugs for the camera outside the Salem Community Hall. Photo: Alex Stead.

With the concert finished, all the chairs are quickly stacked and pushed up against the walls. The lights are dimmed, the Cyndi Lauper is cranked, the kegs are tapped, and the community hall becomes a giant dance floor. Although surreptitious lesbian dance parties have been a regular occurrence in sheds and fields around the cove for three decades, tonight is the first time they’ve ever done it in the open with the full blessing and participation of the community.

Bingo night at the Legion has nothing on this. It’s a victory dance thirty years in the making.

*

Sunday is a real scorcher, and despite any lingering hangovers, by noon a sizable crowd of about 150 people has already gathered in Salem Yard outside the community hall. (“I can see just by looking around that you’ve doubled our population this afternoon,” Mayor Brandon King jokes. “I’ll be sure to send that to StatsCan.”)

There is a real buzz of exuberance ahead of today’s Pride parade.

One of many quads decked out in rainbows for Sunday's Pride parade.
One of many quads decked out in rainbows for Sunday’s Pride parade. Photo: Alex Stead.

Beni Malone is walking around on stilts as a cacophony of cars pass up and down the road, honking with approval. A small squadron of trikes and quads are queuing up to escort the parade’s only float—a speedboat hitched on to somebody’s truck—through the winding streets of Broad Cove. Soap bubbles softly blanket the crowd as they’re carried on a soothing sea breeze. Gerry Rogers rallies everyone for the weekend’s final address.

“We’ve had the most incredible weekend and it’s not over yet,” she says. “Our theme was ‘home’. What does home mean for queer people? What does home mean for us living together in openness and inclusivity, in love and in kindness?”

“So when I heard Vicki Doyle’s song about home, I knew we needed to hear that here together.”

Doyle joins Rogers on the platform to deliver a heartfelt acoustic song called “My Home Newfoundland.” After everything we’d heard and felt in this place over the weekend, its chorus feels like the perfect capstone: “this is my freedom, my home Newfoundland.”

Festival co-chairs Joan LeDrew and Wanda Crocker.
Festival co-chairs Joan LeDrew and Wanda Crocker. Photo: Alex Stead.

“I’m proud to be part of this community,” co-chair Joan LeDrew tells the crowd. “I don’t even think ‘inclusiveness’ anymore. To me, this is not ‘the LGBTQ community’ and ‘our community’. This is all our community. Every single one of us together. This is our place.”

“The feeling, and this festival, is beyond words,” co-chair Wanda Crocker says. “The feeling of love and acceptance was just absolutely phenomenal. So let’s hope that when you leave here today, you take a little bit of that energy in your back pocket and bring it home—because we got enough to share!”

“This is unprecedented history here on the shore,” Jessie Slade, a woman from the community, told the crowd. “It’s incredible. The feeling that a lot of you are feeling right now in your bellies—that feeling means that you’re doing something in line with your values. You’re here to support gay rights. You’re here to support human rights. You’re actually a part of history, right now.”

By this point the crowd has swelled well beyond 200. Kellie Loder—openly celebrating their first Pride—climbs to the bow of the boat and hoists the Progress flag. Vicki Doyle leads the crowd in in a rousing cover of 4 NonBlonde’s “What’s Up.” The quads rev up in the parking lot, and so begins the biggest Pride parade the bay has ever seen.

The Pride parade embarks through town on Sunday afternoon.
The Pride parade embarks on Sunday afternoon. Photo: Alex Stead.

It is a moment of euphoria. For many people, Come Home Queer represents the first real mass gathering they’ve experienced since the pandemic began in 2020. Their joy at partaking in this queer communion is charged with extra meaning; the ecstasy is overdetermined. But it is more than that. It is, quite literally, living the dream.

The 'float' in the Sunday Pride parade.
Kellie Loder hoists the Progress flag at the bow of the ‘float’ in the Sunday Pride parade. Photo: Alex Stead.

To watch hundreds of people proudly celebrating their freedom to love and be loved in whichever way they needed—to watch them claim and reclaim their birthright—was transcendent. Coming down a hill through a narrow pass that suddenly rounds a corner, opening onto a brilliant blue ocean—as deep and expansive and eternal as the human spirit—is an image I will never forget. For a fleeting moment, we were home—as near to heaven as by sea, glimpsing the best of all possible worlds that we could build together on a foundation of love. It was the creation and enactment of a real utopian space, our full immersion in those sublime saltwater joys. A celebration of what has been accomplished over many years in the face of adversity, and a vision of the world we can create together—a world where, to paraphrase Kellie Loder, love could be so simple, if we tried.

The Pride parade heading down through town towards the sea.
The Pride parade heading down through town towards the sea. Photo: Alex Stead.

It was, in the purest sense, an experience of hope. Come Home Queer, against all odds, had created a living hope at a time and in a place that all too often feels utterly hopeless. This is a priceless experience and something that could really only ever be accomplished in Newfoundland. No matter how much or how heavily it rains in darkness, when the clouds inevitably pass and the sun finally shines it leaves the rainbow in its wake. For so many of us, for the very first time, we had come home.

A rainbow appears over the beach on Sunday evening after Come Home Queer has wrapped up.
A rainbow appears over the ocean on Sunday evening after Come Home Queer has wrapped up. Photo: Alex Stead.

Come Home Queer 2022 was a liberating and humbling experience. Everyone who was there left feeling truly blessed to have attended the first event of its kind. It will not be the last. And as I departed from this shoreside idyll to return to city life, I heard Vicki Doyle’s words echo in my head:

As the winds roar on the rugged sea
There’s no place I’d rather be
Than home.

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