Prairie Homo Companion: Conversations On Coming Home

A Prairie Homo Companion is a regular column that celebrates the Canadian prairies, canola fields and big skies, and the paradoxes of being a fine-ass lady prairie homo.

Header by Rory Midhani

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In July a few summers ago, I was sitting chatting with a couple skinny Anglophone gay boys in Montreal’s Saint-Henri. The formerly poor, working class neighbourhood has been immortalized in Gabrielle Roy’s famous Canadian novel, The Tin Flute, but now it’s a diverse showcase of immigration, gentrification, and make a zine/go-to-a-queer-and-poly-sex-show culture. With my short hair, my plaid top, and my skinny legs in skinny jeans, I thought I fit in with the gay boys just fine. The previous night in Le Village, a gay man had even hit on me, albeit, from a distance.

But now, inevitably, the conversation turned to where I’m from: Edmonton, Alberta, the prairies, the middle part of the country with the conservative politics. A week earlier I had discovered and gone to Montreal’s lesbian soccer meetup. “It’s so cool to meet you,” a girl had said enthusiastically. “I actually didn’t know they had gay people in Alberta.” She smiled; she was cute.

“Al-ber-ta,” one of the boys said, stretching out the name of my province as though it belonged to him as much as the skinny-jeaned leg he also casually stretched out. He picked up his beer, took a sip, put it down, and turned to me with a look of detached, plastic intensity as if we were in a soap opera and he were about to tell me I had an incurable disease and a long-lost twin sister I wouldn’t live long enough to meet.

“Al-ber-ta. Alberta! Living in Alberta must be, like, HELL.”

My face flushed and my tongue tied, I hesitated a split-second too long before falling back on my inner nerd and using a statistic as a defense-shield:

“Actually, did you know Alberta has the most live theater per-capita in the whole country?”

The gay boys laughed.

The Edmonton Fringe Theater Festival via yardleyjones.com

I’m going to let you in on an infamous open secret among born and raised Alberta queers: at one point or another, so many of us have agreed, if only momentarily, with the Montreal boys. My teenage diaries were a mess of “I like girls. This means I have to leave.”

+ + +

Yesterday after work I was on the LRT train as it pulled out of a downtown station. The junior-high-aged girls seated across from me craned their necks to catch a glimpse of a group of short-haired women on the platform.

“Lesbians!” one said excitedly.

“Fuckin’ lesbians,” agreed the other, her bravado masking an oh-so-familiar mixture of awe and fear.

We left Grandin Station tunnel for the High Level Bridge and were greeted by the colourful, bright lights of the downtown skyline. It was beautiful partly because we had been underground for so long — beautiful like above zero temperatures and pushing the clocks forward in April; but the girls didn’t see it, or if they did it wasn’t enough to stop one of them from saying, “I hate this place.”

“Let’s get the fuck outta here. We should go to B.C. You know Erica? She’s in Victoria now.”

“Victoria’s lame. Vancouver’s way better. Kay so we gotta save money.”

“18 and out.”

“No more spending on stupid shit.”

“I don’t spend on stupid shit. Fuck you!”

It’s funny how when the Montreal boys criticized Alberta, I felt the anger rising from my heart to my face; yet when I listened to the two teenage girls speak, all I felt was understanding. I wanted to reach across the aisle and hug them. Just like nobody but me has permission to say bad things about my family, no homo but a prairie homo has the right to criticize my province. “Me too,” I could so easily say to the teenagers on that Edmonton LRT train: “Me too.” I had also wanted to leave, and I did; but then I came home.

+ + +

I remember flying home in August of 2011 after almost a year on a European exchange. With a blanket pulled over my face so I could pretend to be alone on a crowded plane, I silently cried, overcome that I had done so many of the things I had only dreamed of as a teenager. I couldn’t believe this prairie homo had seen castles, had travel romances with incredible women in exciting places, worked and supported herself overseas. But as much as I was crying over how wonderful Europe was, I was also teary-eyed because I had missed Alberta so much. I couldn’t wait to look out the window, see the familiar patchwork-quilt pattern of the Canadian prairies, and know that I was home.

approach to Edmonton from an airplane window

I lowered my blanket to accept a cup of water from the flight attendant, and the middle-aged woman sitting beside me asked if I was okay. I mumbled something about missing people and places I was leaving behind but feeling excited to be coming home.

“Oh, I know the feeling,” she nodded, explaining how though she and her husband had enjoyed their two-month European cruise, she couldn’t wait to get back to Winnipeg, though her real home was in Saskatchewan. “If you go back far enough, I’m Russian/Ukrainian, but the prairies are home now. My family first came to this country in the early 1900s, settled in Saskatchewan on a farm near Humboldt — you’ve probably never heard of it.”

I had heard of Humboldt. I knew it well from all my Oma’s stories.

“My family came from Russia to Humboldt in the early 1900s too!” I told her, my jaw dropping through the airplane floor, down to the ocean that our family had crossed by ship a century earlier. “They came in the middle of winter and –”

“Mine as well. You have got to be kidding me.”

We looked at eachother like the long-lost relatives we were, finishing eachother’s sentences, complementing eachother’s histories:

“It was the dead of winter, cold and empty. No neighbours for kilometers.”

“Not that it mattered since they hardly spoke English — just German and Russian.”

“The ground was frozen — ”

“Yes! I’ve heard stories about this. The ground was so frozen they couldn’t build on it.”

“So they dug a hole.”

“And lived in that hole in the ground all winter.”

Whether or not I’m part of the mile-high club is not something this column is about; but I can tell you I’m part of a far more exclusive one. How many people randomly discover an extended family member while suspended over the Atlantic? Somewhere between Europe and Canada, I realized how much I had missed talking to someone who felt like coming home.

In my family, when you’re feeling down, you’re reminded of the relatives who lived in a hole in the ground all through winter. Now that must’ve been hell; yet when my Oma speaks of Saskatchewan, the place where her grandparents nearly froze to death, she has only good things to say: “There’s no place like Saskatchewan; no place on Earth.”

“Just don’t give up on yourself,” is something else she likes to tell me whenever I’m sad. Living on the Canadian prairies, you need to develop a certain kind of emotional and physical strength if you’re going to avoid sinking into a depression when the sun sets at 4 p.m.; if you’re going to bus to a queer dance party in 40 below temperatures complete with icy sidewalks; if you’re going to find the queers who throw the parties in a place not known for its high population density or advertising its queer culture. But you don’t give up. Like my relatives who learned English and took up farming once the ground had thawed, you make your home your own.

If you can criticize the prairies as easily as you can stretch out a leg or swig back a can of beer, it’s not your home. Criticizing the prairies should make your heart ache from stretching as wide as a summer prairie sky or a field of canola, a stretch of icy highway in the snow. Criticizing Alberta should make your heart ache because you don’t know how to marry the danger of the icy highway to the peaceful beauty of the snowy fields surrounding it.


Special Note: Autostraddle’s “First Person” personal essays do not necessarily reflect the ideals of Autostraddle or its editors, nor do any First Person writers intend to speak on behalf of anyone other than themselves. First Person writers are simply speaking honestly from their own hearts.

Avatar of Malaika

Malaika likes books, drinking tea, long conversations, dinner parties, making funny faces, bike rides, and dogs. Originally from Edmonton, she now lives in Montreal where she edits, runs, and writes about the Alberta Tar Sands for The Media Co-op. You can follow her on twitter @Malaika_Aleba.

Malaika has written 83 articles for us.

39 Comments

  1. Thumb up 2

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    I grew up in Alberta too, but I’ve never felt that longing. Sure, I understand that feeling and allure of the wide, wide, endless frozen flatness, the big skies, the hot summer days – the beauty of that place – but it never feels like home. I’ve been away for almost 10 years, visiting once or twice a year to see my family.

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    This is wonderful. “Just like nobody but me has permission to say bad things about my family, no homo but a prairie homo has the right to criticize my province.” I KNOW THAT FEEL. Living in the country is beautiful.

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    This story really touched me; especially as I’m waiting to head home for the holidays. I’m from Cleveland but live in Texas; and like the Montreal boys, I often get responses from people like “Oh, Cleveland’s so crappy” when I tell people that’s where I’m from. At the same time my friends back home all talk about how they want to leave Ohio. I really think leaving gives perspective to how important “roots” are — and at least for me, has me decided on that I’m going to head back in the future.

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      Agreed. Your writing style speaks volumes, Malaika. I like this, it feels different, the way you strung each word together. Like a poem or a song or an indescribable feeling described and defined.

      Plus, hello: Canada. Open skies and all that cold.

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    thisssss:

    “Living on the Canadian prairies, you need to develop a certain kind of emotional and physical strength if you’re going to avoid sinking into a depression when the sun sets at 4 p.m.; if you’re going to bus to a queer dance party in 40 below temperatures complete with icy sidewalks; if you’re going to find the queers who throw the parties in a place not known for its high population density or advertising its queer culture. But you don’t give up.”

    I’m heading home to the prairies for two weeks pretty soon.

    and I can’t wait for those nights with my bff where we trek out to the gay bar in obscenely freezing weather because when we finally get inside and pull off our toques, everyone in the bar will look at us and just grin because omg we all made it.

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    I don’t really know how to feel about where I’m from, cause while it still seems like there will never be a place for me there, it’s part of who I am. It’s weird when you meet someone from the same region as yourself, cause it’s like they’re a little piece of “home,” like their understanding of where you come from makes it easier to refer to where you’re from as “home.”
    What I’m saying is, I HAVE SO MANY FEEEEELINGS ABOUT THIS my fellow Canadaqueer

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    This resonates so strongly with me. Although, ironically, moving from Winnipeg (which comparatively is like a socialist haven) to Edmonton has been the best decision for me – in the sea of conservative politics, we really do have an amazing queer community here. One giant hole in the frozen ground for all of us rainbow weirdos to huddle together and call it our own.

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    I grew up in Calgary, and spent nearly my entire time there counting the days until I graduated high school so I could leave on the first ticket out.
    Alberta is gorgeous, and there is nothing quite like a quiet December morning when the clouds are purple and the snow is a blanket over the frozen rivers.
    …yet it’s still close-minded and incredibly conservative. Calgary elected Naheed Nenshi, a muslim east indian man who is arguably the most educated and arts-centric political leader on the west coast as their mayor. Yet still the majority of people fear difference, diversity and especially alternative lifestyles.

    I must disagree with you, Alberta can never be home until it learns to accept people from all walks of life. Until it learns to celebrate diversity like the cultural hubs of Montreal and Toronto.
    I’m not saying there is not a strand of acceptance, but community for queer women of colour is hard to find. So going home brings great sadness, and I wish I had the joy you had for the same place.

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      You’re right that Alberta leaves much to be desired -I was talking to my brother about this a couple of days ago. But it just makes me have more love for all the queer people who ARE doing amazing things here – because there actually are so many cool things happening here, and you get the sense that there’re so many possibilities, whereas in a big city sometimes you get the feeling that it’s all been done before.

      Also, the intersections and paradoxes between queerness and conservative mindset/politics is super interesting to write about!

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    As I’m waiting anxiously for the next week to pass before I get to go home for Christmas this struck me right through the heart. I grew up in a small place an hour away from Edmonton and -living in the maritimes now- haven’t been home in over a year. It’s so hard to describe the weird mixture of yearning and resentment that comes with growing up in AB while queer and progressive. I think you have to be “one of us” to fully grasp how fraught the relationship between identity and home can be. You’ve done a beautiful job!

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    Oh, this was an unexpected punch in the chest. Calgary born and raised here, and after more than 25 years as a Calgarian, I’m making plans for a permanent move to Vancouver to be with the people who form the family of my heart. I too feel defensive when people slam Alberta for being… whatever people think it is. And some of it is true, you know? And some of it does great injustice to the arts community I admire and the great, great variation of people to be found within the city. I’ve met so many people here who made me feel accepted, whose outspoken pride made me feel braver even when I still couldn’t say anything. (Is there a lesbian scene in Calgary? I have no idea. Not having a car makes it way tough to get involved in anything…)

    But I’m excited about leaving. I haven’t even really considered that I’ll miss Calgary — in fact I didn’t really expect I would. But I’m reminded of how my parents escaped Vietnam during the war, how they were able to come to Canada and meet in Alberta and build their lives in Calgary — they tell me how they’re grateful because this was the only place that would take them in. For that much alone I don’t think I could feel too resentful about Alberta… even when I do make fun of it with my friends.

    Beautifully written, Malaika. Thank you.

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    “Actually, did you know Alberta has the most live theater per-capita in the whole country?”

    This fun fact is also true of the Twin Cities in relation to the US, and I have shared it with every stuck-up East or West Coaster who has sneered at my Midwestern upbringing. That, and the fact that Minneapolis has been named the gay-friendliest city in the United States. I have to stick to these two facts because when I try to describe and explain how gorgeous Minnesota is, they never get it.

    Prairie pride is a beautiful thing.

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    This resonates with me in a lot of ways. I’m from Saskatchewan, but I live in Toronto now. As my username obviously suggests, the prairies are a big part of my identity. As much as I say that I could never live there again, I am such a prairie girl. (Check out this song from a Regina band called Rah Rah – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H0UENJiVJhw)

    My Oma and Opa and their families also came from Russia to Saskatchewan in the early 1900s, but in the summer.

    I love this:
    “Criticizing the prairies should make your heart ache from stretching as wide as a summer prairie sky or a field of canola, a stretch of icy highway in the snow.”

    Prairie queers represent!

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    A really nice article. I grew up in Calgary and have always hated it because of the internalized homophobia I lived with for so long from growing up here. I mean, it’s a horribly conservative place. I live on the West Coast now, but I will probably always consider AB home in my heart of hearts. I go back every so often to visit family and want to know — WHERE are these Alberta queers? How do you find them? Where do they hang out? I’ve always written off having any fun when I’m in Alberta, but maybe there is hope? Maybe it can change my perspective?

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      awh, i’m sorry you have internalized homophobia from growing up in Calgary. It took me a looooong time to find Alberta queers – it was kinda like a treasure hunt, but I think things are getting easier now. Maybe I should write a Best of Alberta post in which I make a list of top places/events to find the gays?

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    Someone should do a First Person piece on the intersection between being queer/LGBT and a Midwesterner.

    I’m really glad this column exists, though, and I loved this one.

    That is all.

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    Malaika, you have beautifully expressed how I feel. I have always loved my hometown, and I miss it every time I’m gone. And yet I have to defend why I love this place. The sentiment from outside is, how can you be happy in Alberta? Plus we internalize so many of our own stereotypes and the negativity surrounding our province, that many people don’t appreciate what we do have. Edmonton is not Montreal or Vancouver and it never will be. But I still live a very happy life as a queer girl in Edmonton.

    And I will always shake my head at those who criticize this city when they’ve never been here!

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    I’m always the first one to defend Alberta, even though I’m also the first one to insult it. I miss Alberta and I am sad that I won’t be going home this winter break. But I also feel wonderfully free where I am now because I am not stuck in the house due to the poor road conditions and it being -40 and all!

    I’ll never forget the night going to the gay bar when there was no one on the streets because of the ice, I had just gotten in a car accident on my way home from work an hour before, and the cab driver was going 20 km/hr down the iciest hill imaginable. I’m glad I don’t have to do that anymore but I’m also glad I experienced those rough Canadian winters. This Christmas is my first not in the prairies and it feels wrong.

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      My first winter away from the prairies felt so, so weird. My brain/body was just so confused cause everyone said it was winter, yet there was no SNOW and it never dropped to -30 aaaand there were no “windchill warning in effect” announcements on the tv/radio/facebook.

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    humboldt holla! my dad is from there. my mom is from a tiny farming village near assiniboia. when i was a kid, we spent many a summer vacation trekking our way through the prairies, visiting family.

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    Sitting in my living room in Montreal, thinking about how I can’t get back to Winnipeg for Christmas this year, this article actually brought tears to my eyes. Happy ones and longing ones. Growing up in a city as flat and removed as I did, my high-school self complained constantly, like the girls across from you on the train. And my little queer heart nearly exploded with joy when I got my university acceptance letter that meant I had a way out. But leaving the prairies actually served to re-assert their importance in my identity and cultivate my appreciation for the place that will always be my hometown, even if I don’t get back there very often anymore.

    I love Montreal too, and it has become another home in the 8 years I’ve been here, but there’s a loneliness and apathy in a big city that doesn’t resonate with my personal history. I have oh so many pictures, taken through plane windows, of the patchwork fields of rural Manitoba with the winding rivers leading to the heart of my childhood and the people who raised me. And I’m lucky enough to have found a beautiful Québecoise who loves me and is willing to withstand the cold prairie winds of winter and the itchy inevitable bites of the mosquitos that outnumber people throughout the summer when we do get to visit. But there’s something about drinking with your friends in a Boston Pizza lounge because it’s the only bar open on a Tuesday night and the lack of irony in that situation that feels like a breath of fresh air. I never thought I’d miss it as much as I do. And it seems to me now that there’s nothing more wondrous than the vast open spaces stretching out in every direction like never-ending opportunities.

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    Simply lovely. I too grew up on the plains, though not in Canada rather in Kansas. When visiting home I now appreciate the beauty of the vast open spaces and expansive sky in a way that I couldn’t when it was my everyday experience. Thanks for writing this piece, it was a joy to read.

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