10 Years of Tears: Gay in the Suburbs


It's our 10th anniversary this year and we're feeling a little weepy‒that’s why we’ve dusted off the archives to bring you highlights from our back issues over the last 10 years. Join us as we take a look back at 10 years of SAD Magazine, revisiting the memories and the people that made SAD what it is today. We're not crying, you’re crying.

Building the Suburban Gaybourhood. Photography by Laura Nguyen

Building the Suburban Gaybourhood. Photography by Laura Nguyen

Everyone knows a Kurt Hummel story, a heartfelt or humorous story akin to that of Glee’s coiffed countertenor. The suburban adolescent gay male is now cliché, and his tale a quintessential part of high school chronicles. Such a tale’s tropes have been well established. It is usually told as a tragic portrait of an outcast protagonist, brought to a dramatic climax of homophobic conflict, and peppered with awkward quips about some locker-room misunderstanding between said protagonist and some sultry classmate manifest from hormonally charged pubescent dreams. You know that story, or at least a variant of it.

But this—this is not that story. It is one thing for queer youth to grow up in the suburbs, but it is entirely another thing when LGBT families settle in the suburbs. Downtown Vancouver and San Francisco form two ends of one big West Coast rainbow, but Vancouver’s vibrant LGBT community is virtually nonexistent in our city’s suburbs. Can LGBT families settle outside the downtown core, in areas where the density of queer individuals ebbs with the density of other human beings? Is the rainbow-coloured picket fence possible, and if it is, what are its implications for the LGBT community at large?

Three years ago, Nathan Pachal and Robert Bittner tied the knot in Langley and have lived there ever since. Both husbands are in their late twenties, but neither has lived in Vancouver proper. Nathan works as a broadcast technician; Robert is a Masters candidate at the UBC Department of English. The latter commutes to campus to study queer young-adult literature. “Langley doesn’t really have a distinct LGBT community,” he tells me.

“I saw two teenage males making out at the back of the 502, the bus that goes from Surrey to Langley,” Nathan adds. Hot.

Chilliwack is a different story. In 2005, Nicole and Sian Hurley moved there from their former residence on Thurlow and Burnaby in downtown Vancouver. Both moms are 29, and live in Chilliwack with their toddler, Roan. Nicole is a store manager at Starbucks, and Sian is a semi-retired chef and stay-at-home mom. “There seems to be an interesting mix,” Sian says describing the LGBT demographic in her city. “Forty-something lesbian moms,” she laughs, as if they all get together for knitting and quilting every Sunday, “and lesbians our age that intermingle and date, who we don’t really know. There are also some older gay men and queer youth.”

Both Nicole and Sian were raised in Chilliwack, but why would they return after life in the Davie Street comfort zone? “We have a very large family, and when we started coming around for birthdays, our nieces and nephews didn’t recognize us as much and they didn’t want to hug us,” Sian explains.

Despite their restored proximity to family, the Hurleys’ move was not easy. LGBT family life in the suburbs can be considered the societal equivalent of dropping Mentos into a two-litre bottle of Diet Coke. Not dangerous per se, but certainly messy and potentially disastrous. “I was working at Starbucks on Davie street, and the shift for me was huge when we moved back to the Valley,” Nicole comments. “I’m working in a store that is predominantly straight, working in an area that—I think—is predominantly straight and very, very right wing.” Sian, who attended culinary school just before the move, also experienced an unsettling change in her work environment. “As soon as I came here and apprenticed, my identity was almost erased,” she says.

Both Nathan and Robert express anxieties similar to that of the Hurleys. “The old people, certainly, have a stigma,” says Nathan.

“I definitely am more comfortable when I go into Vancouver, just being able to be myself,” Robert adds. But he also admits there is power in numbers in Vancouver’s population density. He hasn’t had too much trouble out in Langley, but it’s not the same as being in the city centre.

“There are certain pockets in Langley where you feel fine. Like, Starbucks, for example,” he continues. “But we have, in the odd moment, been called out while walking down the sidewalk together—”

“But that’s also happened to me on Broadway in Vancouver,” adds Nathan.

To deem any neighborhood “safe,” be it suburban or urban, would be naive. While a big, pink map marking reported queerbash incidents in the Lower Mainland would be somewhat informative, it would also be impossible to create with a reasonable degree of accuracy. Discrimination cannot be geographically mapped, and a greater distance from Davie Street doesn’t directly correlate with an increase of homophobia. Bashings pockmark the entire Lower Mainland—often with a higher degree of intensity in the West End. The line between the alleged less gay-friendly sensibilities of Langley and the supposed freedom of Vancouver proper cannot be drawn easily, or really be drawn at all. Yet despite this blur, suburbia is still socially uncharted territory for LGBT families. Without the comfy refuge of institutionalized support like Qmunity, these families are wont of social resources and certainly are right to approach suburban life with a degree of trepidation.

It’s an awkward position to be gay in the suburbs. Starbucks customers in Chilliwack often get to know Nicole as their favorite coffee girl, but soon discover that she and Sian do not exactly conform to their expectations of a lumberjill lesbian couple. “Everybody has this idea that there’s gotta be a butch and there’s gotta be a femme, but Sian and I are very much our own people,” Nicole says. “I guess you could call us femme, if you wanted to put us in a little box—”

“But please don’t,” laughs Sian.

“I think that we open up a lot of people’s eyes to what real gay people look like—which is everybody,” Nicole says

Are LGBT families in the Lower Mainland’s suburbs the new pioneers of LGBT integration in Vancouver? Probably. Albeit over 70 per cent of North America’s population—in whole—is urban and is no longer built upon vast plains of ’50s suburbia, family life in the suburbs still holds a real sense of societal validation and integration, not to mention, the properties and rental rates are more affordable. If this statistic were to be isolated to Greater Vancouver, however, most residents live in suburban communities that are peripheral to Vancouver proper. The City of Vancouver—comprised of Downtown, theWest End, East Vancouver, Kitsilano, South Vancouver, and Point Grey—holds only a quarter of Greater Vancouver’s total population. Perhaps it is time for another rally chant, complete with a minivan float. We’re here, we’re queer, and we’re going to mow our lawns.

Older members of the LGBT community lived in socalled gay ghettos for support and solidarity in earlier and rougher years. Yet younger LGBT generations often consider this way of life to be a dubious, counterintuitive, and antiquated model. “There’s a lot of older gays that seem to still have this sense of wanting to be segregated and have their own special community and area,” says Nathan. “A lot of the younger people—such as myself—rather just integrate into society and be accepted.”

Indeed, the innate solitude of any cultural, sexual, or religious ghetto can be a catalyst for exclusion. When the Hurleys lived in the West End, they discovered that at some nebulous point, community can become exclusion, and exclusion can operate under the guise of community. “We were so engrossed in our neighborhood,” Sian says. “We never went to Chinatown, we never went to Gastown, and we never went to all of the places that make that city so great because we were stuck in this one-street town.”

“We don’t need to be ghettoized into Davie Street,” says Nathan. “Why would we be doing that in this day and age? Why would we exclude ourselves?”

Easier said than done. Clearly defined LGBT communities are often the sole impetus and financial driver for LGBT support centres, and these centres can often be a necessary umbilical cord of resources. “It was definitely interesting being a pregnant lesbian in the Valley,” Nicole tells me. “The vibe that I got was that people would rather that I had been a single mother—pregnant by some man whom I didn’t know via one night stand—than going to an actual clinic, getting inseminated, and having a baby with another woman.”

“In the [Chilliwack], there are not a lot of resources for couples—lesbian or gay—having children, at all,” she says.

I ask about the older lesbian moms Sian mentioned. Could they not have provided some sort of support? “It was an entirely different situation for them,” she replies. They are of a different generation than the Hurleys. Many of these women have had relationships with men and have children from previous heterosexual marriages. “They’re quite old. To them, what we were doing was so trailblazing and trendsetting—”

“—which, in reality, it’s not at all,” added Sian.

“We’re blowing their minds, everyday,” Nicole laughs.

Despite the Hurleys’ remarks, there is a pioneering quality to raising a LGBT family in the suburbs. So much so that pop culture is mining comedy out of it. The critically lauded sitcom Modern Family features a suburban double-dad family comprised of Costco addict Mitchell Pritchett, his bear of a partner Cameron Tucker, and their adopted Vietnamese baby daughter, Lily. The novelty of the Pritchett-Tuckers primarily lies in their fish-out-of-water narrative. Mitchell and Cameron make their home in a setting normally known to have negative attitudes toward the LGBT community, but are living the urban lifestyle stereotypically associated with the gay community.

“Urban design or urban settings attract a creative class and professional-type folks,” Nathan argues. “If you look at people who have the time to be creative, it seems to be gay people as well.” That’s not to say anyone who’s queer categorically identifies with East Vancouver bohemia or West End yuppiedom. The association between the urbanite creative class and the LGBT community may have arisen simply because in the past, LGBT individuals needed the relative safety the city usually provides.

Regardless, the clubs, social vibrancy, and overall comfort of the Davie Street community continue to attract the younger set. “All the queer youth [raised in the suburbs] leave as soon as they can,” Sian says. And that’s understandable. Not everyone can emerge from the closet safely, and if suburbia isn’t quite calibrated for LGBT adolescents, why should queer youth stay there after or even during high school?

“I would like to say that they should all stick together and have a great time out here [in Chilliwack], but that’s not the truth,” Sian continues. “If they’re going to have any sort of life, or if they’re going to see anything, they need to leave this area. There’s nothing out here for them, and the things that they do have disappear.” When the Hurleys first moved to Chilliwack, there was a queer youth support program. But before the couple could get involved, the program was discontinued.

Glee’s Kurt Hummel is certainly not the average gay teen, but his disposition and desires are real and familiar. The chance for LGBT youth to interact with others like themselves on a scale far greater than what’s possible in the suburbs is not only attractive, but also necessary for their overall wellbeing.

Yet LGBT youth who move from the suburbs perpetuate the hardships of living anywhere but a city. “In some ways, it’s a bit of a feedback loop,” says Robert. “You get the young people going downtown to experience the ‘gay scene,’ and they just get so into it that they don’t really feel the need to go back and create a safe space for themselves within their communities at home.” With all of their older peers moving to the city, how are suburban queer youth to survive? The continuing exodus could make Robert and Nathan, the Hurleys, and even Modern Family’s Pritchett-Tuckers historical anomalies, rather than groundbreakers. Indeed, without resources and support in Chilliwack, the Hurleys have decided to return to Vancouver. “In a perfect world, it’d be great to stay,” Sian says. “But it’s not going to be possible to raise our son here.”

Vancouver is a tiny pair of peninsulas cradled in a wide stretch of suburbia, from North Vancouver’s maze of mountain chalets to White Rock’s far reaches. It’s all one sprawling but loosely populated zone that may never become a megalopolis. Suburbia has always been the frontier of the Lower Mainland, and the LGBT community will never be truly integrated into Vancouver society unless it is able to find a residential balance between the queer concentration on Davie Street and outback outliers of Langley and Chilliwack.

So maybe this really is about Kurt Hummel. Or rather, people like him in the Lower Mainland. Many future suburban queer youth, like most young people, will wistfully look to downtown Vancouver’s awkward but identifiable skyline in hopes of a queer-friendly life. But hopefully they will fly from their respective nests and into the city’s embrace for future opportunities, rather than leave the ‘burbs just to escape the pressures of alienation. If more LGBT families settle in the suburbs, perhaps suburban life—the life led by most people in the Lower Mainland—will not be so tough for LGBT individuals in the future. It’s worth a shot.

“I know a lot people say a lot of things about us, because it’s a small town, but we’re incredibly oblivious,” Sian says. “We’re living a great life.”

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This piece was originally published in 2011’s Issue 7/8: Queer History.
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