HALIFAX—It all started with a bike trip. During a long distance cycle from Halifax to Pictou County in July, 2008, Sonia Edworthy and Lynne Hood discovered what they called “Queer Paradise” in rural Nova Scotia.
The Mermaid and the Cow campground is situated among beautiful rolling hills, red dirt roads, forests and farmland. It is a place dedicated to providing a safe and fun camping experience for members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) communities and their queer-positive friends.
"I have lived on this farm for 31 years; it's a beautiful place, and it was time to share it," says Jane Morrigan, lesbian, owner of the campground and former dairy farmer, of her decision to open the campground eight years ago. Morrigan loves to explain her connection to the land and the farm: "It's been an intensely powerful force, giving inspiration, hope, sustenance and comfort. Being so close to nature, so close to the beauty of the universe, virtually on my doorstep, has made the difference between getting through things and not getting through things."
Edworthy and Hood, along with their friend Kelly Baker, who was writing her master’s thesis on the experience of rural queer in Nova Scotia, returned to the campground a few months later. In the midst of a snowstorm, they planned a summer event that would embrace the spirit of camp and camping, of coming out and being out.
"I think part of our motivation to organize Camp Out was to create a space outside of the more typically sanctioned spaces for queer people to get together,” says Edworthy. “To create a space that was real and open and safe for people."
"Having experienced a lot of homophobia while growing up, and continuing to face it at my workplace, I wanted to be able to talk about how homophobia and oppression hasn't stopped,” says Hood, of her reasons for organizing the event. "The pieces that are celebrated are there, like freedom, diversity and equality, but there's still so much work to be done."
Camp Out took place on a weekend in July 2009 to celebrate LGBTQ activism in the Maritimes. The event sought to connect and exchange, face-to-face, with rural and urban, older and younger queers; to hear the stories of how it used to be—and how it is; to get a sense of history in rural and urban contexts, and to link the past and present together in the ongoing struggle for human rights.
The Mermaid and the Cow was not the only inspiration for organizing the weekend. The organizers agree that Baker's master's thesis was a prominent inspiration for having the gathering. Baker had recently finished her thesis, and presented her findings at Camp Out.
Baker came out to her community at age 17, in grade 12 high school. She hails from Port Medway, a rural Nova Scotian community on the South Shore, population 200.
"It's important not to paint all small town places as homophobic, as the history books do," says Baker over a coffee in Halifax's North End. "Much of the academic literature traces gay and lesbian liberation back to the cities. If you presuppose that all queer people come out in the city, you leave out so many."
Baker found the academic literature on the subject of coming out in rural areas was mapped onto migration from rural to urban spaces. She discovered a gap in the theory that failed to explain those who didn't move to the city, and those with strong ties to home. People felt more acceptance in small towns than the literature portrayed.
In her thesis work, she interviewed 14 people who had either always lived in rural Nova Scotia, or were born and raised in rural Nova Scotia, moved to the city, then moved back to rural Nova Scotia, with some participants originating from outside the province.
"For many who went to the cities in the '80s, they felt alienated. Although the presence of other queers was satisfying, they didn't feel the sense of community they were looking for."
Baker's experience is the same: her family had lived in Port Medway for six generations. They were so established in the community that when she came out, she was generally accepted. Now Baker lives in Halifax's North End, but she still visits the small fishing town, with it's wooden fishing boats, lighthouses, and clapboard housing.
One similarity she found among her subjects, predominantly women, was that Pictou was "a drawing card" for queer women. Twenty-five years ago, they had weekend campovers of mainly lesbian women, including workshops, communal meals, music and informal gatherings. The rural and the urban were not so separate, as lesbian conferences in the city drew rural dwellers, and vice versa.
"These camping get-togethers probably looked a lot like Camp Out," says Baker.
The theme of Camp Out, announced on the hand-drawn posters that were pasted around Halifax in the summer, read: "Exploring LGBTQ activism in the Maritimes PAST and PRESENT."
Although she recognizes that queer activism in Nova Scotia has always existed, Morrigan thinks the turning point for queer organizing in Nova Scotia was 1994— over the incident known as Skokewall.
In 1994, Roseanne Skoke, a homophobic Liberal MP representing Pictou County, stood up in Parliament and denounced homosexuals, declaring that natural law should deal with all deviants. It was the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York City, largely credited as the first moment in American history when the homosexual community fought back against state policy that discriminated based on sexual orientation. Morrigan and her partner had just returned from the Gay Games in New York. They had a sense of being part of an unstoppable force that was going to win, even in Nova Scotia. They began to organize, protest, demanding Skoke's resignation, leading to a rally in New Glasgow, across the street from her office, with over 100 people in attendance.
Garnering national attention, it got the movement rolling. A group in Pictou formed, called the Homosexualist Agenda. Skoke had said, "These people have an agenda," so they turned the phrase on its head: their agenda was for freedom, equality, and pride.
In the spring of 2008, Pictou County witnessed a resurgence of queer mobilization when local municipalities voted to prevent the flying of rainbow flags on municipal flagpoles. Rallies were held in Pictou and Truro, where over 100 queer people and their allies gathered. This is where Morrigan first met Kelly Baker.
"In 2008, when Truro banned the flying of the rainbow flag, it was a reminder that there are rural queer communities, and that local non-queer residents are also motivated for justice," says Baker.
Older participants of Camp Out felt encouraged by meeting younger queer activists. Robin Metcalfe, former member of the Gay Alliance for Equality, active in gay rights struggle in the 1970's in Halifax, agreed. "For me, I saw that there is a new wave of queer activism."
David Parker is a freelance journalist and queer activist based in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He was born and raised in southern Ontario.