GLOSSI Gays and Lesbians of Salt Spring Island : a Personal History
by Caffyn Jesse and Juli MacDonnell
Life in a small island community offers particular challenges to sexual minorities, along with opportunities – to belong, matter, make a difference.
First, there is the experience of visibility. Our queer lives are hyper-visible within the fishbowl of island life. When there is a clash in values or conflict, being so visible increases jeopardy and one’s sense of vulnerability.
In small communities, we are known to each other and we depend upon each other. The same person you see for couples counseling sits on the Parent Advisory Council with you. If you alienate a neighbor, you lose work opportunities. If one person knows a secret, so do 1000 people.
So, how do Queer people create safety for themselves?
One strategy is Assimilation – being and acting “just like everyone else.”
Another is creating connections and allegiances with the straight community.
Having money and contributing economically to the local economy of Salt Spring creates a sense of worthiness for wealthy gays and lesbians.
Gender conformity is another strategic decision – some people choose to appear like ordinary men and women, though they feel non-binary, gender-fluid or trans.
Being coupled and staying coupled makes people’s queerness feel contained and less threatening.
Each of these strategies helps to create a sense of relative individual safety. And each has a cost. One cost is the erasure of queer difference. Another cost is the further marginalization of already marginalized queer people – those who are poor, young, transgender, non-gender conforming, single.
Some queers stay longer than they want to in dysfunctional or abusive relationships because they fear disrupting a community of neighborly belonging.
In 1000’s of choices about how we live our lives, as individuals we find creative ways to negotiate systemic prejudice, all with their own cost.
This burden of systemic oppression is too big for any one individual.
We founded GLOSSI to shift the burden of creating safety from the individual to the larger community. Systemic problems require systemic responses.
For many years we did our activism on a small scale. What a huge and challenging step it was in 1998, to create a non-profit society with meetings that were publically announced.
We did little research projects, developing resources for island health care providers on the special needs and concerns of gays and lesbians, working with school counselors to help them address the needs of queer youth, assisting an anti-bullying program in addressing homophobia. We supported the development of a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) in the local high school, and cooperated with the GSA to advocate for new School Board Policy.
During the vitriolic gay marriage debates of 1998-2003, we offered speakers to groups who wanted to hear about the special needs of queers – hospice, churches, the island’s wellness coordinator.
We presented dances, bowling nights and other small-scale social events, where we raised money to buy library books and help queers in need.
Our first poster for a dance raised enormous concern amongst queer islanders. Organizers were disappointed at a pitiful turnout as people voted with their feet to say that publically queer space was not valued and didn’t belong on Salt Spring.
But we persevered, believing that each time we represent our selves and our desires in language, visual culture, public space and social relationships, we help make it possible for diversity to flourish and people at risk to survive.
With every public appearance, we worked at looking good, being contributors, and creating strong connections and allegiances with the straight community.
At the same time, we refused to promote the self-annihilating notion that queers are the same as everyone else. We kept advocating for recognition of the special needs and special gifts of queer people.
We represented Salt Spring Island on the larger stage of provincial and national organizations.
After 8 years of quiet activism, GLOSSI decided the time had come to create a Pride Festival on Salt Spring Island in 2005. In doing this we “rocked the boat,” frightening many long-time queer islanders.
When we organized the first Pride March, gay and lesbian elders who had, for decades, successfully worked, lived, participated within the community of Salt Spring Island, were really concerned and upset. They were afraid that being more explicit and “too open” about sex, gender and sexuality, would challenge people’s underlying beliefs and incite their latent hatred.
They were afraid that we would lose our cherished relationships, and undermine our network of safety and belonging. And that no one would come, because we were cared for as Islanders only, and not as queer, gay, lesbian, bi, trans people.
As community organizers, we wanted to respond to these fears, and develop island-specific strategies that balanced the safety of integration with visible queer difference.
With this in mind, we invited our straight allies to march with us in the Pride Parade. For many in the GLOSSI community, this was the first time they experienced the public celebration of their queerness.
Caffyn Jesse notes that in her work as a somatic sex educator she is able to bring the gifts and practices of queer culture to support the erotic empowerment of diverse people, most of them heterosexually-identified. She reflects, “On Salt Spring Island people see me in many roles and multiple dimensions. I feel I am trusted, or at least tolerated, because I am known.”
“Unlike the city, I find no hiding place in anonymity, no ‘mirror’ in a community of fellow practitioners. Instead, I find a story that creates meaning and interconnection, in a space that is rich with beauty and kindness.”
Juli MacDonnell comments, “In the city, negotiations around systemic oppression are often made within formalized relationships: between groups, government bodies, and communities. But on a small island, these relationships are intimate and individual.
“And while on the one hand I can say I am more guarded in my queer expression — I want and need to maintain my connections for my life –-I am also more supported, more fully witnessed, and more free.”
The relationships we have built through our years in GLOSSI are fundamental to our stories.
We have woven a provisional, temporary, ephemeral network of belonging. It can vanish with a shift in perspective.
The spaces we have claimed and created on Salt Spring Island are spaces where queer expressions are celebrated and sought. By demanding visibility, and refusing to relinquish community connection, we are held, and we are strong.