How Language Gets in the Way

How Language Gets in the Way

We sat down with Gary Dalton, who has been a force in identifying and highlighting social issues and supporting marginalized groups in the Kootenays since the 70s. Initially, we were hoping to get a long-time “ally’s” version of Cranbrook’s Pride history. Our time with Gary instead produced much more: lessons in how everyday language hurts; the real roots of ongoing social issues; and the values of different sides and parts of history. We hope that Gary would agree that quoting his words would best get his important messages to our followers.

Gary, what is your connection to the community?

Initially it was theatre. We toured …all along the East Kootenays. [My partner and I] developed our own theatre company. I worked with the Boys and Girls Club… and I drove cab while waiting for the next theatre job. I learned all the back alleys… of Cranbrook. I got a really good education on the geography… and the people of the area

Jamie Hubley was bullied for being gay. Community supports reduce risk of Gay teen suicide by 20% in Canada. (CBC News)

How Gary became involved with sexual orientation and sexual identity issues

I worked for ten years at a drop-in centre. They would feel safe in that environment and… express their need[s] for different services that exist in Cranbrook… We did some really neat things. It was the first time there was a crisis line. We got skills around suicide, learned about the young people in this town, their sexual identification, and their risk for suicide in that population. We came across a number of issues around sexual abuse, and again, sexual orientation was… one of the issues.

There was a black and white point of view [in the East Kootenays]… of how society existed. People didn’t necessarily have power to respond against it.

As a straight, white man, what do you think gave you the empathy to work with marginalized and discriminated groups?

It’s really hard to say what inspired that.

I have difficulty with the label “straight.” What does that mean? Lots of [First Nations people] have different capacities for relationships and there’s a different language that’s being used. Some… have no language at all to describe [different] relationships. Language… got in the way. I’m careful about language that gets in the way. I’m conscious about making issues and people invisible, especially when we talk about sexual discrimination.

A lot of the issues are relatively new. People have been able to thrive [in the past]. The label… “two-spirited” did not originate from First Nations, but it’s the best term many [of them] use to describe the busting out of this binary condition and recognizing there is a value in everybody.

What do you think about the term, “LGBT?”  

It’s a valuable tool if it can open up people’s minds to, ‘we have a whole range of spices in the kitchen’. [The labels] are a beginning point for conversation, but they’re not able to fit all these folks in, so I have some resistance to it.

The 1980s, early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Rollis University/New York Historical Society

Tell me about your work with the HIV community.

In ’99… Ankors…, an HIV organization, was moving this way and were located in the West Kootenays and some of their family members were from the East Kootenays.

Can you clarify what an HIV organization does?

[HIV] organizations were initially trying to find support for people with HIV in the 80s. In 1980 it was identified as a virus. The response [from the public] was incredibly negative.

Did you have any fears about HIV?

Initially, I sure did… But again… when I go back [to] when I first went to University [of Windsor]. Detroit was right across from Windsor. Detroit was burning. This was ’67, when the riots were happening. There was an awareness of social issues and social justice. I was very close to those issues that might get you killed. Many of the students were Americans who were dodging the draft. There was a large anti-Vietnam movement… at Windsor. [There were] very big police people with big guns. You were putting your life at risk. I understood it and accepted it. Martin Luther King was killed, the Kennedys were killed, Kent State happened, four students were killed, riots… happened in Chicago, New York, San Francisco…

The first HIV organization in the East Kootenays

The idea was to support people who were HIV positive without identifying them. At the time, we were used to these ‘poster child’ ideas. That wasn’t necessarily safe for the poster child, especially in rural BC.

We looked for people who dealt with marginalization issues. The first groups who were supportive of our issues, around marginalization, around sexual education, were the women’s centres in the area and the Ktunaxa nation.

Was Ankors in Cranbrook?

Abortion is still a hot-button issue in Canada. Protest at a high school in P.E.I. (Laura Meader/CBC)

This was in Cranbrook, but the point of view was to deal with the issues in the region. Ankors opened its doors in Cranbrook in ’99, but we serviced the whole valley. West Kootenays had an Ankors office, but also a 1-800 number. Through that, we began to understand what some of the issues were of the population in East… Kootenays. Sexual orientation was certainly on that line.

The impact and shift of the definition of sexual activity in the East Kootenays

There was also an office for sexual health clinic that just opened up [around that time]. You probably understand it as Planned Parenthood. Planned Parenthood was a heterosexual organization. Sexual education [was] around parenthood. I don’t know about you, but most of my sexual activity did not result in pregnancy! We tried to get people to shift their point of view. There was huge resistance. We distributed condoms to all the schools. Allies suddenly appeared… that were trying to broaden the definition of sexual activity. We helped them bring in educators… and encouraged this pool of citizenry who could support these issues.

Do you remember any specific pushback to your work in Cranbrook?

Not at that time, because we did a lot of stuff in… the West Kootenays. If I were to talk about the first response here that may have been contrary, it was in a parade we had. There was a politician who joined us in the parade. He was notorious for having a petition in his office against same-sex marriage. We put a letter to [the local newspaper] saying, “our Politician doesn’t believe that any gay people live in the East Kootenays. Please write to your politician and let him know he’s mistaken.” On this parade, he commented that he did get some response [to the letter] but it wasn’t really overwhelming.

The Stonewall Inn, New York City, became the historic underground bar that members of the gay community frequented. As a result, was targeted in police raids.
image: New York Times

In bigger cities, the gays had community in underground bars and secret meeting places. Was there a version of that in the Kootenays?

What I was aware of was that there was a certain population, they would gather, they would have a picnic or a barbecue. It was very much in-house. They met each other over a length of time. There were bars and coffeehouses where I knew if I needed to get information out, these are the places I would go and see, and there would be people I would talk to and posters I would hang up.

Can you give me any specifics?

I’m trying not to use names. There certainly were supporters… but at the same time, you would never see it publicly.

A community with a lack of role models and pride in the Kootenays

There [was] a population of youth who didn’t see any role models that they could identify with. They made a judgement on themselves that wasn’t necessarily healthy. They had no place to go. There [was] a need for role models in the community, but people would say, “I’m not that person.”

[There was a student in the community] who wanted to have an open barbecue for the community. She was told not to use the word “Pride.”

Who told her not to use the word “Pride?”

Some of the gay community. One of the teachers at the college called it a “diversity” club. Some others had a “justice” club. Organizations that would support sexual orientation [education] never called themselves “LGBT…” or “PFLAG.” They never put any of that orientation in their name. Not using the language was in the way. Making people invisible was in the way.

Why didn’t the gay community want to use the word, “Pride?”

I can’t speak for the gay community. What I feel and understand, it was a way to survive under the radar. Even when people had power… one of the rules was not to draw… attention to the sexual orientation. I’m hoping somebody that’s much younger has no concept of that shit. It was certainly stuff people had to live with and deal with.

The Cranbrook Townsmen references Pride
May 4, 2013

The Pride parade’s origin and first publicized use of the word ‘Pride’ in Cranbrook

[In 99] we started… bringing people over [from the East Kootenays] to the Pride parade in Nelson. We did it… on and off for 12 years.

One student was told to make sure there was a police presence at [Pink the Rink days]. She borrowed one of our rainbow flags. [At school, there was a] signal to take your jacket off and show that you had a pink shirt on. She took her jacket off and waved the Rainbow flag. Some of the folks around her got up and left, but there were so many people around her who cheered her on. She said we’re going to call it the “Pride” barbecue. So, we advertised it in the newspaper [ as Pride], and to my knowledge, it was the first time in any [publication] in the East Kootenays.

When was this?

I’d have to look [it up]. It kind of grew every year. They wanted to form a society and apply for grants. This would’ve been in the 2000s because we didn’t open Anchors until ’99.

It was in the 2000s that we began to develop a local… Pride society. [2019] was probably the largest Pride event that happened here. We began to have some of the first drag events here… and get sponsorships from [local] businesses to look at these issues. (We found local promotional material for drag queens in Cranbrook from as early as 2017)

Do you call yourself an ally? Do you “like” that term?

I certainly call myself an ally. There’s caution that I have with that term because sometimes it’s used as a shield.

How so?

“Oh, well I’m going to stand with this group, but I’m going to stand over here, I’m really straight.” You know? And just from all the other issues [I’ve been involved with]… women’s rights, the gay movement. I’m not going to hide behind the terms “straight” or “ally.”

How has being a… supporter of the community changed over time?

To me, there has just been so many great examples of that. The options for sexual health movements. There are 60 [intentional rainbow] clinics in BC. Cranbrook is not yet one of them.

Are you working on anything today?

There are so many people that didn’t make it to today. A part of that is being able to see the light all around and… to celebrate that stuff. I really strongly believe that people should accept who they are and to encourage people to accept who they are. I believe there is a basic goodness in all of that.

Are you working on anything today?

The CBC has been highlighting interior BC’s opioid crisis this year

Five years previous to [the pandemic], there was a movement in the East Kootenays to start a needle program. We were looking at being able to provide harm reduction services. There was a strong involvement in the [gay] community to make that work. On the tail of that came the overdose crisis. We began to provide responses: drug testing, naloxone training, providing clean needles, disposal services [in Cranbrook].

We still don’t have a safe injection site… [Safe-injection sites] are stop-gap measures that don’t address the problem upstream. We are going to have to make the drug supply safer. I’m trying to be part of a group that are making citizens of the East Kootenays aware of the opioid crisis. We need to make communities safer.

What can people do to help?

We have to be more flexible in our thinking. We have to be capable of learning new things.

Gary Dalton, Cranbrook History Centre 2021

What inspires you, personally?

When I see people trying, doing new things. One young man was peeling potatoes for 20 years. It was court-ordered because he was getting in trouble every year. He became a bank manager. You see that, and you celebrate that.

The farmer’s market is beautiful. The number of citizens that participate is amazing. The farmer’s market, they’re a community. That’s magic. That’s power.

Be out there, make some noise, fall down, get up.

Sorry, I got too many soapboxes.