Assimilation in the Land of Cows – Bob Leahy

Assimilation in the Land of Cows - Bob Leahy

There are many defining moments that occur when one first moves to the country. The first and perhaps most defining is when the empty moving van pulls out of your gravel rural driveway. It has just deposited all your worldly possessions into what smells, looks and feels like a distant outpost in another world. It is a moment of second-guessing (was this idea really so smart?), self doubt and above all, finality.

The second defining moment comes the next day when you realize that your new community of choice doesn’t just smell, feel and look like another world, it is another world.

The third defining moment comes only hours later. You decide to go into town–in my case a village of 700 people. It’s a farming community situated two hours east of Toronto. You check out the local diner–it looks friendly enough and the “famous home-cooked meals” sign above the door is inviting. But you step through that door and all heads swivel, turning to face you simultaneously. You flashback to the scene from “American Werewolf in London” where the two American tourists enter the pub on the hell-like English moors. It’s eerily similar. So that third defining moment comes with the question: “Will I ever, ever fit in here? And if I do, how will I do it, because these people don’t even look like me.”

That third defining moment and the question it raises becomes all the more pertinent when one is an out – and outspoken – HIV-positive gay guy. Because the folks in the diner, and on the streets and at the post office look very, very straight. I’m guessing they’ve never used the letters HIV in that order in their lives.

Now the idea of queers moving to the countryside really hasn’t been a radical one for a couple of decades. HIV-positive queers? It’s something that’s received less attention, but I’m certainly not the first. Rural living represents, after all, a healthy alternative for urban poz folks seeking fresh air, a less stressful way to live, and an environment that’s relatively germ free – where, in other words, your immune system isn’t continually under siege. Balanced against all this, the country is also deemed to be hostile. The popular notion is that the stigma surrounding HIV that presents itself in cities is magnified tenfold outside of them. Perhaps as a result, and the fact that rural poz folks often keep quiet about their status, migration of poz gays from cities to the country is not something that’s made its mark. Nor particularly has the notion of rural gays, and rural poz guys in particular, being thought of as agents of change.

I wanted to change that. Just as Middle America is perhaps the last frontier of social justice issues to our south, rural Canada is where the rubber hits the road north of the 49th parallel.

There are two distinct models, I suppose, for changing the world and advancing a gay/poz rights agenda. In a nutshell, one is by exposing one’s differences and celebrating them – loudly and with the pizzazz that queers are, let’s face it, particularly good at it. The other is by trying to fit in, to be unobtrusive, to make the point: ”Look, we are just like you, we won’t hurt you or molest your children, accept us as your equals.” It’s essentially the assimilation vs. exceptionality debate that had its heyday back in the 90s with people like American writer Andrew Sullivan annoying the heck out of “the sluts” who championed more visible, louder and – yes – more flamboyant ways of making their presence felt. That debate died a death, having gone largely, I think, in favour of the sluts. Meanwhile, the assimilationist camp was viewed about as warmly as Log Cabin Republicans by the ultra-left. But, even today the same debate erupts after each Pride Parade; those on one side deride the spectacle of too much leather, too much flesh and too much acknowledgement that gay men actually are sexual beings. Those are the assimilationists speaking, of course, and they would rather we ditch the nudity, behave ourselves and just try to fit in. Which, incidentally is the view, I imagine, of many heterosexuals, but that’s beside the point.

I mention the assimilation thing here because every gay man who moves to the country has to consider whether to go that route, consciously or not. Every poz gay man has to consider it all the more. And for every poz gay man who considers himself an activist, like myself, it becomes not only a crucial decision, but also a strategic one.

Forgive me if things take a turn for the biographical here, but it’s necessary to leave the politics of oppression aside for a moment to paint a real life picture. So, here’s my story. Closeted poz gay guy working in the most ivory of ivory towers gets diagnosed HIV positive, out of the blue, in 1993. He panics, but keeps quiet about it–sees “Philadelphia”, does a Tom Hanks turnaround thing, comes out screaming “I’m gay and I’m poz”, and immediately bails out of the system. He goes on long-term disability, exchanges pin-striped suit for black t-shirt, jeans and Doc Martens, joins the AIDS Committee of Toronto. Activist career escalates sharply. Two years later, showing early signs of dying, he wants to live healthier, less stressed-out and moves to the country. He adopts two dogs, later to become three, takes up art, later photography. He learns to make pies. His health improves dramatically.

Thirteen years after giving up downtown Toronto living for the land of cows, here’s how it’s all panned out. I eat at the diner, the one where all the heads turned our way, almost daily. I go to church suppers regularly too, even though there’s not an ounce of religion in my body, because I like the people there. I’m at almost every community event going, in fact. I’m on the executive of the local business association. I say hi to everybody on the street: I know their names and they know mine. I even dress a lot like them. I’m the village photographer. I sell art cards in local stores featuring my three errant dogs in cute poses. People like them, and I’m thinking they like me too. In short, I have, in fact, assimilated nicely.

But here’s the thing. Everybody knows I’m an HIV positive gay man. They ask how I’m doing, seem concerned if my colour’s off, or I’m limping through the nerve damage in my feet (it’s called peripheral neuropathy and it’s a drag)–that’s a side effects of the HIV meds that I take. They applaud when I speak about HIV in their schools, in their service clubs and to their volunteer groups. They’ve read my story in the paper, too, seen me on the TV news on occasion, and know about my activism work across Canada, about my involvement in prevention work, about the provincial campaigns I’ve worked on, and been a spokesperson for, appearing as one of the faces of HIV in rural Canada. Some of them read my blogs too, where I share everything. I harass my (conservative) member of parliament about inadequate AIDS funding. I send angry letters to the local press. None of this seems to phase my neighbours. I get lots of hugs. More on that later.

The notion that rural Canada is unwelcoming of minorities may in fact be true in some places. It certainly prevents some (very) queer rural folks from proclaiming they’re gay. It certainly inhibits HIV positive folks from disclosing their status more often than not.

When I first moved to the country, I met another guy who was out as a gay man, but not ready to announce his positive status to the world: “People will burn your house down if you tell them that,” he warned me, as if that had ever happened. I brushed him off, of course. It’s common for HIV positive folks to fear the worst if they disclose – society, and the stigma it nurtures for HIV and AIDS, conditions us to do that that, without challenge. So we’re tempted to keep quiet, and act as if everything is normal, as if living a lie is a healthy way to live, as if our physical and mental health won’t suffer from leading a double life. But – and here’s the rub – often this deception is unnecessary, because in truth, rural Canada, like anywhere else, isn’t always as hostile as it might first appear. Underneath the locals’ curiosity about strangers, which might perhaps be mistaken for something darker, more often than not lurks the inherent decency and mutual caring for each other that exists in farming communities everywhere, and has done for centuries.

And then there’s the hugging phenomenon. When I talk to groups about HIV, I often touch on the history of the epidemic – how people were shunned like lepers, how nurses wouldn’t touch them and how food was shoved at them in hospitals. “Trays pushed under the door”, we are told, as if that were possible, but you get the picture. There was a lot of fear then which showed itself in unhelpful ways, we know that. And then along came Lady Di, photographed hugging patients at an AIDS hospice, because a) it was perfectly safe to do so, and b) because she had more public relations smarts, combined with more humanity, than all of the royal family put together. The act of hugging poz folks became OK for the enlightened after that, in fact it became de rigueur. Nowadays, the groups that I talk to often come up to the front after I’ve finished and hug me, one by one. Doesn’t matter if it’s because they were moved by the Lady Di story I told them. The important thing for me – and for them, I think – is they are making a statement. And believe me: it’s so damn good to see an audience of strangers do something with such undeniably political overtones as this. I always come out smiling.

If all this sounds more cozy than most activists are used to, and I’d wager it is, know that I’m no stranger to pushing the envelope. AIDS fundraisers, for instance, are a regular fixture of the little diner I was once scared to go in to. My photography – I’m perhaps most well known for images of cute puppies, because those kind of photographs sell best – has an edgier side to it too. My solo shows have featured same-sex loving, for instance – one show was devoted entirely to photos of my HIV treatment – the drawing of blood, the clinic visits, the minutiae of hospital stays, et al. I’m not sure what people thought about those.

My persona in all of this, though, has always been one of a normal, fully functioning person, rather than a damaged one. I hate being thought of as damaged. Too bad if those concerned with HIV prevention would rather I paint HIV as a dread, crippling disease. True it can be, but that’s not a mantle I can wear comfortably, or even healthily. In the context of HIV, in fact, I like to stress my normalcy rather than what sets me apart. Besides, I cannot stop new infections: how to do that is a moot point indeed, but I’d suggest the “scared straight” approach never works. And even if it did, I’ll pass on being Exhibit A, there to warn people not to become someone like me.

In any event, I guess all this really is about going the assimilation route through necessity– fitting in, if you like, rather than standing apart, to make a point. But I honestly don’t feel like I’ve let down hard-core activists who blanche at the A-word. “Fitting in” at least in the rural context, never ever precludes pushing an activist agenda. In fact, assimilation provides one with a unique opportunity to do so. Whether this strategy works as well in big cities is doubtful, and strategically it would be opposed by many there, but in the rural backwaters of this great land of ours, it seems to be more than a good fit. Which is, ultimately, why I wear rubber boots now…

…rather than Doc Martens.

All photographs copyright Bob Leahy

Bob Leahy is a banker turned HIV-positive AIDS activist. But wait; there’s more. A lover of sherbet lemons and all things sweet (also likes grilled cheese sandwiches and all things unhealthy.) A one-time collector of Mr. Peanut memorabilia. Partnered for twenty-nine years. Bad at sports, even worse at Scrabble. A survivor, practicing the art of growing old gracefully. And a patient who says ahhhh when asked, and takes his pills like a trooper, but doesn’t let a little thing like a seventeen-year relationship with HIV define his life.

Comments from old site:

Submitted by Nico Little (not verified) on Sun, 09/05/2010 – 21:10.

Thank you for writing this, Bob, and for accompanying it with such great photos! XXXXX

Submitted by mary egg-shell (not verified) on Sat, 09/04/2010 – 18:30.

Excellent article – I love how “just being yourself” is the answer!