Norm Hamilton considers himself a reformer.
“I used to be as redneck as anybody,” said Hamilton, who this week launched a photo exhibit called Love and be Loved at the Guild Hall.
“But I’ve done a complete 180 from when I was young.”
Hamilton grew up in Prince George at a time when homophobia was rampant.
It was common for people then to think gay people were “harmful to society” and to consider them sexual deviants – to believe kids were not safe around them.
“I wasn’t raised to dislike people, but because of my community I was led to a place where I was not accepting of gays, lesbians and bisexuals,” he said.
“Even when I was at my most ‘redneck’ I would never harm anybody – but I also didn’t step forward to support these people.”
Thirty years later, his outlook is completely different.
“I’ve ended up with family and friends who are gays and lesbians … and you realize there are really no differences between us in our humanness.”
In the fall, Hamilton heard the Guild Hall was staging the Laramie Project, a play about the real-life killing of Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old who was murdered for being gay. Hamilton, a longtime photographer, saw it as an opportunity to show people everyday images of homosexual couples and their families.
The idea, of course, was that people would see the images, realize these people are no different from themselves and put aside their fears and prejudices, he said.
In November, Hamilton invited Yukoners to be photographed for his exhibit.
But people didn’t necessarily jump at the opportunity.
“Many folks I know (who are homosexual) don’t see themselves as necessarily different,” he said.
“And then there are others who had concerns about the general public knowing that they’re gay.”
Whitehorse is more accepting of queer people than other small Canadian communities, but safety is still an issue, said Hamilton.
“There are extreme people everywhere.”
Even though Hamilton grew up surrounded by homophobic people, he still finds it hard to understand why anyone could be so hateful towards someone they don’t even know.
“It’s like walking into a school and picking out 10 per cent of the population and deciding that you’re going to dislike them,” he said. The number is a reference to an Alfred Kinsey study from 1948 that discovered homosexual behaviour among 10 per cent of the population.
Hamilton had never met most of the people he photographed, so he spent time with the couples and families in their favourite places before taking any pictures.
His exhibit features 20 black-and-white portraits of couples and their families.
There are pictures of people hiking, of adults playing with their children at home, a couple out on a coffee date and even a handbinding ceremony of two men getting married.
Some of the photos show heterosexual people, but because the photos are purposefully unlabeled, viewers won’t necessarily know the difference between the two.
“One guy came forward to me and asked that I take a picture of him and his daughter,” said Hamilton, explaining that the man was heterosexual.
“I asked him if he was OK being part of the exhibit, and that some people who saw the photo might think he’s gay.
“He just looked at me and said, ‘Oh, that’s stupid, why would they do that?’”
In addition to the photos, Hamilton asked people to write anonymous “coming-out” stories.
More powerful than the pictures themselves, the stories reveal the shame, fear and discrimination felt by people when they were coming to terms with their sexual identity.
One person talks about closeting himself for 30 years because the people in his small town turned against his twin brother when he came out in the ‘70s.
Another story is written by a bisexual woman who said the most negative coming-out reaction she got was, surprisingly, from a lesbian co-worker.
“I told her I was bisexual and she said to me, in a disgusted tone, that she did not understand bisexuals,” she wrote, adding sexual discrimination can cut both ways.
And then there is the narrative by Yukon actor Duane Gastant Aucoin, the only writer to reveal his identity.
In 2004, when Aucoin was living in Vancouver, he visited the Yukon and went out partying with friends.
On the way home, he was kicked out of a cab for kissing a male friend.
“Because we were two men the cab driver kicked us out … no explanation!,” he wrote.
“I felt assaulted just because I was a ‘fag.’”
He was so enraged by the experience that he wrote a letter to both newspapers in town.
That’s how his family found out he was gay.
The stories and photos are a compelling snapshot of the gay community in the Yukon.
Hamilton is hoping at least one person will see his exhibit and have the same kind of emotional transformation that he did.
“I can’t imagine having to hide myself from everybody, and it’s sad that there are people out there who have to.”
The exhibit runs at the Guild Hall until February 27
Contact Vivian Belik at firstname.lastname@example.org