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Pride Day in Petrolia shares stories and insight

By Melissa Schilz, Postmedia Network

Paula Smith, Marilyn Townsend-Smith and Robyn Hodgson were at Tuesday's Pride event at the Petrolia Library, offering support for all who may need it. Townsend-Smith and Smith shared their story of Paula's coming out in the evening. Melissa Schilz/Postmedia Network

Paula Smith, Marilyn Townsend-Smith and Robyn Hodgson were at Tuesday's Pride event at the Petrolia Library, offering support for all who may need it. Townsend-Smith and Smith shared their story of Paula's coming out in the evening. Melissa Schilz/Postmedia Network

The Petrolia Library celebrated pride day on Tuesday with several groups and organizations from across the county, offering a safe space for everyone to come together and start a dialogue.

This is the second year the library has held the event, featuring a number of information booths, including local author Nicky James, Sarnia Pride Alliance, Trans Pride Sarnia Lambton and Huron Shores United Church.

The open house was held all day, with a pizza lunch provided by the town of Petrolia, while several speakers presented after 6 o'clock for a packed house.

Trans Pride Sarnia is a newer organization started earlier this year. Paula Smith and partner Marilyn Townsend-Smith said they started the 'Coming Out Over coffee' meetings when they recognized a lack of resources for transgender people and their families in Lambton County. They had been traveling to London, but wanted something more local and accessible.

This October marks the couple's 25th wedding anniversary, and two years since Paula came out as transgender. The two presented on Tuesday night, offering a thought provoking and touching insight into their world. Despite initial challenges, they stuck together, and said they are now happier than ever before.

While they said coming out has been an overall positive experience, they hope to see more people educate themselves.

“We just want to be accepted and loved, like anyone else does,” Smith said during the presentation.

Having a pride day can certainly help with those coming out, but also those who need to learn about and accept the LGBTQ community.

“Sometimes it's events like this that may be one of the few times they get to come out and kind of be who they really are,” Smith said. “A bigger thing is for the rest of the community to become accepting, and it makes people feel more comfortable in their coming out.”

Townsend Smith agreed that events like this aren't just strictly for the LGBTQ community, but for everyone to learn and understand different points of view. It creates a community of support without judgement or ridicule. It's about educating society and expanding what's considered 'normal' - some people don't fit the gender binary, and that's OK.

“It's a really good awareness raising tool for people in the community to recognize that there is a fairly large LGBTQ community,” she said. “I think the big thing is for everybody who is part of the community to feel that they are not alone, they are not isolated – events like these help normalize their lives for them and that's really important.”

Robyn Hodgson, a nurse and member of Trans Pride Sarnia, said it's also about perception. While Hodgson knew the event was happening last year, she said she chose not to come for specific reasons.

“I was not in a position that I was ready to come out,” Hodgson said. “When you stop and realize that this has gone on, and you keep that in the back of your head. Even though I live locally, I think I will be OK, because there is a community here.”

Nicky James, who writes in the LGBT genre, said she was happy to be contacted to participate in pride day. James writes fantasy, historical and contemporary literature from an LGBTQ point of view, something that she said is growing in the writing world.

“I think we're seeing a lot more of it. It's becoming more recognized,” she said. “They're expanding their minds and horizons more, which is really good.”

James, who moved to Petrolia at the age of 14 from Toronto, said the event was exciting for her to attend. She said that in a small town it can be hard to find where to go to find support systems, especially for young people, whereas in larger urban centrea there may be more visibility.

“I think it's wonderful, I'm so glad Petrolia does something like this,” she said. “Just to have a pride event like this gives them a starting point sometimes, if they don't even know where to start.”

The all day event also brought in the United Church, an ally that some people may not realize does exist for the community. Blanche Savage, Chair of the Affirming Team of Huron Shores United Church in Grand Bend, said they are in the process of becoming an affirming congregation – that is, one that offers full inclusion to all people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. To become a affirming congregation, at least 75% of the congregation must vote yes, but it is a process that takes time.

“I think that as a society we're still changing and we're in process to becoming a more inclusive society for all kinds of marginalized and oppressed groups,” Savage said. “Part of what furthers that process is for the ideas to be kept in front of people, for people to be visible.”

Savage said to make a change, we have to be proactive, and events like pride day keep the wheels turning. Every little bit helps, especially when presented in a public space for everyone.

“We are already a welcoming congregation, and being an affirming congregation would mean being more proactive and more public and more visible about the fact that we welcome all,” she said.

Savage said that while a lot of people are under the impression that the Bible says homosexuality is wrong, this is not the case, and texts can be pulled apart and analyzed to reveal this.

“Some LGBTQ people might be concerned about coming to a church, because it's certainly the general impression that religious people wouldn't like them,” Savage said. “But there are lots of churches, and certainly the United Church of Canada, that are looking to make it a lot more comfortable and safe and welcoming for LGBTQ people.”