We owe the LGBTQ community more

Photo by Brandi Washington

Pickering lesbian couple Hailee Gallaher and Jessica Vanderhyden pose for pictures in Tim Hortons.

The sun was heating up the pavement of Church Street the afternoon of June 30th in 2014. Flags and floats from countries like Jamaica, Georgia, Argentina, and the Philippines came down the street.  The flags ruffled for hours but one dominated: Pride parade’s symbolic red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple.

Red trucks roared past onlookers pressed up against steel fences. Signs saying “I AM LGBTQ AND GOD LOVES ME” could be seen from several feet away. According to the Toronto Star, an estimated 12,000 people attended Toronto Pride festival in 2014.

Jessica Vanderhyden was one of 12,000 people shuffling through rainbow banners, sparkly floats, and dancers in latex underwear. For the first time in her life, Jessica was able to witness the yearly event.   But something else about that day was special to Vanderhyden. As she squeezed past the screaming onlookers, she met her current partner, Hailee Gallaher.

Vanderhyden remembers that day in 2014. Seeing Gallaher for the first time and noticing her upper arm. She saw an Alexisonfire fire tattoo. Vanderhyden said this is one of her favorite bands.

So she knew Gallaher had good taste in music which is one quality she loves in a significant other.

“She looked a little intimidating but not in a bad way,” said Vanderhyden. “She had this dark straight hair, she was very nice, she was very polite.”

According to Stats Canada, there are over 60,000 same-sex couples across Canada. That is 27,380 families more than there were in 2006. Homosexuality was decriminalized in Canada just 47 years ago. In 1967, Pierre Trudeau introduced the Criminal Law Amendment Act which liberalized law on issues such as homosexuality. His statement “no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation” went down in history.

With the growing numbers of LGBTQ families, and growing acceptance of same sex couples you would think coming out would be a lot easier than it was fifty years ago. But this is not the case. According to Pickering lesbian couple Hailee Gallaher and Jessica Vanderhyden, agree there is still work to be done with the acceptance of the gay community in 2016.

Gallaher says, “I eventually want to see society where there is not a divide. You wouldn’t give a second look to a heterosexual couple, don’t give a second look to a gay couple.”

In 2015, 1.7 per cent of Canadians ages 18 to 59 considered themselves to be homosexual.  But 12 per cent of gay women and 5 per cent of gay men still feel the need to keep their identities a secret. According to Stats Canada, in 2013, there were 186 police-reported hate crime incidents motivated by sexual orientation. Canadian police services reported 1,167 hate crimes in 2013.

This statistic may just be a number for some but it represents a moment in Vanderhyden’s life.

“I was minding my own business one day, just walking in my neighbourhood, when someone attacked me verbally,” says Vanderhyden.

What she heard shocked her. A group of guys spotted her and one of them called her a ‘nigger faggot.’ “I kept walking, no point in engaging with stupidity,” she says.

Taking aim at race or ethnicity is a big issue not just in the Durham region, but all across Canada.

According to a 2013 article in The National Post, the three main motivations for hate-related crimes are race or ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation. Race or ethnicity accounts for 51 per cent of hate-related crimes, followed by religion at 28 per cent, and sexual orientation at 16 per cent.

Add to this an increase in bullying and there is a recipe for hate-related bullying.  According to a 2009 report by Statistics Canada, Ontario has the second highest rate of bullying in Canada. And 20 per cent of bullies are a friend to the victim.

Over Christmas break in Grade 10, Gallaher’s female friend bullied her on social media. Two more people joined in via Twitter. Vanderhyden wants bullies to know the how much harder they make people’s lives.

“If they really did give it a chance they would see that we’re just like everybody else, we’re just people trying to make it through life. It’s made a little bit harder when people can’t just accept us for who we are,” says Vanderhyden.

The first step, according to Vanderhyden, is to accept yourself. “When you’re not out, you’re isolated and you’re scared to tell anyone,” says Vanderhyden. “You have to find yourself and talk to someone. Once you finally figure it out it is so much better.”

Two years after Vanderhyden and Gallaher first met at Pride in Toronto, Vanderhyden ended up at a local Pickering bar called The Bear for a friend’s birthday.  To her surprise, Gallaher was there. The girls hit it off.

Hailee Gallaher is 20-years-old and an Assistant Manager at McDonald’s. Her mother is from Newfoundland and her father is from Ontario. She moved to Pickering when she was three years old and has been in Durham ever since.

Jessica Vanderhyden just turned 25-years-old. Her mother is of Jamaican descent and her father is Guyanese. She moved to Pickering when she was four years old, and also still lives in the region.

Ever since she was 13, Gallaher says she knew she was bisexual. She came out to her friends and then in Grade 10, she came out to both friends and family as a lesbian.

But her father already knew. He had no problem with her sexuality. Her mom was a different story. While she never had an actual problem with her daughter’s sexuality, she told Gallaher it was just a phase.

Now, Gallaher says her mother is supportive. She admits she is fortunate because not very many people have a supportive family when coming out.

Vanderhyden’s story is similar. She said she always knew there was something different about her. Her family is Anglican, and she went to Sunday school and attended church all the time.

Grade 4 was the year Vanderhyden realized there was something different about her. That year, she met an older girl in her church and liked her more than “she liked anything else.” At that time however, she didn’t know it was a crush.

Since Vanderhyden was raised Christian everything around her was telling her she was supposed to be with a man. She tried. She dated men, but it didn’t feel right.

Then in high school, she had her first kiss with a girl. Vanderhyden said that kiss was unexpected and felt different… but different in a good way. A little while after, she came out as bisexual.

Vanderhyden said she thinks most gay people first come out as bisexual because they’re not sure what they are. They don’t know if they’re completely into men or women, which is what she wasn’t sure of at the time too.

She then started dating more girls than guys in high school. After that, she realized she probably was not into guys at all. Vanderhyden said near the end of high school she finally realized, “Okay, I’m definitely gay.”

But Vanderhyden still needed a push.

When she was 19-years-old, she dated a girl from Toronto who was in the process of coming out to her friends and family. That girl gave her courage to do the same.

Vanderhyden told her dad first. But just like Gallaher, Vanderhyden’s dad knew there was always something different about her. Her dad accepted her. Vanderhyden’s mother didn’t.

In the beginning, Vanderhyden said her mother needed time to think the situation through and to come to terms with it.

Over the years, Vanderhyden admits her mother has taken time to learn different gay terminologies and even attended her first Toronto Pride festival this year.

“It means so much to me,” she said. “She asks about Hailee all the time.”

Gallaher said the same thing: her mother asks about Vanderhyden all the time.

Vanderhyden said her first gay relationship was her “testing the waters” when she was not fully out as gay. It was an online relationship. She never met the girl in person.

Her first real relationship with a female did not go well, but she said it felt right. After that, she experimented with women and thought one day she would find the right girl.

Just like Vanderhyden, Gallaher’s first relationship was terrible. Gallaher’s girlfriend was very unsure of herself. The relationship was very bad, according to Gallaher, and she doesn’t even consider it as her official first relationship.

But she admits it was a good learning experience because it showed her what it was like to date a girl.

Gallaher says her first real relationship was with a girl in the United States. She took a plane all alone for the first time to meet her. She thought she was in love at the time, and as a result, they got matching tattoos.

From being in these messy relationships, the girls are now a happy couple.

Vanderhyden says, “I hope a lot of people become a lot more open and optimistic about just letting people be who they want to be.” But how?

Vanderhyden said places like coffee shops, and other places in Durham Region can help out by showing their support. A little sticker saying “they support or they’re proud of the LGBTQ” community on the wall would be nice to see, she says.

The girls both remember looking through high school textbooks and names like James and Kelly. Gallaher said she would love to see high school textbooks with same sex couple names. It does not always have to be a man and a woman to use for a math equation example.

Gallaher says she saw an Ikea commercial with a same sex couple. She loved how this commercial was different than other ones. Same sex couples are what people need to see, says Gallaher. It helps people feel safe to see themselves represented in the media.

In January 2014, Disney premiered their first lesbian couple in a TV series called Good Luck Charlie. Gallaher said she remembers this was a very controversial topic in the media.

The girls agree they would love to see the first Disney princess lesbian couple. Gallaher added she wants to see “Elsa be gay” in the Disney movie Frozen 2.

“I think at the end of the day we really need to become a community. Just one community. Not the straight community and the LGBTQ community. That unity is what people really need. We can support it, but why still create that divide?” said Gallaher. “We’re all just people at the end of the day. I think people are just really focused on finding an answer and they need a label.”

The girls can’t wait until pride 2017, to celebrate who they have become.

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Brandi Washington is a second-year journalism student at Durham College. She is currently a co-host on The Vibe at Riot Radio on Tuesdays at 9 P.M. Brandi is an avid lover of entertainment news and enjoys covering it. She also likes to cover sports and is a big Toronto Raptors fan.