When he reached the age of majority, Levi Cox faced a decision familiar to so many who grew up in rural Alberta — stay or leave.
“I love my family, I love my community,” says the 39-year-old. “So I just had to make Lethbridge a little gayer as a city.”
Many of his fellow citizens would agree that Cox has succeeded. The owner of the Catwalk Salon and Spa in the city’s downtown has not only served as a shining beacon of gay pride, he also played an instrumental role in getting the first Lethbridge Pride Festival off the ground nine years ago.
“We started on a patio with a couple of hundred people showing up,” says Cox, as we chat in his busy salon. At the latest Lethbridge Pride Fest, which took place June 16-24, “we had more than 6,000 people turn out for the parade.”
In the big city a couple hours’ drive north, though, the news that made headlines this past week was two incidents of vandalism — tire skid marks and a spray of black paint — to the rainbow crosswalks in the city’s downtown, along with the repeated destruction of a rainbow flag in a Taber park, after the nearby town’s inaugural Pride day on June 12.
While many Calgarians shook their heads over the so-called backwards ways of what has long been called southern Alberta’s Bible Belt, people like Cox have a much different reaction.
“I thank the people who put the paint on the crosswalk, because it made people realize how relevant pride still is,” says Cox, who grew up in the nearby town of Raymond, “and how necessary.”
Along with contributing to the record numbers turning out for Lethbridge Pride’s weeklong events and parade, the incidents brought other allies from pockets of his community.
“Some of the Pronghorns actually stayed out all night protecting the crosswalks,” he says of members of the University of Lethbridge’s male athletic teams. “It spurred so many acts of random kindness.”
Not surprisingly, Cox and his fellow Lethbridge Pride volunteers were big supporters of the people behind the first Taber Pride event. “They knew we wanted to do something like this in Taber and said they would help us do it,” says Taber family physician Jillian Demontigny, a co-organizer of Taber Pride Fest and a founder of the Taber Quality Alliance.
Demontigny, who moved to the small town of just over 8,000 about 12 years ago, says she was warmly embraced but soon became an ally and LGBTQ advocate after getting to know several LGBTQ patients.
“So many of them would move away, or I would see them in the emergency department,” says Demontigny, married with two children. She wasn’t surprised that the Taber Pride flag, which was supposed to fly all June, was vandalized twice.
Despite the incidents, she remains hopeful. “I’ve heard from people in the community that there has been change. We have room to grow as a community, I believe.”
Still, for many, it was a painful reminder of how much work is still to be done in terms of education and understanding. “I took it very personally,” says 39-year-old Jayce Wilson, a transgender woman who meets me Friday morning for a coffee at a Lethbridge shopping mall. “It wasn’t just an attack on me, it was an attack on my whole community.”
Paul Vasey says people like Wilson and Demontigny are on the right track. Vasey, a University of Lethbridge professor and expert in cross-cultural sexuality, is confident that the future is bright for the LGBTQ community in southern Alberta.
“My prediction is that the number of blatantly homophobic people in the community will shrink because they will see that it is increasingly unacceptable to be overtly homophobic,” says Vasey, who, in his 17 years living in the city, can remember only one time he was harassed for being an openly gay man.
“A handful of homophobic morons do not reflect the community as a whole.”
“We’re undaunted,” agrees Levi Cox, who is doing his best to ensure that other young people like them actually have the choice to stay in their communities.
“We’re going to keep making things better.”