I fled to the city to feel safer as a gay man. I never imagined I’d move back to a small town

This First Person column is the experience of Robert Mizzi, who lives in Stonewall, Man. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

I was 16 when the bullying began. 

A student at school slammed me into a locker and then kept walking. The next day, another kid grabbed my notebooks and threw them across the hallway floor. I was a thin, shy and effeminate kid, and these frequent encounters in high school wore me down. No one seemed to care about this harassment despite my complaints to the school staff. 

To give myself some reprieve and to stay out of harm’s way, I often went for my lunch break to the nearby horse stables. The stables were dirty and smelled of manure. I had no table or chair, so I ate my sandwich in a stall. 

Safety seemed more important than the smell. 

In the 1990s, there was no visible or vocal support for queer identities anywhere in my life in the small community of Exeter, Ont. 

I didn’t share my sexuality with my parents for fear of dismissal or ridicule. However, they became concerned with the bullying. In response, my stepfather — who was a police officer — taught me self-defence, but that didn’t help much because I couldn’t defend myself from several bullies at once.

A smiling teenage boy wearing glasses stands in front of a wall covered with posters for several universities in Canada.
Mizzi dreamed of leaving his hometown of Exeter, Ont., to move to a larger city for university. ( Submitted by Robert Mizzi)

When a kid from school began harassing me at church, I decided no place in my town was safe for me. Although I enjoyed the simplicity and serenity of small-town life, such as the proximity to lakes and streams and watching white squirrels play in the park, I dreamed of living a more open life in a city.  

After I moved to Windsor, Ont., to attend university, I began to see positive representations of 2SLGBTQ+ people. I had openly gay professors, a campus 2SLGBTQ+ group and Pride parades in the city. 

City life afforded me a sense of safety and belonging. I met people who accepted me and my sexuality and was exposed to a vibrant queer community. But it also provided anonymity that I needed — it felt like I was among a sea of people and would be less of a target for anyone who didn’t like people like me. 

I eventually shared my gay male identity with my loved ones and my friends organized a coming-out party to support me. The laughter, generosity and sense of belonging I felt at that party have always stuck with me. 

Eventually, I moved to Winnipeg for work. After 10 years of living in cities, I met my partner. 

My partner, who also spent some of his youth in a small town, and I enjoyed driving the backroads in Manitoba, visiting small towns and learning from historic homesteads together. We both missed rural spaces for their tranquillity, landscapes and locally sourced products. 

A few years later, I returned to Exeter. This time I was a confident gay man, triumphant in that I survived the bullying. My bullies hadn’t won. I was also pleased to see my former high school had a gender sexuality alliance. Times were changing.

A man snaps a selfie while in the stands of a football field.
Mizzi enjoyed living in Winnipeg for 10 years and occasionally went to see the University of Manitoba Bisons play. (Submitted by Robert Mizzi)

But Winnipeg had also changed. There was an increase in street crime and homelessness and I was harassed a few times by people wanting to sell drugs. People called me homophobic slurs as I walked to the library. Exasperated from feeling apprehensive and afraid every time I left home, I realized I had escaped rural life to feel safe, only to feel unsafe again. 

This time my priorities were different. Now as a middle-aged male, I realized the community-mindedness and quiet life offered in rural communities outweighed my need for a queer connection offered in urban spaces through bars and groups.

Thirty years passed since I first moved out of a small town. 

After talking to 2SLGBTQ+ colleagues who expressed that relocating to rural communities made them feel safer than in urban environments, my partner and I also decided to make the leap. 

We decided on Stonewall, Man., a town of approximately 5,000 people with great amenities, picturesque and peaceful landscapes as well as a thriving local 2SLGBTQ+ community. Serendipitously, Stonewall is also a significant word in queer history. The Stonewall Inn is a gay bar in New York City that was routinely raised by police. On June 28, 1969, the 2SLGBTQ+ pushed back against one such raid and that led to days of riots and protests that are now credited as the launch of the 2SLGBTQ+ rights movement in the United States. It felt like it was meant to be. 

WATCH | The significance of the Stonewall riots: 

Stonewall Inn: America’s monument to gay rights

8 years ago

Duration 1:39

The gay rights movement in North America can trace its roots to an historic protest at a New York tavern

Moving back to a small town has raised complicated feelings. I keep waiting for a homophobic slur or threat, perhaps because of my traumatic experiences. Some rural communities have tensions around Pride festivals, rainbow crosswalks and drag performer story hours, among other issues. I can’t escape anymore as people easily recognize one another. I also don’t see the queer visibility as much as I did in Winnipeg, but it exists in Stonewall — there is an elected official who is from the 2SLGBTQ+ community.

However, to date, nothing bad has happened to us in Stonewall. Instead, there have been lots of small moments that have made us feel safe. A neighbour helped us fix our car, service technicians freely checked our furnace out of concern, a businessman invited us to town council meetings and a lesbian couple contacted us to build some queer camaraderie. 

In fairness to small towns, they, too, have evolved. Being gay is more socially acceptable and Canadian laws have changed. I’m also more confident as a queer person. I now have a glimpse into what my childhood could have been and what is still necessary.

A collage of three images of the same man in three stages of his life — as a teenager with his dog on the left, as a man in his 40s during the winter, and as a middle-aged man on the right with a field in the background.
Mizzi realized he needed different things from his home when he was living in Exeter, left, Winnipeg, centre, and Stonewall, Man., right. (Submitted by Robert Mizzi)

I’ve also realized that the population size of a place or whether a community is in a rural or urban setting isn’t as important a factor in determining how safe I feel as a 2SLGBTQ+ person. 

You can find decency and kindness in both cities and small towns. 

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