Driving into Whitehorse, Canada, the only city in the Yukon, you’d be forgiven for tucking away your rainbow flag.
With the Sacred Heart church on the right and only a Tim Hortons as the biggest chain insight – I wasn’t sure if this was a trip to parade my Gay Star News tote bag about.
But don’t let The Yukon’s icy exterior fool you.
Surrounded by stunning snow-topped mountain ranges that dominate this North West Canadian territory, at first glance, Whitehorse has a ‘small-town’ impression.
But scratch beyond the surface is a warm glow. The Yukon’s community are welcoming to all people here. And it caught me off guard.
It’s a town that when the Catholic church, who historically have had an influence here, tried to lay down dated homophobic rules on its schools here recently; the community fought back against hate.
Whitehorse is ahead of cities like London, known for their metropolitan views and forward-thinking views on LGBTI rights, by recently installing both a permanent rainbow and trans pride walkway.
And with under 35,000 people living in its 482,443 km2, an area only a little smaller than the whole of Spain, for over 1000 people to attend their most recent pride festival?
This is a town that celebrates its LGBTI community.
The Yukon is remote, beautiful and welcomes LGBTI people
Travel five minutes in any direction out of Whitehorse you’ll find a vast expanse of beauty, wilderness, and escape.
The Yukon is the smallest and most western of Canada’s three federal territories. It also has the smallest population of any province or territory in Canada.
But Whitehorse’s international airport is well connected.
You can get internal Canadian flights with Air North, The Yukon’s local airline to Vancouver, Ottawa and other destinations in the northern territories and British Columbia.
But it’s international links are telling from the number of German and other European expats living in the area.
So many residents in Whitehorse first came to the Yukon on holiday, only to fall in love and move over full time.
Just like Queer Yukon’s Stephanie Hammond. She moved to Whitehorse to escape a town in nearby British Columbia, Canada, where it was not easy to be gay.
But in Whitehorse, she practically tripped over the popular lesbian salsa and merengue dance class. And The Yukon is also where she finally found love.
Falling in love with The Yukon
‘I met my partner in the Yukon, just through friends. We were both coming out of other relationships and well – it’s a small town. You can, literally, bump into each other.’
But Stephanie and her beau are not the only ones to find queer love in The Yukon.
‘A stats Canada report shows we have the second highest percentage of women in a same-sex relationship nationally. I think that says something about women, in particular, looking for wild frontier.’
And that’s something any visitor to the Yukon will quickly have to figure out. Outside of Whitehorse, each beautiful location you could visit is as secluded as the next.
If you’re heading for a holiday, the romantic possibilities of snuggling up in log cabins with only your comfiest socks poking out of the covers – with the log fire on in the corner – are too much even looking back at it now.
But there is a bigger sense of fulfillment in shacking up with your same-sex partner in the Yukon.
Historically, our community has gone to the wilderness to escape hate. Keeping our romantic romps locked away in these log cabins or miserably cold tents on Brokeback Mountain.
But in the Yukon, after falling asleep under the Northern Lights, you can head into Whitehorse holding your partner’s hand in the street too.
Finding your grizzly bear in the Yukon
Normally when you hear the words, ‘it’s live and let live here,’ there is an undertone of – but keep it behind closed doors. Not in Whitehorse.
‘It is a friendly and welcoming place for LGBTI people,’ Stephanie tells Gay Star News. ‘There is a general vibe: “do your own thing.”‘
Something reiterated by local celebrity, chef and self-pronounced ‘gay bear,’ Troy King.
Chatting in his kitchen at the Inn on the Lake Lodge where he was preparing an incredible and locally sourced menu, he tells Gay Star News about why the area is so welcoming to LGBTIs:
‘In the Yukon our land mass is so huge, so we want everyone to come and enjoy it.’
The area is filled with incredible wildlife and you can find grizzlies in the Yukon. But Troy is the kind of bear that you’ll want to have a hug from. He has a warm nature, that he shares with every Yukoner I met.
And when he’s not cooking at the Lodge, owned by a local gay couple, you can find him at a number of local queer spaces.
Unsurprisingly for his 6’1″ – he lets me know he is well known in town. Both for his culinary skills but also as an active and open member of the LGBTI community.
And on good form, Troy stops me here to suggest restaurant Antoinette’s. With LGBT owners, its the home of the local drag and cabaret scene too.
LGBTI history of the Yukon
For years the Yukon has been leading the way on gender and sexual orientation rights.
In 1990 the town got it’s first LGBTI group, The Yukon Gay and Lesbian Alliance (GALA), which was also inclusive of trans identities in it’s wider mission statement.
Since then, the town has gone on to host a number of organizations including a PFLAG Whitehorse chapter, Queer Yukon, the Queer Yukon Film festival, Trans Yukon and All Genders Yukon a support group for Gender Non-Conforming people and the people that love them.
In 2004, the territory became the fourth in Canada to legalize same-sex marriage.
Even the local paper led the way with a piece published in 2011 on being genderqueer, long before the ‘post-Caitlyn Jenner’ era of trans visibility we live in now.
And in the same year the town’s pride grow from BBQ, to a parade that takes over the main town; The Whitehorse Women’s Hockey Association drafted a board policy welcoming transgender players to play in the league.
But it’s that story of how the town’s Pride grew from burgers with chef Troy – that shows what this town is made of.
Pride in the Yukon
In the fall of 2012, the bishop of the territory introduced a policy for the Catholic school’s discussions about sexuality. It was called: ‘One Heart, One Truth, One Love.’
‘It went straight back to the Catholic doctrine of morally disturbed ‘same-sex attractions’ – our queer kids were being taught they were evil,’ Former teacher and Queer Yukon activist Stephanie tells GSN. ‘We were not OK with that.’
So over a beer with another local Fiona Griffin, they organized the town’s first pride march. And at first, it felt like everyone was against it:
‘But we were like, no we’re going big. 400 of us, walking four blocks of the main street in Whitehorse.’
The photos, of queer solidarity going right past the sacred heart, are stunning.
And the local kids were in support too:
‘At the secondary school’s graduations, three-quarters of them wore rainbow socks under their gowns.’
Unsurpisingly, the controversial policy didn’t stick around long after parents raised concerns. Yukon Education struck it down.
In the Yukon, you can literally be thousands of kilometers from the next nearest person. But chatting to people all over this expansive swathe of untouched land, I left the Yukon knowing what connected them.
In the Yukon, they don’t see your sexuality or any part of your identity as a problem. They just see the beauty of what is in front of them. And I totally understand why.
When you live around that much serenity, huskies and wonderful people – why would you find any reason to get stuck on hate?
Experience the Yukon
- Visit the Carcross Desert, the smallest desert in the world, and then immerse yourself in the local town’s First Nation history.
- Try Dogsledding at Southern Lakes Resort. This is a don’t miss experience with huskies, any dog lovers will be overwhelmed with cute aggression – $289(£160) per person.
- Northern Lights viewing with Arctic Range Adventure, as with anywhere in the world viewing the lights be prepared to book multiple nights, though we got stunning views all in one night – $129 (£72) per person for four-hour evening tour.
- Stay the night at the Edgewater, in Whitehorse, and get picked up for your Arctic Range Adventure viewing.
- Get your Ski and Snowboard legs out with a day at Mount Sima, just outside of Whitehorse. Day rentals and passes available.
- Meet Troy, and the wonderful team at Inn on the Lake, with their hot tub, incredible food, and numerous bookable winter sports activities.
- Short stay? Get the full ‘Winter experience’ a morning/afternoon snowmobiling, ice hocky, ice fishing and cooking in the wilderness – from $199 per person (£110) or included as part of minimum two night stay at Inn on the Lake.
- Head of out of Whitehorse to the Kluane Flightseeing tour with Rocking Star Adventures. Not for the faint-hearted and definitely don’t go on a full stomach, but worth every second. One-hour Kluane Glacier Tour – $240 (£133) per person.
- Stay at Southern Lakes Resort, Tagish. Once you get down the over 10KM private driveway don’t expect any WiFi or connection with the outside world. But you can watch the Northern Lights from your private lodge’s window.
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Source: Gay News