Life on the Gayside

In 1985, residents of Gayside, Newfoundland, voted to rename their hometown to “Baytona” after increasing harassment. Inspired by the story, collaborative queer art trio, The Third Leg re-appropriate the name “Gayside” for an art exhibit currently on display at the Eastern Edge called “Welcome to Gayside”, exploring the idea of gay utopia.

Elling Lien spoke to two of the three artists – Onya Hogan Finley originally from Ontario, and Logan Macdonald originally from Gander – about the show.

Transcription by Bryhanna Greenough.

How did you hear about [the Newfoundland] Gayside?
LM: I first heard about it as an urban myth …as a quirky story. One of those things that was chuckled about as a teenager where you’re like “Oh my God! There’s a town called Gayside and it changed its name to Baytona!” And so we were already working together on a show in New York, and it was very gay, like all of our shows. That one was called “Glorious Holes”.

By gay you mean happy. [laugh]
LM: Yeah, really happy! [laugh] So I told them about Gayside and they were both really interested in Newfoundland because they had never been. So I told them the story just because it’s a story I carry with me as a fag from Newfoundland, and they thought it was totally crazy and amusing and wanted to learn more about it.

What was the story? What did you tell them?
LM: We didn’t even know the date. I just said there was once a town called Gayside and they renamed itself because they thought it was too gay. And they named it to Baytona. I thought the punchline was Baytona because, I was like, that is so fucked up. Baytona? Daytona?
OHF: So we googled it right away and found out there was a place that used to be called Birchy Bay, and in ’58 they renamed themselves Gayside and then in ‘85 they changed Gayside to Baytona.
    The thing we were most interested in was the timing. It happened in 1985, when the first cases of HIV and AIDS were surfacing in Newfoundland – the first case was found in ‘84 or ‘83 or something like that, so word was starting to spread. …
LM: It would have sucked to be gay then and there. We were going to do something historical and research-based where we were going to go out and spend time in Gayside and talk to people and then we steered away from it because of funding and also because of time.
OHF: We also decided it wasn’t really our focus anymore.
LM: We weren’t really interested in doing research.
OHF: Initially we were going to interview people who were around at the time of the name change, and a friend of Logan’s had cousins in Gayside, so he was telling us stories, but that would be a really big project. That would be an analysis of a historical event and that isn’t exactly what we were interested in, so we just decided to use the story of the name change as a launching pad to look at this mythical place called Gayside that no longer exists.
    It’s kind of like a transcendental space where gays can go to the gay side. The exhibit is really decorative. It has banners, and it looks like a wedding, or a baby shower party, or a fair, so it’s definitely about celebration. We wanted to create a gay location that was a celebration.

There are also drawings. Who does the illustration? 

LM: All three of us. We sit together and do them.
OHF: We don’t switch pages, but we sit together in the same space and draw. Sometimes with the same themes.
LM: Each of us will bring different kinds of information…
OHF: We read stories or essays to each other and doodle and drink…

But a lot of the images look like they were drawn by one person…
OHF: Oh but no! You have to look really carefully.
LM: This is our third time working together so we’re all pretty together.
OHF: And we also use the same materials: pen and ink. India ink and a brush. It would be different if one person was doing oil paintings and one person was using pastel and one person was doing watercolor. But we’re all using the same materials and working together. And the drawings are figurative, and there are isolated characters. We decided to do all of the images in black and white ‘cause we’re making a zine and we wanted to be able to photocopy it.

How long did it take you to put the show together? 
LM: Lots of trips.
OHF: Lots and lots of trips.
LM: We went to Montreal, New York…
OHF: We spent a week hanging out in our hometowns and worked together, figured out ideas.

So… Utopia
OHF: Hot topic.

Why make a utopia?
OHF: Why not? They’re fantastical locations. They can exist in your imagination, or for a month at the Eastern Edge Gallery. But they don’t really exist.
LM: They definitely don’t exist for fags, or, you, know, queer people. So for us it’s kinda like filling in the negative void of what’s not really here.
    ‘Cause it really could be better.

How could things be better?
OHF: Less gay bashing.
LM: More tolerance
OHF: I’d say I had it pretty easy. I came “out” living in Montreal, which is an urban location, and I’ve always felt super-comfortable there. My family lives in the maritimes, but I can’t imagine what it’d be like in small, rural New Brunswick, being gay there. I can’t imagine it, and I don’t desire that right now in my life.
    But I’ve lived a pretty comfortable, positive, gay life and have a super supportive community and a vibrant arts community that’s queer and making lots of stuff. Part of the research I did [for the show] was on rural pastoral queers – the ideas of queers going back to rural locations where their roots or families are from, going back to conventional weddings, and what that’s like. For me it was more reading and research and less experience. I have never lived in a rural location and been out as queer. I’ve visited my family in rural New Brunswick but my experience has always been pretty metropolitan or urban.
LM: Not mine. I grew up in Gander, then lived in Cornerbrook for a while. I wan’t really ‘out’, because I just found it really difficult cause I hadn’t gotten to that point in my life.
    But everytime I come home – it’s just hard. You can’t be yourself, you know? But it’s changing, too. There are problems here – everywhere – for gay people. It’s hard growing up in a rural location being gay, and that’s why I think a lot of homosexuals migrate to urban centres. I mean, that’s what I did.
    But it would be nice to have a culture where that didn’t necessarily have to happen.
OHF: Which is maybe just an impossible dream. Maybe it’s just utopia, fantasy.
LM: But it’s really great to come here to see that people are really positive and supporting us here.

What kind of response were you expecting?
LM: I was really fucked up. Really nervous. I have extended family that still doesn’t know I’m gay so I was like, really worried about it. And I lashed out a lot.

At the other two legs?
OHF: …We are the legs that kick!  [laugh]
LM: It was hard for me to think about what it was going to be like here.
    But it has been really good. We’ve been kind of sheltered. We haven’t put ourselves into awkward situations.

But you’re not showing this in Gander…
LM: Well, we could, but it’d be weird.
OHF: I think we’d show this in Baytona before we’d show it in Gander, because it’s more site-specific.

How would you see it being accepted there?
OHF: I’m not sure.
LM: I’m not sure either. I guess there might be negative responses for sure. Then there’d be – I mean we’re going to get negative responses here, but maybe people don’t vocalize it as much. Or they don’t vocalize it to us. But I’m sure it would be positive too – not everyone’s scared of gay people.

I think things have changed in the last 20 years… 5 years…
OHF: Will and Grace?
LM: Will and Grace.

So what do you think the effect of television is on the status of gays. Are there actually any honest representations?
OHF: Last night we were watching Margaret Cho’s “Assassins” stand up show. She’s a stand up comedian in the States. She was talking about things like gay marriage, and how pop culture has embraced images of homos like Will and Grace, the show The L Word – a show about middle class lesbians living in LA – and Queer Eye. Those kinds of shows have exposed middle-class, white America – and all types of other people – to a really specific depiction of homo-queer lifestyle.
    So in her show she wassaying how it’s great for the general public to embrace these kinds of TV shows – this really easy version of queer culture – but its not enough just to embrace it. You’ve got to be on the queer side, to fight for equality – there’s still a struggle to be fought.
    But you’re right, a lot has changed in the past 5-10 years in terms of visibility.
LM: It has, but at the same time it hasn’t. There was a controversy two months ago that Steven Harper didn’t attend the Out Games. And that’s the person in charge of the country not showing support.

So what has to be done?
OHF: A lot needs to be done. I guess like something we work towards in these shows – they’re baby steps. We’re not reaching a very large public, but we want to bring Canadians together and be loud about being visibly queer.
LM: And positive. We want to show that it’s not a negative thing. I think that that’s what the stigma is from the past 50 years… That it’s bad to be gay.
OHF: So we like to engage people in a non-confrontational way.
    There’s a lot of work that has to be done still. I came from a place of priviledge. I grew up middleclass and white in Ottawa, so I consider myself pretty lucky.
LM: That’s why it’s really important to come here. Sometimes you just have to branch out of your safety zone and be able to articulate who you are to other people so that they understand it and know that you’re not a crazy lunatic.
OHF: And definitely, if we were doing this show in Baytona we’d be branching out even further and it’d probably be more challenging to do.
    We’re just waiting for an invitation to the museum at Baytona. Invite us to come.

The images in your exhibit – they’re very sexual.
OHF: The illustrations?

Yeah, the illustrations. People engaged in sexual acts. Why did you choose to do such graphic stuff?

OHF: We can’t help it! [laugh]
LM: It’s all we can think about!
OHF: All day long! Can’t sleep at night! My mom says the same thing. Whenever I have a show in Ottawa, she says “Why can’t you do some nice? Why can’t you paint some flowers or something? I can’t bring my friends to your shows because you’ve made dildos again” or whatever.
LM: My mom goes “All I do is try to help people – What are you doing?” But it’s exploration, you know? It’s not only trying to identify with being gay, but it’s also trying to identify with bodies not being afraid of different kinds of bodies.
OHF: …Gross bodies, altered bodies…
LM: Because we shy away from nudity as if it’s like no one can be nude. It seems really cheesy but being openminded about bodies and sex. People are totally scared of sex.

Is illustration your typical mode?
LM: Yeah – illustration plus installation.
OHF: I work a lot in textiles and Ginger does a lot of graphic design. And Logan – he does beautiful embroideries.
    Did you see the map? [a fictional map of Gayside, part of which was reproduced on this week’s cover + stars]

Yeah, it was hilarious! I think it’s what people will rememeber most about your show.
OHF: The map was probably the most site-specific work we’ve made. Newfoundland is known for having funny names, like Conception Bay and Dildo, and Gayside or whatever… More than other places. So we were playing with that idea, and developed a map with interesting land formations and funny names.
LM: We brought the language of queer culture and layed it right on top of Newfoundland.
OHF: We don’t want anyone to take offense. Especially Newfoundlanders. We don’t want them to think we’re making fun of them or Gayside because it’s definitely not our intention. Our approach, in all of our shows, is to use humour to bring up serious issues. That’s how we approached the map. We think it’s funny.
    Maybe some of the drawings aren’t that funny. Some of them are a bit more dark, some of them are perverted.
LM: This is definitely the most interactive show we’ve had with the community. It’s a smaller place. A lot of people want to talk to us and understand what we’re doing.
OHF: And a lot of people are really excited to tell us about Gayside. They say “Did you know there was a real place called Gayside?“ People have told us… “My cousin was from there, my uncle from there, I never went there. I thought the name was crazy. Can you believe it?”
    If we do the Gayside show somewhere else, people won’t have the same relationship with it geographically, or historically. This has been the most site-specific we’ve been, because we addressed a historical name change.

What would a gay utopia be?
LM: Different for everyone.
OHF: Yeah different for everyone.
    Its funny. In the States there’s Provincetown, which is almost an all gay town in Cape Cod. And there’s this other place called Fire Island which is an island off of long island.
    And Provincetown. Provincetown is booming. I went there in the summertime when I was 18 and I was totally mind-blown because we drove up and there were all these butch lesbian construction workers building a house, tearing shit down and putting a roof on and I was like “Oh my god!” I couldn’t believe it. Then we stayed at a fag bed and breakfast. It was gay everywhere we went and I’d never seen anything like that in Canada. I was totally blown away.
    Then Fire Island is an area of rich affluent fags who own beautiful old houses that were built in the 70’s & 80’s, and everyone has their own hot tub and swimming pools and leather couches – it’s hot. We were staying there because a friend had a hook up.
    It’s interesting because those two locations in the states are seemingly gay utopian places that are busy busy bsuy in the summertime. When I first went there I was totally blown away – that gay people have so much money and are living together by the ocean – these places don’t exit in Canada – who knows why not?

How do you know one doesn’t?

LM: Cape Breton!
OHF: [laugh] Let’s go!
    I don’t know why. Maybe there’s just more people in the States and more money.
    I would say for some people, those two locations Provincetown and Fire Island are gay utopias. But not for me.

So for you is the utopia part just being accepted?
OHF: No, more than accepted. Thriving and surviving!
LM: Yeah! Good times!
OHF: Baytona!
LM: Gaytona!

Welcome to Gayside runs until October 28, 2006 at the Eastern Edge Gallery, 72 Harbour Drive.