As a single mother of two, one of Janet Johnston’s most difficult decisions was having to let go of one of her sons as he struggled for acceptance in Stewart.
It was the 1990s and at age 15, Kalvin knew he was gay. Although some were supportive, many of his peers made sure to make him feel unwelcome in the place he had grown up. After a fight broke out at school, Johnston decided her son would be safer in Vancouver.
“There was a lot of homophobia then… I just said I had to find a different place [for him] so he could be his own person,” says Johnston. “It was hard, really hard. We do have a few gay people in Stewart, but they are very low key.
“I think [Kalvin] would have eventually come out, but it would have taken that much longer.”
Kalvin moved into his own apartment, graduated high school and pursued all the opportunities that a metropolitan centre could offer, including the vibrant LGBTQ2 scene, but Johnston says it hurt not being there physically for her teenage son. She travelled as often as she could afford.
Although she considered it, Johnston couldn’t move away from Stewart as she still had another son to raise and other difficulties to resolve.
“It was very heartbreaking… it was a lot of mixed emotions and it was a struggle, ” Johnston says. “I missed out on being there with him on different things that he was doing because I was here and he was down there… we’d often have conversations how he missed having his mom there.”
Johnston kept herself busy through community groups, volunteering at the food bank, fostering and running a safe house for anyone that was vulnerable. She says she always wanted to help people, so she saw it fitting to become a paramedic, despite being almost 40 at the time.
She spoke openly about her son’s journey as she tried to confront homophobia in her town, trying to make people understand that he was still human and was worthy of compassion. She’d try to read as much as she could about what her son was going through and how she could support him, but found there weren’t enough reading resources available then.
When she became the local school’s librarian, she encouraged the district to order more books on sexual education and diversity. She saw it as an important conversation for children to have in classrooms and hoped it would help one of them who may be going through the same.
“I saw that the Scholastic book fairs were getting more books on diversity so I thought, this is an opportunity to bring these books gradually into our own library,” says Johnston. “I’ve had nothing but support from the teachers as well and a lot of them have said we need more of this.”
Johnston continued to push literature about queer families, transgendered people, same-sex parents, and other related books, along with providing access to tools and support groups.
She says over the years, she’s had many youth open up to her as she describes herself as a “safe person” for them to talk to. In the school hallways, she’d sometimes overhear related inappropriate name-calling so she’d sit them down and share the story of her son.
“[I tell them that] a person is born the way they are. And people think that they’re just freaks. Well, they’re not freaks. They’re human beings. And they’re beautiful, and they’re lovely,” she says” “It’s been a gradual process… [this has been] a little project that you have to treat gently and just slowly bring it in.”
Eventually, those sex-ed books made their way into the public library where they’re currently available for everybody to access. It’s begun a conversation in Stewart, and although many are still in the midst of opening up their minds — Kalvin can now return home to visit and be amongst people who accept him.
“The gay world is a very tough world, and it can get really rough and tough,” says Johnston. “He has got some really good close friends here, who will always love him no matter what… He just needs a break right now from the city, to come home, spend some time with mom and his little town.”
Her activism for LGBTQ2 rights in the province, specifically in the Northwest, was recognized this year as she was selected as one of the recipients of the BC Community Achievement Award. This month, she travelled to Victoria and stood amongst 23 others as they were presented their award.
“I was in a room with doctors, lawyers and authors. And there’s me, this gal from Little Stewart,” she says. “It was a huge surprise and they made you feel honoured and special… Like I was some real superhero.”
She says she didn’t know she was nominated until she received the call. She found out many people in Stewart had written letters of support to acknowledge her contributions. For her, the award symbolizes a lot, that perhaps the choice she made to sent her son away was a part of the journey to bring him back to a more accepting place and create a path for others like him.
At 63, Johnston is close to retirement but says she can’t imagine not continuing to be involved. She’s taken on a “grandmother” role to many and recognizes that in the end of this all, Stewart’s beauty transcends beyond its mountains.
“There’s your small town politics. But when it comes right down to the crunch, everybody’s there for everyone. Like if someone’s down and out. We come together as a community, we really do.”