Study explores LGBTQ lives in small communities

Paul Mayne // Western News

Dayna Prest, a Women’s Studies and Feminist Research PhD candidate, is exploring the experiences of LGBTQ individuals in Stratford, St. Marys and Perth County in an effort to better understand how these small communities – ones stereotypically seen as heterosexual, white and conservative – shaped their personal identity.

For Dayna Prest, her research is a homecoming.

The Women’s Studies and Feminist Research PhD candidate is exploring the experiences of LGBTQ individuals in Stratford, St. Marys and Perth County in an effort to better understand their relationship with these small communities – ones stereotypically seen as heterosexual, white and conservative – and how they shaped personal identity.

“It’s sort of a mythbuster mission,” said the St. Mary’s native now living in Kitchener with her wife. “How do I combine all these elements of space, place, belonging and community to look at place attachment, satisfaction and sense of community?

“I’m getting a lot of memories and stories of people’s lives where it became apparent to them that someone in their family, community or church wasn’t OK with gay people or wasn’t OK with how they were being. I’m interested in those moments of how it comes across to those people.”

One of the challenges of this type of research is that minimal data exists on LGBTQ individuals in these communities, as there are few funded support services.

To get her data, Prest is conducting ‘mobile interviews’ with LGBTQ individuals still living in Perth County. These interviews focus on experiences, sense of community and general sense of the area by allowing them to take Prest on a tour of their neighbourhood, street, town or any other place that is important to them.

“I tell them to take me on a tour of where you go,” she said. “So we’ll then run into people and places and it brings up stories such as ‘I had my first kiss here,’ or ‘I got in a fight over there.’ It brings up a lot of memories for them. Some of my walks have literally been in bean fields.”

Prest, who completed her masters in Feminist and Gender Studies from the University of Ottawa, wants to understand how to build the LGBTQ community in a way that works for those who call these areas home.

“I’m looking to create more accessible community for queer folks and evaluate what services are helpful. It’s also just about starting more conversations about this community and how that can be supported. I’m interested in how people make sense of that.”

As part of phase two of her work, Prest will conduct interviews with LGBTQ individuals who once called Perth County home, focusing on their experiences while there, their reasons for leaving, and their current relationship to their former community.

“There is a sentiment this is still a conservative area. Do people feel welcome there? Do they feel they can be themselves or become themselves there?”

Once complete, Prest hopes to make her research available to those providing front-line services to LGBTQ communities and assist them with policy recommendations and proposals for future research.

“It’s always a process of containment. Your existence is a bit of a confrontation at times,” she said.

“How do we move beyond that? Having more open conversations has been an amazing place to start. I’ve always liked community work and community activism and being involved in my community. Doing things I feel will may help my community is really important to me.”

For more information about her study, LGBT Sense of Place in Perth County, or if you are interested in sharing your story, contact Prest at dprest@uwo.ca.