“I’m just like everybody else.”
It is a simple statement but one that eluded Susan Rajamaki for the first twenty-eight of her forty-nine years. Sue is a home grown local girl. Like many, as a young adult, she headed south to Toronto to explore educational and career opportunities. But the northern wind persisted and harkened her back to the rugged shores of Lake Superior.
“Something inside drew me back. My mom was part of that but there’s something about the Lake. There is no other place like it in the world. This is my home and this is where I want to be who I am.”
Sue returned to Sault Ste. Marie twelve years ago. The Sault is a small steel town in Northern Ontario. “When I came back I refused to go back into that pigeon hole where I felt that I spent most of my years feeling afraid.”
When she was a little girl, perhaps five years old, Sue’s first inklings of who she was going to be were beginning to light up. “I knew at a very young age. I was very aware. I didn’t know exactly what it was. But I knew I was different. I always wanted to be in the presence of women and I couldn’t figure out why. It wasn’t because of anything men ever did to me. I wasn’t molested or abused. I just knew that I enjoyed the company of women.”
Sue received her enlightenment from the television airwaves. “It was the 1970’s and I was watching TV. That’s when I finally realized ‘oh, there’s a name for this.’”
Entering puberty Sue felt a sense of alienation in her life and reached out to her younger sister. “She was my first support structure. I came out to her when I was twelve years old. I just said ‘I think I’m gay’. And she was wonderful. She was very comforting and mature about it. She said that there was nothing wrong with me. She was my first ally.”
Tragically, just a few years, later Sue’s sister passed away. It was a devastating loss in her life. “I was alone again.”
Sue’s father died when she was five years old. After the passing of her sister it was just Sue and her mom left in the family home. While their relationship was mutually loving there was a certain closeness that is often stereotyped between mothers and daughters that wasn’t there. Sue attributes the reserved connection to biology. “I think it was because I was identifying a little more on the masculine side of things.”
Sue was the archetypal tomboy. “I was hanging out with the guys, playing street hockey and all of that. But I really identified with them when they were talking about the girls. Not that I would interject with any comments but I definitely related to what they were saying.”
When she was just twelve years old she turned to the phone book seeking some sort of human contact so that she could find the answers to the big questions she didn’t feel secure enough to ask. Not finding any resource and growing up in the seventies and eighties in a small community in Northern Ontario meant that Sue came into her sexuality in solitude.
“Part of my process in coming to terms with being gay was going through it all by myself. That support wasn’t there when I was growing up. I had to come to terms with it on my own and challenge what had been drilled into my head on my own.”
Still, as a teenager Sue’s loneliness grew. Her peer group was beginning to date and though Sue experienced attraction it was something she felt unsafe to express. “My friends were starting to ‘go out’ with boys but I wanted to date my female friends. I was thinking ‘this can’t be right’ and there wasn’t any support structure that told me it was. If I could go back and tell my teenage self anything it would be that it’s ‘ok’. It’s ‘ok’ to be who you are. Because at the time the thought of being myself was the most frightening thing in the world.”
She credits the example of her mother resiliency that got her through a few periods of a depression stemming from her feeling of isolation. “I think I drew a lot of strength from her in just seeing how she dealt with life. She moved here from Finland, lost her husband five years later and then lost her youngest daughter to drug abuse. I give kudo’s to my mother because she was a huge role model in being strong. In terms of my own experiences ‘thinking’ about suicide and ‘following through’ with it are two very different things. And I recognize that so many other people that have struggled with their identity through experiences with depression haven’t been as fortunate as I have been.”
In her early twenties Sue gave it her best shot and began dating a young man. During this time she was also quietly dating women on the side. Her relationship with the young man lasted for three years and then Sue could no longer continue the charade. “I felt like I could have gone on and lived that lie for a very long time, maybe forever, because it didn’t seem like there was anything else that I could do. And then I just had enough. I didn’t want to do it anymore. I didn’t want to continue the lie and risk hurting him in the process. He was a very good friend.”
It wasn’t long after that Sue would head south to Toronto for university. “Toronto saved me. There was so much diversity there and it was the first time I really saw -with my eyes, people that could be like me. I was exposed to not just this amazing diversity but also acceptance. And that acceptance started with me. I was finally comfortable with who I was.”
In her new city Sue explored volunteer opportunities with numerous gay organizations. She lived in Toronto as an out lesbian woman for a decade. It was also in Toronto where Sue finally came out to her mother. She was considering a return to the Sault but knew she could never go back to that old way of life that she left behind.
“When I decided to go back home to the Sault I knew that there would be no way I could put myself back in the closet. While I was still in Toronto I brought my mother down for a visit and came out to her. It wasn’t exactly the most positive experience but it was due time to get every last skeleton out of the closet. We had just finished a nice dinner that I cooked and we were having a glass of wine. When I told her she said that she already knew that I was gay. I never understood why she didn’t mention anything before that moment.”
It’s been almost twelve years since Sue revealed her sexuality to her mom. Sue chuckled a bit and then remarked, “I’m almost fifty years old and my mother still thinks that it’s just a phase. She thinks that if I meet a nice man it will be ok.”
Sue shared that she has not experienced much discrimination and hatred in Sault Ste. Marie. However, she has been mistaken for a man which she admits does offend her at times. “I don’t know how many countless times I’ve been called ‘sir’ as I’ve walked through the community. I mean it’s obvious that I wear men’s clothing- it just feels more comfortable. And sometimes it bothers me when someone thinks I’m a man. Just because I’m a lesbian doesn’t mean that I am transgender. It doesn’t mean that I want to be a man in any way. I identify as being a lesbian. I’m comfortable with that. I have no issues with my gender. I’m very comfortable being a woman that loves women. I try not to be bitter about it and use it instead as an opportunity to educate people. And sometimes I just deal with it using humour. Humour has probably helped me a lot through life.”
Upon her return to the Sault in 2002, Sue immediately became involved with the Algoma Pride Committee (APC). At that time the APC was mainly a social group, organizing dances and the occasional get together. As often happens, the volunteer force began to burn out and dance attendance petered off. A few members of APC were dealing with health concerns which led up to the eventual dissolution of the Committee. Sue was one of the APC members that faced an unexpected turn in health.
In 2010 Sue was diagnosed with stage 4 uterine cancer. After a full hysterectomy and chemotherapy Sue was finally given a clean bill of health in 2013. “I feel very fortunate and blessed with life. And I feel like I’m at a good place in my life to take on more volunteer work in the community. And I just love what I’m doing with Sault Pride now.”
Sault Pride announced their presence at the community day parade three years ago. Since that time the grassroots organization has slowly gathered momentum. This past winter the group became very vocal in the community as they challenged the City to raise the Pride flag in support of unacknowledged gay athletes participating in the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics.
The flag was not raised.
Spurred on by the snub, the Committee was inspired to organize the city’s first ever Sault Pridefest. “We saw a need for greater awareness and education. People just need to understand that even in Northern Ontario there is a queer faction. We are here and we are a viable asset to the community.”
On Monday, August 11th, 2014 a proclamation was read by Mayor Debbie Amaroso, declaring September 5th -7th as Sault Pridefest weekend. The moment was a triumphant milestone for Sault Pride and all members of the community, past and present, who tirelessly challenged the status quo over the years.
For trailblazers like Sue it was a reaffirming moment. “I think this movement has been a long time in the making. It’s amazing to see the response that Sault Pride is receiving from the community. We have a good cross section of people on the Committee. We’re not just a bunch of queers that are angry about not being recognized. We have a lot of straight alliances that have come together and a lot of supports in the community.”
Sue hopes that Sault Pride will become an established supportive resource for people who fall somewhere along the ‘rainbow spectrum’. “When I was a teenager I always questioned where I fit in on this wheel of life. What we are trying to convey to young people is that it’s ok to be who you are. We want young people to know that Sault Pride is a safe and judgement free zone. But we certainly want to be a support to older people too. I always think about people my age or older that never had the chance to come out or felt like there wasn’t a structure of support to lean on.”
Looking over her shoulder Sue has observed the great distance covered in the fight for acceptance over the past decades. “I think support structures are being put in place for people so that nobody has to feel alienated and afraid or like they have to leave Sault Ste. Marie to come out. That’s what I had to do- I had to leave to get that anvil off my head. We are becoming a more inclusive community. I remember when I was growing up I felt very frightened that people would find out who I was. Today there are Gay Straight Alliances in the schools. It is nice to know that young people can be more comfortable in being open about who they are. We even have a Rainbow Camp for kids to go to in the summer to be with others who are just like they are. And for parents who need help understanding or getting behind their child there’s P-Flag.”
In addition to these changes Sue praises educational practices in the schools as well as the workplace. “Diversity and inclusion training is a great example of progress. It is so important and not just for the gay community. Diversity and inclusion is a good thing for everybody.”
Sault Pridefest kicks off this morning at 9 a.m. at City Hall with the raising of the Pride Flag. Sue will be there. “Simply,” she said. “History is being made in Sault Ste. Marie.”
Update: Due to lightening storms flag raising at City Hall has been rescheduled for Saturday, September 6th at 9 a.m.