Mike Butler knew right away Diana Farris was somebody special.
“I met Diana at a Nova Scotia Mental Health Seminar at Brigadoon camp and within a few minutes after being introduced, which she initiated, I was completely overcome with her communicative skills, strong presence and self-confidence,” Butler said.
Farris represented Middleton Regional High School and is the head of the school's equality club. Butler, an actor and director, and also a member of the LGBTQ community, emceed the event and by the end of the seminar he was confident and overwhelmed with the positive notion that the students of Annapolis Valley high schools were heading in an incredible direction of betterment.
“Diana stood out because of her loving personality, ability to see things in a positive way, and her way of helping others understand things through her own experiences,” Butler said.
Farris’s warmth, sense of humour, and empathetic personality were forged over years of alienation, lack of love and support, and coming out first as gay and then as transgender.
At 19, she knows who she is and has finally found a place that will accept her for that – Middleton.
Farris is the town’s only candidate in its annual Youth Ambassador competition and, when she made her introductory speech during Heart of the Valley Festival in July, it was so powerful many of those on hand were reduced almost to tears.
When others her age were working to pay their cell phone bills, and to buy nice things, she was working for a different reason. “The nice things that I brought home were bread, milk, and a sense of being a burden that oftentimes I can’t shake,” she said of her former life in New Minas. “If I didn’t feed myself, I didn’t eat.”
The speech recounts her struggles and the tragedy in her young life. But it’s only there to create context.
“There were nights when I stayed awake, watching the stars, and waiting for my father to come back, to save me,” she said. “He passed away when I was 11.”
Farris wasn’t looking for favours in her speech. She said she doesn’t deserve to be Youth Ambassador because she’s had a hard life.
“I believe I do because I am not a product of that tragedy,” she said. “Heartache is a fine quill that writes blanket statements as I move forward, but I fancy myself a writer; I knew it was my turn to pick it up and add detail.”
She took control of the narrative and after so many times staring into the face of adversity started writing her own story. She’s no longer an easily forgotten character in other people’s stories. She is the story.
It started with a change.
At the end of last summer, she moved to Middleton on her own, with only her partner to seek comfort in.
“I wanted to find my version of a paradise,” she said. “To some, you may have travelled, or seen better, but to me, I had found my hidden gem.”
Farris came to life at MRHS.
“I finished this school year off having met some incredible people who I adore with every bit of the love that I hold in my heart,” she said in her speech. “The girl who was hard to understand, and had no future got honors with distinction, and is now the leader of the equality club, as well as a part of the student council. She has won awards for talents that she never got to explore before this year. She has impressed teachers who thought that because of her grades at Horton, she was destined to fail.”
Middleton’s Youth Ambassador program wasn’t on Farris’s radar her first year in Middleton, but some of her teachers at MRHS introduced her to it and urged her to check it out.
“So I sent an email to Lisa Fenton as the facilitator for it and immediately we hit it off,” she said in an interview, “and I started to join in on the events. Unfortunately, this year I am the only candidate. I’m not officially the youth ambassador until I’ve done the paces.”
Middleton scrapped its princess pageant several years ago, opening it up to all youth.
“Recently, I learned about why Youth Ambassador was created over having a princess,” Farris said. “It was simply because they didn’t want to fit somebody into a box. I don’t fit well in boxes, unfortunately. Now being included in this sort of thing and being able to take part in everything - although we don’t do events with the princesses directly, we have our own - I feel included here more than anywhere else I’ve been.”
Andy Kerr, director of recreation and community development in Middleton, heard Farris’s Youth Ambassador introduction speech during Heart of the Valley Festival and described it as an emotional experience. “When I went to speak to all the judges afterwards to thank them, none of them could speak,” he said. “It was emotional. It was the quality of the speech, which was very impressive, but on top of that it’s not often that someone comes in in a public setting like that and bares their soul so wide open.”
Fenton said the Youth Ambassador program is designed to encourage youth to take an interest in their community and to help build their self-confidence through their senior year of high school.
“Diana and I seemed to hit it off even before we met,” Fenton said. “I learned that she wanted to be a Youth Ambassador candidate from (teacher) Laura Cole and she came with great references. We emailed back and forth before I actually saw the application and her personal letter that provided background information and explained that she was transgender. I was so proud of her for putting that out there before even meeting us.”
Fenton described Farris as extremely brave and genuine.
“She was more concerned that she did not have a parent present to sign any documentation and didn't want that to be a barrier,” Fenton remembered. “The fact that she has overcome so many huge obstacles at such a young age and she is putting herself out there to be a role model for others is inspiring to me. I'm honored to be a part of her story and I can't wait to see what she does over the next year. I think this is a great time for us as a community to be inclusive and open and show our welcoming side - in Diana's first speech she said she came here and it felt like her paradise and I don't want us to let her down.”
One of the roles of Youth Ambassador is to complete one major project for the town. If Farris is named Youth Ambassador during the town’s Christmas tree-lighting ceremony, she already has big plans to start a theatre group at the high school.
“During my time in middle school, shortly after my father had passed away, I met a teacher who was the after-school drama program leader,” Farris said. She said the teacher saw that she was straying from the more sports-oriented pack. She was hesitant at first but took the chance and gave it a try.
“I was given a role that was more in the spotlight than I originally expected,” she said. “By the end of it, I was hooked. It gave me a chance to feel as if I had my own place. Aside from that, it was a very eye-opening experience – being able to play a character that was unlike myself, to look into their traits and as I was exploring them it made it easier to explore my own.”
“Theatre is a terrific art form with so much to offer people with stories to tell and experiences to share,” he said. “I wish I had had more of a theatre outlet in my high school when I was growing up. My path has been amazing and fairly easy, so for Diana to be able to live through her trials and still be focused on making the lives of others around her better, is both inspirational and wonderful.”
“I think the community as a whole might be a little hesitant to join in just because it’s a high school-based thing, but I know for a fact that many, many, many students are highly interested in joining it because so far the isolated bit of theatre sort of acting group is within the drama class itself,” Farris said. “Not every student wants to be judged on their performance – more just put on something that they enjoy with a group of people who are there just to do that.”
She thinks her father would approve, not just about theatre, her move, and the Youth Ambassador program – but about who she is.
“I still stay awake at night, and look for my dad amongst the constellations,” she said. “I don’t need saving anymore. I just look because I could never say I have stopped missing him.”
Her dad would be proud, and as she said, he did do some saving. Two days before she gave her Youth Ambassador speech, she received an inheritance from her father’s estate.
“I felt shackles break from around my wrists, and my ankles,” she said in her speech. “I could finally afford to live on my own, no longer a burden. Tonight I look directly to the Northern star, and thank my father for hearing my wishes. He has seen me cry myself to sleep from above, watched me say how much I wanted to be normal. I don’t want to be anymore. I’d much rather take my scars that give me empathy.”
DID YOU KNOW?
“I really want to become a teacher because the people in my life who have affected me most positively were teachers. I find they are incredibly open to listening to your personal life and accepting you for who you are and taking the time to listen. I’d give anything to be able to give that to someone who may also have been in my situation.”
DID YOU KNOW?
“I know multiple people who are currently in the situation – not exactly like I was – but in a situation where they are wanting to explore their gender identity and do not feel comfortable doing so because someone in their lives is not being receptive.”
DID YOU KNOW?
“I stand up for all rights including those of the LGBTQ community and as a community theatre actor/director I fully promote the world of theatre arts to students, young and old. It's a very inclusive, wonderful world for expressing one's self and the friendships that can be made are life-changing.”