David Anderson chose the University of British Columbia (UBC) on a hunch and a gay prayer.
“I came to UBC after doing a quick search online at gaycanada.com to see what there was at UBC. I don’t know why I thought there would be, but I had a hunch,” says the co-chair of Pride UBC, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this month.
For Anderson, finding a university campus with a visible queer presence was important. “At college I had a professor who was queer. She didn’t come out to me, but it was inferred. As you get to know more queer people, you start to get a better sense of yourself,” he reflects.
A popular high school student whose family was well known in his Kootenay community, Anderson says he lacked that sense of himself growing up.
While UBC, with its gay campus group and relatively gay-friendly atmosphere, was a welcome change for Anderson, Karen Ward was less impressed.
The UBC graduate student has an undergraduate degree from McMaster University in Hamilton and a masters from Dalhousie University in Halifax. She found UBC largely conventional in comparison.
“I was amazed at the lack of queer visibility on campus,” she says, recalling her arrival at UBC in the fall of 2001, seven years after coming out socially and academically.
“In my first term, I thought, ‘Wow, everyone’s the same.’ I expected more of a celebration of difference,” she explains.
It was tough to “reach out and connect” with other students, she continues, noting the lack of social events for students over age 25.
Ward discovered Pride UBC in her second year.
These days, she says she feels more comfortable on campus-and she credits Pride UBC. “While we’re a small organization with a small budget, we’ve done a hell of a lot to make campus less conventional.
“Pride UBC has given me a way to figure out how to negotiate different interests in a positive way,” she continues. “I can be who I am and think what I think and look to all kinds of people for support.”
In many ways, the campus has changed a lot since Tim Stevenson was president of the early incarnation of Pride UBC, then called the UBC Gay Club. The club held UBC’s first Gay Week in 1980.
Like Anderson, Stevenson came out shortly before he hit campus. “When I came to UBC I was very determined to do my part to bring about liberation,” he says now. “I had only come out two years prior and had left my wife. I went through a really huge struggle to get there. And I was determined I was going to make a difference.
“Not many people were out,” he continues. “There was a lot of harassment if you were out. People were nervous even coming to Gay UBC. Who would be there? What was it like?”
Homosexuality had only recently been removed from the mental illness list at that point, he points out.
When Stevenson first came to UBC, there were only about 25 Gay Club members. The number rose to 125 after the first Gay Week.
Today, Pride UBC boasts about 400 members on its e-mail lists.
Back in the ’80s, Stevenson says queer students were particularly concerned about their safety.
Safe space for queer students is a continuing concern today.
Though Anderson, an English student, feels comfortable within the Arts faculty, he says, “queer students aren’t going to be as out in, say, the sciences or chemistry.”
It depends on the faculty and the area of campus, Anderson says. “I have a few friends who are part of Pride UBC and are in computer science and there’s not a lot of presence,” he notes.
And while it’s “fairly safe” to hold hands with a same-sex lover in the Student Union Building, the student pub is another matter.
“Most people would not go to The Pit who identify as queer and actually take their queer partner with them,” Anderson says. “I’ve gone to The Pit and it was the most awful experience of my life on campus.”
At the time, Anderson was dating a frat boy who socialized with a lot of straight friends. “I made an effort to dress down and not draw attention to myself. Maybe I’m biased, but I didn’t do anything untoward that would make me stand out as a big homo.”
Still, he says he clearly heard several people mutter “faggot” as he walked past them.
Though Ward feels “lucky” to have found allies within her History department, she says some students seem to think their queer peers should feel free to be out at Pride UBC events-but otherwise check their sexuality and identity at the door.
Now, with Pride UBC’s annual Outweek just days away, Anderson has his eye on UBC’s most prominent flagpole. He wants the administration to raise a rainbow flag in the rose garden for student Pride.
It could make “a really huge impact” on queer students not yet comfortable being out on campus, he says.
Previous requests to raise the rainbow flag in the rose garden have been rebuffed.
Though administrators will allow rainbow flags to fly at Koerner Plaza and the clock tower-and even be plastered all over campus-they seem reluctant to fly one in the most visible spot on campus. They say if they raise one university group’s flag there, they will have to do it for others, too.
Still, new UBC vice-president Dennis Pavlich says he’s hoping to get an additional flagpole installed in the garden in time for Outweek.
What he’d really like, he says, is to get two additional poles-one to fly the BC flag and another to interchange the UBC flag with other flags to commemorate events such as Outweek.
But if there isn’t enough time to erect a new flagpole, he says he may bend the rules this time and fly the Pride flag below the Canadian flag on one pole.
He can’t just replace the Canadian flag, even temporarily, because that goes against federal flag protocol, he explains.
Anderson is cautiously optimistic. UBC recently promised $5,000 to Pride UBC for Outweek’s gala event, he points out, and that in itself is a major coup.