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Abbotsford to hold first official Pride parade

'There is a queer community here,' organizer says

At least 300 queers and allies marched proudly through Abbotsford on Dec 6, 2008, to protest the school board's refusal to offer Grade 12 students a queer-friendly course on social justice. Credit: Brandon Gaukel photo

Five years after opponents quashed attempts to hold Abbotsford’s first Pride parade, members of the BC Bible Belt’s queer community are ready to try again, and this time they fully expect to succeed.

Organizers have planned a day of events for the inaugural Fraser Valley Annual Pride March on May 25, including a parade, barbecue, panel and film screening on transgender issues.

“There is a queer community here, and we’re working on building that community,” says John Kuipers, coordinator of the Fraser Valley Youth Society.

Kuipers says a big focus for the day will be pulling allies together to celebrate with the queer community. “We need our allies here in the Valley,” he says. “There are lots of allies willing to stand together with us.”

In 2008, Kuipers – then-president of the University of the Fraser Valley Pride Society – was in the news after online opponents deterred a group of high school students’ plans for a Pride march in the staunchly conservative region. The younger and older students instead partnered to protest the district’s cancellation of its Social Justice 12 course. Hundreds attended their march.

In the years since, queers and allies have marched every year under the slogan Walk Away from Homophobia.

“That walk came out of some severe oppression and marginalization that our youth were experiencing,” Kuipers explains. “We decided to change the name to not have a negative connotation.

“It’s really important . . . to avoid labelling LGBT people as victims. Abbotsford gets a bad rap for being a really narrow-minded community. In some instances it can be, but we’ve also really seen how inclusive our community can be. We want to celebrate that with our friends and allies in a more positive light.”

While Kuipers says that many elements of other cities’ Pride parades will be present in Abbotsford – including rainbow flags, face-painting and speeches by prominent civic and community supporters – he says that starting from scratch has been a “blessing in disguise” because organizers can make the march their own and learn from other events.

Screening Gwen Haworth’s documentary about her gender transition, She’s a Boy I Knew, is one way the organizers also hope to highlight a broader range of issues facing the queer community.

“We have a lot of transgender people in the Valley, who are a really silenced, invisible population,” Kuipers says. “For us, Pride is a celebration of gender and sexual diversity.

“We see a lot of focus going to sexual diversity, but gender expression often gets ignored or muted somewhat; there’s less understanding.”

Does Kuipers have any advice for people wanting to organize events in smaller or rural communities?

“Perhaps we can provide those in smaller communities with hope that growth can happen,” he replies. “There are ways to seek out allies; working with those allies can really strengthen the work you do.

“Even in light of some of the opposition we’ve faced in past years, it’s still been successful,” he continues. “There are always going to be people who disagree with what you’re doing, but I’d hope it doesn’t interfere with trying to send that message.”

The Fraser Valley Annual Pride March starts at 2:30pm on May 25 at Abbotsford’s Matsqui Recreation Centre and arrives at city hall at 4pm. For more information, go to fraseryouth.com.