4 min

Abbotsford youth win Community Hero of the Year

'It's such an honour to be recognized for something that matters so much to us': Kuipers

STANDING TALL. Together John Kuipers, 23, and Chantell Gregg, 16, organized last December's Social Justice Rally in Abbotsford — despite the backlash, the pressure from city hall and the threat of marchers being egged or worse. Credit: TJ Ngan photo

Sixteen year old Chantell Gregg, with her pierced lips, black and platinum hair and soft voice, would just as soon talk about how the number 138 has a mysterious way of following her around as she would talk about her politics.

The self-described pansexual transgender youth met 23-year-old John Kuipers a year and a half ago at the Fraser Valley Youth group that he runs for queer youth and their allies. Since then, their worlds have merged in ways that neither of them would have imagined.

Gregg describes her hometown of Abbotsford, which she and Kuipers visibly queered last December with the Social Justice Rally they jointly spearheaded, as “boring but interesting.”

The Abbotsford school board made headlines last September when it pulled the Social Justice 12 course from the one high school in the district willing to offer it.

Dozens of students protested; 96 had already signed up for the course that explores race, class, homophobia, access, abilities and the like.

Gregg thought something more needed to be said, especially after one of her friends was bashed at school. “When he went to the principal he was told that he had brought it on himself by dressing they way he does. He was then kicked out.”

So she called for a Pride parade on her Facebook site.

“I heard gay, faggot and lesbo in my school so many times. I was sick of the discrimination in the schools and on the streets of Abbotsford and I wanted to do something,” she told Xtra West last year.

The Facebook backlash was practically instantaneous.

But Gregg refused to back down. With Kuipers’ help and support, she forged ahead.

Though Abbotsford has yet to see an official Pride parade, the community came together in a groundbreaking show of visibility to rally with rainbow flags in the heart of BC’s Bible Belt, demanding Social Justice 12 be reinstated and queer voices be heard.

This despite the city’s last-minute attempt to re-route the rally. Kuipers, who is also president of the University of the Fraser Valley’s Pride Network, was personally threatened with a $100,000 fine if he didn’t redirect the marchers last December.

He too refused to back down.

Though he did arrange an alternate route, many of the marchers insisted on following the original route. Kuipers was never fined.

Two months after the rally, the Abbotsford school board relented, sort of. Students in the district will now be able to sign up for Social Justice 12 this fall, as long as they get their parents’ permission first.

“Christians have preconceived notions around homosexuality,” Kuipers observes. He went to a private Christian school and spent his youth studying biblical texts. “Much of the homophobia stems from poor translations over the course of centuries,” he says.

Though he no longer attends church regularly, Kuipers recognizes that “Christianity has played a huge role in shaping who I am.”

 “We shouldn’t be quick to judge Christians when our biggest enemy is ignorance,” says Gregg.

Kuipers and Gregg both received personal threats before last December’s rally. Rumours spread that the marchers would be egged — or worse.

“We were going to be prepared to throw marshmallows and gummy worms right back at them,” Gregg jokes.

Kuipers laughs at this, as he does at most of Gregg’s jokes.

Then he grows sombre. “We have always been non-confrontational and non-violent,” he says. “We just wanted to be treated fairly.”

Thankfully, no one was egged or hurt at the rally.

“There was one guy,” Kuipers notes, “who started spewing hateful things about how fags would burn in hell but he was calmly informed that he was outnumbered by a landslide.”

Gregg says she had assumed the rally would be “small time.”

She thought it would be like one of her “zombie walks” — something she and her friends do when they dress as zombies and walk down Abbotsford’s main stretch. The average turnout for a zombie walk is about 20 people. The Dec 6 Social Justice Rally gathered hundreds of queers and their allies, including a busload of supportive queers from Vancouver.

Gregg says she “started crying when the buses arrived from Vancouver. I was completely shocked.”

Even more shocking to Gregg was the amount of attention she would later get for her commitment to activism.

In addition to winning this year’s Community Hero of the Year award with Kuipers at the Xtra West Community Achievement Awards Apr 26, Gregg was named this year’s Champion of Diversity at the Fraser Valley Cultural Diversity Awards in March.

“I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “I thought that maybe a handful of people would care about this — and that most of them would be my friends.”

Since the rally, Kuipers says Abbotsford “has seen incremental improvements.” Social Justice 12 is back on the curriculum, parental consent notwithstanding. Educators, students and parents held a social justice conference in February, and a group of gay and straight allies have formed a new network called the Fraser Valley Social Justice Society.

Gregg shrugs off her efforts, saying her contribution to this growing momentum was “not a big deal.”

She says she nearly fainted when she and Kuipers were called to the stage to accept the award for Community Hero of the Year.

“I was completely beside myself,” she confesses afterward, still visibly rattled. “I mean considering what both of the other nominees have done for the community I just thought there was no way John and I would actually win.”

Kuipers was stunned too.

“It’s such an honour to be recognized for something that matters so much to us,” he says.

“It’s been a great privilege to work with Chantell and the youth of Abbotsford to bring awareness of gay and lesbian issues to the community,” Kuipers told the audience Sun night. “Seeing a genuine sense of Pride and social responsibility in Chantell and the other youth was very encouraging.”

These days at least 40 youth show up to the weekly Fraser Valley youth group meetings that Kuipers still organizes. They screen movies, play games or listen to guest speakers such as Connie Thompson, a lesbian pastor from Trinity Memorial Church in Abbotsford.

“When I started, we were lucky if we got even 10 people out to a meeting,” Kuipers says.

He and Gregg are both pleased with how many youth have picked up the call to activism in the last few months.

Asked about upcoming projects, they both say they’d still love to see a Pride parade in Abbotsford.

“If busloads of Vancouver queers were willing to come out in early December when it was wet and yucky out, just think of how much more fun we could have in the summer,” says Gregg.