When Shane Stark decided last year to host a fundraiser in Abbotsford as his alter ego Anida Tythole, he wasn’t sure what to expect.
He received no less than five offers from the Abbotsford bars he approached.
Stark, a long-time resident of the Fraser Valley, says Abbotsford and the Valley in general get a bad rap.
There’s more going on than most people think, he says, citing Abbotsford’s first Pride parade, which drew 500 people and a supportive speech from the mayor in May.
Stark chose the bar Cheers to host his drag show and says the event was such a success that the owners asked him back next year.
There is support for queer people in the Valley, he says, and there are people working to make things better. It’s just that it’s early yet.
“It’s a lot of random people trying to bring the community out here,” he says. “There’s no centre, no core to bring everything together. That’s what Abbotsford is lacking.”
Clarke Fryer has been trying to build community in nearby Chilliwack for years.
When he came out in Chilliwack as a teenager 11 years ago, he found no resources, no support system. While he had the support of his family, and particularly his mother, he still felt very much in the dark about how to navigate his small town as a gay teen.
So he began to build the community that he wanted to find. It began with just an email account — the still-active firstname.lastname@example.org — where teens, adults, parents and teachers could send questions anonymously and receive, if nothing else, a sympathetic listener.
Then he founded the first gay-straight alliance (GSA) at Sardis Secondary School when he was in Grade 12. More recently, he founded Out in Chilliwack, which initially held socials twice a month before dwindling to a primarily online presence.
It’s exhausting to spend years fighting only to feel like you’re moving in the wrong direction, he says. Though he’s quick to admit that attitudes have improved since he was a teenager, Fryer says resources are still lacking for queer adults in the Valley.
Most services are geared primarily to youth, he explains. While he believes passionately in supporting young people, he worries that the lack of adult resources leaves a large demographic without access to community. “Forget dates,” he says. “A date would be awesome. But just finding like-minded people to have a drink with on the weekend or after work, that was our biggest challenge.”
Dispirited, Fryer left Chilliwack in 2006 for what he considered a needed respite in Vancouver. He returned home in 2009, only to leave again just a few months ago.
Though he still has good memories of growing up in Chilliwack, he has no plans to move back, particularly now that most of his family has moved away as well. “It’s not a bad place,” he says of his hometown, “but it’s a very backward place, and after a while you really just give up.”
As a student at the University of the Fraser Valley, Stark has access to its Pride Network, a student-run group that offers support and services to queer students and, to some extent, the broader queer community of the Valley.
Though it’s primarily for students, Stark says the UFV Pride group is the best place to connect with the area’s queer community.
But the future of the group that has served as a home base for so many at the university, as well as a beacon for those outside, is now uncertain.
At one time deemed an institutional group, with a work-study position and faculty advisor attached, UFV Pride recently lost its work-study position, and its faculty advisor went on sabbatical, downgrading it to a student group — with only minimal funding.
Brendan Almond, the incoming Pride coordinator, has submitted a request to become an official club and is waiting to see what kind of funding he’s offered. The worst-case scenario, he says, is that they’ll fundraise to keep the organization alive.
“We will still be a strong force even if we are just a club. We are proactively engaging with the community,” he says.
In addition to continuing the partnership with the University Christian Ministry on campus to foster dialogue, Almond hopes to connect with Out in Chilliwack and any gay groups in Abbotsford.
John Kuipers is the coordinator of the Fraser Valley Youth Society in Abbotsford, where he runs a drop-in group for queer youth. He says the queer community in the Valley is small and low-key, just the way he likes it. “There’s not much of an LGBT scene,” he says. “For me, personally, I enjoy that.”
Kuipers believes supporting queer youth and their allies is essential to creating more support for LGBT issues across the board. As part of the society’s drop-in services, the organization offers workshops, the topics of which are determined by regular surveys to find out what the youth want to talk about and what skills they’re hoping to build. The key is sustainability.
“To make sure it doesn’t all rest on the shoulders of one person or even one group of people, we have a plan to make sure youth here in the Fraser Valley are going to continue to be supported,” he says.
Cara Mason also finds the scene in the Valley small and quiet — so much so that it took years before she discovered an underground network of gay and lesbian adults in Chilliwack.
It was through a professional relationship that Mason found out about the network, which has probably existed for decades. She was approached quietly at work one day and invited into a group that includes doctors and police officers, most of them in their 40s and 50s, all seeking a place to be themselves.
“That’s how it was explained to me,” she says. “There were professionals in the community that didn’t want to come out to the entire world, or didn’t feel comfortable doing that, so they made this network to make it safe to let people know that you were gay or a lesbian.”
More a network with branches across the area than one large group, Mason says people collect in pockets, a few at a time in different places. She’ll sometimes run into someone at a city event and they’ll give a small nod of familiarity.
“There are all these kinds of one-off groups hanging out at people’s houses,” she says. “It’s super unorganized and very grassroots.”
Mason moved from Ontario to the Fraser Valley 11 years ago to attend Abbotsford’s Columbia Bible College. She describes the attitude in the area as more curious than hostile and says she often feels comfortable holding her girlfriend’s hand in public.
Though she now makes semi-regular weekend trips to Vancouver, she says she has no plans to leave Chilliwack. Still, she would like to see more groups and resources developed locally to increase visibility and give the community more places to gather openly.
“It’s just too bad, because if all of us stopped going to the city so much and started hanging out with each other, we could have a really strong network here,” she says.
Kuipers predicts that life in the Valley will continue to improve for queer people as more and more straight allies emerge, creating a domino effect.
As it becomes more culturally acceptable to speak up in support of queer issues, he says, more people will be willing to come forward, paving the way for still more people to come after them.
He says the number of allies is already growing.
“It used to be that queer people, or the people in support of queer issues, were the ones who were silenced,” he says. “Now there’s more room; there’s more space for them.”