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Fraser Valley Pride a bright light for queer youth in BC’s Bible Belt

Abbotsford youth and support workers tell us what it’s really like to be gay in Fraser Valley schools

The Fraser Valley Youth Society hosted its fourth annual Fraser Valley Pride celebration in Abbotsford, BC on July 16, 2016. Credit: Derek Bedry/Daily Xtra

When Michael Chutskoff started kindergarten in Abbotsford 14 years ago, he promised his school he wouldn’t be gay.

Abbotsford’s Mennonite Educational Institute (MEI) had a covenant that included committing to sexual morality, refraining from homosexuality, and practicing celibacy until marriage, Chutskoff says.

He says the commitments were not brought up much again — until high school, when teachers would remind students of their pledge every few months.

“My school was very anti-gay,” he says.

At the time, MEI, which runs schools from preschool through Grade 12 at its four Abbotsford campuses, was all Chutskoff knew.

“It was really hard to hear your teachers say being gay is a choice, you’re going to hell and you can’t speak out,” he says.

When contacted for comment, a summer receptionist at MEI tells Daily Xtra that spokespeople for the schools won’t be available until after summer break, in August.

According to its 2014 parent handbook for elementary students, “The mission of the Mennonite Educational Institute, in harmony and cooperation with the home and our supporting churches, is to prepare young people to strive for excellence in all things so they can contribute positively to God’s Kingdom and society as faithful disciples of Christ.”

In Chustkoff’s final year at MEI, having spent his whole life in an environment that he says pressured him to remain closeted on pain of hellfire, he fell into a serious depression.

“I was actually in the hospital with my body basically on the point of exhaustion,” he says.

“I ended up having seizures, because my body couldn’t handle the stress. It was terrifying, and it’s hard to suffer in silence,” he says.

“Especially at that school where you can’t say ‘it’s because I’m gay’ and they’ll say, ‘well, we can’t really help you then.’”

Now 19 and finished his first year studying psychology at the University of the Fraser Valley, Chutskoff’s life seems to have taken a turn for the better.

Michael Chutskoff, left, and Cory Cassel helped organize the Fraser Valley Youth Society’s 2016 Pride festivities. (Derek Bedry/Daily Xtra)

Chutskoff is now the equalities officer with the university’s student union society, and he volunteered to help the Fraser Valley Youth Society organize and host its fourth annual Fraser Valley Pride on July 16, 2016.

“I’m thankful for my experience, for being as hard as it was in a place where I couldn’t truly be me,” he says.

“Getting out of that environment inspired me to take a role in our community and stand up and do something because I don’t want people to go through what I did,” he says, taking a break from darting around with his clipboard and walkie-talkie to speak to Daily Xtra during the festivities in Jubilee Park.

“I don’t want people to be afraid to be themselves,” he says.

Douglas Hughes, who volunteered at the Pride festivities for the Fraser Valley Youth Society, agrees that getting involved helps stave off loneliness.

As a hairdresser, 19-year-old Hughes still sometimes feels uncomfortable being himself.

“Sometimes a really masculine guy will come in and not want me to cut their hair,” he says.

But being involved in Pride is a bright light.

“I’m doing pretty good because I’m so involved in the community,” he says. “When you come to these events you feel you’re supported and accepted when you really get involved.”

At least where local businesses are concerned, one organizer says there was great support for Pride and only a few polite declines.

Cory Cassel, an independent event producer in Mission and member of the Fraser Valley Youth Society’s Pride committee, says organizers encountered virtually no opposition from the business community.

“In fact, we are quite overwhelmed with the amount of support we have been receiving, not just from the community, but from politicians and businesses,” he says.

Cassel says much of the equipment used was donated by local businesses, and many others cut a cheque to help out.

Fraser Valley Youth Society Pride volunteer Douglas Hughes gives someone a streak of hair colour at the festival in Jubilee Park. (Derek Bedry/Daily Xtra)

Also in attendance were Fraser Valley South Liberal MLA Darryl Plecas and Abbotsford deputy mayor Patricia Ross, who made speeches cheering the local diversity and calling for greater acceptance.

“I think in the early years, the idea of having a Pride march or Pride event in the Valley was something that people in the community were unsure of,” Cassel says.

But, he says, the Valley isn’t just a scary “Bible Belt,” and Pride helps to show its positive side for the lives of LGBT people in the area.

However, a group of three Christian protesters did stand with a large cross on the sidewalk bordering the park during Pride.

Simon Thorogood doesn’t expect the area to shake its “Bible Belt” status anytime soon.

“It’s obviously still an issue for a lot of kids. I meet kids every day that sometimes go by one name, but at school and home have to go by something completely different,” says Thorogood, an operations coordinator at Fraser Valley Youth.

“I think it’s definitely getting better and we’ve come an extremely long way. But still to this day, it’s tough for the kids.”

Still, looking around, he says the turnout pleasantly surprises him.

“Because I run a drop-in at Fraser Valley Youth, and hearing every day what they go through and how they’re treated, I didn’t expect to see half this many youth there today.”

With so much pressure on some Fraser Valley queer youth in their school years, it might be natural to wonder why many of them choose to stay after graduating.

Chutskoff says it can be a matter of finances or academics, but for some there’s an even higher purpose.

“You hear it all the time: ‘Oh, my cousin, my friend, my brother moved to Vancouver and got a boyfriend and now life is perfect,’” he says. “That’s not for everyone, not everyone has the ability to move out of this area. Unfortunately I’m one of those people who just can’t be in Vancouver.

“I might someday, but honestly, why would I leave a place like this when I know there’s people who are going through what I’ve gone through?” he asks.