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Meet Vancouver Pride’s grand marshals

Parade to honour PFLAG moms, a youth activist and the founder of Montenegro's gay movement

The moms of Vancouver PFLAG: Susan Harman, Karin Lind and Aideen McKenna. Credit: Leah Bromley

The Vancouver Pride Society (VPS) announced its 2013 parade grand marshals May 30, after a two-month public nomination call.

“The reason that we picked these grand marshals in particular was because we were looking to bring in an intergenerational and intercultural perspective,” says VPS general manager Ray Lam.

“What we wanted to do was to show that Pride is more than just a party,” he says. “It’s a movement, and these people are the faces of that movement.”

This year’s grand marshals are the moms of the Vancouver chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG); gay youth activist Brandon Timmerman, who founded the first Pride in Brockville, Ontario; and Zdravko Cimbaljevic, the founder of the LGBT Forum Progress, often referred to as the first openly gay man in Montenegro.

“We picked the moms of PFLAG because earlier this year Jeanne Manford, the founder of PFLAG and the mom that started it all, passed away,” Lam explains. “We thought it would be a great opportunity to recognize not only the work that she’s done, but the work that these moms are doing in Vancouver and how they’ve taken this huge international movement and really created something special in Vancouver.”

“We are all stunned . . . My god! It’s fabulous,” says 70-year-old Karin Lind. “I feel very honoured.”

“You just want your child to be happy,” she says. “My son came out at the end of high school, and he handed me the [PFLAG] telephone number and said, ‘You should call.'”

“I was okay with my son [being gay], but not everyone in the family was,” Lind admits.

“People feel isolated when their children come out,” says 75-year-old mom Aideen McKenna. “Their children come out of the closet and often parents go in the closet.”

“Sometimes it feels like one step forward and two steps back,” she says. “But we’ll get there.”

McKenna says PFLAG is still a valued resource, especially among parents and families of transgender people.

“It isn’t so much the LGB part right now; it’s more the parents and families of transgender individuals that call us now,” she says.

“We had thought that maybe in Vancouver PFLAG was no longer needed,” Lind says. “But now we know otherwise.”

McKenna says membership has been low in the last few years, but recently more volunteers have stepped up.

Susan Harman, 65, says she joined PFLAG after witnessing the homophobia that her son endured in her community. “It was fine for me that he was gay,” she says. “But I was filled with incredible sadness that he felt he couldn’t have told me years ago.”

“I grieved the situation he had in high school,” says Harman, whose son came out at the end of Grade 12. “I thought: no wonder why he didn’t go to any school dances, no wonder why he didn’t join any clubs.”

Harman, a retired educator, encourages parents to love their children, no matter who they love. “If you can give your youth a safe and secure home and show that you are accepting of them, then you will have a rich life,” she says.

“The alternative,” she adds, “is that a parent loses their child.”

Colin McKenna, president of PFLAG and Aideen’s son, nominated the moms.

“I really wanted to make sure that the community knew about them. They are not famous, but the work they do is important,” he tells Xtra.

McKenna says he gathered 160 signatures from people wanting to get the moms on the grand marshal nomination list.

“PFLAG Vancouver has its ebbs and flows, but it’s trying to reinvent itself,” he adds. “We’re looking into expanding. We want to build more services to help support the parents in some of the ethnic communities that are challenged.”

McKenna believes that rural communities like Abbotsford need PFLAG chapters, too.

Brandon Timmerman, 18, knows firsthand about the need for gay resources and advocacy in small towns. The gay teen has been actively bringing Pride to the forefront in Brockville, Ontario, for the past three years.

Timmerman was only 16 years old when he organized the town’s first Pride parade, attracting about 500 participants.

Now Brockville has begun to sport Pride flags outside local businesses, and July 20 has been declared a Local Day of Tolerance and Acceptance in the town of almost 22,000.

“It’s just inspiring to have someone at that age taking up the cause and really showcasing the queer community and making it friendlier,” Lam says.

For Timmerman, who says he is “in shock” about being named a grand marshal, the decision to bring Pride to his town was inspired by personal tragedy.

“In 2010 I lost one of my best friends. She killed herself because of issues with her sexuality. She was bisexual,” he says.

“No one should be discriminated against for holding the same gender’s hand,” he says. “No one should be discriminated against for being human.”

Also being honoured this year for his activism on the international stage is Zdravko Cimbaljevic.

“One of the reasons that we decided to pick [Cimbaljevic] was to show that while we are in a really comfortable place in Vancouver, it’s not the same everywhere,” Lam says. “It’s not the same in Brockville and it’s not the same in Montenegro. There is still a lot of work to be done.”

Cimbaljevic agrees.

“I have been attacked and punched, and that’s why I came out. I came out so that I can be protected,” he says.

The founder of Montenegro’s modern gay movement, and executive director of its LGBT Forum Progress, says he feels safer in the capital since coming out three years ago. But rural towns and smaller cities still need to catch up, he says.

“In my hometown I was at a bar and someone threw a glass ashtray at me,” he says.

Cimbaljevic says his parents haven’t spoken to him since he came out.

Yet despite the hardship he has faced, he says he wouldn’t change a thing.

“When I came out, I felt relief. I am happy about finally not having to hide my sexual orientation,” he says. “I am proud.”

“But with pride comes danger and stress and threats,” he admits.

“Don’t be afraid of allies because they can help us in this movement,” he urges gay people around the world who are struggling to come out. “And be very proud of yourselves.”

This year’s Vancouver Pride parade takes place Sunday, Aug 4.