When Clarke Fryer launched an email list to offer support for gay people in Chilliwack, he didn’t know how many people, if any, would respond.
“People said there needed to be something, and there was nothing, so I decided to go for it and make something,” says Fryer, who moved back to Chilliwack in May after living in Vancouver for four years. “It was never supposed to be this big.”
Out in Chilliwack now meets weekly, offering a place to gather for gays and lesbians in an area with no gay bars or clubs.
It’s not Fryer’s first time organizing a gay group. He launched a gay-straight alliance when he was in high school in Chilliwack.
Now he promotes Out in Chilliwack in the local newspaper, on the radio and on TV, and he has launched a website, tweeted, put up posters in recreation centres and started a Facebook group, which boasts 77 members.
The group of men and women aged 16 to 60 initially met in February every other week. But in March, the group began meeting every Sunday from 6 to 9pm, alternating between the café Sips ‘n’ Sweets and — for those uncomfortable attending a gay group in public — at a member’s home.
At a recent meeting, 25 people were spread throughout the living room, dining room and kitchen of a home on a quiet street. Uproarious laugher boomed intermittently from the dining room, where seven people played the card game Cheat. Others snacked and gabbed in the kitchen. In the living room, one guest cuddled with a dog on the couch, and five teenagers chatted.
“Everybody’s pretty cool and open here,” says Sienna Barnett, 16. “You don’t have to deal with anyone being an ass.”
Les Bohna, 51, says it’s hard to meet gay people in the Valley. “When you’re out here, in Grindr the people are 30 miles away.”
The group is a good alternative to web-based introductions, he says. “It’s more community or social-skilled based.”
But, he adds, “I don’t think this is a dating group. If that happens, there’s no law (against it).”
Zylstra Artz, 45, who has been to five gatherings, says she likes socializing, networking and supporting people who are just coming out.
Jim Nickerson, 53, says he generally has a hard time finding compatible friends, as he’s in a wheelchair. But he feels welcome at Out in Chilliwack.
Christianne Coopman, 63, hosts every other meeting at her home, while her husband works in his motorbike shop.
Fryer says Coopman was one of the first people to write him when he launched the email support list. She praised his effort and offered to help.
She says she supports the group because Chilliwack, influenced by Christian churches, tends to be intolerant. Growing up in Belgium, Coopman had gay friends, and people didn’t care about sexual orientation, she says. “The church doesn’t play such a big role there.”
Some of her friends here have gay children, she adds, and her daughter “doesn’t know if she’s straight or bisexual.”
The group is also moving into social activism.
Parween Irani, 38, a teacher at Sardis Secondary School and member of Out in Chilliwack, says she’d like to see the group help push to have the school’s bullying policy specifically ban bullying against lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans students.
“We’re a very conservative community,” she says. “Change is happening, but it’s moving at a glacial pace.”
Just a few months old, the group plans to launch a pilot gay social group in Abbottsford and participate in the Vancouver Pride parade in August, Fryer says.
“I work quickly because I’m one of those people who hates waiting for things,” he says.