Mike Jan was so nervous about going to his first gay men’s discussion group he wore baggy pants.
“I wore baggy clothes because I thought that the men in the discussion group would sort of be all over each other,” he says, laughing at the memory.
Jan, the vice-president of Pink Triangle Services (PTS), came out in 1992. Back then he found gay people were virtually invisible in mainstream culture, so he didn’t know what to expect when he went to his first meeting at the Association of Lesbians, Gays and Bisexuals of Ottawa (ALGBO). Instead of predatory, oversexed men, he found his community. When ALGBO folded, PTS took over the men’s discussion group.
Founded in 1984, PTS was the first registered gay charity to get tax-exempt status in Canada. Thirty years later, it’s still thriving and will celebrate three decades of service to the LGBT community with a barbecue and open house on March 27.
To mark PTS’s 30th anniversary, Xtra spoke to Jan, executive director Claudia Van den Heuvel and former president Bruce Bursey about the organization’s history and its place in the community.
“Being gay was mostly being in the closet and mostly being marginalized,” says Bursey, as he remembers life in Ottawa 30 years ago. “At that time, it was just the beginning of acquiring rights as gay and lesbian people in Ontario and in Canada.”
Bursey attended PTS’s first fundraiser, in 1984, and remained a donor into the late 1990s. In addition to providing support for people who were coming out, PTS quickly responded to the devastating impact of AIDS in the community, he says.
“AIDS really dominated the ’80s into the early ’90s, and the marginalization became even more evident when health needs were not being met,” he says. “That’s really when the value of an organization like PTS became so evident and why it’s so important today. It speaks for the marginalized people, and it helps; it provides services when no one else does.”
PTS was instrumental in the creation of the AIDS Committee of Ottawa, he says, which was established in 1985. As drug treatments improved, Bursey and others turned their attention to other health issues in the community.
As a member of the five-person Wellness Project committee, spearheaded by Ottawa’s chief medical officer in 1999 to identify health needs in the queer community, Bursey helped to provide evidence of the diversity of the formally “gay and lesbian” community and its needs. The Wellness Project’s findings helped organizations like PTS to set up evidence-based programs to serve the community, he says.
From 2001 to 2004, Bursey served as a PTS board member, vice-president and then president. During that time, PTS secured municipal funding, which remains an important component of the organization’s financial stability to this day, he says.
In 2006, when Van den Heuvel joined PTS as an office assistant, the organization expanded its mission statement beyond “gay and lesbian” to include “bi, trans, two-spirit and queer” to reflect the communities it was already serving, she says, adding that PTS continues to update its programming.
“Our community, as we move along, we define different segments of our population,” Van den Heuvel says. “Over the last two years, people of colour have become a priority; refugee and immigrant services is also a priority. More connection with the kink and BDSM community has also been an emphasis.”
For Jan, PTS continues to be the safe space he found 20 years ago when he was adjusting to life as an out gay man.
“We knew that we had support, and we were somewhere where we didn't have to worry about what we wore, how we acted, what we said,” Jan says. “If people wanted to be flamboyant, they could. If people wanted to wear feather boas, they could.”
Although Bursey now lives in Kingston, he says all present and former supporters, volunteers and staff share in the achievement of PTS’s 30th anniversary.
“There are hundreds and hundreds of people who share in that story,” Bursey says. “That’s the power of change, the power of an institution and the power of community. I’m proud to have been part of PTS.”