As back-to-school ads clog the airwaves, university and college queer groups across the Lower Mainland prepare for a more ambitious goal than flogging the latest in binders and corduroys, namely, greeting a fresh roster of first-year students.
Mirroring the diversity of incoming frosh, queer resources at Vancouver schools vary from barely off the ground to sophisticated student organizations. And queer students who have been there say good queer resources cannot only make or break that first year, but impact a person for life.
“I doubt I’d be where I am today in my transition if it weren’t for Out on Campus (OOC),” says transgendered Simon Fraser University student Emily Sors.
In her fourth year studying information technology at SFU’s satellite campus in Surrey, Sors started making the trek to the school’s main campus in Burnaby during her second year studying information technology so she could access OOC.
“Talking with other trans people helped me accept myself more…[OOC] was my place to be myself. It gave me the strength to step outside Out on Campus to SFU dressed in girl mode and beyond SFU,” says Sors.
Last September, Sors, who is not out to her parents, moved out of her family home in Surrey, so she could more easily and comfortably live as a woman.
For Derek Eidick, coming out was “not really an option” at his Catholic high school in southern Alberta. When he came to the University of British Columbia, Eidick was out to a select few, but that changed after he started attending Pride UBC’s Monday night discussion group.
“It was my first time away from home…it was the first time I met people who were out and I didn’t have to worry about being out,” says Eidick, who is now a Pride UBC co-chair.
Such a support system is lacking at the British Columbia Institute of Technology, says BCIT programming and special events coordinator Michael Van Lane. Though BCIT Take Pride was founded 15 years ago, it hasn’t operated consistently, which has resulted in a lack of visibility.
“It’s not a very queer-friendly campus,” says Van Lane, who has taken on the task of ensuring students are aware Take Pride exists and creating a safe space for queer students. His ultimate goal is to hand over the reigns of Take Pride to students once it gains steam.
Van Lane doesn’t know of any overtly homophobic incidents that happened on campus since he started working there last year, but he says there’s nothing that reflects the needs of queer students.
“You don’t get that feeling that you can be out,” he says. “There’s not a rainbow to be found anywhere.” So far, Van Lane’s marketing strategy for Take Pride includes placing a postcard with his contact information in every student orientation package; a first for BCIT.
A former coordinator for Out on Screen, Van Lane is hoping Technically Queer, a campus screening of documentaries tentatively scheduled for Sep 30, will help increase awareness of and interest in Take Pride. About nine students, mainly lesbians, attended a similar event last year. “It’s certainly a start,” says Van Lane, who is also heading up a BCIT team for the Sep 25 AIDS Walk.
What tips do seasoned students have for this year’s newcomers?
SFU student Ryan Kraft spent the better part of his first summer in Vancouver at Out on Campus after transferring to SFU from York University in Toronto two years ago. Though he says SFU campus is safe, he advises frosh will feel more comfortable if they take advantage of campus tours and note where emergency phones are located. However, with recent cougar and bear sightings on the mountaintop campus, Kraft says wild animals “are a bigger worry to me.”
Meanwhile, at UBC, Eidick says safety is variable, noting that students in traditionally “male hetero” faculties like engineering may not feel as comfortable coming out.
Though Eidick’s experience living in student housing was a positive one, he suggests it’s not the same for everyone and depends on who your roommates are.
Knowing where the campus equity office is located is key, as that’s where students can go to complain if they are being harassed, be it in housing or by a professor.
Off campus, safety can be a little trickier. Though he generally finds Vancouver “open-minded”, Kraft won’t go to Stanley Park alone, day or night. Some straight bars should also be approached with caution, he says.
“I went to the Blarney Stone a while ago in Gastown. I don’t know if I was the only gay person there, but I was dancing and grinding with one of my [female] friends and there was a table of people next to us saying ‘Isn’t he gay? What’s he doing dancing with a girl? Why’s he dancing with her?’ And that’s just ignorant.”
Favourite off-campus haunts are English Bay and the gaybourhood along Davie Street, while burbs like Surrey and Langley on the other hand are not, says Kraft. Indeed, Sors is working to extend OOC services to SFU’s “more conservative” Surrey campus. Though his posters have been ripped down there, Sors says she has had plenty of positive support from students.
Most importantly, Sors, Kraft and Eidick encourage new students to check out their respective on-campus queer groups and centres. For those not out yet, Sors says not to worry. Contacting OOC by e-mail is always an option for those who want to maintain some anonymity.
Whether it’s your campus queer group or other student clubs, Eidick says it’s important to “do something that’s non-academic.” Eidick also encourages students to be aware of their school’s politics. “Then you have a voice. You can affect change and make a difference,” says Eidick.
Kraft agrees. “Get involved because it’s one of the most important things to be in university is to be involved, meet a wide variety of people. Come to our events, go out to the gaybourhood and see that sex and marriage are not the only things about the community.”