3 min

Salt Spring’s first Pride

A weekend of celebration and serious questions

'It's not a first question here': Salt Spring islanders tend to be very accepting of their gay and lesbian neighbours, says 16-year-old Clare Lannan, who co-founded the island's gay-straight alliance. Credit: Robin Perelle photo

“We’re doing this majorly Salt Spring fashion,” says 16-year-old Clare Lannan, one of several organizers of the southern Gulf Island’s inaugural Pride weekend, Sep 10-11.

Lannan is sitting just steps away from the Saturday market’s first-ever Pride booth, its rainbow posters prominent among the regular displays of organic local cheese, produce and homemade crafts. The booth will be followed by an afternoon film festival at the ArtSpring theatre, a panel discussion, a dance at the Glass Onion and a picnic at Ruckle Park on Sunday.

“Just because we’re from a small community doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have a Pride celebration,” says local queer teacher Sarah Myers. There’s an active gay and lesbian community on Salt Spring, she continues; it shouldn’t have to go elsewhere to celebrate.

“It’s just really nice to have at home on the island,” agrees Myers’ partner Jill Alares. Victoria Pride is nice, she says, but you don’t get to see the familiar faces.

This is a more low-key, personal kind of Pride, says Salt Spring resident Karen Ferguson. “I’m a low-key, more personal kind of person.”

It’s “absolutely” necessary, Ferguson continues. It’s a chance for the local gay and lesbian community to come together and celebrate and reach out to the rest of the island.

By all accounts, the rest of the island is more than willing to reach back.

“This is a great place to be,” says Bill Turner, co-president of Gays and Lesbians of Salt Spring Island (GLOSSI) and sponsor of the local high school’s gay-straight alliance (GSA). “It’s a very warm and caring community.”

Turner retired here four years ago from New Westminster. “It’s very freeing,” he says. “I guess because Salt Spring is accepting of so many diverse people, so you feel you can trust your neighbours, your colleagues to honour who you are.”

Individuality is actually promoted here, he continues. There’s less need to conform on the island. “You can just be who you are.”

That’s not to say homophobia has been utterly eradicated from the island. Salt Spring is very accepting, says Lannan, but there’s “still an undertone of homophobia” in school.

That undertone became the main focus of the Pride festival’s panel discussion.

“It would be nice not to hear ‘gay’ used as an equivalent of stupid,” says 16-year-old Jacob Schweda, who co-founded the Gulf Islands Secondary School’s GSA with Lannan last year. “As young as Grade 4, kids are starting to use the word gay as an insult,” he says, referring to the common expression, ‘that’s so gay.’

“It sort of degrades you, wears you down,” he sighs earlier in the day, by the market Pride booth.

When challenged, many kids say they just mean the object of their scorn is boring or stupid. They don’t see it as a problem, Schweda says. “But if it hurts me then it’s a problem.”

Turner agrees. The kids who use that expression say it has nothing to do with sexuality “and that very well may be, but my heart goes out to those kids who are so ashamed, questioning their sexuality.

“They hear it day after day. They internalize that gay means dumb or stupid or less than others. And it’s that internalization of inadequacy that really gets to me. It damages people.”

Turner, Schweda, Lannan and their co-panellists grapple with the issue Saturday night, asking each other for ideas and the audience for support.

Teachers and parents need to teach their kids that it’s not okay to say ‘that’s so gay,'” Schweda insists.

Turner, a substitute teacher at the high school, says he always calls students on it when he hears them use that term, but it’s “very hit or miss” with other teachers.

It’s up to all teachers to consistently call their students on it, he says.

“We need to be the change that we would like to see,” says co-panellist and local author Evelyn White.

Don’t just ask others to do the work, she tells the audience. Lannan and Schweda have made it clear that there’s a problem at the local high school and middle school. So those of us who are gay and lesbian have to go to these schools, she says, personally promising to make herself available so these kids “can see a real live African-American lesbian.

“We can’t ask others to do our work for us!”

The panel receives a standing ovation.

It’s empowering, says audience member Travis Dorchak. It’s “good for us to have this, to get out in the community and say, ‘hello, we’re here.”

“It feels good,” agrees Schweda. “It feels like we’re supported.

“We’re in an environment where we can do so much because there’s so little resistance on Salt Spring,” he says. “I see this as a step towards being ourselves.”