Squamish may be known to millions as a stop on the highway between Vancouver and Whistler, which is a sort of metaphor for some of the LGBT people living there.
“Squamish often struggles with its place in the world really, as most of us have growing up,” says Margo Dent, who has lived in the coastal community for 20 years. She helped found the Diversity Club at Howe Sound Secondary School.
Given the major Pride festivities in Vancouver and Whistler, Dent says, some in Squamish began to ask why their town didn’t have a parade.
“A parade just becomes a mock and gawk sometimes, especially in a small town, and we didn’t want that,” she says. “Members of the Diversity Club have long said they wish that people understood more and that they had more knowledge around all of this. So we thought, instead of a one-off parade, let’s have a conference.”
Last November, members and alumni of the club, with others in the community, founded the organization Safe ‘n Sound Squamish. The reaction sounds like every organizer’s dream. Businesses lined up to sponsor the conference — called “Someone Like Me” and slated for May 9 — and the library enthusiastically offered space and invited recommendations for books to order, Dent says.
The day-long conference is a real community event, open to all, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning individuals, their families, friends, allies, First Nation members, employers, social services providers, teachers, medical professionals, clergy, public officials, community leaders, business owners, therapists, and anyone else who sees value in the range of programming.
Workshops will deal with “queer competency training” for businesses and community members, human sexuality training for allies, educators and professionals in the field, and facilitated dialogues for youth and for their parents and family members. A “community resource alley” will be set up during lunch.
In just a few months, Dent and her committee pulled together all the requirements for both a fresh organization and its first conference — including headliner comedian Elvira Kurt.
(Above: Margo Dent has been a driving force in launching Safe ‘n Sound Squamish and the Diversity Club at Howe Sound Secondary School./Carlos Taylhardat photo. Top: Safe ‘n Sound cofounder David Thomson says the Diversity Club changed his life.)
Dent’s involvement stems from her commitment to youth and mental health. She has two now-grown kids and so does her partner. Together they are foster parents to four boys and an adult with Down syndrome.
“I had been at a conference in the summer of 2011 where they said that two out of three boys are targeted or teased for being gay, whether they’re gay or not,” Dent says. “That statistic really concerned me.”
She spoke to a counsellor at the local high school, they met the principal who was totally supportive and enlisted another teacher-mentor to found the Diversity Club.
“It was formed as a sort of GSA [gay-straight alliance] initially, but at the very first meeting we all determined that we wanted it to be more than about just LGBTQ issues because we deal with a lot of cultural, racial, socio-economic and a lot of other issues. But LGBTQ was certainly a huge issue and all three of the adult mentors are LGBTQ. At one of our meetings, I looked around and I knew that 16 out of 19 at the table for this after-school thing identified as LGBTQ.”
While Dent and her partner have always been comfortable in Squamish, things have not always been so easy for younger people, though she says that has markedly changed since the club was formed.
David Thomson just graduated from high school this spring. Before the Diversity Club was formed, he had a tough time.
“I didn’t know any out queer people in town and when I did come out, and I came out so young, I think it just put me in such a vulnerable place. It was met with a lot of violence from my peers,” he says. “Diversity Club changed everything. It really helped build those connections I didn’t have.”
Thomson was one of the founding members of Safe ‘n Sound and is on the planning committee for the upcoming conference.
“My number one goal with Safe ‘n Sound is that it just gives young queer members of our community a safe place to go and talk, and a place to know that it’s okay that they’re going through what they are. Even though some of their peers might not understand it, there are some who will,” Thomson says. “And that’s why I’ve been so involved with Safe ‘n Sound. I want a place where young people can go and feel validated.”
Safe ‘n Sound Squamish’s inaugural conference will take place on Saturday, May 9 from 10am to 4pm at Howe Sound Secondary, 38430 Buckley, in Squamish. Tickets $10 at safensoundsquamish.com