I knew I was part of something special from the moment the Priscilla Express pulled away from the curb.
Despite the early weekend hour, the rain and the limited number of shopping days left before Christmas, about 40 queers sit around me on a school bus now bound for Abbotsford, with the promise of more carpools to come.
“Welcome aboard the queer express,” shouts The Centre’s Jennifer Breakspear as we hit the road, rainbow flag and all, to enthusiastic applause.
The excited chatter soon gives way to talk of doing more together.
This road trip is the “first threeway” between The Centre, the Vancouver Pride Society and Out on Screen, Drew Dennis points out.
Soon Dennis, Breakspear and the Pride Society’s Caryl Dolinko are talking about meeting regularly, sharing resources, maybe even space.
Incredible, I think, smiling as the bus rolls into the Valley. I am witnessing a moment, a connection, a significant step forward in cooperation and community building. And we’re not even at our destination yet!
We exit the highway shortly before 11 am. “Heads up, Abbotsford!” yells one of my busmates.
“Is this Abbotsford?” asks another, craning to see what the only district to withdraw Social Justice 12 from students eager to take the class looks like. “It looks like a church with a cross,” laughs Dennis.
We file off the bus and join a group of local queers and allies nervously milling around. Soon we’re marching, spanning a long Abbotsford block, waving rainbows and bearing signs such as “Censorship causes blindness” and “Bring back Social Justice 12, Abbotsford needs it.”
As hundreds of queers and allies parade visibly and loudly through Abbotsford, one man scowls silently from his front porch but others smile and wave and I lose track of how many people honk their horns supportively.
Dolinko joins me excitedly. “I think the response is really surprising,” she says, telling me about some kids she just saw clapping. “It starts with the kids,” she says.
As we troop together towards the overpass, a highway sign informs me that Hope lies directly ahead. Damn right it does, I think.
Suddenly we see another group of what seems to be hundreds of people a block ahead, seemingly waiting for us. A ripple runs through the crowd. Are we finally about to run into opposition, some wonder, tensing for trouble.
Then I see their signs. “No tolerance for intolerance,” reads one.
It’s the other half of our march, the people who followed the city’s last-minute directive to change the route for “safety” purposes. Undaunted and undeterred, our group marched the original route; now the two groups converge and emerge stronger than ever.
“Rally in the Valley for Social Justice 12!” someone yells. The chant quickly spreads through the swollen ranks as we march by a long line of cars. Many drivers stare straight ahead. One honks.
We make it to the University of the Fraser Valley without incident. “I never expected it would be so big,” marvels 16-year-old Chantell Gregg as she surveys the crowd she helped mobilize. It was Gregg’s initiative to call for a Pride parade in Abbotsford after the district pulled the course in September. Now here we are.
“We’re just here being beautiful,” she tells the crowd to thunderous applause. “We’re being us.”
“I feel privileged to be part of such a powerful political moment,” says Martha Dow, a local lesbian professor at the university.
So do I.
“Are we witnessing a moment here?” I ask Dow afterwards.
Absolutely, she says.
Usually Abbotsford queers wear their Pride quietly, Dow explains, but now here we are, being vocal. “It’s something Abbotsford has never seen.
“We may have called this a social justice rally;” she says, “this is a Pride parade. The Pride out here is palpable.”
She’s right, I can feel it. And it feels great.
I get back on the bus feeling energized, moved to have been part of such a moment. Watching a community find its voice, declare its presence, refuse to back down. It’s an incredible moment.
What better way to celebrate Xtra West’s 400th issue of sharing our community’s stories and nurturing our strength than to celebrate our continued growth locally, in Abbotsford and beyond?
It truly is a privilege and a pleasure.
Here’s to another 400 issues of growing together.