Ander Gates chose his graduation ceremony to come out publicly to his classmates and to the village of Masset in Haida Gwaii, BC, population 864.
“In a small town, everyone comes to graduation,” the trans man explains. He wore a suit to accept an LGBT bursary offered by two local openly queer nurses. He had applied thinking that since there were only 20 people in his class, his odds of winning were high.
“I wore a suit and I stood in the back row with the boys. There was a front row with girls in dresses.”
Though some students gave him a hard time and objected that he was “ruining graduation,” his teachers were very supportive.
Through the application process, his parents and some of his teachers became aware that he was questioning his gender, although most of his classmates were clueless.
“I started going to school dressed as a boy sometimes,” he says, laughing. “People just thought I was having a sloppy day. They didn’t understand what it was.”
More than his detractors, Gates remembers his cheerleaders and says the support he received has motivated him to give back and support other youth and the queer and trans community.
The 24-year-old now organizes cabarets featuring drag, dance, burlesque, music and poetry every few months at the Purple Thistle, a youth-driven arts and activism centre on Commercial Drive.
“They’re a space for youth to see and perform drag. Most of the venues where drag and burlesque are performed are spaces where youth can’t go,” he points out. “We support a lot of emerging young drag artists.”
When he’s not creating youth performance spaces, Gates facilitates workshops with Qmunity’s Gab youth program and with Vancouver Coastal Health’s Condomania, a program designed to shape positive attitudes around sexual health.
“We have had lots of workshops where, afterward, a student comes up to us and comes out, or thanks us. It’s rewarding to know that we’re making a difference.”
Three years after moving to Vancouver in 2007, Gates responded to an open call to help organize the Trans and Genderqueer Liberation and Celebration March. He’s been involved with the march ever since.
“We’re kind of a group that doesn’t have a lot of visibility or focus in the larger [Pride] march or in queer organizing in general,” he says.
“It’s also very [do-it-yourself] and anti-corporate. It doesn’t have any banks marching in it. It has more of a political edge.”