The Fraser Valley’s growing pride

LGBTQ+ residents of the Fraser Valley may be receiving more support from the community at large, but there's still a long ways to go.

By Grace Kennedy | December 21, 2021 |5:25 am

Teri Westerby arrived in the Fraser Valley 10 years ago. He had heard it was the Bible Belt, a place known for its fundementalist Christian values and intolerance for people like him. But he came anyway, living in a trailer and working on a farm as he grappled with his own identity as a trans man.

Now, as president of the Chilliwack Pride Society and a peer facilitator with the Chilliwack Gender Support Network, Westerby said he has seen changes in how the Fraser Valley supports LGBTQ+ people.

“There has definitely been a huge shift in the past five years, just in the way that even the city itself portrays its acceptance of people of all diverse backgrounds and identities,” Westerby said. “Although we do have a long, long way to go.”

There is little concrete data about how many LGBTQ+ people live in the Fraser Valley, although there’s no reason to believe it is much different than other suburban and rural Canadian communities. (Half of all LGBTQ+ people live in only four Canadian cities.) The Canadian Community Health survey only began asking respondents detailed questions about their gender and sexual orientation in 2019, and has extremely variable estimates for the Fraser Valley. The Middle Years Development Instrument, which surveys students in Grades 4 through 8, allowed them to define their gender outside of “boy” or “girl” for the first time last year, and found that 5% of Fraser Valley students classified their gender in another way.

Across Canada, there are now around one million people identifying at LGBTQ+. While this is more than previous years, it doesn’t mean more people are gay, lesbian, queer, transgender, or two-spirited. Instead, it’s likely a result of the kinds of changes Westerby has seen happening in the Fraser Valley and that inspire more people to be their authentic selves.

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Around five years ago, Westerby joined the Chilliwack Gender Support Network, a group of trans men and women wanting to support each other as they transitioned. The network was connected to the Chilliwack Gender Care Clinic, which had been created by a doctor who had seen more trans people calling for care but had no local resources to help them. (The Chilliwack Gender Care Clinic is still running, and offers advice, support, and assessments to gender diverse, gender questioning, and transgender people of all ages.)

From there, the network and clinic’s committee started something new: Chilliwack’s first Pride event, held in 2019. It wasn’t the first event in the valley—that honour goes to the Fraser Valley Youth Society, which held the valley’s first Pride Parade in Abbotsford in 2013. (The organization had tried in 2008 but was shut down; it held anti-homophobia walks in the intervening years.)

The Chilliwack Pride event, organized as a family-friend BBQ, was more popular than Westerby had ever hoped, with nearly 700 coming out to attend the event. It has only grown in the following years, with the 2021 Pride event taking place in downtown Chilliwack this August. The event has welcomed LGBTQ+ grandparents, parents, children, and families, and has been an important part of showing parents of LGBTQ+ youth how positive their lives could be.

“They see not only other children having the same identity as their children, but parents, grandparents… with their family, living their lives happy and successful and healthy. They can relax with their children’s identity and support them. Love them more.”

But it’s not all rainbows in the Fraser Valley yet. When Westerby joined the Gender Support Network, it was at the height of the “Barry Neufeld garbage,” as he referred to Neufeld’s virulent opposition to the province’s SOGI 123 resource. That opposition was echoed by many in the community. (Read more on how Neufeld has impacted the Chilliwack School Board in our October story.) But many more also came out to support LGBTQ+ residents.

“It’s been a small group who were originally protesting, and now… the group is just exponentially larger,” he said. “When you stir the pot, you start to get people coming out from all over, realizing that what they [Neufeld] have to say— that’s not okay. And as a result we’re getting a lot of support from the community.”

There’s still a long way to go, Westerby said. Although there is a progressive majority on Chilliwack School Board—and the closest thing Chilliwack has had to a cultural referendum turned out in favour of the progressive candidate—Neufeld is still on the board, as are two other anti-SOGI trustees. Bylaws in both Chilliwack and Abbotsford do not allow the pride flag to be flown at city hall.

“We’re not over any particular bumps,” he said. “But we’re growing in numbers.”

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Grace Kennedy

Reporter at Fraser Valley Current

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