Angela Heenan, an alternative secondary school teacher in Quesnel, may be straight but she's the driving force behind the North Cariboo town's first Pride parade.
Why? She recalls how a handful of LGBT students came out to her, calling the experiences "eye-opening".
In the 1990s, a young man came out to her through a piece of writing, she told the Georgia Straight by phone, when the school had a counsellor who was homophobic. Another male student told her that if he didn't have her to talk to, he would've committed suicide. Last summer, a former grade 7 female student came out to her and talked with her about how it's difficult for LGBT people to come out in a small town.
Heenan, who has been a teacher for 25 years, is also a social justice representative for School District 28, which has a sexual orientation and gender identity policy.
She thinks Quesnel has been "sheltered" in the past but has become increasingly tolerant over the past decade. But she feels now is the right time for the town, with a population of about 10,000 citizens, to raise awareness of LGBT people.
"We have to help them to be able to be themselves and to have the courage…to come out and not be scared and hide," she said.
The parade, approved by city council, will take place on June 6 at 2 p.m. and will travel through the downtown core, with a celebration in a park with music and food. She hopes it will provide LGBT people with social networking opportunities in person. (There is an LGBTQ Quesnel Facebook group with over 400 "likes".)
Even Vancouver–West End MLA Spencer Chandra Herbert, who is gay, will be attending the event on his own expense.
Heenan, who has been meeting with the city since last August about the event and now has a six-person committee, said it will be a walking parade, without vehicles or floats, for the inaugural edition.
"I don't want it to be overwhelming for people here," she said. "I think we just need to start small and grow bigger."
Her cautious approach is warranted. When she visited businesses to inform them about the parade route and to ask for sponsorship, the majority of the response was supportive. However, not all of it has been so.
One business owner was angry about it and she has received comments such as "Why would you want to do that? Are you crazy?"
"When there is the odd person who says, 'Well, what's the point of this? I don't even know why these people choose to do this', I need to find a better way to respond to those people," she said.
As a precaution, the city manager has requested extra RCMP to be on duty on parade day.
Heenan does think it's "fantastic" that there are more Pride parades and LGBT initiatives emerging across British Columbia outside larger cities, which have traditionally been migration destinations for LGBT youth who want to come out.
Increasing acceptance in towns like Quesnel, as well as suburbs, will help LGBT youth feel that they don't necessarily have to leave home to be themselves.
"Kids feel that they need to move to bigger centre, whether they want to or not, just to feel like…they fit in," Heenan said. "Our kids in smaller centres feel so…very isolated and like they have no one to go to."
Most of all, she wants to keep the parade idea fun and positive, and she said kids are "really excited about it"—and not just those who are LGBT.
"Kids in this city right now are way more accepting than most adults and I want them to be able to pick up the torch and lead the way kind-of-thing," she said. "That's my whole inspiration. It's just for them."
This article is the first part of a series looking at new LGBT initiatives across British Columbia. See the sidebar for links to the other articles in the series.