Surrey isn’t an easy place to be queer.
It’s known as a conservative town where there aren’t any gay neighbourhoods or venues. Public displays of same-sex affection aren’t common.
But often overlooked are the many positive things that Jen Marchbank says are going on.
In an interview at her SFU Surrey campus office, the associate professor of gender, sexuality, and women’s studies emphasized that the city has a vibrant tradition of fighting for gay, lesbian, and transgender rights.
“There are some very good examples of activism in Surrey,” Marchbank told the Georgia Straight.
These include the campaign leading to a 2002 ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada that overturned the Surrey school board’s ban on books depicting families with gay parents.
Martin Rooney, an advocate for LGBT rights, and other activists organized a gay dance party in the city in 1998 to raise funds to oppose the school board’s prohibition. The event led to the first Pride festival later the same year. Rooney also fought the U.S. government’s travel restriction on people with HIV, a 22-year policy that was finally scrapped in 2009.
Surrey has a living legacy of activism that Marchbank is a big part of. She is a former president of the Surrey Pride Society. Marchbank and her wife, Sylvia Traphan, cofounded and act as facilitators with Youth for a Change, a group of activist queer youth. Another organization, the Surrey Youth Alliance, runs a drop-in centre that provides a safe place for LGBT people.
With the support of the municipal government, Marchbank and Rooney mounted visual-arts exhibits at city hall last year and this year to celebrate the community’s proud history.
In 2013, the Surrey school board adopted an antihomophobia policy. Openly lesbian politician Vera LeFranc is in her first term as a city councillor.
City hall has yet to agree to fly the Pride flag. Marchbank is hopeful this will happen one day. She’d also like to see more youth shelters.
Activist Alex Sangha estimates there could be anywhere between 25,000 and 50,000 nonheterosexuals in the city of half a million people. He suggested that the city may want to create a committee of citizens to advise the municipal government about programs and services for the LGBT community.
“From a social perspective, they need to consult because the LGBT youth are at a very high risk of suicide, depression, alienation, isolation, [and] loneliness,” Sangha told the Straight by phone.
Sangha’s group Sher Vancouver provides support to LGBT people of South Asian and other cultural backgrounds.
Leading up to this year’s Pride celebration, Marchbank and Youth for a Change put up an art installation in a wooded area called the Grove, in the Newton neighbourhood. She told the youth not to be shocked if the display was vandalized. It wasn’t. They were there for many nights putting up more art, and people dropped by for warm chats with them.
“The city isn’t as redneck as we’d think,” Marchbank said about this experience. “I mean, there’s bigots everywhere. And now I’m pleasantly surprised how well that’s [the art project has] been received.”