When Raymond Covenant moved from Burnaby to Abbotsford three years ago, he expected the worst.
“At that time, I thought that I had just locked myself back in the closet by moving into the heart of the Bible belt, just based on everything that I had heard,” the openly gay man said by phone.
Much to his surprise, he said his experience has been “very, very positive”; he found the city to be a very diverse, welcoming, and “live and let live” community.
As an organizer of the Fraser Valley Pride Celebration (held from July 17 to 19) and program coordinator for the Fraser Valley Youth Society (which organizes weekly drop-ins for LGBT youth and allies in Abbotsford, Mission, and Chilliwack), he was also pleased by Abbotsford council’s unanimous decision on June 15 to fly the Pride flag on July 13 for Pride Week.
“Something like the raising of this flag expresses a level of support from the local government that reflects a society that truly embraces and supports diversity, and I think that’s incredibly valuable for our young people,” he said. “I certainly wish I had something like that when I was that age.”
After a member of their LGBT group Out in the Valley submitted a request in June to fly the Pride flag for the week for the first time, council agreed to fly the flag “in the absence of any policy to say otherwise”.
However, on the same day the flag was raised, city council also adopted an official flag protocol. City manager George Murray said by phone that the rainbow flag, like many other interest-group flags, now does not qualify to be flown in the future.
Meanwhile, the Valley’s conservatism remains apparent in Langley-based Trinity Western University’s launch of the country’s first Christian law school. The university’s covenant, which prohibits sex outside of heterosexual marriage, sparked an ongoing, nationwide legal debate about religious versus LGBT rights.
Nonetheless, social progress remains resilient.
What began as a protest in 2008 against the Abbotsford school board’s refusal to offer a Grade 12 social-justice course turned into antihomophobia marches. The first Pride parade took place in 2013.
Out in the Valley, which began as the social network Out in Chilliwack, cohosted the Fraser Valley Pride Celebration this year for the first time and expanded the event to three days.
Health Initiative for Men also opened its first men’s sexual-health clinic in Abbotsford, on June 1.
In an interview at the Roundhouse Community Centre, HIM executive director Greg Oudman said that when they conducted a survey in Abbotsford to determine the needs of the area, they were surprised by the “robust” response. They also discovered that the needs of men in the Fraser Valley were different than those in Vancouver.
“What people were saying to us is that ‘We’re not identifying the same way that gay guys are identifying in the West End in Vancouver so we’d like services to be…more subtle, potentially,’ and just respectful of their place in the community,” he said.
Covenant pointed out that such services opening up in places like Abbotsford help to reach LGBT populations who might not be able to utilize services concentrated in Vancouver’s West End.
“Abbotsford is becoming the hub of resources for people, honestly, as far away as Boston Bar and all up the Fraser Canyon as well as all over the Tri-Cities east, because there really are no other places where these resources are…publicly accessible,” he said.