The Victoria Pride Society started as a casual picnic in Beacon Hill Park over 20 years ago, and it’s now the host of one of Canada’s largest Pride Weeks, including the annual “Big Gay Dog Walk,” the infamous “Dragball” event, and the parade. This year’s parade boasted over 100 floats and participants, starting from Pandora Avenue and leading to the culminating festival in MacDonald Park.
Robyn Thomas and I had the opportunity to attend the Victoria Pride Festival on behalf of the Stigma-Free Society. Setting up our booth at 10:00 a.m. on Sunday, July 8, the park was already bustling with vendors and eager attendees, decked out in the colours of the rainbow flag.
Stigma-Free was among a wonderfully diverse and eclectic range of vendors, including health care resources, political parties, local non-profits, and some very proud puppies from the Humane Society.
We asked passers-by to contribute to a community conceptualization on “What a Stigma-Free Zone means to you,” which was met with creativity and enthusiasm by individuals of all ages eagerly brandishing rainbow markers. Some of the suggestions included self-love, readiness to learn, education, and awareness.
Towards the end of the day, I took the opportunity to speak to other vendors and festival attendees about stigma in the Queer community.
Asking about what stigmas exist and persist for the LGBTQ+ community, most people were overwhelmed. Many alluded to stigmas that exist within the community, noting that a white, cis-gendered, misogynistic narrative is often problematic.
One group spoke to the way stigmas that were once outright and offensive towards Queer folks are now hidden under the surface of conversations and interactions. They added that these hidden stigmas are often almost as debilitating as the more overt oppression and hatred they faced in the 80’s and 90’s.
A nurse at the BC Nurses Association tent also highlighted the generational impacts of stigma, praising the positive youth approach to queer identities, but adding,
“Those of us in our 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s — many of us are still in the closet, there’s still fear there.”
The nurse emphasized the importance of inter-generational learning and collaboration for stigma-reduction.
While many attendees noted progress that’s still needed to create safer, Stigma-Free Queer communities, they also expressed their gratitude for events like Pride. When I asked what would be important for Queer-friendly Stigma-Free Zones, folks asked for body positivity, accessibility for all, and active inclusion of people of colour, and non-binary and trans identities.
I also had the opportunity to talk to Jonathan Degenhardt, Men’s Wellness Programs Coordinator at AIDS Vancouver Island. AVI works closely with the Queer community, promoting sexual health and harm reduction around HIV/AIDS, with an emphasis on anti-stigma messaging. Jonathan aims to create safer spaces in his workplace by making programs as low-barrier as possible, identifying that the men who come seeking HIV/AIDS support may also be dealing with social isolation, financial hardships, and disabilities.
When I asked Jonathan about how stigma affects the Queer community, he identified that Pride festivals are often very able-bodied events — the grass festival grounds, for example, made part of Victoria Pride inaccessible for those in wheelchairs.
However, Jonathan emphasized that there is gradual progress towards more diversity and acceptance is in the LGBTQ+ community, adding “I’ve attended five Pride events [in Victoria], and tiny changes are happening — there were tons of trans flags up this year, which was a great sign, but it’s a slow process.”
“In order to offer a safer space, it takes challenging conversations, ongoing education, flexibility, and humility,” said Jonathan.
As we expand our reach as a Society into diverse and intersectional stigmas that branch out from Stigma-Free’s mental health background, the LGBTQ+ community in Victoria is one that we are incredibly proud to partner with. Stigma-Free is looking forward to more work with Queer activists of all genders, races, abilities, shapes, and sizes. We’re excited to develop the Stigma-Free Zone movement to serve the diversity of the Victoria community.
Author, Katie Clarke, Community Outreach Assistant, Stigma-Free Society