‘The people I’ve been missing all my life’: The forgotten history of the Pride Collective

Tucked away on the Nest’s second floor lives a monument to decades of disobedience, perseverance and hope. The space, lined with bright flags and eye-catching posters, whispers of times gone by. All around lie hints of a history filled with victories, sadness, liberation and perseverance. Organized under many names over many years, we now know them as the Pride Collective, a resource group fuelled by the very same motivation of their founders: to create and maintain a space for lasting community at UBC.

A secretive start

With each passing decade, a new cohort of dedicated students has taken up the torch.

Vancouver holds deep ties to the gay liberation movement — it has been the founding place of many important groups such as the Association for Social Knowledge and the first chapter of the Gay Alliance Towards Equality.

This emergence of gay liberation organizations in Vancouver caused many at UBC to look around campus to see if they couldn’t get something started as well.

The first form of the Pride Collective can be traced back to a group called the Gay Liberation Front, with its first meeting held in October 1971. This meeting was to discuss if gay people on campus “want to overcome their alienation and repression,” as reported in The Ubyssey's October 15, 1971 issue. Late October saw the group softening their public image as they began to meet under the name ‘Gay People’s Alliance.’ From there, meetings were held weekly in the Student Union Building (SUB). Advertisements taken out in The Ubyssey show the meetings ranged from coffee houses to organizational discussions. Notably, the club also advertised in The Ubyssey’s November 26, 1971 issue that they had a mailbox and telephone for those wishing to write or call “a homosexual.”

Despite its very public presence on campus, very little can be found about the organization’s creation or early days. The original members of the club came together anonymously and due to the lack of a membership roster, their names have been lost to time. Maintaining membership anonymity was common in early queer organizations as many members wouldn’t have been ‘out’ in society and therefore would not want a recorded affiliation with a gay organization.

“The overriding fact of a young person who was queer in those years was that you were a criminal. Under the Criminal Code of Canada, you were a criminal. You knew that from the time that you first identified yourself, your sexuality, that the life you would like to be leading was going to bring down upon you the full weight of the Criminal Code, the full weight of public shame, of the potential loss of your family and your friends. Certainly, you would never work or never have a job where you have a potential for advancement,” said Ron Dutton, founder of the BC Gay and Lesbian Archives, which is housed in the City of Vancouver Archives.

“The loss of that anonymity would result in bringing down upon you a level of violence, [both] psychological and physical, that you had no recourse [for] ... And most people aren’t prepared to take on that public role. So the organizations, in the early days, student organizations are themselves really closeted.”

This sentiment, potentially foreign to some members of the queer community now, was unfortunately common for queer youth of the time.

“The phrase we use to have was, ‘You don’t tell somebody that you’re gay until you’re willing to lose them,’” said Gerald Williams, a club member from 1988 to 1991.

While activism and gay liberation were critical parts of the club's founding, a need for community-building proved just as important. In meeting notices posted in The Ubyssey's October 22, 1971 issue, The Gay People’s Alliance used events like coffeehouses and drop-in meetings to “connect gays who want to meet their brothers and sisters on campus.”

Only a few years after its inception, the group that began as the Gay Liberation Front cycled through a few names — Gay People’s Alliance, UBC Gay Alliance Towards Equality Club — before settling on Gay People of UBC in 1973.

“We just, at the time, thought the name was inclusive [and] included everybody,” said Kevin Griffin, club member in 1980. “But in fact, it didn’t.”

Attempts to increase inclusivity saw the title become “Gays and Lesbians of UBC” in 1982, “Gays, Lesbians, and Bisexuals of UBC” in 1994 and finally the umbrella name “Pride UBC” in 1997.

Back in 1973, Gay People of UBC continued club traditions with coffeehouse events and weekly events, but also worked to expand their functional scope. Efforts included bringing in speakers to give presentations on gay issues, complementing discussions between club members during meetings.

“There was always something different,” said Tim Stevenson, club president in 1979, Canada’s first openly gay minister and BC’s first openly gay member of legislative assembly.

“It became a fabulous place to socialize and meet.”

As the culture around gay acceptance changed, the club held more ambitious events to broadcast a message of support and acceptance. By the 1980s, the club began hosting “Gay and Lesbian Week,” later called “OUT Week.” Events during the week featured queer speakers, activities, faculty wine and cheese nights as well as workshops. Many years saw the Engineers’ Cairn done over with pink or rainbow paint.

['auto'] Courtesy BC Gay and Lesbian Archives

The end of Gay and Lesbian Week always culminated in the Valentine’s Day dance. Historically, dances were always the largest and most controversial of the club’s events.

Letters submitted to The Ubyssey recount issues like straight people sneaking in or harassment of club members by fraternity brothers.

Despite these small obstacle, the events proved so popular that they would often draw attention from those outside the university.

“People from downtown, like, the ‘real homosexuals’ would come out to them,” said Williams. “A guy came up from Seattle for one of them!”

“You’d get people ... who had either never attended UBC or attended UBC like 10 to 15 years ago and still came back for the dance,” said Kalev Hunt, a club member from 1994 to 2009.

The proceeds from ticket and drink sales were put towards funding the organization and causes the club supported, such as the McLaren House, which houses those with HIV/AIDS and is named for UBC alumnus Ted McLaren. The club also marched in the Pride Parade for its first time in 1985, adding to its growing visibility.

In 1984, the club was officially recognized as an AMS service organization, granting it funding from AMS fees. This income gave the organization a greater ability to get their message out to students. The organization changed titles again in 1994 when it became a “resource group.”

Moving into the ’90s, the club kept to its tenets of queer advocacy and activism by discussing issues directly with student groups.

“I set up this [talk], and the title of it was ‘What if your friend was gay?’ Then I would go to fraternities and religiously-based organization and any club that would have me ... Practically, I was addressing the straight community, but realistically what I was doing was I was talking to the members of those communities who were in the closet,” said Williams.

In addition to increasing campus activism, the club worked to support its members by continuing to hold group discussions. By the 2000s, Pride UBC was hosting multiple discussion sessions a week, each aimed at specific groups within the queer community. These specified discussion included ‘Female Lovers on Wednesday’ or meetings dedicated to discuss trans students’ issues.

['auto'] Courtesy BC Gay and Lesbian Archives [Pride UBC/Xtra! West]

While the club was often thought to be entirely inclusive, it had a distinct reputation for being almost entirely populated by gay white men until the late 1990s.

“In reflection, that wasn’t part of our thinking at the time. It’s too bad that it wasn’t a more conscious thing,” said Sean Bickerton, club member in 1985. “I’m certain there was room and space. That space we created made an assumption that we created space for those that didn’t fit into society’s expectation.”

Though it may have lacked diversity in the past, the Pride Collective now works to represent and provide resources to all queer people on campus.

A place of support

Regardless of the club’s name or location, the organization has always strived to be a space that allows members to be themselves and meet others like them.

“What primarily prompted me to join the club was simply to make friends. You have a social context to meet other, hopefully like-minded people on campus,” said Natasha Meissner, a Gay People of UBC member in 1977.

“I joined because I wanted a community, and I realized that there were, you know, other people just like me out there, or at least I’ve heard that, but I didn't know any of them,” said Hunt.

Regardless of their year, a uniting reason for members to join was to gain a sense of community, a sense that many queer people lack. That lack of community can emerge for a number of reasons, such as if individuals faced difficulty when coming out or couldn’t access the appropriate queer resources.

“Queer-specific groups are important for young adults, in this emerging transition between adolescence to adulthood to find the community when that community might not always be readily available,” said Andy Griffin, a sociology graduate with honours from UBC. “There's a public dimension that creates safety.”

On why he joined the club, Hunt said, "We all had this common experience and common feeling that ... we were different, a lot of us hadn't been able to articulate how we were different because again, it wasn't talked about. So there wasn't really even the language ... Then when you discovered this group, you're like, ‘Oh, these are all the people I've been missing all my life.’

“And they feel like me, they have some of the same emotions, some of the same experiences, some of the same problems dealing with their family, or dealing with traditional masculine culture or traditional feminine culture ... So for me, it was a group where I could feel like these are my people.”

This sentiment still proves true for many members of the Pride Collective.

“For me, it was a good way of finding community,” said Miles Justice, a current member of the Pride Collective.

Beyond community, for some club members, the organization also provided a way of accepting themselves.

For Kevin Griffin, attending club meetings was more than just joining discussions.

"It was coming out. By going to the club I was coming out. And that was part of my process to do that,” Griffin said.

“It was really interesting, going up to the first meeting was like a big deal. It was kind of publicly acknowledge who I was ... There's a sense of being privately gay but going to Gay UBC was making it public.”

['auto'] Courtesy BC Gay and Lesbian Archives [Ken Anderlini]

Safety through community

While advocacy and community have always been major parts of the organization’s mandate, there remains a necessity to support members in their experiences with the world beyond the club walls. From providing life-saving resources to simply being a shoulder to cry on, the club has seen its fair share of tears shed by downtrodden members.

For the Pride Collective, providing community also means allowing members to grieve for others.

“Around the time I was there, there were a few galvanizing moments. Things like ... Matthew Shepard’s death in 1998 ... It was an important time for us to be there for each other, with each other in support during that time. That was pivotal for us. We knew there was a lot of gay bashing, but this was just so extreme,” said Julius Elefante, member from 1997 to 2002.

“So the Pride Collective at that time served as a place to express our collective grief.”

The club and its members were often subjects of hateful letters submitted to The Ubyssey.

While few homophobic actions were reported on campus, members of fraternities and engineering students were often cited as being troublesome to the club.

“Nobody really came out as an engineer in those days, because they were just too rambunctious,” said Richard Summerbell. “We kind of challenged them through letters and publicity and that sort of thing, by putting up posters in their territory. It seemed to be pretty engraved in stone in those days, that engineers are going to be big-time haters.”

Recent years have seen a cultural shift within the department, as the Engineering Undergraduate Society is the only undergraduate society that has its own queer organization, “Gears and Queers.”

Ultimately, while times may have changed, the organization's mandate has not, with the Pride Collective still providing students a place of community and connection, particularly in recent years when anti-trans speakers and demonstrations took place on campus.

Does it get better?

Forging ahead in a world where others are able to feel safe and valid, the graduated members of the Pride Collective have found themselves living lives greater than that which they could have imagined. The organization excelled at nurturing friendships and relationships and connecting UBC with life-saving resources.

['auto'] Courtesy BC Gay and Lesbian Archives [TJ Ngan/Xtra! West]

As students navigating a world more hateful than ours, the members of the Pride Collective’s predecessors took something valuable from their experience with the club. Something they truly cherished and, in their interviews, wished to pass on is their messages of hope for those who are struggling now.

“It just got so much better, it’s unbelievable,” said Summerbell. “[For] anybody who’s ever thought ‘I’m down at the bottom of the sociological garbage chute, and there’s just no way I could ever climb up,’ the miraculous is done.”

“Does life get better? Oh my God, yeah. Holy smokes. If I had a choice of being a student again or where I am now, where I am now is a wonderful place,” Williams said.

With files from Ron Dutton, Sheldon Goldfarb and Pawan Minhas

If you would like to share your experiences in the UBC Pride organization, you can share them at features@ubyssey.ca.