By LeRae Haynes –
Education, awareness, respect, and acceptance are at the heart of the newly-formed Williams Lake Pride, a group formed in November 2017 to support the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered) community.
Group founder Willa Julius says part of the reason she created it is because when she was young there wasn’t anything like it here. “I thought I’d love to have this group here today as an option for those who could use this great support,” she states.
The group started small and casual, and got good feedback from the beginning. A nursing student at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, Julius asked one of her instructors, the president of Kamloops Pride, about how to start one in Williams Lake.
“We talked about how receptive people are to change, how slow we’d need to go, and how we can get support from the wider community, “she says. “It’s grown so much. The general consensus is that yes, we do need this in Williams Lake.”
Williams Lake Pride meets once a month and is open to the public. There are older adults, young adults, and youth: allies from all genders and sexuality.
“If you don’t want to talk about your story, you don’t have to,” Julius says. “This works for people who may want to stay quiet about this.
“We want to offer an environment of safety. In the beginning we weren’t sure how the whole community would react, so we got involved with established community events, such as the Williams Lake Stampede parade and the street party.”
Before the parade, the group met for a tie-dye night, making garments to wear on the float, with a general theme of colourfulness. Afterwards, for the street party, they made little bracelets with the public, and the response was great—very positive.
“This has always been there,” she says. “I’m very happy that in this time people feel safer to express themselves. It gives you the ability to be yourself and contributes to good mental health. We’re so blessed to be here in Canada, to be able to express a part of ourselves that makes people happier, and that brings peace.”
She said when you can’t be yourself, you’re holding something back that’s a big part of who you are. “In my experience, that can cause substantial health problems,” she says. “I’ve known people who have been hospitalized for mental health crises. If family and friends don’t accept you for who you are, despite getting support from other places, it can be a really big deal.
“As a nurse, we read up on statistics regarding mental health surrounding people who are part of the LGBT community—they can have more mental health deficits. A recent study showed that trans youth without the support of family and friends are twice as likely to attempt suicide.”
She says if someone is part of this community, family support is the single biggest contributor toward mental health. “This also includes close friends and extended family,” she says. “When that support is refused, it’s like a big part of you is rejected.”
Steps have been taken to offer this support in high schools. Williams Lake Secondary had several gay/straight alliance youth-based clubs where allies can come together and talk, says Julius.“Events were created in the school and in the general community. I’m glad we have Pink Shirt Day: bullying is a big part of the LGBT community.
“What helped me the most was having that place of support while I was in university,” she says.“I joined a lot of communities, especially on campus. It’s a place where you find your own people. It’s very liberating to find people who understand where you are, and can say, ‘I’ve been there too.’”
Sean Sheridan is 14 years old. He identifies as trans-male demi-sexual and is a member of Williams Lake Pride. He says the group is a positive experience for him. “It’s a place where people get what I’m saying, a place where I can be more open and calm down, and a place where people understand me,” he says.
“I’m lucky: I have family support and support at school. My friends say, ‘We don’t really understand you, but we accept you.’ The only thing I know for sure is that I’m not straight. I think that if you really question what you are, you’re probably somewhere on the spectrum. I identify as ‘demi-sexual,’ and form a connection first based on personality before deciding if there is sexual attraction.”
He states that he’s been ‘out’ for nearly five years and adds that all this is difficult to cope with, combined with all the other changes that come with being a teenager.
“It’s exciting being in on the beginning of this group—being part of it,” he says.“Things are really happening, and I feel like I’m doing something.
“I want us to be accepted for who we are by the larger community. Being religious and being straight shouldn’t mean that you can be disrespectful. I’m glad this group got started. It’s good to see the education component growing as we go along.”
Julius adds that she is also very fortunate to have parents who have always been supportive of everything she’s done. “My family is awesome,” she says.
“When Williams Lake Pride was just getting started, hearing and seeing people support us so wholeheartedly makes me so proud of my home town. The group did a presentation to City Council to have a rainbow crosswalk painted in Williams Lake, and when it went through, they were able to raise the funds, thanks to generous local businesses.
“This ties in so well with the downtown branding,” she says.“ Diversity, colourful culture: it’s time.”
LeRae Haynes is a freelance writer, song writer, community co-ordinator for Success by 6, member of Perfect Match dance band, and instigator of music with kids.