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Close up: Kelowna's heightened sense of pride

Pride Week is underway in Kelowna and runs until Aug. 19. According to organizers it is the
Pride Week is underway in Kelowna and runs until Aug. 19. According to organizers it is the 'biggest and most successful' Pride celebration the city has hosted to date.
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Life, healing, sunlight, nature, art and the human spirit.

Above are six things that everyone can relate to, six items of importance for most members of society.

They are also the six things represented by the rainbow flag, which has been flown proudly throughout Kelowna for the past six days.

One of those flags is perched atop City Hall, symbolizing the Okanagan's evolving inclusivity.

The building houses the office of Mayor Walter Gray who was once condemned by the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal for not including the word "pride" in a requested proclamation for Lesbian and Gay Pride Day during his first term as mayor in 1997.

But time has the ability to change people, and attitudes.

This year, Gray proclaimed Aug. 12 to 19 Pride Week in Kelowna.

Tomorrow, the mayor will read that proclamation at the Pride Family Festival Day and Picnic at Mission Creek Park.

And hundreds of people with a range of sexual orientations will listen, proudly.

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"I think as a society we've grown up," says Gray.

"Fifteen years ago it was absolutely verboten that there would be same-sex marriages…15 years ago there was incredible community support for my position."

Gray admits his 1997 decision to exclude the word "pride" from a proposed proclamation for Lesbian and Gay Pride Day was discriminatory, but suggests he never held negative feelings toward the lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender community.

"I've always been very much live and let live; I believe in a diverse community."

The Kelowna mayor says the "new breed" of Okanagan Rainbow Coalition executives has less self-interest and is more focused on the community than those in charge of the coalition in the 90s.

"They want to broaden the whole purpose and make it about diversity.

"They're not looking for anything for themselves, they're simply looking for equal treatment for all. And I subscribe to that.

"That wasn't the posture of the of the Rainbow Coalition 15 years ago."

Raymond Koehler is current vice-president of the Okanagan Rainbow Coalition.

He says the fact Gray signed the Pride proclamation this year is "a big deal for humanity."

"We're talking about a common ground that we've found, which I think touches everybody—that common ground is equal human rights for everybody," says Koehler.

"We're so grateful the community is coming out and supporting us the way they are. This is our biggest Pride ever and it looks like it's going to be the most successful."

Although Koehler has only lived in the Okanagan for about three years, he has seen a similar evolution in acceptance toward the LGBT community in other towns and cities.

The Okanagan Rainbow Coalition vice-president laughs as he talks about his days living in Castlegar, when he and his partner "were the entire gay community."

"The world is changing. Castlegar is having its first Pride event this year, which was unheard of in the days when I was apparently the first gay city councillor."

He says the combination of Gray signing the Pride Week proclamation and the Okanagan hosting its biggest Pride Festival ever couldn't come at a better time.

"I think the time is just right for the Okanagan because we have so many folks who are looking to see that they're not alone, to see that they're not the only person that feels like an outsider."

Koehler says he is especially concerned about young local members of the LGBT community.

"Youth suicide is absolutely unacceptable…homophobia and harassment in the schools is a huge issue for the Rainbow Coalition.

"An event like Pride Week, being so big this year, sort of sends a signal that says, "Kid, you're OK and it's going to be OK. It really does get better.'"

The Okanagan Rainbow Coalition is a non-profit organization, which works to advance the cause of human rights for everybody.

Its mission is to provide a non-judgemental community focused on integrity, empathy and compassion for those who are in need.

Koehler believes the success of Pride Week 2012 will have a direct impact on the coalition's success going forward.

"By having a strong Pride event, it just means we're going to have a stronger Rainbow Coalition this year.

"We can do more work in the schools, we can do more work with the churches, we can do more work with community groups."

For Koehler, this week has already supplied a handful of special moments.

"When we had our coffee house at the Pride Centre on Water Street (Monday) night, an elderly couple came by the door. It was one of those couples that reminds you of your grandparents.

"They came in and said, 'We just want to thank you for doing what you're doing. We support you 100 per cent.' I was so proud; I gave them two little Pride flags to take with them."

Another moment that brought Koehler to tears was the generosity of a Pride Week performer.

Amy Bishop's voice filled the air in the First United Church on Bernard Avenue Tuesday night.

She has collaborated with Moby, opened for April Wine and been featured on the main stage at the Canmore Folk Music Festival.

But Tuesday, it was the words she spoke that were the sweetest sound in Koehler's ears.

"Our fee arrangement with her was that we were going to split the box office (sales). She announced (Tuesday) night she would be donating her fee to the Okanagan Rainbow Coalition to support the struggle for human rights.

"It's just mind-blowing; that's the kind of response we've been getting."

During the intermission of her performance Tuesday, Bishop explains her gesture felt like the right thing to do.

"I feel I'm enveloped in acceptance; playing events like this just make me feel like I belong," says Bishop.

"When I was younger, that's what I strove for. It's nice when you can immerse yourself in that sort of thing.

"I guess that might be one of the reasons I decided to donate the box office sales: I want these types of events to continue."

The Calgary native says she's happy how acceptance of the LGBT community has increased over the years.

"There have been major strides. The fact gays and lesbians can be married in Canada, that's a major stride. People are still struggling for that just south of the border.

"I was bashed when I was about 19-years-old, but I don't fear that anymore. I feel people are becoming more used to diversity—it's not assumed people are going to fit into a box anymore."

Pride Week officially began this past Saturday with an art show at the Alternator Centre for Contemporary Art.

Kevin Jesuino, an organizer of the event and artist involved in the exhibition, says the show displayed the work of four artists from the LGBT community.

"We're trying to talk about issues relating to how queer artists identify in their work," said Jesuino.

"As an artist, what you create is your identity."

The art show wasn’t a part of the initial Pride Week schedule; however, Jesuino convinced organizers to add it to the lineup of events.

"I think there's something in art that sort of allows for diversity already within it. So it was a good medium to be dealing with as a startup to Pride."

He says as far as he’s aware, this is the first queer arts exhibition Kelowna has hosted.

Jesuino adds people often think of the heterosexual crowd as the group responsible for being accepting, but the LGBT community also needs to accept itself.

“There are a lot of people in the Okanagan who consider themselves discreet. They don’t want it to be out there.

“But the gay community is sort of changing and accepting in itself. It’s growing to become a community (that) actually supports each other.”

Wilbur Turner, co-chair of Pride Week, says the corporate world’s relationship with the LGBT community is also growing.

Approximately 50 corporate partners are supporting Pride Week this year: Nearly four times more than last year.

“We’ve got this momentum and we will be actively working on next year’s plans as soon as this is wrapped up,” says Turner.

“This year we didn’t get started until February, so next year is going to have more planning going into it.”

He says Pride Week is a fun event for those involved; however, the true purpose of the celebration is deeper.

“There is a party element, but it’s about celebrating diversity and helping people realize you can be gay and have a great life as part of the community.”

Perhaps that’s why seeing the rainbow flag wave above city hall is one of Turner’s favourite parts of the week.

“It’s significant for the community at large, not just the gay and lesbian community, but for the Kelowna community. It is an inclusive flag, it includes everybody—whether you’re gay or straight.”

Koehler encourages residents to drive by City Hall to see the flag, which is there to represent everyone.

"I think it's a great symbol Kelowna is a safe, inclusive place to be."

wpaterson@kelownacapnews.com

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