The importance of Pride in Surrey and how to celebrate

Pride celebrates the progress that’s been made for the 2SLGBTQ+ community, but also recognizes what still needs to be done

The Surrey Pride Festival returns for its 24th year at the Civic Plaza outside Surrey City Hall on Saturday, June 24. (Submitted/Surrey Pride BC/Facebook)

The Surrey Pride Festival returns for its 24th year at the Civic Plaza outside Surrey City Hall on Saturday, June 24. (Submitted/Surrey Pride BC/Facebook)

Pride is a special time for many as it’s the celebration of people’s true colours and the power of what people can accomplish together, and for Kwantlen Polytechnic University student Adam Khan, this holds to be true. 

Since elementary school, Khan knew he was transgender. Growing up in Cloverdale, Khan was surrounded by people who supported him, especially his father who he felt like he could be himself around. 

“I’m pretty glad to have that father/son dynamic there, where he was like … ‘I’m happy to be there for you if you need that,’” Khan says. 

“It’s something that finds us slowly as you sort of come into that identity, and I think that’s something that’s really special about being transgender and about having the support you need,” he says. “Pride to me, it’s making sure that you don’t turn in on yourself.” 

Khan has always found enjoyment in attending pride events either on KPU campus grounds, around the local community, or even internationally. 

In many cities around the world, June kicks off Pride Month, a celebration for the two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning (2SLGBTQ+) communities to honour people’s accomplishments, but also remember the journey it took to get there. 

Surrey is one of the cities that’s been celebrating Pride for decades. 

Non-profit organization Surrey Pride Society holds the Surrey Pride Festival, which is returning for its 24th year on June 24 at the Civic Plaza outside city hall from 3:30 pm to 9:30 pm. Every year they have vendor booths from various organizations like KPU, Sher Vancouver, and Surrey Libraries, drag performances, and music for the community to participate in. 

This year marks a new location for the festival, as well as activities like a beer garden, Bhangra dancers, and live music. In the past, it’s been held at different locations such as Holland Park and outside Central City Shopping Centre. 

Martin Rooney, president of the Surrey Pride Society, expects the turnout to be bigger than previous years. 

“With a beer garden and having the headline of an ABBA tribute band closing the event, we’re going to have 5,000 to 10,000 people throughout the day hopefully,” Rooney says. 

The number of attendees has grown over the years, with the first festival in 1999 having 200 attendees, increasing to 3,000 in 2019 before the pandemic. When the festival returned in-person last year, Rooney says 5,000 people attended. 

“The festival is going to be the most diverse festival that we’ve ever been able to produce in regards to reception, inclusion, [and culture.] I want Pride to be a cultural festival,” Rooney says. “It’s going to be a huge landmark for Surrey.” 

While attendance in Surrey events has grown over the years, people in the city haven’t always been accepting of the queer community. Rooney has played an important part in queer rights for Surrey. On Feb. 14, 1998, Rooney alongside others helped organize the first gay dance in the city to raise money to fight the Surrey School District book ban. 

In 1997, children’s books Belinda’s Bouquet, Asha’s Mums, and One Dad, Two Dads, Brown Dads, Blue Dads, were submitted to the Surrey School Board for approval to use as resources for Kindergarten and Grade 1. The school board denied usage of these books as parents complained their religious beliefs would be offended.

The battle progressed into the Supreme Court of Canada in 2002, where then-Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin noted, “Tolerance is always age-appropriate.” 

Shortly after, the Surrey Rainbow Cultural Society formed and hosted the first Surrey Pride Day/Weekend by Surrey City Hall and became a registered non-profit in 2001. In 2008, the non-profit created the Empire of the Peace Arch Monarchist Association (EPAMA), which is the “governing body of the Imperial Sovereign Court of the Empire of the Peace Arch,” according to their website. 

They also created the Surrey Youth Alliance, a drop-in and support group for the 2SLGBTQ+ community between the ages of 14 and 21 in the Fraser Valley and surrounding area. Then in 2012, they voted to change their name to Surrey Pride Society. 

Rooney has also played a crucial part for queer rights on an international scale. On Remembrance Day in 2007, there was a law that the United States banned HIV-positive people from entering the country. As Rooney was entering the U.S., he was interrogated for three hours and sent back to Canada. 

“I stood up and fought that battle publicly,” Rooney says. Three years later, in 2010, the travel ban was lifted

“I was the first person, probably in the world, but certainly in Canada, to enter the United States freely as a person living with HIV,” he says. “I got a letter from the White House telling me I could cross [the border].” 

Having Pride in Surrey is important, Rooney says as there’s not many places in the city to celebrate and gather as a community. 

“In all the years, we have never managed to have a place that we could call around, whether it be a bar or community centre,” he says. “We don’t need [a bar to] work seven days a week. We just need Fridays and Saturdays, so we can promote the community and do a drag show here.” 

“Somewhere where we can go out and drink and eat. That’s all I’ve been asking for 24 years, that’s the one thing that hasn’t changed,” Rooney says. 

For Khan, Pride in Surrey offers the opportunity to celebrate who people are, and appreciate the diversity the city has. 

“Surrey Pride events are wonderful,” Khan says. “The gay community here is unique in the different ethnic groups that are here.” 

Khan says he also likes how pride events in Surrey are organized in the sense of what environment is there for gay people currently, and what things can change. 

One of Khan’s favourite things about Surrey Pride events is that they focus on pointing out areas of policy in need of support and also what they want to do differently for their events. 

“I think Surrey Pride events really highlight that and then bring that conversation up every year where it’s like ‘Next year we want to do this, do something different. Next year we want to get these groups involved and make sure that there’s these spaces here,’” he says. “It’s exciting, it’s fast paced, and that’s what I like.” 

Some of the other Surrey Pride events that took place this month include the Youth Pride Dance through Surrey Schools and Youth for a Change on June 2, Family Friendly Drag Show through Surrey Pride on June 6, and Pride in Surrey Shines Through on June 10. 

Surrey Shines Through featured Emergence: Out of the Shadows, a documentary that follows the story of Kayden, Jag, and Amar and the challenges they face expressing their sexuality within South Asian households. 

Non-profit organization Sher Vancouver, who produced the film, will also be part of the Surrey Pride Festival. 

Emergence: Out of the Shadows is an international success story, which is largely based in Surrey,” says Alex Sangha, producer of the film and founder of Sher Vancouver. 

“Having this screening here in Surrey during Pride really is coming full circle for the film, because we never expected the film to have such an impact that it’s having.” 

Sangha says there are a lot of challenges and pressures for the queer South Asian community, such as the societal expectations of getting married, having children, and internalized homophobia. 

“When you’re intersectionality oppressed, when you’re queer and South Asian, coming from a culture where it’s a stigma and a taboo to be gay, lesbian, or trans, there’s not a lot of education or awareness on sexuality and gender issues in your community,” Sangha says. 

“This is why it’s very important for the South Asian community to embrace gay and queer people, to accept who they are, and to let them live their truth. Let them be true to their identity, because it affects their own community in a negative way if they don’t.” 

While Surrey is becoming one of the largest cities in British Columbia, Sangha says the city still carries a very suburban attitude. With this mindset, he says that people living in Surrey might not feel a sense of community the same way other cities might. 

“For the community to come together and say, ‘We love you for who you are, come and celebrate Pride, and celebrate your community,’ it really makes a difference,” he says. 

“[The reason] we should have pride in places like Surrey is that it will save lives. It will [reduce] that barrier in these people’s mind that they are loved, and that their life is worth living.” 

Other events that Sher Vancouver is hosting are their Desi-Q Cultural Gala, which marks their 15th anniversary, on July 8 and Pyar is Pyar, a weekly peer support group at Surrey Libraries City Centre Branch. 

“Everyday should be Pride Month, everyday should be a Pride Day,” Sangha says. “There really are not many days in the year where queer people can publicly celebrate themselves, so Pride is very important for that.” 

Another vendor participating in the festival this year is KPU. The university’s Pride Advocacy Group (PAG) alongside the Pride Society, a student-run collective on campus, will be volunteering at the festival. 

Romy Kozak, co-founder of PAG, says they are excited to be back this year alongside volunteers from the Pride Society. The booth will have prizes such as buttons and rainbow lanyards for people to take. 

What Kozak enjoys most about Surrey Pride is the intimate engagement from the community.

“We’re in a booth, and people come to us. I really appreciate that type of engagement, because there’s more of an opportunity to talk with folks and talk to them about what KPU is doing,” Kozak says. 

“Some people sort of stumble on the festival coming out of Central City mall, so they’re like ‘What’s going on here?’ And then you might have an opportunity to talk to them about why it’s important to have pride festivals.” 

Pride to Kozak means ensuring younger generations have the support they need and to not lose the progress advocates in the past have made. 

“For me, Pride has always been a protest,” Kozak says. “Now we need to realize that it’s not just all about rainbows and unicorns, that’s an important part of it, but unicorns need rights too.” 

At the KPU Surrey campus, the Pride Society was created almost a year ago to foster a safe place for the 2SLGBTQ+ community, while also providing education and resources to those who need them. 

Khan is one of the members of the Pride Society and really enjoys the space and the friends he has made. He says KPU is a safe space with the Pride Society but also the Pride Advocacy Group. 

Camille Bédard, one of the founding members of the society and president, said him, Vice President of the society Liam Ruel, and former President Kayla Garvin created the space to provide a safe and welcoming community for 2SLGBTQ+ students on campus. 

“All three of us knew very few queer and trans students here (if any), so we created the Pride Society with the hope that it would bring the community together,” wrote Bédard in an email statement to The Runner

At their booth at the Surrey Pride Festival, the Pride Society will have a button maker and markers for attendees to create their own pride flag and pronoun pins in addition to other pride-related items to give away. 

“Pride is an opportunity for sexual and gender minorities to celebrate and affirm our identities and place in the society in spite of efforts to take away our rights,” he wrote. 

“It gives us an opportunity to advocate for ourselves, to raise awareness of issues facing sexual and gender minorities and to bring our community together.” 

Currently the society is working on expanding their space in Birch 240 at the Surrey campus and are hoping to have that soon, he says. 

For Khan, he is always looking to help expand and provide more spaces for KPU queer students to feel accepted and safe. While it hasn’t always been easy for Khan, he enjoys the celebration of Pride and self love. 

“Being gay and loving the space you’re in is very important, and I think you should always celebrate that,” Khan says.