Stripes of many colours now line the entrance to Royal Roads University, a symbol of love and strength in response to a display of hate.
Members of the Greater Victoria community gathered June 25 to help paint a pride sidewalk at the school, one of three soon to arrive.
The colours were painted in honour of the LGBTQ2S+ community, inspired by the courage of a few Victoria high school students. The rainbow flag has long been a symbol of Pride, representing diversity in sexual orientations. A newer iteration on the design adds stripes of black and brown, recognizing the marginalization of Black, Indigenous and people of colour within queer communities, as well as pink, blue and white, representing trans communities and gender diversity.
Attacks on LGBTQ2S+ people and symbols are not a thing of the past. Just last month, a freshly painted Pride crosswalk at Royal Bay Secondary School in Colwood was defaced with homophobic slurs, on the eve of the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia.
The next morning, students and faculty repainted it. Grade 12 student, Oskar Wood, told The Discourse that he felt strongly about responding to the act of hate with love. In fact it was this display of pride and resilience that inspired Royal Roads to paint their new rainbow crosswalks.
When Philip Steenkamp was a youth in Botswana, he hid his identity as a gay man from the world, he said at the event. The idea that people could find out, terrified him.
“I grew up, like so many people my age, in a society where homosexuality was widely condemned. I lived in fear that my real identity, as a gay man, would be discovered and so I hid from myself, my family and society.”
When he finally came out at age 38, he was grateful for the acceptance that the Victoria community showed him, he said.
Now, the Royal Roads University president and vice chancellor makes a point to be visible in order to support the youth of today.
The crosswalk “is a really important symbol to people that this community is open and welcoming to everybody, and you can come here and be your full self, whoever you are,” Steenkamp said.
“In fact diversity is not a weakness, it’s a strength.”
Steenkamp raised the question: do we still need Pride? He said that although much progress has been made, there is still work to be done. He explained that while those in Victoria, B.C. or Canada are “relatively lucky,” there are still many places in the world where those of differing sexual orientation or gender identity are still prosecuted, or worse.
According to a report by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, 69 countries still criminalize consensual same-sex activity. Some deem this punishable by death.
Jan Van Vianen, a student at Royal Roads and prominent member of the university’s LGBTQ2S+ community, said he hasn’t always felt safe being openly queer.
He has experienced decrimination. In London, England, he was attacked, he believes because of his sexual orientation.
He eventually moved away from the United Kingdom to Langford with the presumption that life may be hard as an openly gay man in a small, Canadian town. However, he said he hasn’t found this to be the case.
Thankfully, he now feels free to be himself, and said the crosswalk is a welcome sign that he is safe in his community.
Wood watched as Steenkamp put the first strokes of paint on the new crosswalk. He said it was incredible to see an institution like Royal Roads stand up and support the LGBTQ2S+ community.
A month after the vandalism on the highschool crosswalk, Wood said the hurt has been replaced with love. The school has since received many letters and pictures from people internationally who have reached out in support, he said.
The letters thanked the students and teachers at Royal Bay for standing up in the face of hate, and replacing it with something beautiful.
“The vandalism — it was like a blessing disguised as a curse. That’s how I kind of look at it,” Wood said.
For students Wood, Izzy Kroll and Cheyenne Norman, who are now graduating high school, the vandalism was a wake-up call. Soon, Norman said, they will be leaving their safe space, and entering the real-world.
“The fear is always in the back of my mind, because I don’t know who I’m going to meet on the streets, [or] who’s going to be in the hallways at school,” Wood said. “Most of the time when I’m out in public I put on this [metaphorical] mask — That is my safeguard.”
He said he believes the key to solving this for future generations is to start educating youth in the school system about the LGBTQ2S+ community, its history, and the importance of respecting people’s chosen pronouns.
Danielle Huculak, their teacher at Royal Bay, said she believes that in addition to this, broader systemic change needs to occur.
Discrimination is, “a global problem that we see in healthcare, in education, in policing, in court systems; it’s everywhere and it’s insidious,” Huculak said. “And how do you change that? Certainly educating young people is an avenue for that, but there has to be a willingness for people in power to dictate some changes.”
Sometimes, change needs to come from the top. At Royal Roads, president Steenkamp is doing what he can to lead the way.
Throughout every one of his leadership positions at Royal Roads, UBC, and SFU, Steenkamp said he has always made an effort to be visibly “out.”
“I think it’s an important signal to send to people that it’s comfortable — that they can be comfortable and that they would be supported too,” he said.
“Coming out doesn’t mean it’s the end of your life, or the end of the world. You can actually succeed and become role models for other people.”