Q&A: James Whitehead, Grand Marshall

Posted on July 25, 2011 by

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[Editor Shaun Bartone interviewed James Whitehead, this year’s Fredericton Pride Grand Marshall.]

Hi James: I’m going to start with some basic questions about you, FLAG, then some history of Pride in Fredericton, you’re view of they way gay life has evolved in Fredericton over the last 20 years, and finally where you see it going.

First of all, where were you born and raised, educated, and when did you come to Fredericton? How long have you been a professor at STU?

I was born in the in what the British consider a small town called Horsham (~80,000 people at that time) in southern England. It’s half way between the gay meccas of London and Brighton, yet I was too closetted at the time to explore either. Such a waste.
I came to Canada in 1991 to pursue my PhD in Earth Science at UNB. I started off looking at rocks in the Bay of Islands, Newfoundland, but ended up focusing on rocks containing asbestos in the Eastern Townships of Quebec. Cough cough. Both regions’ natural beauty cemented my love of Canada, of which I am now a citizen. I taught Geology at UNB for 10 years while doing my doctorate and some post-doctoral research with the Geologic Survey of Canada (on Russian impact craters), and with NASA (on Martian impact craters). Then, though it sounds an unlikely fit for a scientist, in 2005 I found myself migrating up-the-hill to STU where I now blissfully teach in the Science and Technology Studies programme.

2. What has been your role in the glbtq community in Fredericton, and how has the community changed over the years?

I came to Fredericton knowing very little about the glbt community other than what was in Bruno Gmunder’s gay guide: there was at least a bar: Dance Trax. Unfortunately 3 months prior to my arrival even that closed. Even FLAG at that time was in quiescence. It was a pretty barren place for a young gay guy to find himself! In around 1990 a campus group had started and then shortly after collapsed on the departure of its main organiser. My first initiative, around 1992, was to resurrect that group, then known as GALA (the Gay and Lesbian Alliance). That was the first battle I faced: the student union decided that since I wanted to start a gblt group it was defacto excluding non glbt students and they refused us funding. We also decided that we were not going to provide membership lists because that would violate the privacy of our members, many of whom were, of course, just coming out – this posed additional bureaucratic arguments from the union. Despite a spirited opposition, we did get our funding and the campus group has existed continuously since then, now known as Spectrum.

I got involved with FLAG and there was a great group of individuals who organised monthly glbt dances in the absence of the club. I served all sorts of roles within that organisation, including managing the sound system for the dances, housing and building the glbt library, organising pride events, glbt hikes, generating FLAG’s website (one of the earliest glbt webpages) and hosting the FLAG listserv since 1995, which still has over 500 recipients in the local areab. [Interested folk can subscribe by emailing me at jamesw@stu or subscribe themselves via the YahooGroup]. I also served for many years as a gay phoneline operator of the Fredericton Gayline The Gayline was one of the longest running helplines in the country. Claude Olivier, a social worker with AIDS NB moved the gayline from a private residence to a more professional location at the AIDS NB offices, and several of us received phoneline training. A dedicated team staffed the line two evenings a week for an additional decade or so before the calls started to dwindle with the rise of the internet. For the most part the calls were legitimate, counselling calls. At that time there was little peer support or role models for people with sexuality or gender issues.

3. You were involved in the Pride Proclamation for many years. What was that like for you and the gay community? I also understand you were involved in the law suit against the City. What was your role in that and how has that changed gay life in Fredericton?

Seeing pride events in many other cities, I lobbied annually for city hall to proclaim gay pride week, generally with no response. It is important for a city to embrace the diversity of all its citizens and support their attempts to celebrate that diversity. I suppose I may have been buoyed by win against the UNB student union, but I thought it not only intolerant to refuse our requests, but rude to simply ignore them. I felt as though we were not even worthy of a response. I rallied the community to sign petitions at several of our dances, and of course most are aware how the whole affair ended up with a complaint with the NB Human Rights Commission. That process took several years of meetings and ended up of course with a stalemate and ultimately a Human Rights Tribunal that found in our favour. There were several of us involved, Kim Hill and Alison Brewer were key players, and it was quite time consuming and frustrating. The intransigence and bigotry that was evident at the time, both from City Hall and their religious right/conservative supporters was really quite disappointing, and out of character with the socially liberal values of the country and the general populace. It was a divisive issue, with strong opinions on both sides, but it was not an issue from which we could just walk away. At some point we have to fight for equal treatment, even if it is a small service that is being denied. The battle really was so much more than a fight for a proclamation, it was to receive the same respect from City Hall that other citizens and groups receive.

I think that the proclamation reading since has proceeded, with one catastrophic exception on which I will not dwell, without fanfare, like most proclamations. Just about every week there are several proclamations announced at city hall and we never hear about them, but they are clearly important to the groups that request them: they help define a special date or festival. That our Pride proclamations are now read with little fuss from the general community is exactly how it should be. That we are there to listen to the proclamation and celebrate it, to have our FLAG raised like other flags are raised to celebrate other events is important to us, and was a worthy fight. It sends a message to kids who are struggling with their sexualities that there are not only folks out there who are proud to be glbt, but also that society also recognises that we have worth. The best aspect of the now commonplace nature of the flag raising and proclamation is that those who opposed it can see that the sky did not fall, that it was not the end of civilisation as we know it, and even some of those who were our opponents have since recognised that intolerance and bigotry have no place in Fredericton. Our nemesis at the time, Mayor Woodside, has since acknowledged that he was wrong, he has attended several of our events and flag raising and has publically apologised. Yes, he was initially wrong, but in my opinion deserves some kudos for having the guts to publically stand and recognise that. We all make mistakes, but a measure of the (wo)man is not the mistake but how we deal with it afterwards.

4. What were some of the past attempts to have Pride celebrations in Fredericton? Were you involved? Do you think they were successful? What did you think of our first Pride Parade and Festival last year?

We had many Pride celebrations. They ranged from Candle lit vigils for those who had passed with AIDS, tree plantings, barbecues, dances, mini-olympics, games, first nations ceremonies and an annual Pride contingent in the Canada Day Parade. In their own way, for the time, these events were successful. They were better than organising nothing, the nucleus of a community was there, but it was just modest. The events ended some time ago, simply because the same few people were organising the same types of events, the same crowd was attending and new blood was needed, yet hard to encourage. I think the community needed a break in order for a hunger for new celebrations to be ignite.

I was not in town for the events last year, but I was aware of the incredible planning and research that was done by the Pride Committee, and the fantastic support of the glbt’s, businesses and the general community. I have to admit, that when some of the Pride committee interviewed me for ideas, I was still of the opinion that I preferred the idea of a Pride contingent within the Canada Day Parade. The audience at the Canada Day parade is huge and a wide spectrum of the community, and our presence demonstrates that we were proud, out, willing to be seen celebrating something that we ALL hold dear: Canada. Essentially we are a part of this community and not that different. However, I do now concede that there really is a world of difference between being in a Canada Day Parade and being in our own Pride Parade. The focus of celebration is wholly different. I am proud of the success that the committee and volunteers achieved last year. Notwithstanding that, I still like the idea of having a glbt contingent in the Canada Day parade (as well)!

5. How has gay life evolved over the past 10 or 20 years? How has gay life changed in this City? Has it gotten better in some ways, worse in others? Where do you see gay life in Fredericton going in the next 5 to 10 years? What would you like to see happen?

The gay community has changed in many ways over the last 20 years that I have been here. The principal changes stem from the ease with which information can now be accessed. Young people don’t have to have the foresight to look up “gay” in the phone book to find the Gayline for help. They can simply Google it, or find a Facebook fanpage or Yahoo group. They can socialize online before being ready (or even after they are ready) to socialize in real life. The gay library isn’t needed any longer, those resources and books can simply be downloaded. We aren’t struggling to find role models, glbts are almost mainstream in the media. No longer is every glbt character in film some kind of social misfit degenerate child molesting murderer. Gay characters are written such that they are now regular characters, who just happen to be gay. In fact we have lost so much of our degree of hipness that I am thinking it is time to be cool and straight again! There is a price to pay for the information age though, in my mind. It is easy to introvert back into our online personas. It’s good we don’t have to go to bars to socialize or find a partner (are bars REALLY a good place to find a mate, wouldn’t it be better to just meet over the frozen peas at Sobey’s?) but meeting via websites still doesn’t help build community. Organised events at other times of the year are crucial. These opportunities are still occurring in Fredericton, focusing around the arts. But what about gay hikes, bike rides, days at Mactaquac Park, or group barbecues, gay teams in the dragonboat races or glbt habitat for humanity teams? For all I know some of these events may be taking place, and if they are contact me cos I you can sign me up for all of the above.

Happy Pride 2011 everyone.
~James Whitehead

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Posted in: Pride