This past March, students and staff with UFV’s Community Health and Social Innovation (CHASI) Hub created an outdoor display of Pride flags at the University of the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford, B.C. The CHASI team ordered 75 mini flags and planted them on either side of the path leading to the campus theatre, in full view from CHASI’s windows. It was a gesture of support and solidarity for a student production of The Laramie Project, a play that explores the true story of the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man, in Laramie, Wyoming, in 1998.
“We thought, ‘Perfect, we’ll line the walkway. The people coming in will feel that spirit of community,’” said Martha Dow, director of CHASI and an associate professor of sociology at UFV.
After the play’s run ended in early April, they kept the display up in support of UFV Pride Collective’s prom-themed event happening at the end of the month. On the morning of April 14, a member of the janitorial staff discovered some of the flags in the garbage.
“We replanted them,” said Dr. Dow. Ten days later, the flags were gone.
In total, the flags were vandalized – stepped on, spit on, broken, thrown out or stolen – nine times over two months. The students at CHASI were deeply impacted, but also motivated.
“It’s upsetting because [the flags] were just existing,” Miranda Erickson, a fourth-year UFV student and research assistant with CHASI, recalled on an episode of the hub’s podcast that addressed the vandalism. “It feels very symbolic … [LGBTQ2+ people] are not asking for allyship, we’re not asking for money, we’re not asking for resources, we’re just existing. And the fact that we’re just existing is enough to incite hatred and aggressive actions by people who are cowards. … They need to not see us, they need us to not be here.”
Martha Dow of @ChasiHub participated in this interview before the third and fourth incidents of vandalism occurred on the Abbotsford campus. The repeated destruction of CHASI’s pride flags ever more highlights the need for everyday activism. So, what does that look like? pic.twitter.com/utvHOny5eR
— U of Fraser Valley (@goUFV) May 17, 2023
When the students walked in on Monday morning and saw the flags were gone, broken or spat on, “they were moved with sadness and disappointment – and energy and urgency,” Dr. Dow said. The incidents were also reported to police, but the team didn’t leave it at that. “Quite frankly, we doubled down. … We bought more flags and took over a little more space.”
As the vandalism continued, it became clear to the professor that many people didn’t recognize a few stolen or ruined flags as a serious act of targeted violence. “They’re just these little flags,” she said. “It sometimes takes a bit to explain and help people understand the significance.”
CHASI staff even witnessed flags being stomped on as they watched from their office. “It was the day before the International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia,” Dr. Dow noted. “I ran out the door [when it happened] and sadly, it was one of our [UFV] students.”
She confronted the student and explained that what he’d done is a criminal act. She told him, “‘You’ve done harm to those people looking out the window right now.’ And he said, ‘Could I come in and apologize?’ I wasn’t expecting that.”
Rather than a quick sorry, Dr. Dow said the student took his time. “He said, ‘I don’t know why I did this.’ There was this really great moment, I think in a very small way, of someone truly understanding what these flags mean.”
During the podcast recording in June, research assistant Lynsie Beaulieu told Dr. Dow that it was a learning opportunity for the CHASI students too. “I was inspired by that act,” she said. “I just watched you confront them and, in a way, you were gentle and calm, but still very assertive. … You questioned why they chose to do that and gave them space to process their behaviour, why it was harmful, why those flags are there and why it’s important to us.”
The original rainbow Pride flag was designed by artist Gilbert Baker and first flew in the summer of 1978 at the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day parade. Today, there are several variations. Though the CHASI flags were not part of an official university display, UFV flies the Pride flag every June for international Pride month.
“We’ve seen the flags in protests. We’ve seen the flags in Pride parades, which are that unique combination of resistance and celebration,” said Dr. Dow. “One of the most profound experiences for many queer individuals is invisibility, and so this idea of the flag as a visible symbol of who we are is profoundly significant to our experience and to, sort of, our sense of fullness.”
As the display was rebuilt, Dr. Dow noticed that people passing by would stop to fix a flag that had blown over or needed straightening.
“It’s an interesting moment of individuals taking responsibility for being part of the solution, even in this really little way,” she said. “I think that, for me, the significance of the Pride flag is that everybody can be part of this conversation, activism and resistance.”
At the end of June, the CHASI team collaborated with allies on campus to hold a Tea Dance and “queeraoke” event. As part of the celebrations, they took down the flags “on our own terms,” Dr. Dow said. Attendees wrote messages on the flags, which CHASI intends to repurpose into an art piece “as a real collaborative effort to have something more permanent and visible.”