This is the first in a four-part series about the past, present and future of our LGBTQ+ community. Click here to read part two.
Sporting a pink bowtie, a multi-coloured dress shirt and navy blue suit, Martin Rooney is looking snappy.
But wait until you see him in June.
“Girl, I’m going,” the founder and president of Surrey Pride Society says with a chuckle during a recent sit-down in the Now-Leader’s boardroom.
Smirking, he describes an outfit he has already ordered for the society’s 20th anniversary celebration on June 29.
It’s a pink sequinned jacket – perfect apparel for what promises to be the biggest and most exuberant pride party the City of Surrey has ever seen.
Rooney says it’s about time the celebration was kicked up a notch.
“Surrey’s never had gay pride in its face,” he says. “And that’s not being negative. We’re second, if not the largest city in B.C., and it’s time that the city started to embrace the diversity that it claims it is.”
Rooney and the society are gearing up for the celebration – and the vision is clear.
“What we’re trying to do, I guess, is put the gay back into pride, and put the transgender back into LGBTQ+. They’re the most important factors,” he says.
“We’re not afraid. We’re not hiding in the corner of Holland Park.”
PLANS FOR THE PARTY
A venue change is in the works for this year’s celebration – set for June 29 from 3 to 8 p.m. – moving from Holland Park, to the plaza outside Central City Shopping Centre.
“Here, you’ll automatically have traffic. And the economic impact is going to be felt this year,” he says. “We’re trying to create a party, obviously. You’ve got a plaza, I’ve been to Sydney pride, I’ve been to Vancouver pride, where there’s usually at one point a huge party going on. So we’ve got drag queens in sparkly long gowns as MCs, we’ve got LGBTQ+-friendly bands to play. We have a transgender hip-hop rock artist coming in from Vancouver to play for us and we’ve got spoken word by the youth going on stage.”
A professional stage will be set up outside the mall’s entrance that will play host to the bands, drag queen storytime and more.
“Then I went to Central City Brewing so they’re going to provide us a beer garden. So it’s all kind of fallen into place,” he adds, noting the beer garden is a first for any Surrey pride celebration.
The festivities will extend to the mall’s interior. A family zone is planned at SFU Surrey’s mezzanine, as is a cultural and literary expo, which will provide an opportunity for those who want to learn all about Surrey Pride’s history, as well as significant milestones and moments in this city and beyond.
And mall tenants will be welcomed to set up pride storefront displays, should they wish to do so, Rooney says.
Rooney says he’s thrilled that Central City Shopping Centre has also agreed to fly the pride flags during this year’s celebrations.
This, after several unsuccessful pushes over the years to have Surrey City Hall to do so during pride week. This year, Rooney has made another request for the flags to fly at city hall, but says he’s yet to receive a response.
“Finally, without any civic blessing, we can have the trans flag, the Canadian flag and the pride flag fly,” he says.
IT STARTED WITH A CHALLENGE
The story of Surrey Pride started 20 years ago – and it wasn’t an easy beginning.
“In the early days, we came out here, I was living in Fleetwood and it was certainly redneck,” Rooney recalls. “You dare not say ‘I’m gay,’ or wear pink. So there was nothing out here.”
He joined a gay bowling league in New Westminster in 1997. One night, the crew was joking about a gay dance in Surrey, when someone said, “You’ll never be able to hold one in Surrey.”
“I thought, OK, stop right there. You don’t tell Martin Rooney he can’t do something,” he says with a laugh.
And, he succeeded.
“Two women and my partner and myself got together and we decided to call ourselves Out in Surrey.”
Not soon after, the first-ever gay dance in Surrey was held in 1998.
“We had all the politicians from all levels at that dance. We had a drag show, we had DJs, we had fundraising. So there, gay Surrey was born. We went through the summer and held dances at Sullivan Hall.”
But the first official Surrey Pride celebration wasn’t until the following year.
“1999 was the first official year, and the flag flew. We had politicians come out and speak. It was really, really cool,” Rooney recalls, estimating about 500 people were there during the day-long festivities. “(Doug) McCallum was mayor. He gave us a proclamation.”
Nerves were high at that first event, Rooney remembers – police showed up in response to an apparent threat.
“I’m freaking. ‘What the hell are you doing here? What are we doing wrong?’ They say, ‘We’re here to protect you.’ So we were sort of on edge all night,” says Rooney.
“I never had an issue with uniformed officers at our pride. They were there to protect us, whether we were trans, whether we were gay, whether we were dykes, whether we were leather, queens, whatever.”
Surrey Pride has enjoyed a positive relation relationship with RCMP since, he says.
“We’ve always embraced the RCMP,” he adds, laughing as he recalls an interaction at 2014 Surrey Pride with former Surrey RCMP media liaison Dale Carr (now an inspector serving as A Watch Duty Officer).
“There’s a picture of me with his cap on, that was a really cool moment,” Rooney says. “He said, ‘I really want to wear your crown.’ And I said, ‘OK, I really want to wear your Mountie hat.’”
“It was fun,” Rooney smiles. “So they’ve been around since day one. From the very beginning, I can’t knock the RCMP.”
The event bounced around over the years until making the move to a variety of venues: from Sullivan Hall it moved to the Tom Binnie centre, eventually ending up at Holland Park back in 2010.
However, it didn’t “energize the people” as was hoped, says Rooney. “My understanding was if we moved it to Holland Park, the city would come in and assist it, and give the big stage or help us with the big stage so we weren’t sitting on concrete over by the water fountain. But that’s where we were.”
Revamping this year’s event is hoped to breathe new life into the celebration. He also hopes it will highlight the positive impact, financially and otherwise, that this festival can have when held in the city’s downtown.
“Let’s get this place rockin’. Let’s see people enjoy themselves.”
While Rooney says he is uncertain how the new Surrey council is going to react to the grand plans, he was pleased when the new civic government approved a $5,000-grant for the society earlier this year.
One thing he’s sure of is that it’s going to be a party to remember.
“It’s all ages, all inclusive, and trust me, if you haven’t been to a pride before, this would be the time.”
UP NEXT: This year marks the 50th anniversary of the decriminilization of homosexuality in Canada. In part two of this series, hear from Surrey RCMP Corporal Elenore Sturko, whose great uncle was one of many officers “purged” from the RCMP while the law was still in effect. And, learn more about Surrey’s sometimes checkered past with the pride community.