When Whistler Pride’s executive director and CEO Dean Nelson was growing up, the library served as a safe space for him; allowing him to escape into the pages of books.
But even that sense of safety wasn’t all-encompassing. One day, he opened an “early-1960s” encyclopedia to look up what it meant to be gay.
“Back then, it said that it was a mental illness,” he remembered. “When I read that, it was like, ‘well... I can’t let anybody know this.’ So that’s when the story began for me.”
But now, youth visiting the Whistler Public Library will have a visual reminder that they are free to be themselves thanks to a new set of rainbow crosswalks unveiled on Friday (Sept. 15).
The unveiling of the two new permanent installations — one located on Main Street in front of the library and another a few metres down the street — are now part of the Whistler’s cultural connector. The official opening of the brightly-coloured crosswalks, an easily-recognized symbol of inclusion and equality, comes one year after Nelson officially proposed the concept to municipal council. It received unanimous support.
While Whistler is the latest in a string of B.C. municipalities to adorn its streets with the rainbow crosswalks, it is the first ski resort in the province to do so. The rainbow crosswalks are appropriately timed as well, with 2017 marking the 25th anniversary of Whistler Pride and Ski Festival; a quarter-decade of celebrating inclusion and equality within Whistler.
“For me, the rainbow symbol is a reminder for all of humanity to live authentically, to love, to be compassionate,” Nelson said, to the crowd. “This colourful icon embraces the diversity in gender and sexuality. It is a spectrum, and each and every one of us is part of it. Allow these crosswalks to be a positive reminder to be the best we can be.”
A sizable crowd turned out to celebrate the crosswalks’ completion at the Friday afternoon ceremony, held under sunny skies. The Greater Vancouver Native Cultural Society was in attendance to perform the Two Spirit First Nations traditional down ceremony, with those taking part in the blessing releasing handfuls of down feathers, representing peace, love and unity, around the crosswalk. The ceremony, hosted by “The Unstoppable” Connie Smudge, was also attended by members of the local RCMP detachment, as well as Sea to Sky MLA Jordan Sturdy.
The crosswalks “represent all that Whistler is. Whistler is inclusive, it’s welcoming, it’s safe,” said Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden, or as she was introduced during the ceremony, “the Queen of Whistler.” “This (crosswalk) has been some time in the making — things tend to move slowly sometimes — but I am so pleased that it’s here today. Every time we cross it, we’ll think of the values Whistler has.”
Whistler Secondary School student Payton McPhee also stepped up to the mic to provide a voice for youth in the community. “This is something I think Whistler has needed for a while,” he said. “It may be a small step in the right direction, but at least we’re moving in a direction that isn’t backwards. For some people, this may just be a colourful sidewalk, but it means so much more to me than that. These bright, beautiful sidewalks are just one of the pieces making Whistler a more loving, compassionate place to live.”
McPhee pointed out that it’s not always easy growing up in Whistler as a transgender youth. “It always seemed like people knew my story before I had the chance to tell it… School should not be an uncomfortable place to be. Neither should any place, for that matter. People should feel comfortable to be who they are wherever they go,” McPhee said.
“The first step is creating a community that believes in acceptance and respect for others, by doing things like creating resources and safe spaces to be or by painting crosswalks rainbow…” McPhee continued. “If there’s one thing I want these crosswalks to achieve, I hope they make at least one person feel a little less alone and a little more normal.”