STRATFORD – Last June, Bruce Duncan Skeaff, president and chair of the Stratford Pride Community Centre (SPCC) and some friends realized there were a lot of opportunities to do better for the LGBTQ2S+ community in Stratford.
“About that same time, I came across a Ph.D. thesis by a student at the University of Western Ontario, Dayna Prest,” he said. “She did her thesis on what it’s like to be LGBTQ2S+ in Stratford.”
He read all 300 pages in one day and knew he had found a road map to help the community. The first key point in the research was a lack of information about what is happening for LGBTQ2S+ people in the Stratford area.
“There wasn’t one central hub where all of this information was gathered, where you could just go to one website and see it all combined into one place,” said Skeaff. “People said we need that because if things are going on – A, if we don’t know about them, we’re missing out on that particular event. B, it also gives us the impression that there is a community here, and we’re missing out on it entirely because we don’t know how to find it. Well, in fact, there really isn’t a community here, and that’s part of the problem.”
He said lack of clear information had left any possible LGBTQ2S+ community in the area fragmented, and someone needs to take up the reigns, make sense of it all and gather the information together.
The other key point in the thesis was that people said there was no gay bar or a safe place to gather in the region that is welcoming, that’s a place of their own and is not going to pop up for a few weeks and then for lack of money disappear again.
“So there’s our road map,” said Skeaff. “That’s what people said they need, so that’s what we are doing.”
Last August, the website launched provides health and welfare information such as suicide lines, links to doctors, and addiction services.
“Anything like that because many people need those services and don’t know where to find them,” he said. “We put them all together on that website, and we’ve been adding more information since then, but the idea of the website turned into what we are calling Pride Guide.”
It is a directory of gay-friendly businesses in the Stratford area.
“For $50 per year, a business will get a listing in our directory – businesses listed in this directory welcome you to walk through their doors. The fact that it is here on our website means that business supports the community centre as well,” said Skeaff.
The businesses in the Pride Guide get a window sticker to display, so pedestrians recognize they are LGBTQ2S+ welcoming.
“That sticker is our logo,” he said. “So it’s unique, very distinct – the Stratford City Hall in the rainbow colours.”
When SPCC started putting the guide together, they realized there were three audiences. One was local people looking for information.
“If local people are having trouble finding (information), then surely a gay couple coming out from Toronto for a theatre weekend is having a hell of a time trying to find out … what is gay-friendly or … gender-neutral bathrooms in this town,” he said.
The third audience is people who are moving to the area.
“I moved here from Toronto on retirement 15 months ago,” said Skeaff. “Many people like me of different ages are moving to Stratford because, with all of the theatre and cultural opportunities here, Stratford has a reputation for being very artsy and gay friendly.”
“But again, say you are a lesbian couple with a couple of kids, and you are planning on moving, how do you find a real estate agent that is not going to snicker behind your back when you are not looking. How do you find out whether or not this is a good place to raise your kids if you are looking at other towns too.”
The other part addressed the idea of the LGBTQ2S+ community having a welcoming place of its own.
“That’s the community centre,” said Skeaff. “What you are going to find there are all the things that have been missing here forever. It will be a place to drop in and have a coffee, meet a friend, make new friends.”
The community centre will have a library full of gay books, authors, topics.
“We’re going to build that library as time goes along,” he said.
The community centre will have two rooms. The front room is the drop-in room where people can gather in a friendly environment, and the backroom will be a meeting room where Skeaff hopes a chapter of PFLAG and other LGBTQ2S+ positive groups can form and gather.
“It’s something that has not been available before,” he said. “There hasn’t been an organization that has put all the right things together to make this happen.”
Skeaff pointed out that one crucial thing about SPCC is that it will be around 12 months of the year, not just in Pride month.
“That’s another big thing that people told Dayna is that if anything goes on right now, it only happens in June in Pride month,” he said. “Then what happens to people’s lives. We all go back into our social isolation again; that’s no good.”
SPCC will be a unique service with a wide catchment area because southwestern Ontario does not have any large LGBTQ2S+ groups with consistent services.
“The closest Pride committee is in London, but they don’t have community centre services,” said Skeaff. “If you dig out a map and look at everything west of Kitchener Waterloo, that’s our catchment area and going north; there is nothing.”
The community centre’s physical location on the second floor of 24 Downie St, will be opening with the help of two significant grants – $30,000 over three years from TD Bank Group and another $20,000 this from United Way Perth-Huron – on June 1, with an official ribbon-cutting ceremony on June 4.
On June 5, Felice Picano, a prominent writer, publisher and critic known for advancing gay literature in the United States, will participate in one of the community centre’s inaugural events.
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