By Jelena Djurkic
Chris Wright remembers the day he realized he was gay.
It was Grade 6. He had heard the word “gay” tossed around and it hit him: it was a label he identified with.
That was the day he officially came out to himself.
But it wasn’t until he was 17 that he began to share his secret with others — first to friends and then to family.
“I had a very strong sense of self. I just knew it was okay. I realized that I can’t be who I am right now out of fear,” said Wright, now 34.
From these beginnings, Wright has emerged as a gay activist. And on Feb. 3, he won the first ever RyePRIDE Queer Award.
The $500 award is given to a student to recognize their activism in challenging homophobia or transphobia, both on and off campus.
Wright is the current co-chair of Positive Space Ryerson, which aims at creating safe space environments for gay and transgendered students on campus.
He also served as the RyePRIDE Education Campaigns Coordinator in 2006, working on the single use/gender-free washroom campaign.
Jesse Trautmann, RyePRIDE’s Outreach Coordinator, said the idea for the award came up when he realized there was nothing recognizing student activism in the gay community.
“I think a campus that is in the hub of the gay village should have something available,” Trautmann said.
To win the award, Wright proposed including a harassment policy to course syllabi similar to the plagiarism policy.
Along with making classrooms more queer positive, it would also show that Ryerson is inclusive to all students, said Wright.
“I’ve been in classrooms where someone will make a comment like ‘that’s so gay’ and the professor will giggle along and let it go. It might not affect them in the moment but for others in the room, it might,” said Wright.
The award is a huge milestone for RyePRIDE, a community service group with a long and often tumultuous history that spans back over three decades.
In the mid-1970s, the university had a growing visible presence of gay and lesbian members. But it wasn’t until 1977 that they began to organize. Gays at Ryerson, initially a discussion group, was granted club status on December 12, 1977.
Club founder Doug Chin described Ryerson as a “very uptight institution.”
From the beginning, the group was faced with rampant homophobia. Even before their first meeting, the group’s posters were torn down in Jorgenson Hall.
In 1980, the group reformed as the Ryerson Gay Student Association. But the group was forced to go underground after receiving bomb threats.
A League Against Homosexuals group emerged, putting up antigay posters on campus proclaiming, “Queers do not produce: they seduce.”
Similar anti-gay groups such as the GayBusters emerged later on, and a pattern of harassment soon emerged.
It may also be one of the reasons why reporting of sexuality-based harassment is so low.
Only 8 to 10 per cent of the harassment complaints his office receives are based on sexual orientation, said Darrell Bowden, an advisor Discrimination and Harassment Prevention Services.
“People have the tendency to go silent because of fear,” Bowden said.
The group officially became RyePRIDE in 1996 and was designated as a community service group in 1999. The last major incident of anti-gay sentiment on campus was last spring.
In March, RyePRIDE’s door was vandalized with graffiti reading “Kill the Fuckers,” with the words “Fuck and suck them first” added below.
“We still have a lot of work to do. This award is a fundamental component to acknowledging queer activists,” said Gareth Henry, the Equity and Campaigns manager.
RyePRIDE has secured RSU funding for the award, which is set to continue next year.
Meanwhile, Wright hopes the award will inspire queer students who may be struggling with coming out.
“The bumps along the way are worth it,” he said.