Like many not-for-profit groups, DAISSI — Diverse and Inclusive Salt Spring Island — is in “soft restart” mode following the effects of the pandemic, which saw group activities either stop, shift to Zoom or to outdoor events with limited numbers.
The popular Pride parade and week of Pride activities has not occurred since 2019, and the group had already started shifting away from that format before COVID-19.
But DAISSI will have a big presence in this Saturday’s Community Procession — part of On The Rise: An Arts Festival Navigating Climate Grief and Action — and is hosting the final event in the month-long festival, the Pride On The Rise Dance at the Farmers’ Institute on Saturday, Oct. 1. (See separate story.)
DAISSI president Juli Mallett and treasurer/volunteer coordinator Jean Burgess sat down with the Driftwood last week to talk about the highlights and challenges for DAISSI in the past year, and what they hope to see going forward.
Perhaps the most exciting part of the last year was a high level of youth engagement, which saw DAISSI respond to requests from youth and parents to provide help with specific issues and to help facilitate events. Those included the 2022 youth Pride event at the high school and a pop-up dance at Beaver Point Hall.
Burgess said, “One of the trans parents came to me [after the dance] and said, ‘What can I do to help DAISSI? This is the first time I’ve been in a safe space since I moved onto the island with my partner and kids.’”
Youth also organized a picnic in Centennial Park and have an event planned for the last Thursday of this month at the Core Inn.
Then there were the young people who were part of a DAISSI contingent in the Victoria Pride Parade in June, who ended up riding in the back of Burgess’ old truck. It was the first Pride parade for several of them, said Burgess, and the experience was transformative.
“The DAISSI banner was being carried in front of the truck, and the crowd recognized Salt Spring. And they saw the trans placard being held up in the truck, and they saw it was youth and there was this uproar of applause and cheering.”
The Salt Spring youth became more confident as the procession continued, even inviting peers from the crowd to come over to the truck to share high-fives.
Unfortunately, it was a negative incident that prompted DAISSI to be advocating for youth in the first place: a Pride flag was burned at Gulf Islands Secondary School (GISS) during a youth Pride event there in 2021. Mallett said that obviously caused significant anxiety for some GISS students, and did lead to productive discussions in the past school year, especially thanks to Ryan Massey (who as of August is the new GISS principal). That led to DAISSI reps being invited to talk to staff about gender transition and pronoun issues, for example.
“There’s this real mix of things that are really easy to change,” Mallett said. “And there’s people who are really interested in responding to that positively. But then there’s basic things that we’re having a harder time moving on, that we are continuing to be asked to be involved in advocating for.”
One of those issues is getting gender neutral washrooms in place at GISS. At present there is only a single gender-neutral stall, which is not enough to serve students who need it.
“We’ve heard some pretty disturbing stories,” said Mallett. “There’s one trans youth I’ve spoken with on the island a fair amount who says, ‘I get bullied and beat up if I go into the girls room; I get bullied and beat up if I go into the boys room, and I just want to be able to use the washroom. I just want to be able to pee somewhere.’”
While the school board and administration have stated a desire to provide additional gender-neutral washrooms at GISS, it has not happened yet.
Lack of gender-neutral washrooms in the wider community, as well as harassment of trans individuals, is another issue, especially for those who are housing insecure.
DAISSI heard that the level of harassment trans people face on the streets every day meant that in some cases they stopped the transitioning process or left the community “because they simply felt so unsafe,” said Mallett.
Burgess and Mallett note that transgender people are taking the brunt of a blacklash against increased visibility in recent years, with people in QAnon conspiracy circles and elsewhere falsely accusing them of being pedophiles and grooming heterosexual children to become trans. B.C. school districts, including SD64, have been pressured by these same circles to back away from trans-inclusive education, and some local election candidates in B.C. are running with strong anti-trans and anti-equal rights messages.
“It’s very distressing,” said Burgess, “and it’s kind of a flashback for me because that’s what I was told when I was 17, that people were ‘grooming’ me to become a lesbian. It’s absurd but that’s always a familiar story. And then if people pick up on that story through misinformation, or just ill will, it becomes harmful as well as distressing.”
Burgess and Mallett stress the importance of standing up to the misinformation, discrimination against and harassment of trans individuals in the community.
“It feels like they’re trying to establish a beachhead, or an outpost to build from, and it’s like in the U.S., where we see these things around women’s rights and trans rights,” said Mallett. “There is this gradual eroding of rights, and as they go for the next group on the list, you can’t be complacent.”
Burgess said the loss of volunteers due to the pandemic has meant DAISSI must work on coalition building with other groups, as is being done with Transition Salt Spring, Salt Spring Arts and Graffiti Theatre to offer the Pride On The Rise Dance on Oct. 1.
The challenges of being an all-volunteer organization have become more apparent in the past year, said Burgess and Mallett, as they are called upon to respond to immediate community needs without paid staff. For example, DAISSI will get people asking “What can we do about somebody who’s spreading transphobic memes on a Facebook group?” But beyond continuing to educate the community, the society isn’t resourced enough to take specific action.
“There has to be a community that’s prepared to say, ‘we can’t let this happen.’ And so we’re sort of exploring what it would take to do that,” said Mallett.
She said offering something like active bystander training to help people feel comfortable intervening safely when they witness harassment or violence is definitely desired by DAISSI, but would require funding and access to expertise the group does not currently have.
Similarly, DAISSI would like to do more for older 2SLGBTQAI+ community members with the challenges of aging, as many do not have the support of family members when they need it the most.
In terms of reaching that segment of the island, the pandemic created an opportunity for online connection that has been positive, plus offering small intimate events often more suited to elders, observed Mallett, and showed that DAISSI can adapt to changing circumstances.
Continued adaptation and collaboration with others will be a focus for DAISSI in coming years.
“It can’t be anymore that we do things in our silos for groups that are of a special interest,” said Mallett. “It has to be that we recognize our interdependence and the intersections of our needs, and support each other to create spaces in which our needs can be met, and to create events that are sustainable and that are not dependent on having the most access to resources.”