Q & A with Vancouver Pride president Ken Coolen on the Parade, LGBT Rights in Warsaw and How to Enjoy the Celebration
There are few people in Vancouver who are as attached to the city’s annual Vancouver Pride Parade and Festival as Ken Coolen. To start, he’s been to 20 or so of the 26 parades since moving to Vancouver from Nova Scotia more than two decades ago. Beyond that, he’s worked with Vancouver Pride as an account, parade director for five years and is now the organization’s president, a title he’s held for the past two years.
Needless to say, he gets busy each July and August when Pride, which draws more than a half-million people annually, and fills streets, bars and restaurants in Vancouver for the better part of a week. On the eve of the celebration kicking off July 29, he took a quick phone call to talk Pride, its significance and a recent trip to Warsaw.
Q: First off, what makes Vancouver such an LGBT-friendly city?
Ken Coolen: The first thing we need to recognize is the legal rights that all of Canada is privileged to. We’ve seen countries around the world, including the U.S. right next door, overturn same-sex marriage law. … Plus, Vancouver being the very bohemian West Coast-style city that it is, lends itself to embracing diversity. Vancouver has a huge, diverse nature about it, and the LGBT community is very much a part of that.
Q: In your mind, why has Vancouver Pride Parade and Festival been so successful?
KC: The reason they become so very popular is because of the fact, by nature, we are a very colourful people. We know how to have fun, be very decorative and celebrate -- those kinds of things. But this is very special to our community. … The Parade is now the single largest one-day event in Western Canada. The city likes to have a good time, and here’s a really fun, colourful event that people can come see for free on a nice summer afternoon.
Q: Why should someone, particularly a straight person not associated with the LGBT community, come to a Pride event?
KC: Well, beside the obvious (to have some fun), by attending a Pride event, you are lending your voice to the validity that LGBT people are an accepted part of society, that we are as much a part of the fabric of the people who make up Vancouver and other parts of the word [as any other group]. Although it is fun and celebratory, by being a part of that, it definitely lends a voice to the fact that we are standing together and representing each other.
Q: What’s the best part of Pride?
KC: Hmmm, you know, its kind of cheesy, I guess, but at the end of the day, it’s the people. The people participating. The people watching. It’s the experience people have being a part of the celebration: watching a mom or a dad walking with a queer child; watching the crowd seeing someone’s parents being bold. That joy of the experience of having that day of celebration. Pride is really an opportunity to be their authentic selves with no fear of repercussions from anybody.
Q: Any favorite memories from years past?
KC: There are a lot, but one that really touches me was in 2008. One of our grand marshals was a man named Sahran from Sri Lanka. He was there because we were recognizing his work in Sri Lanka where homosexuality is still a punishable offense. He organizes Pride there despite that. … With a half million people waving at him, he was moved to tears for a majority of the parade. … It really spoke to the power and impact Pride has. That’s what Pride is all about, for people to come and feel that support.
Q: You just got back from EuroPride in Warsaw, what was that like?
KC: In 2005, the government of Warsaw … deemed [the parade] illegal, and arrested people. In 2006, an EU commission ruled that it was in fact legal. I was there in 2008, and being surrounded by police in riot gear was quite a moving experience. This year, we were protected incredibly well by the police. However, there were protesters and some things being thrown at us -- there were a lot of angry people there. For me, personally, it just reaffirms what we are doing. When we march in Vancouver, we do it for millions of people around the world who have that challenge of acceptance.
Q: Did you learn anything that could be incorporated into future Vancouver Pride celebrations?
KC: It just reaffirms what Vancouver Pride has been doing, which is to bring back the human rights element of Pride. One of this year’s grand marshals is Nikolai Alekseev who is from Moscow. In Russia, Pride gets banned every year. People get arrested.
Q: For someone visiting Vancouver for Pride, list a few attractions or things to do when not partaking in festival activities.
KC: Davie Village is always the best place to go. There’s lots of great stops to make. There are great places to have lunch. The Fountainhead Pub is a great place for lunch and drinks. If you feel like doing a little gay shopping, Little Sisters Bookstore is was one of the first icons of the gay community. There are lots of different places to go to do some shopping or have a drink.
Q: Any parade tips?
KC: Some of the best places to watch are where we have live commentary. There are sites in four different locations: Safeway (on Denman and Robson streets), West End Community Centre, Denman Place Mall and in front of the Boathouse.