Mar 12, 2018

Tim Stevenson

As an gay rights activist, theologian, and politician, Langara alum Tim Stevenson is a man of many firsts. He started the first Gay Week at UBC in the 70's and was the first openly gay student at the Vancouver School of Theology, the first openly gay minister ordained by the United Church of Canada, the first openly gay member of the BC's Legislative Assembly and the first person to preside over a gay marraige in BC.

Currently, Tim splits his time between teaching religious studies at Langara and serving as a Vancouver City Councillor/Deputy Mayor. Langara Alumni & Community Engagement had the opportunity to sit down with him to chat about his unique career path, his activism, and his legacy. 

How did you begin your secondary studies and professional career?
I was a high school drop out! Don’t ask me how, but I managed to hide it from my parents; absolutely nobody in my family knew about it. I finally told my mother after I had two master’s degrees; my dad never did know. When I left school, I was still struggling with my sexuality, and I was very confused. I traveled in Europe for over a year, hitchhiked around, lived in London, and worked. It made me realize that I didn’t know much, and that I had to get back to high school and continue my studies.

When I came back, I worked at Air Canada and studied at King Edward High School in order to get my General Education Diploma (GED). Then I went to Langara for a while. In the meantime, I got a job in labour relations and worked with local unions, and eventually went to work for the Ministry of Labour as an industrial relations officer. That was the first time I met someone with a degree. I didn’t have any friends that had gone to college. I was embarrassed about dropping out of high school. My husband had the opposite experience. He went to UBC at the age of 16 with a Governor General’s scholarship and then on to Queen’s University for a master's, and by 21 he was teaching as a full-time sessional lecturer at UBC. He didn’t know anyone who didn’t have a degree; that was his reality.

In 1978, I had a very strong mystical experience, and realized I had to go to UBC to get a degree. I wanted to go into religious studies. It all took off from there.

What was your path to becoming a minister?
After receiving my bachelor of arts degree in religious studies, I wanted to study theology but that was a challenge because by then I had “come out”. And so, I was the first openly gay student to study for ministry at the Vancouver School of Theology (VST). At that time, the school’s Board of Governors had recently reached a decision allowing openly gay people to be students. Before that, openly gay people were excluded. Of course, there were some gay or lesbian people already studying at VST at the time, but they hadn’t declared their orientation for fear of being expelled.

It was a long journey from that first day at VST until I was finally ordained as the first openly gay minister of the United Church of Canada, in June of 1992. Although my husband, Gary, often expressed concern, saying,“don’t do this; you’ll never make it; the Church won’t accept you,” I had persevered. I had a strong sense that it was going to happen…and it did, although it ended up taking a lot longer (12 years) than I had originally thought. But I was determined; and I have a lot of patience.

What was the reaction of people around you after you were ordained?
It was a struggle, no question. Some people were supportive; others very opposed. There was a lot of homophobia, usually coming from a lack of understanding. And there was a lot of fear. Out of ignorance, some people worried that somehow having me as a minister might “influence” their children in a negative way. There were a lot of conversations about what it meant to be gay – it’s not “catching” you know.

But there were also some surprising affirmation. For instance, by the time I was ordained, Gary and I had been living together for about 10 years with our three kids in a house in East Van, actually very close to Langara. All our neighbours were of Chinese or South Asian ancestry, so we really stuck out. Two doors from us lived a Sikh family with whom we had spoken a few times throughout the years. When I was ordained, the Vancouver Sun published a story on the front page with my picture. The next day, our doorbell rang and there was the Sikh elder from down the street. We exchanged “good mornings,” and then he asked “Is this you on the front page of the newspaper?” I said "yes", expecting an angry response. Instead, he replied “Congratulations! We Sikhs know what’s like to experience discrimination; this is excellent!”

Growing up homosexual in the 70s, did you have any role models?
When I was growing up there was no public or even private conversation about homosexuality. At best, it was considered an illness. Up until 1969, it was a crime. And the names used to describe homosexuals were ugly and scary. There were no role models and stereotypes abounded, all of them were negative. No wonder so many of us fought against our sexual orientation, or hid the fact that we were gay or lesbian.

Eventually, I came to understand that my orientation wasn’t "chosen" and couldn’t be “fixed”… it simply was one of many facts about who I was, albeit a very important part of my make-up. I now realize that my orientation is a “gift.” I believe in a God who delights in diversity – it’s what creation is all about; diversity is at the heart of the universe.

Did you always know you wanted to go into politics?
I’ve always been very interested in politics and in social justice… hence my work with unions and with labour relations in my younger years. Ironically, it was when I finally came out as gay, that I became more intentionally involved in activism. I was determined to change things for LGBT people, so that they had rights and dignity, and so that younger people wouldn’t have to go through what I had gone through. And that began right away after I came out. 

After I had finished studies at Langara, I transferred to UBC. While there I became the president of the Gay UBC club, and did my best to work for change on the campus. One thing that stands out in my memory was organizing the first Gay Week at UBC in 1980… now that was exciting! We took out a full-page ad in the student newspaper, The Ubyssey. You can imagine the stir it caused at the time – dozens of newspapers thrown on the ground by angry students; lots of letters to the university asking why they allowed this event -- Gay Week -- to have a full-page ad in the paper. It was a very successful event … and fabulous advertising for us! Suddenly, everybody knew about the club, and, in particular, LGBT students learned that there were other people like them on campus…. we went from 30 members to 100 in two months.

How important are your religious beliefs to your activism?
Central! I became an activist because I was gay and had experienced discrimination and oppression in my life and because I believed that fighting against that was an expression of my faith, my belief in a God who calls us to the work of justice and compassion. My activism was born out of necessity and a deep inner spiritual conviction.

I think that a lot of activists tend to burn out quickly because they give everything to their cause but don’t have a spirituality that enables them to rejuvenate and recharge, and to see that what they are doing is part of a bigger picture. Personally, I’ve always needed to reconnect with my own spirituality to recharge. I had a very tough fight to be ordained as a United Church minister. But I was determined. There were times where it felt like I was banging my head against a brick wall. But I would frequently go on silent retreats and come back to the struggle re-energized, and re-assured that I was moving in the right direction.

How did you begin your political career?
I had been a member of the New Democratic Party in Vancouver for some time, and had started to become very active politically. For instance, I had the good fortune to attend the first African National Congress (ANC) Conference, in Durban, in South Africa, in 1991, after Nelson Mandela was released and became the presidential candidate for the party. And a few years later, I was asked to be an international observer during the 1994 election.

In 1995, the New Democratic Party (NDP) contacted me, inviting me to consider running in the 1996 election. They had never had an openly gay candidate before, and thought that I had a strong reputation, and name recognition, particularly because of my work in the United Church. At that point I hadn’t really thought of going into politics… mind you, I did learn my politics in the church. And I believed that all human life is both sacred and political. Following my usual way of discerning, I went for a week of silent prayer and contemplation, and came back saying “Yes!” I realized that to continue to bring about further change, I had to be where the leaders of power are, and that’s the government. You have to have a seat “at the table,” so to speak… in the legislature, in the caucus, in the cabinet. It’s where all the decisions are made. With that in mind, I decided that I would run … and lo and behold, I was elected! Those five years in the Provincial Legislature (as Member of the Legislative Assembly, and Deputy Speaker of the House, and Cabinet Minister for Investment and Employment) were followed by sixteen years in civic politics, here in Vancouver, as a Councillor, and, at the moment, as Deputy Mayor.

What are your plans for this last year in office?
I am pleased to say that almost everything that I set out to accomplish in regards to the LGBTQ community, I've accomplished. I’ve been part of some huge changes in the city. One of these changes was the McLaren Housing project, which, since 1987, has provided affordable housing for people who live with HIV. Now, in these final months in office, I am working on expanding that project and establishing more LGBTQ-friendly housing as part of a new LGBTQ Community Centre. We’ve already secured the land for it.

Are you looking forward to retiring?
I am…and I’m not. On one hand, it’s been a terrific sixteen years at City Council, and I’ve been part of helping bring about so much change in Vancouver… and I enjoy the work. On the other hand, sixteen years is a long time… and I think it’s time for me to step aside. There are a lot of younger people who are vibrant, and ready to have their “kick at the can.” It’s time for renewal.

However, although I will not be running in the next city election, I won’t actually be retiring. I will continue teaching at Langara in the field of religious studies; it’s work that I have enjoyed immensely for twenty-five years. 

Do you still enjoy teaching?
Yes, it’s really wonderful to stay in contact with younger generation to hear what they are thinking and wrestling with, and work with them, and to be part of their education.I think I have a lot to offer from my life experience.

In your opinion, what draws people to study Religious Studies?
Religious studies attracts people for a variety of reasons. For some, it can be quite personal, part of their own spiritual journey. For instance, there are people who grow up in a Christian or a Muslim or a Jewish home and they are taught that way of life. But then, as they grow up, they want to know more about their own religious tradition, and how it differs from others. Some students also go through a mystical or religious experience and want to study the histories and beliefs of each religion to find their own place.

And, it’s clear that religion is having a huge impact in the world nowadays, both positive and negative. People want to know more about these religions, to better understand what people believe, and how those beliefs impact the world. Learning about world religions is so important in the 21st century.

Are there other challenges that you want to take on?
Definitely… although it’s not completely clear what those will be. But that’s okay. My experience has been that opportunities have a way of arriving… and you need to be open. So, one door is closing – that of a City Councillor; but I know other doors will open.

One of them might be lying on a beach in Tahiti … but then my husband reminds me that I’d be bored in two weeks.

Now that you are looking back and entering a new phase in your life, what are you most proud of?
One of the things that was most important to me was my ordination. For me it was an affirmation of the call I had experienced to be a minister. And, at the same time, it was a major decision on the part of the United Church of Canada, a profound statement that LGBT people are fully welcome to be members of the Christian faith community. Sometimes I think people don’t realize how important that decision was, to have the largest Protestant church in Canada, say “Yes!” to ordaining a gay minister. It was a decision that had societal ramifications beyond the church. It felt that I was the right person, at the right time, at the right place.

I am also proud of what I have been able to accomplish as a politician… which for me, is simply another expression of my faith; to work for justice is to put one’s spirituality into action. As the first openly-gay elected Provincial MLA and Cabinet Minister, I was “at the table” and thus had an opportunity to bring a gay perspective to many of the issues of the day. It’s important to hear different voices – of women, Indigenous people, people of colour, those with disabilities – even if most of the time we’re not speaking about issues specific to that group.

I could point to specific pieces of legislation, both provincial and civic, but overall I think that my greatest contribution has been to be at the table, offering a different standpoint, and helping raise awareness. I’m hard to ignore.

I feel that, in Canada, there has been a “sea change” in the understanding and acceptance of LGBT people. When I was young, as I said earlier, homosexuality was illegal; it was considered an illness; there was no human rights protection. LGBT people were closeted, hidden. There were no role models for young people – when I was young I didn’t know anyone in the gay community; I didn’t have anyone to turn to. I am glad that I have had an opportunity to contribute to that change.

Are you going to miss the table? Or are you looking for a different table?
Maybe a different table. I don’t know how much more advocacy I need to do. There are a lot of young people that are ready to take on the challenge. I always felt that unless you let go of something, nothing new emerges. Moving forward, I want to let go, walk out the door, and see what else happens.