The so-called Bible belt community of Abbotsford seems to be shedding its hyper-conservative image by hosting an inaugural pride parade.

Several hundred supporters of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered community waved rainbow flags and paraded from a local recreation centre to Abbotsford City Hall on Saturday, passing several churches and a Bible college.

Passersby honked and waved and several people who identified themselves as Christians joined in, saying there’s a need for acceptance and love rather than judgment.

“Judgment needs to stop from people who consider themselves to be truly in the Christian faith,” said Tori Phillips. “Real Christian faith is love.”

A transgendered churchgoer, Phillips said family and co-workers have largely been accepting — so it’s time the Church is as well.

“It took me 20 years to come to acceptance myself,” Phillips said. “It took me a long time to realize that I am God’s creation.”

Another churchgoer, Gladys Banks, said she attended the parade with a friend out of curiosity.

“We just read it in the newspaper last night and we both thought we’d like to come,” Banks said. “See what was going on.”

She and her friend — both in their late 70s — were an anomaly among the group of mostly teens and young adults.

A mother of five who attends a United Church every Sunday, Banks said she’s always been open to gays and lesbians within the church and her family.

“I could’ve had one like this,” she added pointing to the crowd. “I’ve always been supportive.”

Banks said she thinks other residents of Abbotsford may be changing their perceptions as well.

“I think they’re getting a little more broadminded. Our church is really openminded.”

The community, however, wasn’t so openminded a few years ago when the same group of organizers tried to hold a similar event.

Fraser Valley Youth Society was forced to change its 2008 pride parade to a “social justice rally” after the group’s attempts to plan the event were heavily criticized online.

A lot has changed since then, said a Fraser Valley Youth Society volunteer who helped organize this weekend’s event.

“We have to take our environment into consideration when we do things and … there’s a certain type of demographic here in the Fraser Valley. For everything we do we have to take that into consideration,” said 22-year-old Cherese Reemaul.

“I have actually been looking to see people who might have been opposed to this event and I’ve been to several business places — malls, KFC, Starbucks — and I’ve been handing out flyers, saying ‘Would you put this up for us?’

“We’ve not received any negative feedback,” the transgendered woman said. “That’s overwhelmed us.”

This year’s event is more of a celebration of diversity than a fight against homophobia, Reemaul said.

Abbotsford Mayor Bruce Banman also attended, along with newly elected MLA Peter Fassbender.

Banman said the parade was an opportunity for the city to build support for its youth.

“All members of our community need to feel safe and secure. They need to feel they can contribute … to express themselves and to grow.”

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