Sometimes you’re in the right place at the right time and you get caught up in something huge. And sometimes the huge thing is inside your own heart. I had both of those at once last month at Steinbach’s first Pride Parade.
Pride parades are everywhere all the time now, it seems. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau walked in a Pride march in Toronto recently, wearing pink and grinning—the first Canadian Prime Minister to do so (join a Pride Parade, I mean; I haven’t researched the “wearing pink” part). Pride is big in the big cities, and it’s gotten to the point where a lot of people aren’t interested in them anymore because they have seem to have been co-opted by corporations and the Squeaky Clean Gay Machine. When banks and insurance companies are sponsoring floats, and the spokespeople are mostly white men who can “pass” for straight, it seems not only too mainstream to matter, but also frankly kind of boring.
But what’s still exciting is when Pride marches happen for the first time, especially in places where not conforming strictly to heterosexual norms of appearance and behaviour are still punishable by law or by custom. Places where standing up to be counted as LGBTTQ* or an ally thereof is stigmatised so strongly that it can cause you to lose your job, your family, your friends, your standing in the community, or your life.
This is about the very first Pride march in Steinbach, Manitoba. Steinbach is a small city (not quite 14,000 people) about a 45-minute drive southeast of Winnipeg. It’s a conservative place, and was “dry” until four or five years ago. Steinbach was in the news for a while recently due to the local school division’s refusal to support Gay-Straight Alliances in the schools. LGBTTQ* students in that school division were suffering—but you know, this is a familiar story. This is what happens everywhere to a huge number of LGBTTQ* students, and you can look it up yourself if you want more details about the hate and the fear and the bullying and the misery. Steinbach is not the only place this happens, that’s the tragic truth.
Long story short, the LGBTTQ* community in Steinbach, spearheaded by Michelle Hale (whose kid was bullied in school for having two moms), organised the first ever Pride parade in that little city. It wouldn’t have been such a big deal to me except that the local Member of Parliament (MP) for that area (Conservative MP Ted Falk), refused to attend, as did some other local politicians, and the Steinbach city council released a statement saying they would not endorse the event. I could hardly believe that news. It was inconceivable to me that in 2016, in Canada—a country where our Prime Minister just walked in a Pride Parade—any politicians could still think this was acceptable. The MP cited “faith” and “family values” and “personal ethics”—code words in this case for traditional, conservative, Christian family structures—which is certainly his prerogative as an individual, but is absolutely unacceptable in a public representative. When you are elected, you are required to represent all the people in your constituency, and you are absolutely required to stand up for human rights.I was not the only one who sat up and paid attention. LGBTQ* groups and businesses in the province started mobilising, doing things like organising ride-shares to the Steinbach event. I mentioned to my mom that I was planning to go and she said she’d like to go along. She said my aunt and uncle in Steinbach were planning to go, as well as my aunt’s 80-year-old mother (and her boyfriend!).
Eventually, I ended up going out with my mom and my dear friend J. I had a gig the night before and was thus very sleep-deprived, so my mom drove us out to my aunt and uncle’s place in Steinbach, where we sunscreened up and piled into their car. Being locals, they knew the best place to park for the march! When we parked, my uncle started hauling lawn chairs out, and I realised that they were planning to spectate rather than participate. My mom went with them to find a good spot along the parade route, while J. and I wandered over to the park where the marchers were gathering.
It was a colourful and happy crowd. There had been warnings that people were planning to protest the parade, but the group gathering in the park was smiling and talking, holding up signs, waving rainbow flags, handing out stickers and badges, and just generally grinning at strangers and striking up conversations. I took about a gazillion pictures—of people, of signs, of dogs (#puppiesofpride), of babies—with J. (who’s a photographer) giving me discreet and concise tips (“sideways” “lower” “tilt it up”) so I actually got some decent shots.The organisers of Steinbach’s first ever Pride Parade originally expected a few hundred people. But more and more people kept streaming into the park. People were jostling for the shady spots, even though it was still morning, and it was heartening to see that the babies and older people and pregnant people were getting first crack at the shade and the few benches. By the scheduled start time, there were easily a thousand people milling around the park, and Michelle McHale, the spokesperson, took the mic to tell us that traffic was backed up 15 kilometres on the highway to Ste. Anne with people trying to get to Steinbach!! She asked if we wanted to delay the start to let more people have a chance to arrive, and we all screamed YES!!!
By then, the cellular service was starting to overload. Everyone was texting and calling, uploading pictures to Instagram, going live on Facebook, tagging and hashtagging and tweeting and snapchatting and just generally sharing the love. I was torn between wanting to thoroughly document this historic event, and wanting to put my phone away and just be there in the moment, seeing and absorbing and experiencing it all. My compromise was to put my phone away, look-absorb-experience until there was something I absolutely had to photograph, then pull out the phone again for a bunch of pictures and uploading to social media… And then put it away and start over.J. and I ran into a person who was wearing a t-shirt printed on the back with the names of the people who were murdered at Orlando Pulse. She allowed me to take a picture of it, and then gave us each one of the t-shirts. There was a picnic table with bins of sunscreen and swag put out by the Canadian Federation of Students. Various unions and lefty groups were there handing out flyers and stickers and flags and pins. There was a pipe ceremony at the start of the parade, and Aboriginal drummers to start us off. In response to the opposition of the local conservative politicians, the Commanding Officer of the Manitoba RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police), Scott Kolody, had been quite vocal in the time leading up to the parade about his intent to be there, and the commitment of his officers to be present to escort the parade, not only because it was their job and their duty, but because it was the right thing to do. When the uniformed officers filed in to take their place in the parade, the crowd went wild, screaming and clapping and cheering. It was a little surreal for me to be cheering for the cops, give what has been going on in North America recently, not only at Pride parades but to civilians in general at the hands of the police. It was weird but wonderful to see the police and the parade actually be together in that moment. On the other hand, the crowd was extremely white, and so our massive privilege with regard to being policed was also a big part of that reception. And yet.
Once the actual parade started, I did put my phone away and completely entered the moment. By then the crowd was so large that we couldn’t even guess how many people there were. The numbers were so unexpectedly high that more police presence had been called for, so there were also Winnipeg city police along the parade route. This event that was originally expected to have a couple of hundred people had ballooned into thousands. A later police estimate said between 2500 and 5000 people attended!J. and I walked the parade route together, beaming. Well-wishers and curious onlookers lined the streets, although it was impossible to tell how many of them were locals like my aunt and uncle, and how many were tourists from outside Steinbach like my mom. There was a post on Facebook the next day by someone else who attended in which she expressed disappointment that there was so little local support. But the onlookers lined the short parade route—admittedly only one-deep for much of the way, but that’s a pretty big deal in a little city where being openly gay (or an open ally) can still result in ostracism severe enough to drive one from the community. There was the young woman with the placard reading “High Five for Pride” who was indeed high-fiving as many of us as she could as we went by. There were about a gazillion teachers; it seemed like every teacher in the province was there, which made me so very happy to see them out there supporting each other and us and their students. The paramedics stationed at intervals along the parade route were smiling and applauding.
Very excitingly for me, at one point someone touched my arm to get my attention, and I turned to see the quiet young woman who was the cyclist in the accident aftermath I wrote about recently. She asked “Are you the person who witnessed my bike accident last week?” I was almost too happy to be coherent. It felt like so much goodness at once: this peaceful, joyful march, and then this sweet person telling me quietly: “They kept me in the hospital for a while to make sure the foetus was okay, and we were both fine.” I remembered the slight puffiness of her belly where her shirt had pulled up a bit, when she was on the tracks, and how I had wondered about internal bleeding. How wonderful to know the ending to that story!
At the end point of the march, Dan Vandal (my MP, the Liberal MP for Saint-Boniface-St. Vital), read out a personal greeting to Steinbach Pride from Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister of Canada. I half-expected it to be perfunctory and generic, but was delighted to see how much Dan Vandal seemed to enjoy bringing that message to us. When he read out the PM’s greeting, he did not use any acronyms, but each word loudly, clearly, and with dignity: “Lesbian. Gay. Bisexual. Transgender. Queer.” I was surprised at how thrilling it was for me to hear these words spoken with such respect, over the PA system, to such a large crowd, by a person whom I helped vote into office, at such a joyful event. It was wonderful to see how Dan Vandal took the message very seriously, and also delivered it with enthusiasm and conviction.
Later, I heard the march described as being reminiscent of the early days of Pride. There were no vendors, no commercial sponsors, and no fancy floats. There were a few porta-potties, a gazillion hand-made signs, and a lot of smiles. Peace & love, baby.I was especially thrilled to have been there with my mom. We have never talked about me being queer, and I have never brought a girlfriend home to meet her. We’ve skirted the subject; my brother and I treat it casually in conversation in her presence, but it’s as if she doesn’t really hear those words. When I was sixteen-ish, I asked her once, when her back was turned to me (doing the dishes) what she would do if I told her I was gay, and she froze, then said carefully, without turning: “I would try hard not to let my upbringing interfere with your happiness.” And another time, back when I was in my early twenties and my mom and I weren’t getting along, I wrote her an angry letter in which I bared my soul in grand Angry-Young-Person tradition and I came out to her as bisexual (which is how I identified then). But we’ve never actually discussed it. Yet her wanting to come along to the parade felt to me like not just her lifelong commitment to human rights and doing the right thing, but also a way of tacitly supporting and acknowledging my identity.
When J. and I got to the end of the march, we found my mom and aunt and uncle among the bystanders. My mom moved toward me and gave me a long hard hug. I don’t know if we will ever have that conversation in words. But when she stepped out of the line of spectators into the street, with her eyes shining and a proud smile on her face, and claimed me in my rainbow dress and my purple hair, her arms around me told me enough.