opinion & features
The first official Pride march in Winnipeg was a celebration, but it could have been a protest instead. On July 15, 1987, the Government of Manitoba passed legislation that recognized the rights of gays and lesbians. A couple of weeks later, the march took place. A group in Winnipeg were planning some sort of event for a couple of weeks after the vote took place in the Manitoba Legislature, they just weren’t sure what that would be until after the final count took place. "It was either going to be a demonstration if it didn't pass, or a celebration it if passed," said Albert McLeod, a two-spirit activist who was there at the first parade.
The crowd at the inaugural parade was somewhere between 150 and 300 people, with some allies there as well. Some of the marchers wore T-shirts with the parade’s slogan, “Out on the Streets.” It was a nice sunny day, with people dogs, signs, some kids and a green Volkswagen bug at the front of the parade. That first parade went from Vimy Ridge Park to the Legislature, McLeod recalled.
"It was a festive and pleasant thing, with balloons and such, no violence or other harassing incidents," said Chris Vogel, who was at the parade and had been involved in gay and lesbian activism since the early ‘70s in Winnipeg. In 1974, he was part of a national gay conference that took place at the University of Manitoba and included the first public gay march on the Prairies.
Looking back at that first Winnipeg Pride March in 1987, he was surprised there were so many people, considering it was long before the advent of e-mail and the Internet to let people know about it. "I don't know how they gathered people," he said. Then he thought for a moment. "The lesbians had a good phone tree," he said.
John Rymon was a member of the gay youth group when he attended the march. “There was a woman standing there counting and you could physically count everyone that was there,” he said. He wound up helping plan many of the Pride parades in Winnipeg after that first one, but he hadn't planned on participating in the first one. He didn't have many openly gay friends until he got involved in the youth group.
"I didn't want to go. I kind of stumbled into it," he said. It really was only intended as a way to hang out with the gay friends he had in the youth group, he recalled. A core of that group went on to work on a number of Pride parades after that. "It was an overwhelming sense of freedom that day. It was a licence to be myself. There was strength in numbers and there were only 150 to 200 people that day," he said before pausing. "Now, it's 30,000 strong."
He wasn't worried about being seen. He'd been out since he was about 16 and dressed like Boy George at the time. Although he stood out he says he didn't encounter much harassment at school. "It was like “Oh, that's just John. He's like that."
Albert McLeod described himself as being “very out” even before that parade. He'd been involved with some of the early First Nations groups organizing around two-spirit issues. It was still early in the GLBT rights movement, he remembered, with homosexuality having been removed from the criminal code in 1969. "That's not very far from 1987," he said. "There was some fear," he said. "It's a Prairie city, conservative. Maybe kind of liberal, but when push comes to shove…"
Those concerns may have led to some people wearing paper bags at the parade. Vogel said he only remembered a couple. "The people at the parade didn't mind being seen," he said.
Rymon remembered a few people who looked like they had bags on their heads, but they were more like masks, with decorations. “They're gay men, “he said. “They'd make something pretty out of it.” McLeod said he knew some people who did wear bags, but it wasn't out of shame at being gay or being at the parade. "There were concerns about losing your job or violence," he said.
But there was also excitement at what the future could hold. “The energy was there, that this was going to be a force to be reckoned with. You could just feel the energy,” said Rymon. “This was the start of something.” It’s become even more for him now. “It’s gay Christmas,” he said. “What's your favourite holiday? Pride.”
The parade and the community, he said, have changed since then. "We're interwoven to society. It's a family event now. We're celebrating ourselves."
The legacy goes farther for McLeod. "I don't think we understood the potential,” he said. “The community was quite small – Purdy's, Gio's, Happenings. “ For the Aboriginal community, which began to organize in 1988, the parade galvanized the community. "It created an opportunity for the two-spirited community to be more organized and begin our liberation movement," he said. "The two spirit community? We wouldn't be here without the march." For McLeod, marching has always been important. "It's for self-liberation. It means you believe in something," he said. It's a physical way of embracing your identity. A way of being out."
For Vogel, the advancement of gay rights was helped by the march, but it’s just one part of the struggle for rights. "What really caused liberation to occur wasn't the courts or the legislature,” he said, “it was in the living rooms. People became positive when they knew someone. Everything we did was to cause that to happen."
Vogel and Rymon both said they’re amazed at how quickly the changes have taken place. “It surprised me it [legal recognition for gay marriage] happened at all,” said Vogel. “It surprised me it happened so quickly.” But he always thought it should. "What does non-discrimination mean if not that?" he said.
"I didn't think I'd see it [gay marriage] in my lifetime," said Rymon. Looking back now at 25 years of Pride marches in Winnipeg, he is proud of having been there for the first one. "I was there in the beginning,” he said. "I saw the birth of it in Winnipeg."
– Nancy Renwick is a Winnipeg-based freelance writer.