Pride Winnipeg Gala Keynote Address
November 19, 2016
by Vic Hooper
November 19, 2016
by Vic Hooper
I must say I was quite surprised when I got the phone call asking me if I would speak at tonight’s event. I pondered the question for a moment and then asked, why me? The response was that next summer Pride Winnipeg will be celebrating its 30th Pride parade and the committee thought that it would be nice if they could find someone who might have been around in 1987 for the first Gay Pride Parade and able to remember and share what it was like way back then. I gave it some thought and realized that by being born in 1948, by coming out in 1979 at the age of 31 and by having attended probably 25 of the 29 Pride Parades so far, I guessed I could do this.
I was 39 in 1987. I was an out gay man to my friends and a very closeted gay man to those with whom I worked. It was beyond my imagination that I could or would ever venture anywhere close to a gay pride parade. The fact was that until just a few weeks before that first parade I could have been fired from my teaching job on the spot for being a homosexual.
For two decades before the first parade, the gay movement was starting to surface. More and more people were coming out of the closet. Socials were happening at none other than the Plumbers and Steamfitters Union Hall and the Odd Fellows Hall. Happenings and Giovani’s Room were thriving.
Still, it was a frightening time. Gay bashings were common, and families and workplaces were, more often than not, non-accepting environments. In the early ’80s my then partner wanted us to buy a membership to Happenings and, as much as I wanted to, the fact was that by doing so, I would then be a card-carrying homosexual. I just couldn’t do it.
Tonight, as Pride Winnipeg approaches that wonderful age of 30, I think it is my job to look back and reflect on where we started, where we are now and where we may want to be in the future. Sort of like a journey of life.
To do that, I thought I might use our personal experiences of growing up, maturing and looking to the future and how it relates to Pride Winnipeg growing up, maturing and looking to its future.
When we are born, we are not just a cute, adorable little baby. We are the product of our grandparents and parents. That is where I’d like to start. Not only at the birth of the first Pride Parade but by taking a brief look at those who gave birth to Pride Winnipeg.
Here are just a few facts… did you know that…
In 1948 (the year I was born), changes to the Criminal Code were used to brand gay men as "criminal sexual psychopaths" and "dangerous sexual offenders." These labels provided for indeterminate prison sentences.
It wasn’t until 1969 (I was 21) that Same-sex sexual activity was decriminalized in Canada. Imagine, for the first 20 years of my life, I was, by law, a criminal sexual psychopath and a dangerous sexual offender. It is also interesting to know that it was decriminalized in 1969 by then Justice Minister and Attorney General of Canada, Pierre Elliot Trudeau who later as Prime Minister famously commented, "There's no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.”
The journey to where we are today had begun. But, it wasn’t because of people like me. I kept my little secret hidden… hell, I even got married to a woman to prove that I was not gay. The marriage only lasted for a year and 20 days - my attempt at being straight failed but my true life began.
The journey, the struggle, and the challenges that faced the gay community in Manitoba were fought by much stronger people than me. Those heroes risked losing their jobs, friends and family but bravely exposed themselves and fought for our rights. People like:
Ruth Krindle, the first openly gay person to be appointed to the Manitoba Court of Queen's Bench in 1984
Heather Bishop, a founding member of the first Lesbian organization in Manitoba in 1975 and first out lesbian to receive the Order of Canada in 2005.
Dr. Smith who heroically took up the challenges of the Aids epidemic in the ’80s and continues until this very day.
Glen Murray, the first openly gay mayor in any major city in all of North America in 1998.
And, of course, Chris Vogel and Richard North who were married in 1974. I remember when that became the major story of every news outlet. I remember it like it was yesterday. I was home from university for the summer and sitting on a tractor bored out of my mind cultivating a mile long field when the news came over the radio that two guys had gotten married in Winnipeg. Oh my, did this really happen?… Unbelievable.
I couldn’t imagine what it must have been like for Chris and Richard. From that moment onwards, whenever gay issues made the news, reporters would call and ask Chris for his opinion. He was always willing and able to speak so articulately about the gay point of view and became the voice for our community for over three decades.
We owe a so much to the courage of these people and many more who acted so bravely for the rights we enjoy today.
Okay, enough with our grandparent and parent metaphor and on to 1987 and the actual birth of Pride Winnipeg.
I’m going to read you a bit from an article written in 2012 in a Manitoba Human Rights publication called Community Report…
At 2:00 a.m., July 17th, 1987 on the final night of the 33rd session of the Manitoba legislature, debate over the province’s new human rights legislation was still raging. Much to the frustration of the Commission and human rights advocates, the proposed bill was referred to as the gay rights bill, despite the fact that adding sexual orientation as a protection from discrimination was only one small part of the new legislation. Small, but for many in 1987, very controversial. The debate was virulent. There were constant references to Sodom and Gomorrah, the spread of AIDS and the morality of the Government of Howard Pawley. Premier Pawley argued that the new Human Rights Code was drafted to entrench the rights of all Manitobans saying that in the province “there are no A class citizens or Class B citizens.” At dawn, the Human Rights Code (Manitoba) was passed 29-25.
The article continued…
Preparations soon began for Winnipeg’s first Gay Pride Day. On Sunday, August 2, 1987, about 275 gay and lesbian supporters took part in the parade and celebrated the inclusion of sexual orientation as a protected ground from discrimination. Several of the participants wore paper bags over their head for fear of being ostracized.
The Pride Winnipeg Festival has taken place ever since, growing from a single day event to the 10-day celebration we enjoy now with tens of thousands of people attending.
So the birth of pride had happened, and the first baby steps were taken. The government had just included us in the human rights code so that we no longer could be fired from our jobs or kicked out of our apartments, etc., etc., just because we were gay. The law was in place.
However, it didn’t instantly remove all barriers overnight. The battle may have been won, but the fighting continues to this very day.
I remember at one pride rally in the 90s, Glen Murray was the keynote speaker and said something like this: We now have laws that protect us, but if you want to change the minds of people to accept you as you walk down the street hand in hand with your same-sex partner, then you are going to have to walk down the street holding hands with your partner. That is what will change people’s minds.
As more and more of us came out and joined the parade by walking in it or riding on a float, or observing it from the sidelines, the organizers of Pride met the challenges and grew the resources, the volunteers and the events that helped us show our pride and expand our acceptance within the greater community.
I’m sure it was and still is a challenge.
So how did and how does the organization make the parade bigger and better each year?
How do they make it affordable?
How do they get dignitaries and politicians to speak at the rally or march in the parade?
How do they get corporations, the Armed Forces, unions, churches, families and allies to be willing to show that they support us and walk with us with pride?
How do they support rural Manitoba communities like Brandon, Thompson, Portage la Prairie, Steinbach and beyond?
As they approach their 30th parade, I do believe that Pride Winnipeg has accomplished all of the above and even more. Last year’s event, with the longest parade ever and the largest attendance ever, was a spectacular celebration. All the board members, committee members and volunteers who made it possible from the very first Pride to today need to be congratulated for a job very well done - don’t you think?
So, where is Winnipeg Pride now in their life’s journey?
I believe we could say they are at the age of MATURITY. Just as humans mature, they have obtained many successes, gained self-confidence, and have become leaders. As humans, in addition to that, some of us get fat, and our bodies start to deteriorate, and we do everything we can to prolong that final departure that looms in front of us. That sometimes happens to organizations too.
For people my age and gender, we have reached an amazing and unbelievable mature place in our journey. Pride, for us, has become a celebration, an overwhelming celebration of achieving our human rights, marriage rights and acceptance in our families, our workplaces, in corporations, and in city, provincial and federal politics; we can be out and proud teachers, ministers, doctors, lawyers, judges, and even the CEO of Apple.
However, there are those amongst us tonight, and many more outside these walls in our city, our province, our country and throughout the world where being gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer or two-spirit are struggling as we did and need our support in finding their identity and acceptance as much as and, in many cases, even more than we did. They may be people of colour, they may be vulnerable members of our community here and abroad seeking safety from those who target them, and they may be people without access due to physical and or financial restrictions. They need us not just to celebrate our accomplishments but to be aware of their struggles and that their Pride may have a completely different meaning.
What does it mean for the future of Pride Winnipeg?
What direction will they take?
What direction should they take?
Is it time to re-focus and, if so, what will that look like?
With maturity comes responsibility. Pride, with its maturity, I believe, has a very long life ahead. One that is filled with a need to find balance - balancing how to celebrate our accomplishments and at the same time continue to support the struggles of those who are still living in fear of expressing their true identity. It is a big job, but I know they can and will do it.
How Pride will meet these challenges, I don’t know. What I do know is they cannot do it alone. They need our help and support.
Tonight, it is my hope that everyone in this room will join me and make a promise to help. Join the board of an LGBTQ2 organization, help raise money for an LGBTQ2 event or service, volunteer at the Rainbow Resource Centre, speak out when you have a chance to support questioning places of worship, your local community organizations, your immediate and extended families. Whether large or small, let us all make a promise to do something to help all people in our very diverse LGBTQ2 community. Do it not just so that they feel included but that they are included, not only so that they feel safe but that they are safe and that everyone has accessibility to all events, services and celebrations. Take a moment now to think about what you are going to do to help.
Thank you for whatever you choose to do. Nothing is too small - except for your financial donations! Money may be the root of all evil, but organizations need lots to meet the demands of growth and to pay for the services they provide. For those of us who can, please give generously.
I look forward to the celebrations this summer as we participate in the many events that will be taking place during the ten days of celebrating the 30th Pride Winnipeg Festival.
But now, it’s time for us to continue enjoying the food, drink and camaraderie of tonight’s gala. I wish you all the very best in your life’s journey and with a drink in hand, lets toast to the accomplishments and continued success of our Pride Winnipeg Festival. Here's to the FESTIVAL!
–Presented November 19, 2016, at The Royal Winnipeg Ballet, 380 Graham Avenue, Winnipeg, Manitoba