The president of Pride Winnipeg says gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities in Manitoba and across Canada have made tremendous strides toward acceptance and inclusion. But Jonathan Niemczak says it would be foolish to become complacent or believe all the work is done.
"It's been a long fight," says Niemczak, 25. "You have to look at it in different phases. We've gained a lot of same-sex rights. Look at adoption, marriage, blood donations."
Canadian Blood Services recently changed its donor guidelines to allow gay men who haven't had sex with other men in the past five years to donate. Many in the LGBT community feel the changes don't go far enough and do not honour long-term, monogamous gay partnerships.
Still, it's a start -- a change in a rule that has demonized all gay men as potential HIV carriers since 1977.
Niemczak points to other significant attitude changes. At the first Pride parade in 1987, some marchers wore bags on their heads to protect their identities from bystanders. There were about 250 people at the event. Last year, 30,000 people attended Pride events in Winnipeg.
"People were afraid (at the first march)," Niemczak says. "Now we have corporate sponsors."
TD is a major sponsor of this year's Pride Festival, which began with a flag-raising ceremony at city hall Friday. Half Pints Brewing Co., Delta Winnipeg, the Manitoba Teachers' Society, Manitoba Public Insurance and Shaw are among Pride's supporters.
Pride Winnipeg runs until June 2 and culminates in the parade beginning at noon at the legislative building. The parade will boast 45 floats this year. The judges of the best float competition include Ron Mark, executive director of the Winnipeg Santa Claus parade.
I emailed a friend Friday morning and asked if she remembered the first time we'd walked in the march. She didn't, but reminded me that in 1978, we'd taken part in a protest rally against American singer and noted homophobe Anita Bryant.
"I was too young and naive to really know the risks (of taking part in the protest)," she said.
As much progress as there's been, the dangers still lurk. Many of the protests against Bill 18, the province's anti-bullying legislation, have included homophobic name-calling and threats of damnation. We may have openly gay elected officials (and a gay-positive mayor), but not even the coming out of a professional athlete such as NBA player Jason Collins means being gay or lesbian is mainstream.
Public support does seem to be shifting. A restaurant in Morris closed after its gay owners said they'd been the victims of anti-gay slurs. Their business boomed when people read of their plight, though the owners still decided to close shop. Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger drove out for a meal.
When a Winnipeg homeowner had the word "homo" spray painted on his house this spring, the GLBT community rallied to paint over the slur.
"In the past when these incidents happened, you felt alone," says Niemczak.
There are clear signs acceptance is not universal. Earlier this month, a gay man was shot and killed in Greenwich Village in New York. Witnesses said the gunman uttered anti-gay slurs before shooting Mark Carson in the face.
Niemczak says his colleagues in the United States are stunned at the level of gay acceptance that exists in Canada. He says he shows them photos of Christians who appeared with signs at a Pride parade.
"They read 'I'm sorry.' They were apologizing for all the Christians who used the Bible to tell us we were going to hell."
I asked him a question that has troubled me for years. Why is there such a visible drag queen and leather boy presence at the parade? Doesn't this fuel anti-gay prejudices?
"It's a segment of our community," he says. "It does create a very narrow vision of what Pride is."
If you're near the parade next week, feel free to wave at the men wearing lipstick and ball gowns. They get all the media attention. But please honour the moms and dads who are supporting their gay children and the gay parents marching with their own kids.
They won't be wearing bags on their heads. They're your neighbours, friends, teachers and colleagues.