Hey there, time traveller! This article was published 9/7/2016 (1323 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
STEINBACH — Thousands came to Steinbach for the first Pride parade in the history of this devout Christian city in Manitoba’s Bible belt Saturday.
Bumper-to-bumper traffic was reported backed up 18 kilometres along Highway 12 trying to get into Steinbach.
Despite expressions of local opposition, and the refusal of local politicians to attend the event, or maybe because of it, crowds turned out by the carload and busload.
The crowd cheered as the RCMP’s new commanding officer Scott Kolody, the top brass for the Mounties in Manitoba, pulled into Ernie A. Friesen Park.
"We didn’t know what to expect. This is fantastic. We’re very pleased," said Steinbach Pride parade lead organizer Michelle McHale.
Dan Vandal led a contingent of Manitoba Liberal MPs with greetings of support from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
"I have a message from the prime minister," Vandal said to rousing applause. "The Steinbach march promises to be an inclusive and diverse celebration of the unique culture and spirit of our lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer and two-spirited community. We look forward to many more celebrations of our diversity in Steinbach for years to come," Vandal said, reading Trudeau’s message.
"We still have a lot of work to do at home and abroad. We must continue to support those who have experienced discrimination and remember we can not let up on the fight against bigotry... please accept my best wishes for a memorable march."
RCMP estimated the crowd at more than 3,000, many of whom made the trip to Steinbach from Winnipeg in a long line of steady traffic that delayed the start of the parade by an hour and created a singular traffic jam in the province’s third-largest city.
Steinbach Pride’s march gained national attention after the city’s local politicians, including its mayor and Conservative MLA and MP, declared they would not attend because of their personal beliefs.
There was no sign of local politicians, but in addition to the federal Liberal MPs, a contingent of NDP MLAs, including former premier Greg Selinger, attended. Led by interim Opposition Leader Flor Marcelino, they stood on the steps of the town’s library with the other speakers.
In her remarks, Marcelino cast the march as a human rights event.
'This is the next chapter in a 50-year revolution for human rights... This fight has not been easy. Far too many have been victimized by bigotry. Many have had to hide who they are and suffer in silence'
— NDP MLA and interim Opposition Leader Flor Marcelino
"This is the next chapter in a 50-year revolution for human rights... This fight has not been easy. Far too many have been victimized by bigotry. Many have had to hide who they are and suffer in silence.
"Many have been bullied and beaten, physically, mentally and emotionally. Many have lost their lives, by their own hand or another’s. We are here to celebrate (your) accomplishments and also to tell you: you are not alone," Marcelino said.
Many said the sheer size of the event served to give the LGBTTQ* community its biggest show of solidarity in the history of Steinbach, a Mennonite community founded in 1874 by a devout Christian sect of farmers persecuted throughout their history in Europe.
"This is an historic event. It’s 2016, and it’s time for a change," said one young transgender resident, Mason Godwaldt, 18, who said he came close to ending his life before taking the step of coming out. Now a published author and engaged to be married to his partner, Godwaldt said he considered himself "lucky."
"Many others don’t have the support that I do," he said.
"Lots of people felt safe to attend because you all are here," McHale said after a series of speeches from gay and transgender area residents and leaders from the province’s LGBTTQ* community that followed Vandal’s message from the prime minister.
"If you have nothing to do and you want to hang around, you might want to check out the Frog Follies," McHale added, earning a roar of cheers.
Frog Follies was a reference to a neighbouring fair in St.-Pierre-Jolys that Conservative MP Ted Falk cited as his initial reason for not attending the Steinbach march. He later announced he would not attend the gay march even if he was free because of his personal beliefs, catapulting the event to a national stage.
Some believe Falk’s announcement ended up stoking support from the LGBTTQ* community to come out by the thousands to the march in Steinbach.
"Look at the love here. There’s no hate here," said Winnipegger Shawna Nagler. "Steinbach is a loving place, the people are kind and generous and unfortunately too much time has been given over to negativity."
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Louis Odorico said, "I think it’s sad local officials aren’t here. They’re only representing a certain portion of their constituents. Isn’t this part of their constituency? That would be my question."
There were no protests, and it would have been surprising if there had been, said University of Winnipeg education professor Catherine Taylor.
"This couldn’t be a more perfect way to send a message of solidarity with the LGBTTQ* community," she said.
"The only thing we ever hear from Steinbach is the opposition; we don’t hear about the many supporters and allies who live in this town."
Taylor added, "What I heard is the people who disapprove of this are staying away."
A manifesto for change
In her closing remarks to the crowd Steinbach Pride, lead organizer Michelle McHale issued a manifesto for change by handing the LGBTTQ* community detailed responses to critics the next time they are shunned or shamed for being gay or transgendered.
“I never dreamed in a million years I would see this; all of us here make a powerful statement,” McHale said “This is a celebration, but celebration without activism would not serve the LGBT community long-term. It is important to state we will not be silenced any longer. We are unabashedly taking our rightful place in community. We are entitled to live our lives without being subjected to discriminatory environments,” McHale said.
Some of the most poignant parts of the event were a series of stirring testimonials from gay and transgender area residents who described in detail their suffering and humiliation in the face of community shunning.
“Some of the strongest, bravest people I know are openly sharing their stories,” said Hutterite Tyrone Hofer, his voice breaking with emotion. “Life on a Hutterite colony is wonderful for someone who is straight, but it is extremely difficult for someone who is gay. The worst part of it was not being able to speak up and defend myself. I started to hate myself. I used to pray to God, ‘Please fix me.’ There are still so many gay Hutterites who are afraid of being disowned by their families, mistreated and excommunicated. I expose my life so others will know they are not alone,” Hofer said.
Chris Plett, whose Mennonite roots drew him home after years of living away described life as a teenager in Steinbach.
“Even at my own prom for high school, I was ushered out the back door because there was a group of guys waiting for me in the front, so they could beat me up. After high school I started to rebuild my faith in Christianity... only after I renounced my sexuality in front of a church full of people was I allowed to be the new music minister.”
It didn’t last; later Plett was dismissed for his sexuality and left Steinbach.
He only returned after a devastating brush with mortality, when a plane crash in Nunavut killed all but three people on board, including members of the flight crew he knew.
“My faith and my family came to the forefront once again, and so I moved back to Steinbach. When I did, I could feel a change in the air. I could see more and more LGBTQ people in the community. I was hearing rumours the Mennonite Church was rethinking their stance on whether you could be born gay. I heard that some churches were allowing LGBTQ people to hold positions of leadership. I saw people standing up for their human rights in the school and the community. And when I saw these changes I fell back in love with my community. There was hope,” Plett said.