There's no escaping religion in small town Manitoba. On the drive to Steinbach, a southeastern city of 14,000, a billboard resurrected in a vast canola field proclaims, "Jesus said: I am the way, the truth, and the life."
To an outsider, it might seem like a bit much, but here in the province's "bible belt" a sign like this is pretty standard. The only place you might not expect to see it is at a gay Pride event. As it turns out, you'd be wrong about that.
Last weekend, Steinbach held its first ever Pride march. It wasn't a parade. There were no floats, hardly any music save for the duo blasting "I Wanna Dance With Somebody" on tiny portable speakers, and costumes were few and far between. It lasted all of two blocks. But it was clear that for the people involved – many of whom carried messages that said "God is love" and encouraged people to "love thy neighbour" – none of the bells and whistles mattered.
"I came very close to ending my life many times," trans teen Mason Godwaldt, 18, told the crowd of about 3,000 at city hall, situated right across the street from a church. Prior to that, "I lived a lie, afraid to lose my family after seeing so many LGBT people lose theirs," he said.
Godwaldt acknowledged that in developing countries, there are people who are killed for being gay. "In Manitoba, it's nowhere near that bad," he said. "Instead, people stare and make rude comments to a gay couple in love." In fact, bullying is partially what set Saturday's march in motion.
In April, organiser Michelle McHale, a former Steinbach resident, told the local Hanover School Division she was concerned about her son being harassed for having two moms. She asked for same-sex couples to be recognised as part of the sex-ed curriculum, but was rejected because anything related to LGBT issues is considered "sensitive content" that teachers are forbidden from discussing. A similar policy advises educators to report to parents if students ask any questions about sexual orientation, potentially outing kids to their families before they're ready to have that conversation.
McHale and her partner have since filed a human rights complaint against the school board and the family has moved to Winnipeg. McHale now sits on the board of directors for Pride Winnipeg and said the LGBT community in Steinbach reached out for help organising their own march.
Speaking out has meant being on the receiving end of homophobic backlash – one Facebook commenter asked, "Can we just kill her please?" But none of that hate was visible Saturday.
"It far surpassed our expectations," McHale told VICE during the festivities. She was quick to point out that this wasn't a traditional Pride celebration so much as it was a "march for equality."
"There are a real issues here that we're still addressing," she said. "It was less of a celebration and more of an empowerment kind of event. So that people felt supported and felt they could come out and be with a group of people that weren't going to ridicule them."
The event was originally expected to attract a couple hundred people, but in the end thousands showed up to march, descending from neighbouring cities and provinces. While the Royal Canadian Mounted Police originally declined the group's request to march on the street, relegating them to the sidewalk, it changed its mind, allowing people to walk down the street, for an admittedly brief route. Spectators were sparse, but, despite the concern that there would be vocal opposition, there was none to speak of. The only mention of the word "fag" was on part of a sign that read, "this fag loves his mother."
Having that said, support amongst elected officials, including Mayor Chris Goertzen, Progressive Conservative MLA and health minister Kelvin Goertzen (no relation), and Conservative MP Ted Falk, has been embarrassingly inadequate. Falk said he wouldn't attend due to his "values of faith, family, and community," while the mayor and council refused to officially endorse the event. Minister Goertzen said he had a prior commitment. All three men got called out on Saturday.
"While this is not a political event, I have to ask why our federal Member of Parliament is not here with us," said former Liberal candidate Terry Hayward, during his speech. "Was he not elected to represent all people in his riding?" Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave Steinbach a shout-out, tweeting #loveislove.
Almost immediately after the speeches were over, the crowd dispersed. An hour later, the city was quiet – there were no traces of the march, almost as if it hadn't taken place at all. But those in attendance said they felt it; a small but unmistakable shift towards acceptance of gays in one of the country's most conservative communities. "Not everyone's going to like it, some of it is going to be uncomfortable," said McHale. "There's definitely work to do."
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