A quarter century of struggle, celebration and Pride

As unprecedented numbers marched in St. John’s annual Pride parade Sunday, participants past and present reflect on LGBTQ struggles, achievements and the road ahead. (With files from Hans Rollmann.)

On Sunday between 2,000-3,000 people marched through the streets of St. John’s in what organizers and observers say marked the province’s largest-ever Pride parade, by a long shot.

Most who took part in the march donned colourful costumes and rainbow flags as they danced along the 2 kilometer route from City Hall up Duckworth Street and then north to Quidi Vidi Lake, celebrating and honouring the progress made in society’s growing understanding and acceptance of sexual and gender diversity.

The historic day came less than a week after a Crown attorney for the province announced the government would soon amend the Vital Statistics Act to allow Newfoundlanders and Labradoreans to change the gender denotation on their birth certificates and other provincial government-issued identification.

The swelling of Pride support also comes two years after the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador amended its Human Rights Act to include gender identity and gender expression as prohibited forms of discrimination, and more than a decade after same-sex marriage was legalized in the province.

The atmosphere was largely celebratory, but amid the thousands of marchers—which included families, social justice groups, politicians and local businesses—were chants calling for further action in the public shift toward a more inclusive and equal society.

Marching at the back of the parade and carrying a pink, blue and white Trans Pride flag, St. John’s Pride co-Chair Taylor Stocks said while they’re happy to see the unprecedented number of people marching in the parade, much work still needs to be done.

Many marching in Sunday's parade held signs or chanted to demand equal rights for the transgender people. Photo by Hans Rollmann.
Many marching in Sunday’s parade held signs or chanted to demand equal rights for trans people. Photo by Hans Rollmann.

“Today is a celebration for everything that we’ve done, being able to come together as a huge community, and still trans folk have a long ways to go,” Stocks said.

On Saturday a group of about 75 people marched in the streets of downtown St. John’s in the province’s first-ever community-organized Trans March, which focused specifically on the marginalization and needs of transgender people.

Stocks said most of the people who took part in the Trans March were also marching in the Pride parade, and that although the events occurred separately they are not competing events.

“I think it’s important to highlight the issues that [trans folk] are facing,” Stocks said. “We can definitely do both, and Pride is all the better for it.”

Maria Gentle, who marched with her coworkers from Thrive Community Youth Network, which supports marginalized young people in St. John’s through streetreach and outreach programs, said her organization works with youth who have disengaged from community supports or from typical learning environments.

While there are a variety of reasons and circumstances why young people end up homeless or at-risk in other ways, Gentle said being a young LGBTQ person often compounds the challenges those youth must overcome.

“It could be young people who are marginalized because of socioeconomic status, substance use, family conflict, engagement in the system either through child protection or through the justice system,” she said. “And if you add the layer of being queer or being perceived as LGBTQ then those challenges are even more pronounced.”

As the parade came to an end at Quidi Vidi Lake people socialized on the lawn, where vendors sold food and community organizations shared information at concession stands.

Donna Bordeau and Valerie Winsor were among the dozens seated on the grass overlooking the lake. They are getting married next month in St. John’s, something that wasn’t possible for same-sex couples in Newfoundland and Labrador prior to 2004.

In 1995 Bordeau attended one of the earlier St. John’s Pride parades, but had not marched again until this year, she said, explaining she has largely ignored the societal discrimination and oppression of lesbians in an effort to live as hassle-free a life as possible.

“I was out, and if anybody didn’t like that it was their problem, not mine, so I didn’t really feel the need to march or anything,” she said.

Winsor, on the other hand, has consistently marched in Pride parades, for the past three years in St. John’s and before that in the annual events in Ottawa and Halifax.

“There are pretty serious issues, especially for trans folks,” she said, elaborating on the point made earlier by Gentle that being a member of the LGBTQ community can add a whole other dimension to already-existing marginalization of certain groups and individuals.

“A person of colour being gay, a disabled person being gay — there’s a lot of people who I think could be marginalized, so I think we have to make sure everybody feels part of the community,” Winsor said.

A history of struggle

For decades St. John’s Centre MHA Gerry Rogers has been at the fore of Newfoundland and Labrador’s fight for LGBTQ rights and gender equality, and in the early 1990s was part of the movement to have the province’s Human Rights Act amended to include sexual orientation as a prohibited ground of discrimination.

Until that period, Rogers said there were no legal protections for LGBTQ teachers in the school system, who many parents feared due to ignorance and the myth that being gay, lesbian or queer meant someone was more likely to sexually abuse a child.

Rogers said gay and lesbian teachers who worked in the Catholic or Pentecostal school systems faced discrimination and the threat of losing their jobs without legal recourse.

Through the 1980s and into the 1990s women’s organizations and other groups lobbied successive Progressive Conservative and Liberal governments for equal rights for the LGBTQ community, but without much success.

According to Tom Warner’s book Never Going Back: A History of Queer Activism in Canada, the Gay Association in Newfoundland (GAIN) “submitted briefs to the legislature in 1985 and 1987 and conducted a petition and letter-writing campaign focusing on amending the Human Rights code to comply with the Charter.”

GAIN had the support of the province’s human rights commission, yet in 1988 when the Brian Peckford PC Government introduced amendments to the code, the changes did not include sexual orientation.

“The Liberals, under Premier Clyde Wells, also refused to accept that the Charter prohibited sexual orientation discrimination, citing the fact that the federal government had not yet amended its human rights act, and claiming the need to await judicial decisions under the Charter,” Warner wrote.

“Wells and his government ministers went on to make a series of negative public pronouncements about a sexual orientation amendment. Newfoundland activists recall that the justice minister claimed sexual orientation, as a legal term, was too vague and that concerns existed about gays and lesbians being teachers and child care workers.”

Then a series of events in the early ‘90s fanned the flames of the growing movement and forced the resistant Liberal government into a corner.

Gays and Lesbians Together formed in the fall of 1990 and continued to lobby the Wells Government.

Coupled with the 1991 signing of the official St. John’s Pride Week declaration by St. John’s Mayor Shannie Duff, and the 1993 unlawful arrest of Brian Nolan—whose allegations that police officers detained him for no reason after he left a gay bar and called him a “faggot” were substantiated in the Supreme Court in 1996—the province’s gay rights movement reached unprecedented momentum and Newfoundland and Labrador at that moment “started to see a real strong birth of LGBTQ activism,” Rogers recalled.

“And that’s often what it takes — nobody gives us our rights. They’re hard won,” she said.

In December 1997, following nearly a decade of debate in the House of Assembly, and more than two years after N.L. Supreme Court Justice Leo Barry ruled that sexual orientation be included as a prohibited form of discrimination in the province’s Human Rights Act, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador became the third-last Canadian jurisdiction to offer its citizens legal protection from such discrimination.

Rogers said before that legislative decision was finally made she and a number of teachers, nurses, social workers who were gay or lesbian had sat with then-Premier Brian Tobin’s Liberal caucus and explained their experiences in the school and health care systems and answered questions in an effort to humanize the LGBTQ community in the eyes of the province’s decision-makers.

“I think so often what happens in terms of rights is that people are seen as other — they’re not seen as people,” she said. “And there’s all kinds of fear and mythology and misunderstanding, and I think that often is what flames the fire of hate, or homophobia, or racism.”

St. John’s “gay-friendly,” but with a glass ceiling

On Sunday Rogers told The Independent that in light of the recent accomplishments and the unprecedented participation in this year’s Pride parade, the province still has a way to go on LGBTQ rights.

She said that until the government calls the next sitting of the House of Assembly and amends the Vital Statistics Act, transgender people in Newfoundland and Labrador remain marginalized and oppressed.

“Trans folks still have a pretty raw deal, and we have to make sure that they have equal access to health care services that all Canadians have,” she said, naming some of the areas where members of the trans community have fewer rights.

“Right now we’re one of the few provinces where trans folks have to go away for a diagnosis or an assessment so that they’re able to access health care services. And it’s so unnecessary — we have the expertise, we have doctors and psychologists here who have the expertise and are willing to do the work here without having to send our people to Toronto at their own expense — it’s really difficult and a lengthy process. So that needs to change.

All three political parties had a presence in the 2015 St. John's Pride parade, including the NDP (top), Liberals (middle), and PCs (Health Minister Steve Kent, bottom). Photos by Justin Brake.
All three political parties had a presence in the 2015 St. John’s Pride parade, including the NDP (top), Liberals (middle), and PCs (Health Minister Steve Kent, bottom). Photos by Justin Brake.

“I have written I don’t know how many health ministers about that issue, and for no good reason they’re stalling on it when the expertise is there and the willingness is there,” she said.

Rogers said she’s proud of the work that has been done in the province’s education system, “in terms of having a look at homophobia and transphobia in the school system…but there needs to be more work done” since LGBTQ youth have one of the highest suicide rates among young people.

Above all, she concluded, activists need to keep the pressure on politicians to develop policies and amend statutes that contribute to the marginalization and oppression of minority groups.

“It’s activists who push and push, and your average citizens, who are often much more ready for legislative changes,” she said. “It takes certain politicians at the table to have the courage and say, ‘Yes, this is what we must do, this is the right thing.’

“Politicians have to do that, and they can’t just rely on what the majority thinks because we’re talking often about minority rights. Sometimes legislation is ahead of some people’s [thinking], but for the most part it takes a lot of work to move that great big mountain to do the right thing.”

Back on the lawn at Quidi Vidi Lake, as people who marched in Sunday’s parade slowly began to disperse, Bordeau said although she and Winsor are “not hiding”—they walk down the street holding hands and kiss in the parking lot when she drops Winsor off at work, she said—she realizes “it’s not that easy for everybody.

“There are people out there who feel that they would be threatened, not necessarily with physical violence, but in being marginalized and pushed out — basically being told that you really shouldn’t be entitled to have the things that the rest of us have,” she said.

“You have the legal right to marry, you have the legal right to change your gender, you have a lot of legal rights,” she continued, addressing the frequent disparity between legislated rights and social discrimination. “But there are still popular issues that need to be addressed, individual people who will still discriminate, who will still say, ‘You can get married legally but I don’t like the fact that you can marry.’

“There’s a glass ceiling,” she said. “There’s still an invisible barrier that’s going to take some time and a lot of education and patience within our communities to get past. So there’s still some work to do, and I guess that’s something else I could be marching for, as well as celebrating.”

 There’s still an invisible barrier that’s going to take some time and a lot of education and patience within our communities to get past. — Donna Bordeau

Winsor said she always brought her children along to Pride parades in Ottawa and Halifax, since those cities’ Pride celebrations were family-friend and inclusive early on, around the same time St. John’s Pride Week festivities were getting on the go.

“It was one of the few times of the year you could bring your kids out and they would feel part of the community, especially in the past when people didn’t feel being gay was a good thing outside of our house; they understood it as love within the house but not in school and stuff,” she said. “So they were always happy to go to Pride, and they still do.”

Duff, who helped usher in the annual Pride Week festivities during her tenure as Mayor of St. John’s in the early ‘90s, told The Independent on Monday she counts the Newfoundland and Labrador capital as one of Canada’s most “gay-friendly” cities.

She attributed her openness to addressing LGBTQ issues to two influential teachers in her life: her son, who is gay, and local activist Gemma Hickey, who is currently on the final leg of her Hope Walk for victims of clergy abuse.

Following visits to New York and Toronto, where she and her family saw the Pride parades in those cities, Duff said she understood “that being visible was extremely important in that there had to be a level of public acceptance and visibility if we were ever going to break down some of the fears that oftentimes come from people not understanding or not knowing.”

In the ‘90s, she continued, Hickey “conducted a small conference…and she asked me to speak about the whole issue of gay children and coming out in the time when my son did, which wasn’t really commonly talked about or known about. So I had to put down our family’s experience on paper and share it with a lot of people.

“My son was very encouraging about that because he always believed that he had to be absolutely true to himself — he was not going about pretending he was anything other than gay, even when he was a teenager, which I guess in a sense was courageous for that time. He was very courageous, but he was also my teacher, as was Gemma in many ways, because she was always very out there and in that flag-raising time she was part of the group that was pushing to have public visibility and acceptance.”

Having marched in St. John’s first annual “rag-tag scraggly little parade” that “hardly anybody was paying attention to,” Duff is confident in saying that, based on the turnout at Sunday’s parade a quarter century later, “we have come a long way.”

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