Pride Week: Remembering the struggles and committing to change

Before the celebration, came the struggle. And despite the progress that’s been made, the struggle continues today.

As St. John’s celebrates Pride Week, the focus often rests on celebrating how far society has come in moving past the bigotries of the past. But patting ourselves on the back for progressive accomplishments always comes at the risk of forgetting just how much of a struggle it took to get here, and of allowing a collective sense of self-satisfaction to obscure the memory of truly painful sacrifices that were made along the way.

In the spirit of putting Pride Week 2015 in its proper context, we spoke with three seasoned activists who remember—and were part of—the decades of struggle that brought us to where we are now.

Pride is political

Chava Finkler grew up in Toronto in the ‘60s and ‘70s. It was a different time, and one of her early memories was having a high school teacher who routinely made homophobic comments in the classroom. The principal of that school, she says, was lesbian, yet also in the closet.

“I asked for a specific meeting with her,” Finkler recalls.

“I said, ‘You should tell this teacher not to make remarks that put people down. And he’s putting you down, how do you feel?’ The look of horror that crossed her face answered me: Of course, she was totally in the closet. What I was trying to do was challenge—even back then—the tendency to stay in the closet, even though back then there were really good reasons to do so. Especially if you were working with kids. The homophobia was so intense, and people lost their jobs.”

It was these high school experiences—looking back, she’s amazed at the courage she displayed—which formed Finkler’s identity as an activist. After leaving the high school with the homophobic teacher, Finkler tried to start a lesbian literature class at her next high school.

“This was ’75, ’76 [and] I found a woman who had the knowledge to teach us, and we had a whole crew of dykes — and all of us, in high school, were quite keen to take this class,” she recalls.

“After we had organized this, the principal of the school came to us and said, ‘Well, you can’t have this class.’ We were very upset and said, ‘Why?’ And [the principal] said, ‘Because there are rumours going around that you’re having sex in class.’ We looked at each other, and said ‘What are you talking about?’ So in the end, we couldn’t have the class on school property because there was the possibility that we might be sexual.”

It’s important these stories be told, Finkler says, because many queer youth growing up today don’t realize the barriers which existed just a generation or two ago.

Chava Finkler says it's important LGBTQ youth today understand the struggle of previous generations in fighting for gender equality.
Chava Finkler says it’s important LGBTQ youth today understand the struggle of previous generations in fighting for gender equality.

“Now, when I think of the proliferation of queer studies and all of these queer classes, I think that people take for granted that you can incorporate queer studies and queer analysis of the academic environment — when just 35 years ago reading a book by a lesbian was considered so shocking that we couldn’t do it.”

Memories of this era can be painful for many who lived through it and struggled for the change which today’s generations sometimes take for granted. But there are powerful and positive memories to draw from as well. For Finkler, one instance in particular from her senior high school years, stands out.

“This teacher was making these horrible homophobic remarks: ‘Lesbians are awful. I don’t know why we let them come to high school.’ Just really stupid painful things that when I think back, I can’t imagine how I endured it,” she recollects.

“And at this high school, there was a tradition at the end of the year where you could give a flower of your choice to any other student, or any other teacher, with a message of some sort. It could be romantic, but it didn’t have to be. The flowers were given out in homeroom.

“It’s so painful when I think about this. The teacher said to me, ‘Well you’re not going to get any. Who would want to give one to a lesbian?’

“I was almost crying. And then I was so amazed — the other students in the class got together to give me a bouquet of roses,” she says.

“I would love to see those kids today — they had no idea what that meant to me. And [the teacher] looked so embarrassed, because he saw the names of the students [who gave the bouquet] and he realized that the students in the class didn’t like how he was treating me. They couldn’t challenge him directly, but those flowers were a way of telling him how much they disagreed with him.”

Fighting for change

The struggle to change laws and attitudes was hard-fought.

Thinking back, Finkler reflects on the importance of solidarity between gay men and lesbians. While gays, lesbians and other “queer folks” work together today, it isn’t the same as the sort of strength and solidarity forged under fire in those early days, she says.

“The gay men were often afraid to leave gay male bars by themselves,” she recalls. “There would be people with rotten eggs and they would throw them at guys when they left the bar. So [the gay males] thought if they came out of the bar with a woman, holding hands, then they wouldn’t throw eggs at them. So we—the young lesbians—would sometimes go to meet the guys, kind of to cover them. Because of those sorts of exchanges, the gay men and the lesbians were quite close to each other.”

The solidarity extended beyond keeping each other safe on the streets. In early 1981, Toronto police raided several gay male bathhouses, arresting over 300 men. This launched a series of counter-protests and rallies.

The Bathhouse Raids are often considered Canada’s equivalent of the Stonewall Riots, and played a key role in the development of today’s powerful Pride Week in Toronto. Today Pride Week is a celebration, but the struggle in those days was a terrifying one for many who experienced it. And Finkler was in the thick of it.

“When the guys were arrested, word spread not just to the gay male community but to the lesbian community too. We ended up getting the call and they said, ‘We’re having a demo tonight.’ I’ll never forget it. We linked arms, and [chanted] ‘No more patriarchy—no more shit! No more patriarchy—no more shit!’ And there was a huge flank of police—it was 52 Division in downtown Toronto—and it was three lines of cops. They had these shields, and the batons, and we were terrified they were going to come after us. It was intense.”

For all the publicity the Bathhouse Raids brought, however, Finkler says there were many lesser known struggles that were just as important.

Finkler was 17 when she first started going to lesbian bars, but because the age of consent for lesbians at the time was 21, she was considered a liability by many bars owners. She could have been arrested if a raid occurred, and the owners would have been liable. Any woman seen hugging her or dancing with her could have faced punishment and retribution from the police as well.

Many women, she says, used fake names, or ‘community names’, as protection in case the police raided a club. There were other strategies too, like ‘out of order’ toilet stalls in which young women would hide, standing on the toilet, if the police arrived.

Finkler recalls standing waiting for the streetcar one night, holding her girlfriend’s hand, when a police car approached. She was terrified they would be arrested for holding hands, but the police car stopped in front of them and the officer spit on them before driving off. She recalls at the time feeling grateful that they’d gotten off easy.

“It was a different life. That’s what I’m trying to tell people,” she says.

“They’re like, ‘Being gay is great, and we have the right to marry,’ but it wasn’t always like that. Some of the activism—you wouldn’t think it was activism, but with those kinds of repressive measures, just being willing to hold your girlfriend’s hand in public was huge, because it made you a target for the cops.”

 Somehow, at a certain point, you have to stand up and be counted. — Chava Finkler

One of the key messages Finkler draws from these experiences is that activism takes many forms. It doesn’t always mean community organizing, or protesting, she says. Activism can be as powerful as sending a bouquet of roses in defiance of a homophobic teacher. Or holding a girlfriend’s hand in public. Or singing a song; and one of her most powerful memories involves just that. It came about following a protest outside a church that was hosting a notorious homophobic speaker.

“We had done our protest. It was winter and it was cold, and we went to the subway station to go back downtown,” she recalls. “We had taken over two or three of the subway cars—which tells you how many of us there were! I was working in daycare, with little kids, so I knew all these kids’ songs. I was afraid people would find out and take away my job, because people thought you were going to molest kids [if you were gay].

“So I’m in this subway car, I’m still feeling high from all the people we had at the protest, and I started singing! I started singing, ‘If you’re gay and you know it, clap your hands…!’ And we had this entire subway car singing that song. And then people in the other subway car heard us because we were so loud, and they started singing it too! To me, that’s an example of activism. Because we were so afraid—certainly, I was terrified. I thought that after that, ‘Crap, people at the daycare are going to find out [and] they’re going to fire me.’ But somehow, at a certain point, you have to stand up and be counted.”

Finkler came to Newfoundland in 2011 to pursue graduate studies. Her professional and academic work turned her attention to fighting for the rights of injured workers and people with disabilities. The issues are different, but Finkler emphasizes that the struggle is ultimately the same.

“People will say that it’s a different struggle, but one of the arguments I want to make is that any time we’re fighting for social justice, we’re fighting for all of us,” she says.

“When we make the world a better place for lesbians, we’re also making the world a better place for other oppressed groups. When we make the world a better place for people with disabilities, we’re also making the world a better place for other oppressed groups. And that’s based on the understanding that the struggles of any one group are also linked to the struggles of every other.”

Now living in Corner Brook, she’s getting involved in local Pride Week organizing again. What surprised and inspires her is the fact that so many of the other organizers are “young queer folk under 25,” she says.

“For me, that was wonderful and validating and so amazing, because I saw that they had a degree of comfort in who they were that I still think I don’t have today — because they didn’t experience the repression and the fear that I did as an adolescent, and I don’t think that you lose that. So for me, their sense of comfort in who they are was a far greater statement of how far we’ve come, than legalizing gay marriage.”

Queering the campus

Sheri McConnell also came from away. She’s from Saskatchewan, but has lived in this province for the past 14 years and teaches in the School of Social Work at Memorial University.

McConnell came out in 1981 during her first year of university, “as many do,” she notes wryly. But it was a challenging era to be out as a lesbian.

Sheri McConnell speaks at the Pride flag raising at Memorial University earlier this week. Photo by Hans Rollmann.
Sheri McConnell speaks at the Pride flag raising at Memorial University earlier this week. Photo by Hans Rollmann.

“There were no characters on TV that were gay, no lesbians or bisexuals or anything really. The only queer characters on TV were axe murderers and ‘perverts’.”

This was in Saskatoon, and she emphasizes that she feels privileged to have had a supportive community around her. There was a local queer organization that dated back to the ‘60s, with a community centre, and it organized dances and other events. McConnell played on a mostly-lesbian hockey team, she says, and had an accepting and supportive mother.

“When I moved to Newfoundland, it was the first time I lived in a city without a [queer] community centre. It was quite a shift to come to a place where there was no physical space that belonged to the community.”

For her, it’s the growing visibility of LGBTQ people and issues that bolsters her faith in the future. As someone who works on campus, she credits the work of the students’ union campus pride committee, LBGT-MUN, and The Muse campus newspaper as having made a real impact on the university environment.

“I think that the campus is safer for students than it was in the past, and LGBTQ issues are far more visible,” McConnell says.

“I think having out professors on campus really makes a difference, because students know there are safe places and know there are people they can talk to. And I think it influences our colleagues too, because they have people they can ask questions of. The visibility affects acceptance. I’ve also seen the [university] administration moving forward in many ways, slowly. Raising awareness and raising visibility has an impact.

“The same is true in the broader community,” she continues. “Raising visibility in the broader community has an impact because [people] learn more, and they get to see us as people.

 Violence and abuse come because people objectify people. — Sheri McConnell

“Violence and abuse come because people objectify people. When you get to see lesbians, gays, bisexuals and trans folk—and everyone else on that spectrum—as real people, it touches people’s hearts and it’s harder to be abusive and oppressive. It’s also really important to people who are in the queer community or are questioning — they realize they’re not alone, and they get access to a community of support. Sometimes that community is supportive, and sometimes not, but at least they get access to other people who have similar experiences and concerns.”

McConnell is impressed by the growing awareness in the province; this year she knew of at least five Pride flag-raisings for Pride Week in St. John’s and Mount Pearl alone. She says media coverage of LGBTQ issues has also improved, and the work that groups like Egale have been doing in the school system has also had a tremendous impact.

But for her, it’s her work with Camp Eclipse—a leadership and information sharing summer camp for LGBTQ youth—that truly shines out as the thing that inspires her most. She’s been involved with the project since its inception and says she feels truly honoured for the opportunity.

“It touches my soul in ways that nothing else in my life does. It truly is a magical place.”

Struggling across generations

Unlike Finkler and McConnell, Pamela Sheaves was born and raised in St. John’s. But she came out much later in life.

“I was one of those late bloomers,” she laughs.

Indeed, that in itself was a sign of times changing.

“When I was in high school it wouldn’t enter my mind to come out in any way, shape or form!”

After coming out 10 years ago, what struck Sheaves was the lack of support and consciousness about the needs of older members of the LGBTQ community, and seniors, she says.

It’s a determination to raise awareness of those issues which drives Sheaves’ activism. She realized there was “a lack of any kind of outreach to the older portion of our community, anybody over the age of 35,” she says.

“We didn’t exist, basically. Once you get into the 40s and 50s—I’m 52 now—there was absolutely nothing for us.”

Many older LGBTQ community members came out later in life and were in heterosexual marriages beforehand, Sheaves says, explaining many of them have children and extended families, face unique issues and therefore have unique needs that need to be addressed.

“They need a voice. And we need to determine from the community — what are the issues?” she says.

“Is it as easy as putting in a visitation system to the homes and the hospitals? That’s a very basic thing but it could mean a lot to a lot of people. Or maybe it could mean getting a lawyer in to talk about life directives and wills. What do we do if one partner is no longer able to make decisions for themselves? It could be about mortgages,” she continues.

 People are boxed into these little gray spaces and they’re supposed to fit into what the bureaucracy has for us. Well I’m sorry, but the bureaucracy needs to open its eyes and realize that I have human rights. — Pamela Sheaves

“For many of the gay community that’s new ground. They haven’t had to deal with being in a partnership and getting a mortgage. And I don’t expect a 20-year old to be considering about what to do if a life partner develops dementia. If you’re not in that zone you don’t think about it.”

The queer pride movement in this province really began gathering steam about 20 or 30 years ago, Sheaves recalls. Many of those who led the movement then were in their 20s or 30s, and now they’re in their 50s and 60s.

“They’re going to have to make decisions about their care, funeral arrangements, all kinds of things,”
she says.

“What happens if a trans person passes away, and that trans person wants to be presented as the gender they identify with, but the family steps in and says, ‘No, I don’t want that person in a dress, or that person in a suit’? We don’t necessarily think about these things. I’d roll over if somebody put me in a dress! I’ll come back and haunt them! It’s not who I am, and I want to be who I am when I go. That’s my decision.”

Sheaves is a community activist who has organized seminars and workshops around these very issues. But for her and many others the political is also personal.

“When I go into long-term care, I don’t want to have to deal with this stuff,” she says. “I want the homes to understand that I’m a lesbian. I may identify on the masculine scale, but I’m a woman. I don’t want to be in a room with a man.

“People are boxed into these little gray spaces and they’re supposed to fit into what the bureaucracy has for us. Well I’m sorry, but the bureaucracy needs to open its eyes and realize that I have human rights.”

Perhaps that’s starting to happen, albeit slowly. This year for the first time Eastern Health facilities raised the rainbow pride flag for Pride Week. It meant a lot to Sheaves, who was on-hand to see it happen.

“I got a little teary-eyed, I gotta be honest with you,” she says. “It means so much to me that my community is being recognized as a legitimate portion of the population, and that gay lives count.”

Since coming out, Sheaves has been increasingly involved in activism. She was one of the original members of St. John’s Pride Inc. and last year served on the board again. She’s seen things change, but it was last year’s Pride flag-raising ceremony at the Confederation Building which really left its mark on her.

“I got really emotional…I’m not sure why,” she recalls.

“I really can’t tell you why it was such an emotional moment for me. It was the first year the RNC was on board, and where I work in security, and the RNC was there…all these cops were there and it was just something about being accepted.

“After the ceremony was over, I turned to [Chief of Police] Bill Janes and I had tears running down my face, and I said, ‘Can I hug you?’ And he gave me a big old bear hug. And there was even more tears then. But I think just then he really grasped just how important this was, not just to me, but to all of us — to all those regular people in the community who are out, who have struggled so hard.

“When I was growing up, that would never have happened, with the RNC. Never.”

The struggle continues

However much has been gained, Sheaves acknowledges there’s still a long way to go.

Despite a growing array of legal protections—in employment, for instance—she warns that bigoted attitudes result in “plenty of cases where there’s a work-around done and people have been let go from their jobs — and even though it’s not stated, the reason is that they’re LGBTQ or trans. The trans community, especially, is still dealing with those issues today, they have very little protection within the law in Canada.”

McConnell also cautions that despite the progress that’s been achieved, the struggle isn’t over.

 One thing Newfoundland and Labrador is known for is the strength of small communities, and the acceptance of difference in small communities. But I don’t hear that level of acceptance sometimes around people who are LGBTQ. And it’s sad…because small communities are losing people. — Sheri McConnell

“It’s not enough,” she says.

“I’m still hearing from students on campus that they don’t feel safe, I’m still hearing from students in the schools that they don’t feel safe. I’m still hearing at Camp Eclipse from youth who feel oppressed and shut out in their own community. And that’s not okay.

“One thing Newfoundland and Labrador is known for is the strength of small communities, and the acceptance of difference in small communities,” she continues. “But I don’t hear that level of acceptance sometimes around people who are LGBTQ. And it’s sad. It’s sad because small communities are losing people. They’re certainly losing young queers who don’t feel safe staying in their home community and being supported.”

She recalls how, only a couple of years ago at Camp Eclipse, there were close to 30 youth sitting around a campfire, and as they spoke they discovered that nearly half of them had thought about or attempted suicide in the past year.

“That breaks my heart. And it’s not just youth in the rural areas, it’s youth in the metro area who feel shut out and not supported. Youth who were shut out from their friend groups, their communities, and were being harassed at school. And the fact that is happening in 2015 is not okay.”

Finkler concurs wholeheartedly.

“I caution people who think that we have no farther to go,” she says.

“When we think lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, we see them only in the context of their sexuality, or their gender identity. But lesbians, gay men, transgendered people also experience other oppressions.

“For example, the oppression of class, or race, or disability, or geographic location—which people here in Newfoundland and Labrador would certainly understand,” she continues. “So when we understand people in the multiple dimensions of their life experience, those other oppressions can intersect with their sexuality and cause other problems that need to be resolved. So we have a long way to go.”

But with Pride Week more prominent than ever, hope rises with every new pride flag that flies. As Sheaves—and the others—emphasize, visibility counts.

“Unfortunately, sometimes that which we don’t know, we fear. So somebody might say I don’t know any gay people, there’s no gay people in my community. People need to see us in the mainstream—that we’re here, we’re queer, and we’re not going anywhere.”

Dr. Chava Finkler will speak at a Pride Week Public Panel titled ‘Keeping Pride Political’ on Thursday, July 23 at 6 p.m. in IIC-2001, Bruneau Lecture Theatre, MUN St. John’s campus. The event is free and all are welcome to attend.

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