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The Carillon - ONLINE EDITION

Thousands take in Steinbach’s first Pride

By: Ian Froese

Posted: 07/9/2016 5:53 PM

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A throng of supporters celebrate at city hall.

IAN FROESE | THE CARILLON Enlarge Image

A throng of supporters celebrate at city hall.

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Steinbach cheered.

The roar the city made was thunderous—louder than any cheer at the local rink. It became a raucous celebration of a day many thought would never come: a Pride parade in the devoutly religious city of Steinbach.

Police estimate 3,000 to 4,000 people spilled onto the city’s streets Saturday, resplendent in rainbows, in an overwhelming show of support for the city’s LGBTQ community. The protestors who threatened an appearance did not appear to show up.

The eyes of the nation rested on Steinbach this day as a result of the controversy that has swirled around the city’s first-ever Pride parade. Many local political leaders did not attend, nor offer a public show of support despite being asked. A message was read that was prepared by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

"I’m going to say something I never thought I’d get to say in a million years," Chris Plett told the rally, looking onward at a crowd of thousands. "Happy Steinbach Pride, everybody!"

Again, the crowd applauded. They would stand shoulder-to-shoulder, identifying as straight, gay, bisexual and transgender, among other sexual identities; on this day, they all marched as one.

Before huddling around city hall for the rally, LGBTQ supporters congregated beside the library at E.A. Friesen Park. They held signs that read, ‘I love my Mennonite boyfriend’ and ‘My rights don’t take away yours.’ When news came that traffic was backed as far north as Ste Anne, organizer Michelle McHale asked the crowd if they were fine waiting. The crowd hollered in approval.

A half-hour later, the march began. Leading the way, McHale and her partner Karen Phillips held hands as they gripped onto a rainbow flag. The applause from the hundreds lining the streets seemingly did not end for the 45 minutes it took for the last people to arrive at city hall.

Many who spoke at the rally gave emotional testimonies of what it’s like to be gay in a Christian community where support for gay rights has lagged behind urban centres like Winnipeg.

Many of those same speeches touched on the religious observance many in the region hold dear. They pleaded with Christians to be more accepting.

Mason Godwaldt, a transgender male, said some in the Steinbach region are afraid to publicly admit they belong to the LGBTQ community. "They put on a mask and deny their true self," he said.

Godwaldt said he has lost acquaintances to suicide, who could not find comfort in their sexuality. He wore a shirt that said, "Visible for those who can’t be."

"I want to live in a community where it is just as OK to be gay or lesbian as it is to be religious," he said.

Plett, an openly gay farmer near Kleefeld, said being a gay man is a label that does not define him. He is prouder, more so, of being a farmer, a Mennonite and a Christian.

Growing up in the area was tough, he said. He renounced his sexuality after high school, only then could he be music minister at his church. But when a youth drop-in centre he worked at heard that Plett still harboured same-sex attractions, he was dismissed.

He left his hometown shortly thereafter and moved to a different province, but he has since come back. He said there are more supporters than outsiders expect.

"I fell back in love with my community," he said. "I started to forgive the people who had hurt me."

Plett said the LGBTQ community can start to change minds in southeastern Manitoba by being visible.

"This is how we’ll take up our pens and write our own chapter in this amazing open book that is Steinbach and the surrounding area," he said. "But please remember these communities are deeply entrenched in tradition. The love and understanding that we seek will take time but with patience, love, forgiveness, all the things will come together and I can promise that will happen."

NDP interim leader Flor Marcelino drummed up one of the loudest applauses when she urged the crowd to follow her lead.

"Let’s shout it loud for the Hanover School Division to hear: love is love is love!" she chanted, in reference to the division so far rebuffing McHale’s request to make its schools inclusive of LGBTQ education.

"Let’s shout it loud for your representatives to hear: love is love is love!"

Numerous NDP and Liberal MLAs descended on Steinbach, but absent were many of the politicians who could have walked to the march from their homes. Their absences, sharply criticized in some circles, piqued the nation’s attention and played a major role in turning Steinbach’s march into an event attended by thousands. The majority of those in the crowd came from Winnipeg but lots were from southeastern Manitoba.

Provencher MP Ted Falk candidly shared he would never show up to Pride because attending is at odds with his "values of faith, family and community." Steinbach mayor Chris Goertzen and MLA Kelvin Goertzen said they could not attend, citing previous commitments.

Steinbach city council said in a statement they would not endorse or oppose the event.

Tyrone Hofer, an openly gay Hutterite, left his colony because he knew his sexuality would not be endorsed.

To those, Christian or otherwise, who struggle to accept the LGBTQ community, he told the rally "instead of asking yourself, 'what would Jesus do?' ask yourself, 'what did Jesus do?'

"The truth is Jesus never mentioned homosexuality (in the Bible), not once. We do not really know what he thought about it. What we do know is how he acted. What Jesus did practice was a radical openness and acceptance of all people no matter who they were. He associated with outsiders and those on the very margins of society."

Terry Hayward, former Provencher Liberal candidate, criticized the man who won last fall’s election, Ted Falk, for refusing to attend. Hayward told the rally politicians should represent everyone in their constituency.

Though the parade lacked local politicians, he said Saturday’s show of support proves there are many allies of the LGBTQ community in southeastern Manitoba.

"Steinbach Pride is showing that rural Canada cannot be generalized," he said.

McHale told the audience their strides for LGBTQ inclusion will not end today, but that Saturday was a critical juncture in that road to acceptance.

"A new Steinbach is being born at this moment," she said.

‘A moment in history’

Various people The Carillon spoke with after the march were blown away by the support. They expected lots of supporters, but not this many.

Michelle Ritchot knows the struggle for gay rights well. She and her partner Stefphany Cholakis were part of the landmark lawsuit against the provincial government that made same-sex marriage legal 11 years ago.

That was an historic occasion, no question; this Saturday in Steinbach will be remembered as such, too.

"It’s a moment in history we did not want to miss," she said.

When she fought for equal marriage, she felt the Steinbach region was among the most vocal opponents—anywhere in the country. Now, to see this celebration, she is floored.

"I’m shocked and amazed."

She was surprised too by the lack of protestors.

"Nobody was holding up ‘God hates fags’ signs like they still do in Winnipeg," she said.

For those that live in the region, acceptance is coming—slowly but surely, they believe.

Kiersten Paypom, Mason Godwaldt’s fiancée, said she’s had challenges as a bisexual in Steinbach. One customer at her coffee shop, she points out, refuses to be served by her.

"It’s been tough, but it’s getting easier," she said. "I feel like people are more aware. It’s being brought to the public a lot more, it’s not something that’s silenced."

John Price of Steinbach wore a shirt covered in supportive messages from family and friends.

A 1993 high school graduate, Steinbach Regional gave him rides so he didn’t have to walk home from school, shielding him from bullies. Growing up he was beaten up constantly and had bottles thrown at him.

That doesn’t happen anymore, now that he returned to Steinbach two years ago.

"I just see a huge difference already, and it’s about time," he said.

Dale Kehler couldn’t miss Steinbach Pride. The Kleefeld native moved away some 25 years ago and now lives in Toronto with his husband. The couple flew in for Pride.

"My experience of feeling alone and isolated and frightened resonated when I heard there was going to be a Pride," he said. "I wanted to support that because I would want the people that are in this community to know that they’re not alone."

He couldn’t speak to the Steinbach of today, but noted the city is far more diverse than the one he left.

That much was evident an hour after the crowds had long dispersed. Two men holding hands walked down Main Street, blocks from the rally, when a vehicle honked at them. The couple wouldn’t have known if that was a sound of support or not, but they waved anyways.

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