Saturday morning began with a feeling of uncertainty in Manitoba's Bible Belt, but as hundreds began to trickle into a small Steinbach park, organizers say that worry turned to pride and joy.
"Absolutely amazing," said Chris Plett on the turnout to Saturday's march.
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The Steinbach Pride co-chair was hesitant to say progress has been made for LGBT people in his predominantly Mennonite community, but said he was happy to see a greater number of Steinbach residents come out to the LGBT march than he thought were at last year's inaugural event.
"That says something."
Co-chair Michelle McHale said she thought there was a possibility protesters would show up Saturday — organizers had been sifting through homophobic comments made online in the days leading up to the march — but those opposed didn't cause any problems.
Hundreds carried rainbow flags and signs in support of gay rights down the city's main street while RCMP directed traffic.
Many of the marchers were from Winnipeg, but there were plenty of Steinbach residents out too.
George Feenstra is a recently retired pastor from the United Church in the rural Manitoba city — Manitoba's third-largest, and roughly 50 kilometres southeast of Winnipeg.
It was his first time at Steinbach Pride — when last year's parade took place, he was out of town officiating the wedding of two gay men.
Feenstra said he wanted everyone to feel welcome Saturday and that the mood seemed right for that.
"I said to one person, this feels almost like a church picnic, it's so peaceful and gentle and good," he said.
Feenstra said he reads the scripture not as literal, but as rich in metaphors. But he said he's sensitive to the position of his Christian neighbours.
"What I find is the folks in this town are just kind of covering their eyes to the real injustice in the world," he said, citing capitalism and excessive consumption.
"And they tend to find these folks to be the root of the problems of our society. And I find that to be either blind or ignorant." He said the congregation at Steinbach's United Church is discussing becoming an "affirming" community, which would be open to LGBT people.
McHale said even allies report feeling targeted in Steinbach, so getting support from people who come from out-of-town to march was important.
"If they don't feel safe enough to stay here ... people need to know that there's options to be themselves. We would like them to be here, we would like this to be safe, but you know, change takes time," she said.
"Rather than a person feeling that they're hopeless and they can't be themselves, knowing that there's different people out there that support them just as they are is really important."
Last year's inaugural parade drew controversy from some townspeople who said homosexuality doesn't fit with Christian values.
McHale said that's just not true.
"[LGBT] people are the Christian community. Those things are not mutually exclusive. So to that I would say, that's not fair."
Mayor, MLA no-shows
In a statement this week, Steinbach Mayor Chris Goertzen said he wouldn't be attending, but that it is his duty to create a "welcoming environment" in the community.
"As community leaders we want to maintain and create a positive welcoming environment that makes people feel safe and accepted not just on one day but continuously as we fulfill our responsibilities throughout the entire year," he wrote.
"The acceptance includes those in the 2STLGBQ* community and it includes those who have differing viewpoints who also deserve respect and understanding.
"Although as mayor, I will not be attending this year's event, I will continue to concentrate my efforts on promoting an inclusive attitude that respects differences in our city throughout the year."
MLA and Manitoba Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen said earlier this year he would be out of town for the event, but even if he was around he wouldn't attend because he felt there was too much shaming toward folks who didn't participate in last year's march, like himself.
Goertzen publicly voiced his opposition to gay marriage at a 2003 rally in front of the Manitoba Legislature.
That same year, many Steinbach residents echoed his concerns when a federal committee visited the community to talk about the legalization of gay marriage.
"I was really sad to hear that," McHale previously told CBC. She added she wants to see an elected leader in the area stand up for LGBT constituents who have a difficult battle to face.
"There's a lot of discrimination happening," she said.
A spokesperson for Brian Pallister said the Manitoba premier attended Pride Winnipeg last year and is invited to a lot of events but can't make it to all of them.
The Conservative MP for the area, Ted Falk, also didn't attend Saturday.
Voice of bisexual community heard
Steinbach Pride faced criticism last year from Andra MacAuley, one of its own organizing committee members, who felt her perspective as a bisexual person wasn't being heard.
MacAuley accepted an offer to come back and speak in part to challenge the public's negative assumptions about bisexuality.
She was the first to take the microphone Saturday after an opening jingle-dress dance took place to honour trans people.
Co-chair Plett said he left Saturday knowing there's still more work to do. He said while his Mennonite family never disowned him, he also wasn't ever accepted as a gay man, which led him to hide in the closet for much of his life.
"You're always told that your life isn't correct, it isn't right and that your outcome will be quite grim," he said.
"It's tough. It really sort of affects you mentally, it affects you emotionally, physically even."
Plett will take over the reins of Steinbach Pride and chair the march next year.