Iman Kassam was 19-years-old when she came out.

Growing up in a "very Indian, Muslim household," in Toronto, Ont. she says she went through most of her adolescent life not knowing much about her own gender and sexuality.

Away at university in Ottawa, she found herself nervously visiting Carleton University's LGBTQ centre. She took a member form and hid it in her binder to fill out in class.

"I pulled the paper out from the binder and covered the paper so no one could see what I was filling out," she recalls.

"I crumpled up my form in a little ball, ran down the hallway, threw the crumpled ball into the LGBTQ centre, and booked it! Ran out! I was horrified... My heart was racing," she says.

"The rest is kinda history."

From Toronto to Yellowknife

Coming out to friends and family back in Toronto was "really scary."

"It was about as bad as when I told my Indian family that I was a vegetarian," she says, laughing. 

"I'm joking. It was worse telling them I was queer."   

Iman kassam pride festival

Kassam (far right) attending a "Queer Music Worskshop" at the 2015 N.W.T. Pride festival. (James MacKenzie)

But Kassam says she immediately found a place where she belonged in the big city.

"It was about as bad as when I told my Indian family that I was a vegetarian...I'm joking. It was worse." - Iman Kassam, Founder of N.W.T. Pride

"The scene in Toronto really, really supported me. The South Asian queer scene really took me in… I found a family with them."

A few years later, Kassam came to work in Yellowknife, N.W.T. where the LGBTQ community was less visible.

She realized that her support in Toronto was a privilege that didn't exist to the same extent in Yellowknife, she says.

nwt pride 2015 iman

Kassam (right) and a volunteer at the 2015 N.W.T. Pride festival. (James MacKenzie)

With the help of the several others in the community, she began N.W.T. Pride, the first festival of its kind in the territory.

'It's time for new leadership'

The grassroots organization has become a recognized institution over the past five years, helping drive dialogue and change within the territory — from yearly Pride festivals to raising rainbow flags and painting rainbow crosswalks.

"Would that have happened five or six years ago? I don't know. I didn't see it," says Kassam.

"Over the past five years, I've seen the queer community have more of a voice."

After serving as the organization's artistic director for five years, Kassam announced she was stepping down from N.W.T. Pride this week on Facebook. 

"I think what I brought to the North was a more southern style of party" says Kassam.

"I think it has the potential to turn into something really uniquely northern... It's time for more northerners to have a voice in this organization."  

NWT Pride Iman 2015

Kassam (center) chatting with sound technician Ryan Dempster and emcee Deneze Nakehk'o at the 2015 N.W.T. Pride festival. (James MacKenzie)

Not just about 'throwing a party'

Reflecting on the most memorable moments as the organization's artistic director, Kassam says it was seeing liberation in her friends that meant the most to her.

"Some of the closest people in my life… have told me that they would not have come out in Yellowknife had it not been for Pride," she says.

"That's so special."​

NWT pride festival 2015

Kassam said her community in Yellowknife is an 'amazing, beautiful, political' family. (James MacKenzie)

Looking back, Kassam says her expectations for the organization have been well surpassed.

"For me, it was just about throwing a party, because that's the Toronto scene I came from. Gay pride is a party," she says.

"I didn't intend for it to turn into this amazing, beautiful, political, you know, big family."