First-ever Pride celebrations a landmark moment for Gimli's LGBT community

The town of Gimli's first-ever Pride festival this weekend is a huge milestone for its LGBT residents, some of whom lived through years of discrimination and fear.

'We live in a community where it is safe to be who we are and to be visible'

A patch of Centre Street in Gimli was painted with a rainbow crosswalk as part of the town's first ever Pride celebration. (Submitted by Fiona Axelsson)

Shelley Turner never thought she'd see her hometown paint a rainbow crosswalk.

"In all my years being right from Gimli, I thought I would never ever see something like that. So I was just overwhelmed. I couldn't believe it," said Shelley Turner, who grew up in Gimli and recently moved back. 

"My wife and I jumped out and we were actually the first people to have our picture taken there." 

The town is holding its first-ever Pride festival this weekend, organized by a committee of community members. Its iconic Viking statue was lit up with a rainbow of colours to mark the occasion.

The town's iconic viking statue was lit up to mark the occasion. (Submitted by Fiona Axelsson)

Among this weekend's activities, which include a drag show, walk, and film screening, is a performance from Deborah Romeyn, a singer-songwriter who lives in the nearby community of Sandy Hook with her wife, Judy Hill.

'It's so very different than today'

More than three decades ago, Romeyn and Hill walked in one of Winnipeg's first Pride Parades. Romeyn did so with a bag over her head, terrified she might be fired from her teaching jobs for revealing she was a lesbian.

She was later outed by a custodian at her school, who found an article in a local newspaper featuring her partner at the time.

"You know at that point in time, I wasn't out. He had clipped the newspaper article out and put it up in his room and every teacher that came in, he said 'Do you know that you know Deborah Romeyn is a lesbian?'" she said.

"So everybody in the whole school knew, like I was quite outed."

For days, Romeyn was scared she was going to be fired.

"But the principal called me in after about three days and said 'So you've been having a little bit of a tough time.' And he passed me a box of Kleenex, and I just burst into tears," she said.

"And he said, 'You know, let's just give you a couple of days off, and we'll get the woman who substitutes for you to come in.' Immediately I stopped crying, and smiled at him, because of course the woman who usually substituted for me was also lesbian, but he didn't know."

Romeyn remained a teacher for decades after that, but the experience would inspire one of her better-known songs, which she'll be singing this weekend.

"The secrecy that you had to live with, it was tough. And it's so very different than today that people don't realize that. Sometimes people forget that actually was true," she said.

Community's reception 'heartwarming,' organizer says 

Several events were planned for this weekend, including a walk that took place Friday afternoon. (Submitted by Fiona Axelsson)

This is why Gimli's first Pride celebrations are so meaningful, Hill adds.

"For Gimli to have this Pride celebration is so important and so wonderful because we live in a community where it is safe to be who we are, and to be visible," she said.

Tammy Axelsson, one of the organizers of the festival, said it's been incredible to see the town get on board.

"So many just came on board, and it's just really great and heartwarming," she said.

"It's just about being kind and that it doesn't matter who you love."