Manitoba

Morden's LGBTQ community touched by love, honks of support in first Pride

The first one will be remembered as a celebration of hundreds, resplendent in colourful attire, marching down a sidewalk in a traditionally conservative community Saturday to hollers of support and honks by many who drove past. 

There's more support than we realize, says teacher who faced backlash for displaying Ally cards

Hundreds showed their support to the LGBTQ community at the first ever Pride festival held in Morden, Man., about 100 kilometres southwest of Winnipeg. (Ian Froese/CBC)

No Pride will speak as personally to D Van Vliet Vaisius as the event they founded in Morden Saturday.

The first one will be remembered as a celebration of hundreds, resplendent in colourful attire, marching down a sidewalk in a traditionally conservative community to hollers of support and honks by the many who drove past. 

That vision is at odds with the southern Manitoba city of 9,000 people Van Vliet Vaisius, 23, has known. 

"I am here today because I was told to shut up every single day, in small insidious ways," Van Vliet Vaisius, a non-binary person who uses the pronouns they and them, said.

'I will not shut up'

They spoke of feeling ostracized for growing up secular and later identifying with the LGBTQ community.

"I am here today because I will not shut up," Van Vliet Vaisius said, to a roaring crowd at Morden Park on Saturday afternoon. 

"I've seen people lose their friends, their families, their hope — I will never shut up."

Stories of people, and communities, becoming accepting of the LGBTQ community weaved through Morden's first Pride. It is estimated as many as 400 people marched from the park to the Access Event Centre. 

Morden Pride founder D Van Vliet Vaisius, left, is hugged by their partner Shay Millar after their address at Morden Park right before the march to the Access Event Centre. (Ian Froese/CBC)

While LGBTQ rights have advanced nationwide, faith-connected communities have wrestled with how they fit in. They're learning, Conor Adrian says of his nearby home of Roland, Man. 

"As our communities have started to change and the people around us have been more open and willing to talk about issues that are going on, we have changed the way we view the people in our community and people who may be different from ourselves," said the 21-year-old, who is bisexual.

After the march, people gathered outside the Access Event Centre, where numerous speakers shared personal tales.

Ben Guenther, a gay man known by his friends as the Queen of Morden-Winkler, shared how homosexuality was perceived as the ultimate sin in his household.

When he came out, his church turned its back. His family isn't accepting of his sexuality.

"Pride to me is family, even if that is only the LGBT+ community," he said. "Because that's all the family I need."

For Kristen Andrews, Pride in Morden became a homecoming.

She grew up in the community, about 100 kilometres southwest of Winnipeg, in the 70s and 80s and remembers how people were set apart for how they dressed or acted. She felt on the outside for being queer. 

The crowd cheers at the launch of the first Pride festival in the city of around 9,000 people. (Ian Froese/CBC)

"I couldn't have imagined how beautiful this is, the colour, the diversity," said Andrews, who now lives in Winnipeg.

A message of inclusion was extended by Morden Mayor Brandon Burley, who spoke of the value of a welcoming city.

Morden is the ninth community in Manitoba to host a Pride festival. After long-running events in Winnipeg and Brandon, new festivals have popped up in Steinbach, Thompson, Portage la Prairie, Flin Flon, Gimli and Riding Mountain National Park in recent years. 

In Morden, there was an expectation of a counter-demonstration, but the dissent was limited to a handful of people handing out pamphlets about the Bible and sexuality.

United Church groups in the Pembina Valley show their support as they march in Morden's first Pride parade. (Ian Froese/CBC)

The protest wasn't noticed by many of the people in the crowd, including Reese Estwick, who faced some backlash when she sought to establish a gay-straight alliance in her Altona high school four years ago. 

She saw on Saturday a beautiful display of how far small-town Manitoba has come.

"There's conversations being started over the years," she said proudly.

The battle over gay rights have polarized the people of Pembina Valley, such as when gay-straight alliances became permissible at every school, and when a pair of Altona teachers put a little card with a rainbow on their desk to signal their support of the LGBTQ community.

More than an ally 

One of those teachers was Peter Wohlgemut, who some at the time said should have been fired.

A straight ally then, it took Wohlgemut a while to come to the understanding they are queer. Their students use the honorific of Mx, rather than Mr. 

Wohlgemut reminded those who belong to the LGBTQ community they aren't as alone as they may feel.

"I heard people honking as I drove by our parade today, that is not what I expected," Wohlgemut said to applause. 

"There is a lot more support in these communities than I think any of us, myself included, realize.

"There's a lot of things that still need to change, but there's a lot of support to do exactly that."

And though Morden may evolve, it still has a small-town spirit, Andrews points out.

"I found out that one of the organizers is my second cousin and I hadn't met them yet," she recalled, smiling at the thought. 

"I am just thrilled that, in that small-town southern Manitoba way, you come out here and you find out who you're related to.

"You make new friends and you get new family."

About the Author

Ian Froese

Reporter

Ian Froese reports from the Manitoba Legislature for CBC Manitoba. He previously wrote for the Brandon Sun and the Carillon in Steinbach. Story idea? Email ian.froese@cbc.ca.

With files from Austin Grabish