'They didn't just endure': Researcher explores history of queer lives in Western Canada
'They carved out lives, they made space, they were engaged in activism': Valerie Korinek
At bars and house parties, in movie theatres and hotels, in our largest cities and smallest hamlets, LGBTQ people have mapped out a rich history in Saskatchewan over the generations.
Valerie Korinek is bringing that history into the spotlight.
Korinek, a professor of history at the University of Saskatchewan, gave a talk at the University of Regina Wednesday night entitled Pride of Place: The Power of Queer Urban Spaces. She discussed histories of queer lives in Western Canada from the 1960s through 1985.
Korinek said her research operates as a "corrective" to narratives about the prairies that exclude queer people, or assume that queer people from here always left for larger urban centres like Toronto or Vancouver.
"A lot of people stayed," Korinek said. "And they stayed purposely because they wanted to be here."
She said there have been generations of queer people in the area.
"They didn't just endure. They carved out lives, they made space, they were engaged in activism. They tried to change these cities for the better, for other queer people. And they have largely been forgotten from history. So it's really important to put them back in."
Korinek is also the author of Prairie Fairies: A History of Queer Communities and People in Western Canada, 1930-1985.
When she started her research for the book, she was surprised by how much archival material there was about queer lives in the Prairies. She expected "just a couple folders of material" on the topic, but found a treasure trove of documents preserved by University of Saskatchewan librarian and activist Neil Richards.
The Neil Richards Collection of Sexual and Gender Diversity is one of the earliest and largest collections of LGBTQ materials in a Canadian public archive and it had never been fully studied before.
"The more I delved into [the archives] and the more I interviewed people, the more I was impressed about how much actually was produced here in terms of cultural activities, socializing and activism," she said. "Prairie activists and leaders were involved in the national community, and so well-integrated in whatever national scene there was in Canada at this time — which was very, very small, but Prairie leaders were there."
When it comes to queer histories, Korinek said "place matters." Lives and movements were shaped by where they happened.
According to Korinek, part of what shaped Prairie queer communities and activism is that people in Western Canada have historically been very willing to drive long distances — to other provinces and the U.S. — to make connections and attend events. This prevented them from being in "isolated little bubbles" and let them bring what they learned back home.
"People were adopting terminology and ideas from elsewhere [and] putting a western spin on it," she said.
"That really led to some unique situations here and really built a community that was very organic to the place. It wasn't just the Saskatoon version of something from New York City. It was the Saskatoon community, with ideas from everywhere."
When talking about city-specific histories in Regina, Korinek points to the Gay & Lesbian Community of Regina, an organization founded in 1972 that still owns Q Nightclub on Broad Street.
"[The Gay & Lesbian Community of Regina] is one of the early membership clubs," she said.
Membership clubs were social spaces for queer people in different cities, she said. In many cases they also became community centres.
"That was particularly true in Saskatoon, and Regina's alone endures," she said. "That's something to be really sort of amazed and impressed by. I think no other city in the country can claim that."
Through interviewing queer people from Western Canada and exploring the archives that document their lives, activities and activism, Korinek has found a history of resilience that runs counter to some prevailing narratives about what it was like to be queer on the Prairies in that time.
"The perception of outsiders might be that there's a lot of homophobia that one encounters here, a lot of overt discrimination," she said. "And that did happen. But there was also a lot of activity and joy and sense of discovery and excitement about creating some of these organizations."