Thunder Bay·Audio

'I can die and go to heaven any day': Gay advocate reflects on 50 years of progress

Michael Sobota was on hand at Thunder Bay city hall Wednesday as officials raised the rainbow and trans pride flags to mark 50 years since the partial decriminalization of homosexuality. 

Pride flags over Thunder Bay city hall mark 50 years since homosexuality was partially decriminalized

Michael Sobota practices the "royal wave" in anticipation of his role as grand marshal at this year's Thunder Bay Pride parade. (Heather Kitching/CBC)

The man who will serve as grand marshal of this year's Thunder Bay Pride parade says he never imagined back in 1969 — when Canada began the process of decriminalizing homosexuality — that he would live to see marriage equality for couples of all genders.

Michael Sobota moved to Thunder Bay in September of that year, just months after then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau famously quipped "There's no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation."

He was on hand at Thunder Bay city hall Wednesday as officials raised the rainbow and trans flags to mark 50 years since the passage of the first bill that led to decriminalization. 

"It's a little bit like I never thought I would see the Berlin Wall come down.  And then it does," he said of the advances in LGBT human rights that have occurred in the five decades since.

Born and raised in rural Wisconsin, Sobota was out of the closet to just a close circle of friends when he settled in what was then called Port Arthur. 

The rainbow and trans flags are flying over Thunder Bay city hall to mark 50 years since the partial decriminalization of homosexuality. (Heather Kitching/CBC)

"I made connections to a mostly underground community," he said, noting that discrimination against gay, lesbian and bisexual people in areas such as employment and rental housing was common.

"Underground, Thunder Bay had a vibrant community of house gatherings [and] dances that we called 'socials,' and we used to publicly advertise them in the local newspaper.  We would say, 'Monthly social at the usual Fort William location,' so if you knew, you knew, or you had to know somebody who knew to find out where that was," Sobota said. "Those were our discreet messaging [systems] in those early days."

The "usual location" was a Ukrainian hall in the east end, he added.

"The Ukrainian association was very liberal and progressive and very willing to rent their hall to us," he said.

Sobota described the 1980s and 90s as a golden age of gay life in Thunder Bay, ushered in, in part, by the formation of the group Gays of Thunder Bay, which did political advocacy work for the community, spoke to students in high schools, and broadcast a cable television show called Thunder Gay Magazine. 

AIDS crisis 'brought out the best in our community'

It was also the era during which AIDS ravaged the city's gay community, galvanizing its members to unite and support those who were dying.

"And in the beginning they all were dying," he recalled. "Everyone who came into our doors, everyone who we came to work with, that we came to know, that we came to support, died. It was literally like working in a war zone in those early years ... and what it did was it brought out the best in our community. The resiliency and the courage and the passion to be more public about the plague was wonderful to see." 

While members of the LGBT community in cities like Toronto endured violent police raids on gay establishments during the 1980s in particular, Sobota said Thunder Bay police visited the organizations he was involved with regularly, and there were no negative encounters. 

"They were respectful. They were professional. They were never inappropriate," he said. "They occasionally asked questions that we couldn't answer or wouldn't answer, and they were never hostile or abusive about that to us. We had good working relationships with them, and I'm very happy to put that on the record that we did."

Asked how it feels to have watched the evolution of LGBT life in Canada from the point where homosexuality was illegal to the point where some urban youth are as oblivious to differences in sexual orientation as they are to differences in hair colour, Sobota replied, "If there is a heaven, I can die and go to heaven any day.  It's absolutely astonishing to see this stuff happen."