Marion Steele is no pushover. She is a vivacious woman who, for the past 15 years, has been an intricate part of Ottawa’s queer community. In the few times I have talked with her, I have learned that Steele can be formidable, blunt and, if you happen to be on the right side of her, a bundle of laughs.
Luckily for me, this time I was on her good side — the time before, not so much, and I got to endure a taste of Steele’s sarcasm at its best.
But whether you are hit by her sarcasm or embraced by her humour, Steele is someone the queer community will miss when she leaves Ottawa for Halifax on Oct 3.
Steele arrived in Ottawa 15 years ago — a single mother wanting to give her children more opportunities than they would have in Owen Sound, a place that Steele describes as “where men are men and the sheep are nervous.”
In 1995 — her first year — Steele went to a Pride meeting in the hope of finding some queers to hang out with and instead found herself aboard the Capital Pride Committee’s carousel, where she enjoyed the ride, on and off, for the next decade.
“I think that if you are going to go to a city and take it on — especially in the queer community, you have to take it on,” says Steele.
And take it on, she did. Steele joined Pride, volunteered at the AIDS Committee of Ottawa, joined a now-defunct women’s club and was a phoneline counsellor for Pink Triangle Services.
“I called them when I first moved here. I wanted to know what to do in the city and I didn’t like the service I got — it was all men doing it,” says Steele. “I thought that they needed some designated time when women could call and know they were going to talk to a woman.”
Steele also found time to start a French immersion camp based in Mansfield and to join the GLBTTQ Community Centre, which, after 10 years, has a revamped website but still no building.
“A big part of the problem is that the community here in Ottawa is quite unique — and I think it is because it is a government city — that they party in Montreal,” says Steele. “I think there are certain cliques and I think a lot of it is income geared. You have people who are high income and you have people who are low income; there’s big gaps there. The ones who are doing all the work aren’t necessarily the high income earners and the ones who could support a community centre, well….”
Although Steele was involved in many queer community organizations, her stint on the Pride committee was her longest ride.
In 1996, she was elected to the committee and remained active until 2001, when she took a break. In 2004, Steele returned to Pride and during her term — dare I say it — took Pride from Bank St to the Festival Plaza, a move Steele felt was necessary to help Pride get out of debt, but not a popular one in the queer community.
“We took a lot of flak for that, but we had to gain control of the bar again. You can’t make money and get out of debt if you don’t control your liquor sales,” says Steele.
Steele remained with Pride until 2009, when she stepped down from the board only to join another — the GLBT Police Liaison Committee.
Steele started attending the liaison committee meetings in 2008 as a member of the GLBTQ community centre. When elections came up in 2009, she took a pragmatic approach, waiting to see if the Walk the Bridge event during Pride (an event she helped organize) was a success.
“I said to myself that if the bridge event goes really well, I will run for co-chair. And if it doesn’t, I won’t, because I don’t like having egg on my face — and the bridge event went really well and we got huge numbers,” says Steele.
Steele wanted to see a different direction for the liaison committee. She wanted to see a more-inclusive committee with a place for queers to have a say at the table, and it was something she thought she could do.
Although the past months have been a rocky stretch for the liaison committee — there has been community outrage at the police handling of an HIV criminalization case — it is something that Steele says is to be expected.
“I think that everybody has had some growing pains and they have had to learn. And when you hit the barriers and the road blocks, well that’s when you sit down and figure a way — and there will always be some incidents of some kind. There will always be a clash between authority and our kind. That’s what we do, right?” says Steele.
Being on the Police Liaison Committee has been the highlight of Steele’s community work, while her lowest point has been past encounters with Xtra.
“The not-so-big highlight was the first year I was with Pride. I had been here just under a year,” says Steele. “I made a blunder because I thought that there were two city councillors who were queer. It was my error and Xtra creamed me on it — absolutely creamed me. They rang me through the wringer for nearly a year and a half on that one.”
Steele’s involvement with Ottawa’s queer community has now come to an end — although she remains on the board for InterPride and Fierté — but her plans for Halifax have already started. She hopes to set up a women’s music festival to coincide with Halifax Pride with her partner, Cathy.
Steele says that she feels Halifax suits her; she is moving for love, new adventures and because the time is right.
“I am ready, and I think the reason why it’s not plaguing me and not worrying me is that I can keep in touch with everyone, and I get Cathy,” says Steele. “The universe turns and we go with it, and things change…. When it’s right, it’s right and you have a choice; you can start paddling upstream or just go.”
Going may not be easy as Steele thinks — airlines have baggage limits, and when I spoke with Steele, she was already bags and bags over the limit.
“I’m a femme; I need luggage,” says Steele. “It’s nice luggage.”
But for all the laughter and happiness of looking forward to leaving to a new city and a new life, Steele does have concerns about the Ottawa community.
“There is something that I would like to see change in the queer community in Ottawa. I find that we don’t take care of the people in our community who are doing the work, and there’s a lot of key people who are really working hard at making things happen. And we don’t look after them and we don’t honour them until they go or until they are finished,” says Steele.
If that is true, then the queers left in Ottawa have a lot to do and a lot of people to thank — and Steele is one of them.