Gay history is expected to be made this weekend in the Bible Belt of Manitoba.
Steinbach, Manitoba’s third largest city, is gearing up for its very first Pride march and the celebration is already rife with controversy.
The march, scheduled to take place Saturday, July 9, 2016, is the result of a long-fought battle in the predominantly Mennonite community.
Organizer Michelle McHale doesn’t think it will become violent but says to expect resistance.
“I do expect protesters. I expect that to happen just given some of the things that we’ve heard,” she says.
“It’s all kind of surreal,” she adds of the parade she never thought would come to Steinbach.
The battle to this point
The battle over LGBT rights in Steinbach boiled over this spring after school board trustees bristled first at McHale’s request, then at a student’s request to revise their guidelines prohibiting discussion of LGBT issues until high school.
Steinbach’s newspaper the Carillon reported that trustee Lynn Barkman opposed introducing LGBT issues in middle school because, she believes, students are not equipped to understand the complexities of sexuality.
Teachers, students and parents in the district “know that our culture is changing,” she said according to the Carillon, but “that does not suggest that we should abandon truth.”
Barkman, who is a nurse, then linked the rise of sex education in Toronto to a heightened risk of cancer, the Carillon reported.
“I just feel that there is enough cancer around and the increase in cancer is phenomenal,” she said.
Carillon reporter Ian Froese told Daily Xtra some applauded after Barkman made the comment.
“I thought it was one of the loudest cheers any trustee got,” Froese said in a message.
McHale and her partner, who left Steinbach in May, have now filed a human rights complaint against the Hanover School Division for its ongoing refusal to allow classroom discussions of LGBT issues until high school due to their “sensitive” nature.
(Michelle McHale left Steinbach after facing backlash for her attempt to bring LGBT issues into school curriculum. She says her son was also bullied for having two moms./Austin Grabish/Daily Xtra)
School board confrontation only the latest
In 2003, a federal committee visited Steinbach to talk about legalizing same-sex marriage. Those vehemently opposed to homosexuality came out in droves to voice their opposition to gay marriage.
Their concerns, along with gay marriage proponents’ voices, are documented in over 200 archived pages online.
The road to Pride
Proponents of Steinbach Pride have fought for months and have had to cut through bureaucratic hoops to get here.
After initially refusing to issue a permit for the Pride march, Manitoba RCMP say their commanding officer will now attend the event.
McHale says police have reassured her they’ll keep Saturday’s march safe.
She reiterates Saturday’s event is about love.
“We will not engage in protesters. That’s not what we’re there for.”
‘The politicians not showing is really disappointing’
Steinbach’s local politicians are skipping out on Saturday’s event.
The region’s Conservative MP Ted Falk says he won’t attend due to personal family values — though he initially blamed his upcoming absence on a commitment to attend a Frog Follies festival, before the festival’s organizer publicly urged him to attend Pride instead.
The area’s provincial MLA, Kelvin Goertzen, won’t attend Pride either, and has balked at media queries about his absence.
Steinbach’s mayor won’t be there either.
“The politicians not showing is really disappointing to me,” says Evan Wiens, 20.
Wiens brought Steinbach into the spotlight in 2013 when he tried to start a gay-straight alliance in the city’s high school.
He says he knows progress is being slowly made, but was still shocked to learn there’d be a Pride march in Steinbach.
“I didn’t think I would ever hear the words Steinbach Pride, at least this soon,” he says.
‘There are lots of good people there’
Wiens says it’s been touching to see public support for the march and broader LGBT acceptance.
“People always viewed me as the lone gay person in the town,” he says.
He makes a point of saying not everyone in Southeastern Manitoba is homophobic.
“At the end of the day, I don’t like to personally paint Steinbach with an ugly brush, because I know that there are lots of good people there.”
But opposition remains widespread
Those opposed to Saturday’s Pride march, and homosexuality in general, have been vocal about their outrage, often taking to social media to vent their concerns.
‘I don’t feel it’s right they push their agenda like that’
Marcy Kornelsen, 59, is one of several locals who’ve expressed outrage about the march on Facebook.
Reached by phone in Steinbach, she told Daily Xtra she would be staying far away from the march. “I’m outraged,” she says.
“I’m a Christian. I believe the Bible and the Bible says that homosexuality is a sin and so that is why I don’t agree with the promotion of it.”
Kornelsen likened gay people to thieves. “Stealing is wrong, and homosexuality is wrong. It’s all on the same page.”
“I don’t feel it’s right that they push their agenda like that.”
Asked if gay people disgust her, she had this to say:
“I don’t know if the people itself disgust me. It’s the whole idea of the homosexual sin that disgusts me.”
“That part I’m just like, ‘really how can anybody even want to do something like that?’”