Forget recruiting people to the gay side — it is not really that hard. Gay is not only good, gay is better! No, I have devoted most of my adult life to a much harder row to hoe — luring people to Winnipeg. So needless to say I was thrilled to receive an email from a young dyke who is moving here from the UK, seemingly of her own volition and without my hard-sell.
However her chatty, “What’s it like there?” left me in a quandary. How to describe the joys of Winnie to a big-city queer activist who hails from a culture so self-confident, self-aware and future-forward that it can celebrate Gay Shame day? How to explain the crazy idiosyncrasy of this community to someone used to a definition of diversity based on a critical mass of millions?
In truth the mere rumour of this girl’s arrival proceeded her message in my inbox. It has set the community buzzing. Long before I heard from her, I received more than one query asking, “What’s she like? When’s she arriving? What’s her type?” These are questions that a Google search doesn’t begin to answer. And anyway, in a couple of short weeks she’ll be here in the flesh and, as the new girl in town, can have a good time answering them herself. That is until the reality of a small-city prairie life sets in: that there just aren’t enough of us here. When my partner of a zillion years left suddenly last fall, my friend Rachel put it best, “Whatever you do, don’t go to the bar. It’ll only make you feel worse.”
And yet I choose to stay. It’s been 20 years since I left my-home-and-native Toronto, and other than a short stint in Edmonton, this is where I want to remain. True, I came to Winnipeg with a lover and until recently haven’t been single. The grim dating scene isn’t something I’ve had to consider until now. But even though I look around at the age of 45 and realize my sex and love options are geographically limited, my gayness is not. In fact Winnipeg has taught me a lot about gay community — community period — and that is what keeps me here.
As a young dyke in Toronto, I probably spent 80 to 90 percent of my time with other young, socialist, feminist lezzies. And we got a lot done. Our conversations were very focussed, very particular and sometimes very narrow. So I was shocked when I moved to Winnipeg and was invited to parties where there were old people, straight people and (gasp!) men. People talked about their children, their fishing trips, their varied and nuanced politics: all the things they loved.
Style wasn’t a big issue. I was horrified! They didn’t care what designer or label I was wearing, just how much I paid for it. “Three bucks? Far out!” I could walk down the street carrying my camera, notebook and wallet in a Safeway bag, and not a soul would think less of me for it.
On the other hand, people really wanted to hear about what I was working on. Content seemed to matter a lot. And kindness. When I first got here I rented a crappy apartment and virtual strangers offered to come over to help paint it, to spruce it up a bit. I was appalled! What was wrong with these people? What did they want from me? Some fag was always dropping by with baking. Had I entered a strange twilight zone where people did not care about my identity, but rather what I brought to the community?
Now it’s been so long I almost take it for granted. For years I shared a home with gay men, and some of them are my closest friends. When my lover left, people of all sexualities asked what I needed and showed up with furniture and kitchen gadgets. My father is dying, so a cavalcade of lesbians and trans guys has been accompanying me to his bedside each weekend.
As an artist, I can call up volunteers on the day of a video shoot and they show up that evening, in costume, with snacks to share. Other artists congratulate me when I get a grant.
I move through my days, my life here, supported and cared about.
So I wrote back to that queer English rose and told here it’s a bit different here, but it’s okay. All the girls are excited about your arrival. You’ll have a tons of fun your first few months. Folks will help you paint your apartment. You might feel a bit crowded; it all might feel too much. You’ll be amazed by how thoroughly, unabashedly odd each and every Winnipegger is. And when the dust settles you’ll realize that it is a good place, not a perfect place. It is a poor city with no urban plan. Colonization lives on in North End/South End apartheid. And we desperately need population and density to turn things around. But other than that, anything is possible. You can do anything you want and no one will ask, “Who do you think you are?” In short — and dating aside — you’ll be loved just as you are. And that’s no small thing.