What a difference from 20 years ago

Brian Hodder
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By the time that you read this, the majority of the events for this year’s St. John’s pride celebrations will have already been held and hopefully will have been totally successful.

This year’s Pride Week was chock-full of activities designed to appeal to all of the diverse elements within our community, which has become more inclusive as the years have passed.  More importantly, the event — and our community in general — has achieved a level where there is broad support from most sectors of our society and we are as free to live our lives as any other citizen.

Public support

Politicians from all three political parties participated in flag-raising ceremonies and there are many corporate sponsors providing moral and financial support for this year’s activities.  Prior to Pride Week, the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary (RNC) released a recruitment video encouraging members of our community to join the force; they have been very public in their support, including full participation in Sunday’s Pride Parade.

Such was not always the case. An event 21 years ago involving the RNC reveals how much things have changed for the better.

On the night of July 6, 1993, Brian Nolan was arrested outside a gay bar in downtown St. John’s on a charge of being drunk in public and spent a night in the lockup.  He later went public with the accusation that the police officers who arrested him had assaulted him, called him a “faggot” and had targeted him because he was outside a gay bar.

An internal investigation by the RNC found no basis for his complaints, so he pursued his case through the Police Complaints Commission, which eventually ruled, after all appeals by the officers involved were exhausted, that Nolan was indeed improperly detained by the officers involved and that there was evidence that one of the officers had used “derogatory language” towards Nolan; the officers received suspensions.

I remember the atmosphere among members of the gay community in July 1993 regarding the RNC, and fear was a very common reaction.  However, perhaps spurred on by the courage of Nolan in going public, anger was also expressed and people wondered what could be done about it all.

I was working at the AIDS Committee around this time and some time after this incident — considering a number of other reports had been received about gay-bashing within the city — the committee decided to organize a forum around the issue of violence against members of our community. This meeting drew a significant number of people and one of the issues raised was that there was no local gay organization at the time for people to turn to support.

Anyone interested in forming such a group was encouraged to meet the following week, and the AIDS Committee offered a safe space for this meeting to take place. As I remember it, around 20 people showed up that next week and Newfoundland Gays and Lesbians for Equality (NGALE) got its start.

In time, I was elected leader and we met regularly for years with support group meetings, established a support line staffed by NGALE volunteers, lobbied government for changes in our laws and started and published a newsletter — among other activities.

Organized gay pride march

One of those activities — with the co-ordination and support of other community groups, especially the most prominent lesbian organization at the time, Newfoundland Amazon Network — was the organization of a gay pride march which was held yearly and has grown into the week of celebrations we have today.

While this part of our local gay history does not rival the famous Stonewall Riots in New York, which spurred the gay rights movement in the U.S., it is a vital part of our history that many of the young LGBTQ marchers may want to remember.

I was especially impressed with the leadership shown by the RNC this week in the release of that video, but especially in the comments of the police chief in wanting to assure members of the community who have been victims of a crime that the RNC is there for their safety.

Having lived through a time when we did not all feel this was the case, I can not overstate how important this is to the health of our community.

If there is one thing I have witnessed over the years of gay pride in St. John’s, it is that it has morphed from a protest for equality into a celebration of community. It warms my heart to be able to say this and makes me so very proud to be a member of this community, not just as a gay man but as a full and accepted member of the St. John’s community.

Brian Hodder is a past-chairman of Newfoundland Gays and Lesbians for Equality.

Organizations: RNC, AIDS Committee, Police Complaints Commission

Geographic location: New York, U.S.

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