There was a celebratory feel at the flags of Confederation Building Monday morning, as Justice Minister Terry French raised the rainbow Pride flag.
A healthy crop of politicians from all three political parties showed up, along with several members of the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary, and a large contingent from the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) community, to mark the kickoff of Pride Week in St. John’s.
Two hours later, a lot of the same people were at St. John’s City Hall for a second flag raising — in total, about 50 people turned out to that event —
and then a smaller contingent headed to Logy Bay-Middle Cove-Outer Cove for a third flag-raising ceremony in the afternoon.
In fact, organizers had to reschedule a fourth flag raising at MUN for today, because it conflicted with Logy Bay-Middle Cove-Outer Cove’s, and because MUN was closed for Orangemen’s Day.
Pride Week in St. John’s runs until Monday, July 21. A full listing of events can be found at stjohnspride.ca.
With so much on the go, it’s easy to forget that only 15 years ago, in 1999, the rainbow flag was raised in front of St. John’s City Hall for the first time.
And in 2005, the same year that Canada legalized same-sex marriage, a commissionaire was dismissed from city hall in St. John’s for refusing to take part in the Pride flag raising on moral grounds.
The change in public attitude has been swift. French said the government is completely onside with gay rights.
“I’m sure that we’re very united in our House of Assembly, and the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador. Our elected officials certainly believe in the cause,” he said.
These days, it’s difficult to find an elected official who would publicly advocate for limiting LGBTQ rights, but it wasn’t that long ago when that was an accepted, legitimate position.
“It’s been a dramatic change,” Mayor Dennis O’Keefe said.
“If you go back and look at society as it existed in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s even, it was the opposite. It was total non-acceptance. It was a fearful atmosphere.”
Susan Rose, the grand marshall for the Pride parade this year, remembers the fear, and remembers a time that Pride wasn’t always such an overt celebration.
The bonfire night at Middle Cove beach is now one of the highlights of the week, but Rose said years ago, the bonfire night was organized to be a covert sort of thing.
She said one year the plan was for lesbians and gay men to go together so that it looked like they were all straight couples, but due to a miscommunication, the lesbians ended up down by the beach by themselves for a few hours.
“We were young and beautiful and getting our fire going, and there were a couple groups of young men that assumed, of course, that we were heterosexual,” Rose said. “We said that we were family and we were all sisters and cousins and all related, and so if you see us hugging or kissing throughout the night, it’s just, oh, it’s just my sister I haven’t seen in five years. And they believed us.”
Tree Walsh, another longtime gay rights activist, remembers doing TV interviews and having her face obscured.
“It was like that, because we were afraid of losing our jobs,” she said.
This year, people at the flag raisings repeatedly mentioned that gender identity and gender expression were recently added to the province’s human rights code, following a campaign by Gerry Rogers, the province’s first openly gay member of the House of Assembly.
But at the same time, people at the flag raisings were reminded that a disproportionate number of homeless youths tend to be LGBTQ, that senior citizens in same-sex relationships have a harder time being accommodated in long-term care, and transgender people still have to travel to Toronto for assessment before receiving certain kinds of treatment.
Rose, who’s the president of Egale, Canada Human Rights Trust, said it’s dismaying that doctors can graduate from medical school without any knowledge about the transgender community, but she’s also encouraged principals, vice-principals and guidance counsellors in the province have received LGBTQ training, and teachers across the province will start receiving training this year.
Rose said not having LGBTQ issues reflected in the school curriculum is a major problem.
“We have school boards in this country where gays and lesbians are shunned. Where they’re told they can change if they prayed,” she said. “The message of being excluded is extremely insidious.”