There’s an adage that says, “You can’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been.” This year is OutWords (initially launched as Swerve) magazine’s 20th anniversary. As the voice for the GLBT* community in Manitoba, it is a time to stop and acknowledge those who have come before us and paved the way to the privileges our community currently enjoys; landmark achievements include gaining protection regarding sexual orientation from the federal and provincial human rights commissions, spousal benefits for same-sex couples and the right to same-sex marriage. I had the privilege of interviewing two of the community’s heavyweights who each contributed, in their own way, to the cause—Maureen Pendergast and Chris Vogel.
After working as a broadcaster for CBC and private radio stations in Winnipeg and Calgary for 15 years, Pendergast became a house renovator and property redeveloper, specializing in working with non-profit groups to find creative solutions for the city’s core. She is as much a humanitarian as she is a proponent for gay rights. Along with her spouse, Sharon Pchajek who is a chartered accountant, they have over the years raised funds on behalf of the GLBT* community. In recent years, their impressive home has served as grand central station in the community for fundraising events and to mark important events such as same-sex weddings.
Pendergast recalls the community in 1994 as much more focused and visible. “I think now with social media, the gathering spots, the physical contact the people had with each other, is lessened. Twenty years ago, there was barely even an Internet. Things like Ms. Purdy’s, Happenings, Gio’s and Pride were absolutely crucial to letting people know they weren’t the only queer person in the world.”
Services in the community were not funded by government as they are today. “It was always a difficult struggle to fund these things, a difficult struggle to pay the rent and the phone bills,” says Pendergast. “There was just not this acceptance or understanding that our community has, not just the right, but really the mandate—it’s a non-negotiable that we provide services to our own community.” In one incident, a provincial civil servant suggested that Klinic run the Rainbow Resource Centre. Pendergast remembers responding, “No, we do not go to a straight organization run by straight people serving a primarily straight community.”
Discrimination hurts and some incidents leave an indelible memory, such as the following occurrence in 1998 when Pendergast and Pchajek were attempting to obtain a mortgage to fund a project. Even though they were both working professionals, five banks turned them down. Pendergast describes the scene of one rejection, “Sharon [Pchajek] was in the [bank officer’s] office making her pitch for our project and as soon as the nickel dropped and he realized we were a same-sex couple, he physically pushed his chair back from the desk to sort of get as far away from her as possible and [he] got an expression on his face of extreme discomfort and wouldn’t make eye contact with her anymore.
Legislation may lead the way, but social change comes about after a period of time,” Pendergast explains.
Pioneer gay rights activists Vogel and partner Richard North were indefatigable crusaders at a time when opposition to “homosexuals” and their rights was of leviathan proportion. They began challenging for specific rights in the mid 1970s and were instrumental in the Manitoba Human Rights Commission adopting sexual orientation protection into their code. In 1982, Vogel filed a human rights complaint against the Manitoba government for refusing to provide his partner with spousal benefits. When the complaint was rejected, North underwent a 59-day hunger strike in protest, but the NDP government of the day was not swayed. Finally, in 1995, the Manitoba Court of Appeals allowed Vogel and North same-sex spousal benefits.
Although still active in fundraising in 1994, Vogel and North were already withdrawing themselves from the cause. “By then, numbers of other people had come along to do the various things— public education, law reform and so on; that had always been the objective of the whole thing,” says Vogel. “There were unmistakable signs that we were being successful in an enduring way.” The Rainbow Resource Centre, initially known as the Winnipeg Gay/Lesbian Resource Centre, was obtaining AIDS prevention federal dollars. Attitudes are continually improving, as indicated in polls, for example, around same-sex issues. There are still, however, some hardcore areas where prejudice and discrimination remain. Vogel names Steinbach as an example. “But those places are fewer and in predictable locations amongst rural and fundamentally religious areas where there has been less in the way of public education and people coming out.”
Vogel says it was always his view that the main engine of lesbian and gay liberation was people coming out. “The real forum wasn’t the courts or the legislatures or the streets, it was the living room. As more and more people came out, this whole process began to operate more rapidly and became more extensive.”
Where will the GLBT* community be in 20 years? Both Vogel and Pendergast are very optimistic about the future, and Pendergast gives a hint as to where one of the next battles may lie. “You’re going to have the kind of housing and the kind of supportive facilities for our community as they age, which is something that is not on the map right now, but I believe that is going to come to pass.” About 20 years from now, she says: “I think we will have an openly gay prime minister.”
No one wants to end up on the wrong side of history. To cite an often-used quote. Vogel says, “The irony is that you have people (straight or gay) who say they were never prejudiced and of course they were, but may now rework their own histories to pretend they were not as hostile as they once were.” He concludes on a melioristic note, “Everybody adjusts and they adjust constructively—they adjust in the right direction.”
– Armande Martine is a provincial civil servant, mother of three adult children and partner to Nelle. She is an advocate for LGBT* rights and equality.