When the inaugural edition of what was then called Swerve came out in Octo- ber 1994, much of the city’s GLBT community remained closeted. Although things were better than they had been even a decade before, one of its founders, Ian King, says a collective of out Winnipeggers knew more could be done to bring a voice—and some much needed visibility—to the then nearly anonymous group.
“We were past the days of human rights equality and dis- crimination in employment and housing, but in ‘94 we were still meeting a lot of walls,” says King, who wrote for the paper and was the paper’s advertis- ing manager before moving into the editor’s chair for a year in 1996. “We all pitched in. It was a labour of love in the first couple years.”
Along with King, Swerve’s founding committee included Stu Burgess, Stephen Lawson, Jean LeMaitre, David Mc- Gunigal, Greg Klassen, Carol Philipps, Robert Sauvey, John Schellenberg and Robert Shaw.
All worked for free and well through the night to make sure the quarterly, tabloid-style paper hit newsstands on time, and King says the “crazy hours” members put in during the early days were on top of the full-time jobs they kept outside of the publication.
The idea to start a queer press in the city came after many of the founders returned home from cities like Toronto and Vancouver, which at the time had much more open GLBT communities. King says they wanted to see that change come to Winnipeg too.
But the biggest motivation for the group to start the publication that would ultimately become OutWords was a columnist at one of the city’s two major newspapers who King says wrote regular columns attacking the queer community, as well as a push at the time to see city schools start teaching tolerance.
“In that initial year, we were fighting off people who were saying it was just political correctness gone crazy to start putting public money towards educating people about homo- phobia,” recalls King. “It was just rabid commentary… and we felt very strongly that we needed to counter that.”
Greg Klassen, one of Swerve’s first reporters whose beat ranged from the arts scene to hard news, says the publication was political at the beginning and strove to write from the GLBT perspective—something he says was missing in mainstream media at the time.
Klassen points to a piece he wrote about gay-bashing and the death of a young gay man who was beaten and drowned by four men who’d caught him cruising near Winnipeg’s Granite Curling Club in the early ’90s.
“It really changed my perspective on how things were being reported and how violence towards gay people was really kind of accepted,” he says. “It just wasn’t discussed— it was kind of like ‘Okay, gay people are getting beat up and killed.’”
Both King and Klassen say it wasn’t long after Swerve began printing that the collective began to see the social change they’d hoped for stepping into Winnipeg. Within the first year, the publication was having no problem finding people willing to have their picture taken and printed within Swerve’s pages – remarkable progress, considering the paper bags that were worn at Winnipeg’s first Pride Day in 1987–and venues had no qualms about helping to distribute the free publication.
“It wasn’t just Swerve—it was a lot of things—there was a lot of social change that happened very quickly,” says Klassen. “I think Swerve was just there at the right time.”
King says things were going so well that Swerve had to start printing monthly to appease the large number of advertis- ers who wanted to be seen in its pages. And to top it all off, King says the columnist whose articles had helped spur the founders to start Swerve soon moved out of the city to work at a paper in Calgary. “She was quite angry about having been stomped on by this little up-start newspaper,” laughs King. “I think it was quite a strong signal to our community.”
While social change swirled through Winnipeg and the pages of Swerve, a big change would come to the publication in 2007, after the Calgary Herald co-opted the name Swerve for its weekly entertainment supplement. Following a trademark dispute between the two papers, Winnipeg’s Swerve re-launched as OutWords, in the glossy, magazine-style format it remained in until today.
King and Klassen say it was more than just the outward appearance of the publication that was changing around that time. They say the political angst that had been needed in the stories, editorials and cartoons at the beginning was changing too. King says that edge just wasn’t needed anymore.
“It accomplished what it needed to do,” he says. “I don’t know how powerful it is (today) as a local voice because so much of the goals we had as a com- munity have been achieved.”
So now, just shy of 22 years after the first edition of Swerve was published, OutWords is changing again. Board chair Rachel Morgan says, like all print media, OutWords is finding it increasingly difficult to cover its costs through advertising and this issue—fittingly the Pride edition—will be its last in print form.
“We know that many of our readers like the printed magazine, so it is with sadness and regret that we are ceasing publication,” Morgan says. “We will miss it, too.” But OutWords’ online presence—its outwords.ca website and social media pages—will live on, and Morgan says the board plans to use those mediums to continue telling the stories of Winnipeg’s queer communities.
And Klassen and King both say that’s important.
“A lot of us in our 50s and 60s, I think are saying ‘Yep, we’ve done what we needed to do,’” says Klassen. “But I also think we have to remember that people just coming out now need that forum, and need that place where they can go and be safe.”
–Shane Gibson is a freelance reporter from Winnipeg. When not working he enjoys the odd beer and the even odder conversation.