Halifax Pride is now the fourth largest Pride event in the country, but has it lost touch with its political roots?
Published in the Spring 2015 issue of Local Connections magazine.
Consider this sobering fact for a moment: twenty-five years ago in Nova Scotia you could be refused service at a restaurant, denied a lease from a landlord and left with no hospital visitation rights if you were gay or lesbian. Back then, the Nova Scotia Human Rights Act still hadn’t protected sexual orientation, and beyond this legal battle, there were very real physical battles for the GLBTQ community as well. Like the one faced by John William Tha Din, who was beaten to death in 1988 at Camp Hill Cemetery, a known gay cruising area.
With so much on the line by being out, it’s not surprising that when some from the province’s GLBTQ community heard about what many now call the first official Halifax Pride march the same year Din was murdered, they were scared to attend. “Before the march I was worried I was going to get there and be the only one who showed up,” said Eric Smith, the gay teacher in Shelburne County who was removed from his teaching position in 1987 after it was revealed he had HIV.
But Smith wasn’t alone when he showed up at the southeast corner of the Halifax Common that July 1st. About seventy-five others were there, some with signs and banners that reflected the theme of that first Pride Week, “Out of the Closet & Into the Human Rights Act.” Fear was still very much in the air, however, as the march began. “The scariest moment was when a car in the oncoming lane took a run at us,” recalled Anne Bishop. “It . . . screeched to a stop a couple of feet over the line, the young man laughing as people scattered.”
Contrast that scene with what Halifax Pride has become in recent years: a city-wide, ten-day, corporate-sponsored celebration that’s now the country’s fourth largest Pride. It welcomes about one hundred fifty thousand people who are free to take in or take part in theatre, concerts, dances, lectures and way more, including the focal point, the parade—no longer a march. “It’s grown into a festival where everything goes, anyone can feel accepted,” says Willem Blois, the chair of the Halifax Pride Society’s organizing committee. “You always have this feeling that nothing can go wrong, nothing will actually dampen our spirits because everyone is there to celebrate love, to celebrate diversity.”
But if you’re aware of the history of Halifax Pride and the struggles the GLBTQ community still deals with, including the marginalization and violence faced by transgender people, you might also have a couple of questions: How did Pride evolve into a celebration, and what was lost along the way?
To answer that first question, I caught up with Chris Aucoin, who researched Pride’s history for its twenty-fifth anniversary in 2013 and provided the quotes you read above from the people who were at the march in ’88. He says Halifax Pride began to morph into more of a celebration in 1991, when sexual orientation was added to the list of protected grounds in the Nova Scotia Human Rights Act. “That made it easier for people in the community to feel they could be more public, so you really started to see the numbers climb after that, and I believe by 1992 they started calling it a parade, instead of a march, which was when it began to blur into less about a political statement.”
That blurring didn’t sit well for those who were politically inclined, however, says Aucoin, and even to this day there’s debate about what Pride has become.
One organization at the centre of that debate is Rad Pride Halifax, which organizes an alternative to the city’s Pride celebration that has included self-defence classes, a queer and feminist porn screening, and the Dyke & Trans March. No one from the organization could be reached for comment, but Jude Ashburn, a founding member told Metro News in July: “We need to be proud of the fact that we’re not the same as other parts of society, and our struggles are not going away. They can’t just be slapped into the rest of the world and tolerated for a day with rainbows.”
Willem Blois says the Halifax Pride Society is aware of these concerns. “That kind of controversy—the move to be more celebratory and away from politics—has existed in a lot of Prides around the world, and we’ve received a lot of feedback from our community that they would really value an acknowledgement of where we come from.”
Although Blois couldn’t provide any specific details about how Pride will acknowledge those political roots at this year’s Pride (July 16-26), he did say they’re planning events “that will create spaces where we can celebrate our heritage.”
We’ll wait and see if that will be enough for Rad Pride Halifax and others questioning the direction of Halifax Pride, but even if it isn’t, it’s hard to argue Pride hasn’t played an important role in this city. “It’s given us visibility,” says Aucoin, who’s been attending Halifax Pride on and off since 1990, “but visibility isn’t the only thing we need. We still need to change people’s attitudes. And Pride helps do that; it helps to say we aren’t some scary monsters out at a distance. It helps to humanize.”