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A (Brief) LGBT History of Winnipeg

Winnipeg has long been a welcoming city, with a community that has seemingly always fought for for LGBTQ* rights. You’d have to look all the way back to the 1920s to find our first underground gay establishments – which you can, via the University of Manitoba’s  Manitoba Gay/Lesbian Archive’s Oral History Project.

One of Winnipeg’s first notable gay bars was Club 654, a members only after-hours club where liquor was not sold. Club 654’s opening, on a Sunday afternoon in 1970, attracted over 200 people. A year or so before this, on Halloween night in 1968, the first drag ball was held in Winnipeg at the Sildor Ballroom.   

Unlike notorious “raids” at other gay clubs in cities across Canada, there were no raids at Winnipeg’s gay bars. This tolerance has been attributed to the work of people like, the Honourable Ruth Krindle, the now retired judge who was instrumental in advocating LGBT rights, including being counsel for Winnipeg’s first gay club in 1969. 

Within this environment, by the early 70s, notable establishments like Happenings Social Club (1974-2002) and the Mardis Gras offered the community a place to call their own. The 70s also saw a good deal of equal rights marches which had been fostered by Winnipeg’s politically active university campuses. It was also during this time that the Manitoba Gay Coalition was established, which included organizations from the more rural communities of Thompson and Brandon. 

Winnipeg’s community has always been well represented in its artistic endeavours. A noteworthy example was the 1980s public access television show Coming Out. This program, which featured openly gay people, was pretty much unheard of at the time. Also of note in the 1980s was the opening of Giovanni’s Room in 1982. This legendary club, which would become Gio’s Club and Bar, stayed open for 31 years and was often considered the heart of Winnipeg’s LGBT scene. 

Winnipeg’s first pride parade took place on Sunday, August 2, 1987 on the heels of Manitoba’s Human Rights Code -- which protected the rights of gays and lesbians – being past. This first parade featured 250 participants, several of whom wore paper bags over their head for fear of being ostracized. The Pride Winnipeg Festival has taken place ever since, growing from a single day event to a 10-day celebration. 

It was a huge moment in Winnipeg’s proud LGBT history, one that may only have been eclipsed when Glen Murray – an openly gay man who had spoke to Manitoba’s legislature before the passing of The Human Rights Code – was elected mayor in 1998. He would later be re-elected in 2002.

For more on Winnipeg’s proud LGBT history check out One Gay City: A History of LGBT Life in Winnipeg, a documentary by the CBC which you can watch here.

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