For over a decade, Valerie Korinek has been extensively researching the gay and lesbian community on the Prairies.
“There is a large and long culture of gay and lesbian people living in the Prairies,” Korinek said. “Just because historians haven’t written about it before doesn’t mean it didn’t exist.”
The University of Saskatchewan (U of S) history professor discovered a massive, virtually untouched archival collection held at the university archives. The collection was largely put together by the late U of S librarian Neil Richards. Richards, formerly an activist, spent much of his career gathering and documenting the history of LGBTQ communities.
The research can be found in her new book Prairie Fairies: A History of Queer Communities and People in Western Canada. The book focuses primarily on the 1930s through to 1985 in Saskatoon, Regina, Winnipeg, Calgary, and Edmonton.
That time can be broken down into two different eras for life on the prairies in the gay or lesbian communities.
“Pre-1969 it’s a very covert world, very quiet; people having house parties, socializing and at a number of railway bar hotels,” Korinek said. “Then, say, from 1970 to ’85, the creation of explicitly gay and lesbian spaces.”
This was followed by an explosion of activism, which included clubs, newsletters, magazines, lending libraries, and some counselling, depending on your location.
Korinek said she ended her book in 1985 due to the AIDS epidemic and its impact on activism and the queer community.
“The notion that people fled the Prairies, or were closeted or thwarted — there’s some reality in that,” Korinek said. “But there’s also a much more vibrant community than we would’ve expected.”
In Saskatoon, the eventual emergence of the LGBTQ community was met with mixed reaction; this included resistance and some violence.
“As things become more visible, as it becomes more evident where gay men are cruising. For instance, we see an uptick in bashing and we see a number of well-publicized gay murders,” Korinek said. “It’s a double-edged sword. People knew where to go to find people like themselves, but there was a threat of violence.”
Some clubs were also the victim of unsolved arsons during that time. But the main adversity which has changed and persisted even today, according to Korinek, was general harassment. Some clubs and businesses even had a hard time advertising events or getting a listing in the phone book.
“It’s shocking what people had to put up with, but I do think the threat of violence is always with us, the threat of harassment is always with us,” Korinek said. She noted online bullying as one way homophobic harassment has changed over the years.
Paying tribute to those who forged a path for what we recognize now as Saskatoon’s LGBTQ community, Korinek is planning a book launch in the coming months in partnership with OUTSaskatoon.
“It’s not just a story, it’s actually documenting history,” OUTSaskatoon executive director Rachel Loewen Walker said. “It’s making lives visible that otherwise are not visible and it’s giving a movement for those people who fought so hard for where we are today.”
Loewen Walker noted Korinek’s book may even help the younger generation of LGBTQ people by presenting the community’s history, and where it is today.
The book’s cover features at least one trailblazer. The photo is of Annie Maude McKay sharing a kiss with another woman on the U of S campus; it’s believed the photo was taken in 1915, serving as one of the first artifacts of this once underground community in Saskatoon.
“Unlike today where it’s very simple to set up a quick selfie shot, where you don’t even need somebody to take your photograph, this (photo) was obviously staged and set up,” Korinek said. “These women claimed that space for themselves. It’s a very touching embrace actually.”
Progress for the LGBTQ community in Saskatoon continued after 1985. Saskatoon’s first Pride Week was declared in 1995, though its first parade didn’t happen until 2001.
“Contrary to our stereotypes about the Prairies that people might just seek larger pastures and move to Vancouver, move to Toronto, move to Montreal, a lot of people stayed here,” Korinek said,
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