“Yaaa Homos!” exclaims Iman Kassam from behind her drum kit at last year’s Folk on the Rocks Music Festival. Kassam, who came to Yellowknife from Africa by way of Toronto, holds her drumsticks in the air, flashing the audience a glimpse of her tattooed arms and rows of colorful braided bracelets. She’s just finished telling the crowd about the upcoming NWT Pride Festival, which she is directing. Also plugging Pride is blues rocker Grey Gritt, dressed head-to-toe in black, giving her cherry red electric guitar extra pop. “We hope to see you there,” says Gritt, “because you will certainly be seeing us.”
It was at this moment I realized something was brewing in Yellowknife. The sun may have been shining that day, but a storm was coming, a storm of queer culture and awareness. As a co-chair of It Gets Better Yellowknife, a youth organization aimed at outreach, education and awareness for queer issues both locally and around the world, I realized that change was in the air. Principals were thanking us for coming into their schools, anonymous donors were sending us funds, and news sources wanted to talk to us about queer kids. In our first interview with CBC radio, the host announced, “Two local lesbians are sweeping the city…” as if we were some natural disaster, a hurricane swirling over Yellowknife in a storm of glitter and rainbows.
Kassam explains why she decided to get involved in Yellowknife’s inaugural pride festival.
“The Toronto and Ottawa Pride season are such a huge part of my coming out story; when I moved to Yellowknife and summer was approaching I started getting that feeling, like when you know it is going to rain, it’s Pride season…but it wasn’t here.
“Beyond my sexual orientation, Pride helped me grow as a person and I figured it could help others do the same,” she says.
I was born and raised in Yellowknife, and it has always, from my own experiences, been a very welcoming and open-minded city. From my own coming out in 2010, I have seen a huge, but subtle wave of queer culture making its way into the everyday. From the safe space posters depicting an inverted rainbow triangle that decorate offices around town, to the number of organizations and options that now exist for people in our community to get together and share.
When my co-chair, Jacq Brasseur, and I started It Gets Better Yellowknife, we were the only ones, but we certainly were not the first to advocate on behalf of LGBTQ (Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, Transgendereds and Queers).
OutNorth was started in 1997 by a group of seven or eight individuals in response to the Government of the Northwest Territories’ plans to amend the family laws.
Founding board member Lorne Gushue says prior to OutNorth there was still a community, but when the government was seeking public input on the family laws, a formal group was needed to speak on behalf of what he calls, the “Alphabet Soup” community.
“The intention was to educate our members and broader society by responding to the call for public input. What was only supposed to last a few months lasted a decade,” he says.
OutNorth held Halloween and summer dances for years. They put educational speakers in schools, managed a phone line, held silent auctions and raised the first Pride flag at City Hall.
Gushue says the public was excited about the fun side of Pride, but was less enthusiastic about the activism that went with it.
In 2005, Yellowknife made national headlines when a city councillor’s proposition of a Heterosexual Pride Day was passed and scheduled for the day before Gay Pride Day.
“In his heart of hearts he thought what he was doing was right, no one wakes up thinking, ‘I’m going to oppress people today,’” Gushue recalls.
Shortly after the proclamation passed, it was rescinded in a 4-3 vote by city council.
OutNorth also offered its voice for equal adoption in the NWT, as well as intervening in the court case for marriage equality. Gushue says this monumental victory would be the beginning of the end for OutNorth.
“It was a mixed blessing – OutNorth’s demise. We were ecstatic to think that people were so safe and comfortable that we were not needed, but only some people were safe and comfortable,” he says, noting that OutNorth never had a huge focus for youth or Trans, often used as an umbrella term when referring to people who identify outside of the binary gender system and can include, but is not limited to: Bigender, Pangender, Genderqueer, Third Gender, Two-Spirit, Gender non-conforming or Agender.
Still other issues
“After marriage equality, when the dust settles, there are still other issues. I think OutNorth more than exceeded its mandate, but as new issues and new initiatives emerge, there are new organizations to respond to the needs of the time.”
Which brings us to the next generation.
In 2010, a rash of youth suicides, largely related to extreme harassment over sexual orientation or gender identity, was a wake up call to the North American queer community that more had to be done to support its young people. Thanks to the cyber era, harassment now extends past the perimeters of the schoolyard and follows kids home, leaving no escape from the torment.
American activist Dan Savage saw a way to use the Internet to fight harassment and started It Gets Better – a web-based, international video campaign meant to inspire and support queer youth everywhere. U.S. President Barack Obama and Canadian comic Rick Mercer are just two of the 50,000 supporters who have posted videos to date.
Here in Yellowknife, we would rather help make it better now.
Whenever we go into a classroom to start a discussion with students – always with a focus on anti-harassment – the level of thoughtful and inquisitive questions from the youth blows me away. Whether it is empathizing with Trans people on the challenges of dating, or asking if they would be allowed to help start a Gay-Straight Alliance if they are straight, the youth of this city are eager to learn about, and be, the next generation of allies and queer culture in Yellowknife.
Kassam says she hopes to see more students at the Pride Festival this summer, scheduled from August 9-11 at the Folk on the Rocks site.
“Everything that worked in the first year we want to build on,” she says, including workshops and all-ages style events.
The theme of Pride this year is Unite Us. Kassam explains that the intention is to bring everyone together. “Individually, we all come with different stories and different histories; there is such a wide diversity of identities even within ourselves. We want to represent all the letters of our acronym.”
Not only is Unite Us a fitting title for the NWT Pride Festival, but I also think it suits the expanding presence of the queer community of the city.
Now, in addition to It Gets Better Yellowknife and NWT Pride, there is a committee within the Public Service Alliance of Canada as well as Rainbow Gatherings – informal opportunities to chat on the third Wednesday of the month at Javaroma. The role of all of these groups and activities now is more on education and celebration.
Just because we are lucky enough to live in Yellowknife, a place with few outward objections, the fact is that around the world, within our own country and federal government, that is not the case. For example, Trans people are only accepted into the Canadian Armed Forces if they have undergone genital reassignment surgery, an option for many that is not wanted or needed.
No knowledge is wasted and Pride is an amazing time to learn. Learn about the people in your community; learn about laws and policies around the world and within Canada, and celebrate. Celebrate diversity because it makes everything more interesting. There seems to be no break in the storm of queer culture in Yellowknife, no signs of it letting up. However, unlike a real storm, we do not have to wait for the end to see a rainbow. They shine through all the time.
A Timeline of Queer Culture in the NWT
Compiled by Nicole Garbutt
May 8, 1997
OutNorth forms officially in response to a call for public input on NWT Family Law.
The NWT Adoption Act allows same-sex couples to adopt children.
The NWT Human Rights Act is passed and includes protection against discrimination or harassment because of sexual orientation or gender identity.
The NWT Human Rights Commission is formed, with a member of OutNorth sitting as one of the first commissioners.
The City of Yellowknife declares Heterosexual Pride Day to be June 9, the day before Gay Pride Day. The controversy makes national headlines and the proclamation is rescinded after a coffee meeting between Mayor Gord Van Tighem, a couple of city councillors and board members of OutNorth.
July 20, 2005
Same-Sex Marriage is legally recognized in the Northwest Territories.
OutNorth ceases operations and events, although never officially disbands as a society in the NWT.
It Gets Better Yellowknife forms under the Northern V Network, launching with an anonymous online survey for public input.
NWT Human Rights Commission and YK1 School District partner on a free workshop about creating inclusive schools for sexual and gender minority students.
August 31 to September 2, 2012
NWT Pride hosts a three-day pride festival in Yellowknife with all-ages events and workshops, a beer garden, musicians and panel discussions under the theme, Be Shameless.
It Gets Better Yellowknife attends the first National Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) Summit in Toronto as regional representatives, hosted through Egale Canada.
August 9-11, 2013
The second NWT Pride Festival is scheduled under the theme Unite Us.