Fabric banner with three vent holes cut along the middle laid out on a flat surface. In large, blue letters,
June 5, 2023

If These Walls Could Talk

Above: This banner has seen many marches, rallies, and protests in the fight for queer rights. Gays for Equality evolved through the years to become Rainbow Resource Centre today. The banner was used at the first official Pride parade in 1987, and is on exhibit at the Museum from May 26. It will be donated to the Manitoba Museum, which continues to welcome more artifacts related to the 2SLGBTQ+ experience in Manitoba.

If These Walls Could Talk

By Roland Sawatzky, Curator of History, the Manitoba Museum & Ashley Smith, Director of Advocacy, Rainbow Resource Centre

Two-spirited, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (2SLGBTQ+) people have always lived in Winnipeg, and were and are an essential part of the fabric of our urban society. 2SLGBTQ+ communities have a rich history. The Manitoba Museum is proud to partner with Rainbow Resource Centre to help tell this important community story through this temporary exhibition of posters, which opened on May 26.

Museums are a place of artifacts and stories. Some artifacts, such as posters, seem ephemeral when they are first printed and put up on a wall. They are meant for immediate effect – they “talk” to casual passersby, but only for a few weeks before they disappear. Posters that are actually preserved make excellent artifacts for capturing a single moment in time. 

The 20 posters showcased in the new exhibit If These Walls Could Talk: 50 Years of 2SLGBTQ+ Activism in Winnipeg capture the issues and concerns of the community from the early 1970s to the present. They are calls to action to advance and protect the rights of individuals in the community.

Poster reading “National Gay Conference / Gay Pride March / March at 2:00 p.m. on Sat., Aug. 31 from the Richardson bldg., down Portage, down Memorial. Conference hosted by Gays for Equality. 284-9697". In the centre are two identical symbols showing an extended “t” shape with an arrow at the bottom, and a circle around the of the centre line.

Winnipeg hosted the 2nd National Gay Conference in 1974. It was a small start – dozens of people marched down Portage Avenue with flags and banners. 

Image of an illustrated scroll with “Mayor’s Proclamation” along the top alongside a City of Winnipeg Coat of Arms. The proclamation reads, “WHEREAS it is estimated that one thousand Manitobans have already been infected with the AIDS virus; / AND WHEREAS most persons infected with this virus will progress to develop AIDS, which is an invariably fatal illness; / AND WHEREAS no man, woman or child is immune from this disease; / AND WHEREAS there is no known cure for AIDS virus infections; / AND WHEREAS almost all AIDS virus infection can be prevented by the use of appropriate precautions; / AND WHEREAS education of the general public will assist in the prevention of the spread of this disease; / AND WHEREAS increased understanding of this illness by the general public will contribute to the acceptance and support of infected persons; / NOW, THEREFORE, I , WILLIAM NORRIE, Mayor of the City of Winnipeg, in the Province of Manitoba, do hereby proclaim the week of May 6th to May 12th , 1987 as: / “AIDS AWARENESS WEEK” / DATED at Winnipeg this 6th day of May, 1987.”

In 1987 Mayor William Norrie’s Proclamation of AIDS Awareness Week set a tone of tolerance and inclusion amid a global crisis. 

From the first simple sign – Gays for Equality, from 1973 – a call went out for gathering and representation at the University of Manitoba. In 1978 a poster called for gays and lesbians to “COME OUT” and speak up for human rights and to end discrimination, and protest the anti-gay rights activist Anita Bryant who was speaking in Winnipeg. In 1980 a poster protested the banning of gay books – an issue that still resonates today. During the HIV/AIDS pandemic of the mid-1980s-1990s, 2SLGBTQ+ communities suffered devastation, and rights became a matter of life and death. Posters were used to spread useful information and support for those at risk.  Into the 2000s, posters promoted equality of marriage, anti-bullying measures, and transgender rights.

In 1987, Manitoba became Canada’s third province to include sexual orientation in its Charter of Rights and Freedoms – later celebrated as the first Pride on August 2 of that year. 2SLGBTQ+ activism was central to this and many other freedoms for Manitobans, and these posters tell the story of the fight for those rights, of how far the community has come, and also how much is at risk of being lost today.

Poster featuring pink triangles for the “1st Annual Lesbian & Gay Pride Day at Vimy Ridge Park / Sunday, August 2nd 1:00 pm”. An illustration in the centre shows six silhouetted figures walking, some with their hands reaching up enthusiastically. Accompanying text on the illustration reads, “Out on the STREETS”.

The community celebrated its first official Pride Day on August 2, 1987, two weeks after Manitoba included sexual orientation in its Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

A poster reading, “A dance party for QPOC and allies / COLOUR ME QUEER / Hip-Hop, Heavy Beats, Dance Hall / DJ Two Topping+ DJ Sammy SOS + DJ C8E / QPOC Apparel, LE1F & A Tribe Called Redprize Giveaways! / $5 in Advance // The Windsor // 10pm”.

This ad for a dance party for Queer People of Colour and allies was part of a larger movement of Queer Trans Black and Indigenous People of Colour to tell their stories and fight for a shift in narrative in the larger 2SLGBTQ+ community.

Fun Fact!

The Rainbow Flag was first created in 1978 by Gilbert Baker, a gay man and drag queen from California. Harvey Milk, an openly gay city supervisor in San Francisco, had urged Gilbert to make a symbol of pride for the larger gay community. Over the years it has evolved to include more colours, representing diversity within the 2SLGBTQ+ community! 

If These Walls Could Talk is produced in partnership with the Rainbow Resource Centre, and funded in part by the Manitoba Government, Department of Sport, Culture, and Heritage. 

Dr. Roland Sawatzky

Dr. Roland Sawatzky

Curator of History

Roland Sawatzky joined The Manitoba Museum in 2011. He received his B.A. in Anthropology from the University of Winnipeg, M.A. in Anthropology from the University of South Carolina, and Ph.D. in Archaeology…
Meet Dr. Roland Sawatzky