“Great job making a complete mockery of marriage and for influencing the youth and small children into thinking your union will ever be natural, when in fact it’s unnatural.”
“The fact that this particular wedding made headline news for no good reason other than the fact that the couple is gay, really illustrates just how far the Brandon Sun needs to come in regards to accepting and normalizing non-traditional relationships and the LGBT community.”
— A selection of unpublished comments made to the Sun’s Sound Off
Ten years ago next month, Manitoba became the fifth provincial and territorial government in Canada to legalize same-sex marriage. As the website religioustolerance.org recounts, the Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench OK’d same-sex marriage on Sept. 16, 2004, deciding that excluding same-sex couples from marriage is a violation of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
As a result, Manitobans Michelle Ritchot and Stefphany Cholakis — they were part of the landmark lawsuit against the provincial government that prompted the ruling — became the first same-sex couple to marry in Manitoba. They were married later that same day.
Since that court decision, Manitoba Vital Statistics reports that there have been 623 same-sex marriages performed in this province as of the end of 2013.
And yet, while that decision was historic and prompted a massive change in the way society views our lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender population, it has become clear over the years that not everyone has accepted that reality.
A little more than a year ago, after the Manitoba government’s Bill 18 — an anti-bullying law that promoted equality based on gender, race, sexual orientation and other factors — religious leaders and those more conservative-minded people in our community voiced concerns that the province was forcing religious schools to accommodate groups that promote equality for gays and lesbians.
Negative reactions and a pushback against the legislation, which became law on Sept. 13, 2013, was most acutely felt in rural parts of the province such as Steinbach, part of Manitoba’s so-called Bible belt.
Last May, the Winnipeg Free Press ran a story about a Christian minister whose marriage commissioner’s licence was pulled because he refused to perform same-sex ceremonies. The minister, Kevin Kisilowsky, has taken the province to court, seeking a declaration that Vital Statistics officials have breached his charter rights to freedom of religion and conscience.
And then on Saturday’s front page, the Brandon Sun featured a story about a newly married gay couple, Karli Jones and Ashley Graham, who tied the knot in front of family and friends in Killarney.
The anonymous comments made to the Sun above illustrate the fact that gay marriage is both an old story in Manitoba, but still controversial within our communities. The fact that both of these women feared retribution from their friends and family over their decision to “come out” shows that our society is not nearly as accepting as it could be.
“I didn’t see a way out because I thought I was going to hurt a lot of people by coming out. I felt very trapped,” Graham told the Sun.
“I think every kid that grows up in a rural community hears people say homophobic things, whether they really mean it or not,” Jones said. “It’s part of people’s vocabulary to say derogatory things, and I don’t think there is a lot of thought or that it’s said with the intent of hurting anybody.”
A community-minded paper needs to not only reflect all elements of that community, but also lead and provoke discussion about controversial topics that require a better understanding.
What made the story newsworthy, in our opinion, was the rarity of such unions in our community, at least among those who are willing to talk about their experiences in rural Manitoba to a much larger audience, and put themselves out there in the public sphere.
Ten years after Michelle Ritchot and Stefphany Cholakis got married, their fight for equal rights continues to resonate in our province. While Graham and Jones may not have been the first gay couple in western Manitoba to be married, they certainly won’t be the last either.
And quite frankly, Manitobans should take pride in that fact.