Nelson’s Pride Parade is a raucous downtown dance party for inclusion and diversity that has been embraced by the city as an annual highlight. Every September, families and allies line the streets to celebrate their friends and neighbours for who they are.
But 26 years ago when the parade was first held, organizers debated whether it would be too dangerous to go ahead.
Baker Street businesses didn’t want it held on a Saturday when they were still open, and city council voted against the hanging of a banner that officially recognized the event. On the day of the parade, some participants wore paper bags to hide their identities and threats were made to people attending a dance party.
The parade, which was the first in North America to occur outside a major city, is what filmmaker Amy Bohigian calls a flashpoint in the history of West Kootenay’s 2SLGTBQIA+ community.
“People literally were fearing for their life. This is 1996. There’s gay prides that had happened for over a decade in other cities, but in the Kootenays it was like putting your life on the line.”
Bohigian’s new movie Queering The Interior, which premiers June 22 in Nelson at The Civic Theatre as Pride Month celebrations are being held globally, examines the community’s history in the West Kootenay. The 45-minute documentary mixes footage provided by Michael Wicks, who created an 2SLGTBQIA+ archive for Touchstones Museum, with interviews of people who have been integral to spreading education and understanding.
The documentary started as a 10-minute short film included in an exhibition on Kootenay Pride hosted by Touchstones last year. Bohigian said the museum’s executive director Astrid Heyerdahl encouraged her to expand the material. That in turn led Bohigian to discover a history that began decades prior to the festival when gay men began making their homes in the region as part of the back-to-the-land movement in the 1960s.
That, she said, encouraged lesbians to leave cities for the region, and led to sustainable communities such as a land co-op set up by women in Blewett outside Nelson.
“They built everything from the ground up including their own hydroelectric power. So that community really committed to trying to be rural, queer and just live here no matter what.”
Bohigian’s interviews include Christopher Moore, who is credited as a principal founder of the Pride Parade. Bohigian said Moore is also integral to encouraging transgendered people to move to Nelson after starting Trans Connect, an ANKORS initiative that provides support to transgender, two-spirit, intersex, and gender diverse people.
“[Moore] basically created a total infrastructure around health care and information for people to understand what it is to be trans.”
The film also shows how events in the ’70s and ’80s encouraged the 2SLGTBQIA+ community to visit the West Kootenay. Bohigian says a women’s festival at Vallican as well as the Fruit Float down the Slocan River were annual highlights that brought people from the United States to celebrate.
Residents also contributed simply by being visible in the community. Queering The Interior includes interviews with hairdressers Robert Verigin and Henri Roberts, who Bohigian says became public figures in Nelson.
“The magic of Nelson and the Kootenays is that you are going to get to know somebody who’s probably a little different than you. That’s what happened when you have really brave people at the centre of the community who just planted their feet down and said, ‘This is who I am, I’m not moving, I’m taking my space.’”
The project has made an impact on Bohigian, who says she used to take for granted how difficult it was to be anything other than cisgender and straight in the West Kootenay. Bohigian moved with her wife to Nelson in 2006, and until she made the film didn’t know the dangerous work that had been accomplished to make the region a safer space.
“That to me was the beauty of the people in the film,” she says. “They were actually willing to suffer themselves to make something better for someone else. Activists come in all shapes and sizes, but to me that’s true activism. We’re not going to have it easy, but we’re going to make it better for someone else.”
Queering The Interior runs June 22, 7 p.m. PT, at The Civic Theatre. Tickets are $10 and can be purchased online at civictheatre.ca.