Phil Graham is a founder of Manitoba’s gay rights movement. Growing up in a small rural community, however, he didn’t know what the term gay meant until he learned about it in church.
"I didn’t even know that men could have sex with men until I read it in… Leviticus," Graham says, referring to the Old Testament book that includes passages prohibiting homosexuality. "It used to be quoted to us all the time saying gay was wrong, there was nothing positive."
That upbringing made it harder to come out as an adult. He feared being ostracized from his community and rejected by his friends. Thankfully, reality didn’t live up to Graham’s expectations.
"Everybody accepted me," says the 78-year-old Métis retiree, who came out in 1969 while attending grad school at the University of Minnesota. "All my friends accepted me fine and other friends said, ‘Well, what took you so long.’"
Graham’s coming out was spurred by his involvement in a local gay liberation group — a movement he introduced in his home province upon returning in 1972 for a job in the horticulture department at the University of Manitoba.
Gays for Equality was a political and social advocacy group that fought to have sexual orientation included in the Manitoba Human Rights Code. Members of the group also went on to create many prominent local LGBTTQ+ spaces and programs, like the former Gio’s Club and Bar, Nine Circles Community Health Centre and the Rainbow Resource Centre.
Though he started Gays for Equality, Graham — who lives with vision loss and has spent much of his life advocating for disability rights as well — considers himself a facilitator, rather than an architect of Manitoba’s gay rights movement.
"You can’t start a movement without buy-in," he says. "That’s why it was such a success."
Graham will be sharing a first-hand account of his story on Monday during a speaker series hosted by the Rainbow Resource Centre, called Legends of Pride. The virtual events take place May 30 to June 3 and are the brainchild of Ashley Smith, who co-ordinates programming for older adults at the Scott Street counselling, education and outreach centre.
"So many people in this community have really great stories from years of activism that they did," Smith says. "They were alive during Stonewall and they were alive back in the ’70s and ’80s during the AIDS crisis."
Each talk starts at noon and is free to attend (register at rainbowresourcecentre.org). The rest of the lineup includes Dykes on Bikes Winnipeg founder Syndee Thibert, Two-Spirit trailblazer Barbara Bruce, transgender rights activist Shandi Strong and Club 200 owner Allen Morrison.
The series has been so well-received that Smith already has a list for future events. He sees this as an opportunity to share knowledge with a younger generation while creating something of an oral history archive.
"It’s also about chronicling these stories so they can be kept," Smith says. "If not, we’re going to lose them."
Today, Graham has returned to his hometown of Kenton, Man., a small community 300 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg. Everyone in the community knows he’s gay and, in recent years, there have been weddings and socials for same sex couples in the area. While Graham has seen acceptance flourish in Manitoba since his childhood, the fight for equality is never over.
"Freedoms are so fragile," he says. "Your rights could be taken away very easily."
Eva Wasney is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.