News / Winnipeg

#Pride30: First same-sex couple to legally marry in Manitoba reflects on their journey

Michelle Ritchot and Stefphany Cholakis have dated nearly 25 years and made history in the process.

Stefphany Cholakis and Michelle Ritchot (pictured with Cholakis' service dog, Roxy) have gotten married twice.

Jessica Botelho-Urbanski/Metro

Stefphany Cholakis and Michelle Ritchot (pictured with Cholakis' service dog, Roxy) have gotten married twice.

Michelle Ritchot and Stepfhany Cholakis have shared many firsts, chief among them being they were the first same-sex couple to get legally married in Manitoba in 2004.

The women began dating in the early 90s, having met while working together at a seniors' home in Charleswood. They admit they didn’t love the place, but "we found love at the place," Ritchot said.

A handful of years into their relationship, the pair was struck by a drunk driver, toppling life as they knew it in a matter of seconds.

Cholakis underwent foot reconstruction surgery in Burnaby, B.C., but still can’t walk today. She gets around by wheelchair. 

"It was certainly a test of the strength of our relationship, because most people would have said, 'I can’t handle this, I’m out of here,'" said Ritchot, 49. "But we were like, 'No, we’re going to get through it, we’re going to do it together and it’s worth it.'"

Ritchot and Cholakis married at Augustine United Church in 1999 in front of 99 friends and family, who flew in from around the world. That was before same-sex marriage became legal in 2004, thanks to a lawsuit they launched along with two other couples.

Michelle Ritchot holds a photo of her and Stefphany Cholakis on their first wedding day, Sept. 11, 1999.

Jessica Botelho-Urbanski/Metro

Michelle Ritchot holds a photo of her and Stefphany Cholakis on their first wedding day, Sept. 11, 1999.

The same day a judge gave his verdict stating they had the right to marry—Sept. 16, 2004—the couple had lunch at the revolving restaurant (now Prairie 360), then called their friend with a marriage commissioner’s license.

"He showed up, we got married (and) we ran to Vital Statistics—literally," Ritchot said.

Cholakis, 61, gasps after calculating it’s been nearly 25 years since the pair started dating—it hasn’t felt that long at all, she said.

"It has felt like a journey, that’s for sure," Cholakis said. "For the life of me, I can’t see being with anybody else."

•••

What’s your favourite Pride moment?

Cholakis: "At the time, I sang with Rainbow Harmony Project for, I believe it was eight years. And we actually had a float. Just to be in the parade with all my choristers, it just meant so much to me."

Ritchot: "It had to be (above) 35 C and I was melting and the crowd was like, oozing. We were all so hot. And then boom! This big thundercloud came and it poured. The droplets were huge and cool and refreshing. It was like Mother Nature saying, 'Here you go, everybody! Have a great time in the water.'"

Why was Pride important 30 years ago?

Ritchot: "Thirty years ago, to me, those are the bravest people for saying, 'I’m here and I’m not going anywhere' ... I’m here and you can’t beat on me anymore, you can’t threaten me, you can’t harass me, you can’t be cruel to me. I’m worthwhile."

Why is Pride important today?

Ritchot: "It’s important because there are still groups within the LGBTQ community that are struggling for basic human equality. And it really shouldn’t matter how you dress or how you express your gender, you’re a human being. We all should be treated equally. So the fight continues, 30 years later."

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the church where the couple first married. We apologize for the error.

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