News / Winnipeg

#Pride30: Former Pride Winnipeg chair reflects on city's LGBTQ progress

Barb Burkowski helped spearhead Pride's 25th anniversary plans and still cheerleads the movement as a spectator.

Barb Burkowski is a former volunteer and chair with Pride Winnipeg, who now works at Nine Circles Community Health Centre.

Jessica Botelho-Urbanski/Metro

Barb Burkowski is a former volunteer and chair with Pride Winnipeg, who now works at Nine Circles Community Health Centre.

Barb Burkowski’s lengthy resume of work within the LGBTQ community is impressive, with a footnote that helped shape the taste of Pride Winnipeg.

As a former Pride Winnipeg chair, Burkowski introduced Queer Beer—a fruity Half Pints brew that became a "game-changer" for Pride fundraising, she said.

When Burkowski took over the reins at Pride, the organization was $8,000 in the red ahead of its 25th anniversary.

Rather than rely on Pride’s typical dance party fundraiser, Burkowski’s team set out corralling sponsors to make the 25th an event to remember. Their legwork included lighting up the Manitoba legislature in rainbow colours for the first time.

Burkowski was Pride chair for four years, although the 43-year-old said she would never have predicted the career move in her youth.

When her teen brother came out as gay, Burkowski didn’t know she was a lesbian.

"I wasn’t one of the kids who knew my whole life. I didn’t know. My brother is younger and he came out first," she said. "And so one, I wasn’t very supportive of him initially. And two, I didn’t think there could be two of us. I wasn’t paying attention to myself or really being true to myself."

Barb Burkowski making a speech as Pride Winnipeg chair at the Manitoba Legislature.

Supplied

Barb Burkowski making a speech as Pride Winnipeg chair at the Manitoba Legislature.

"We grew up in private Catholic school, so it wasn’t something that was well presented to us by any means," she added.

With supportive friends and family in her corner, Burkowski came out at age 23.

"I had one good friend say, 'It will be the hardest thing you ever do and the greatest thing you ever do.' That was good advice," she said.  

Seeing the swell of people and politicians attending city hall’s rainbow flag raising Friday spurred some self-reflection.

Burkowski, who now works in fund development for Nine Circles Community Health Centre, teared up thinking about how far the Pride movement has come.

"I remember when Coun. Jenny Gerbasi and Coun. Harvey Smith (who died this year) were the only ones that would come support us," she said. "We used to be like, 'Oh, of course Harvey’s here.' But in the end, it’s like, wow. That guy was always here for us. And I don’t think that we appreciated him enough then."

•••

What’s your favourite Pride moment?

"One was I got to announce that we were moving Pride to The Forks and (having) the realization that we had grown to move to the big venue for a big party. My second was the day that I saw the first Queer Beer box. It was a realization that it’s a money-maker (and) a game-changer for Pride…

And the one other thing that still always stands out to me is I had a young couple come up to me and say, 'We got married last year (at Pride) and this is our first anniversary and we want to thank you.' I was like, 'What?' … When somebody says that to you, you realize what a difference (Pride) makes in peoples' lives. It was mind-boggling."

Why was Pride important 30 years ago?

"Pride was important 30 years ago because those courageous people—the ones that were wearing bags (on their heads), the ones that weren’t in bags and the ones that stood on the sidelines kind of hiding, but they showed up—brought us to where we are now.

We’re looking at small marginalized groups right now. Back then it was the entire community, which existed but was certainly underground. And if not for their brave actions, who knows how long it would have taken … and how much pain people would have gone through in the meantime, getting the legislation in place and all of the gains that came from their actions."

Why is Pride important now?

"It’s about us all coming here, collectively hugging and supporting, and making sure that people know they have a place in the community."

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