Prairie Fairies makes a contribution to a small but important literature analysing the history of gay liberationist activism in Canada and of the ways that Canadian activism was inspired by – and aware of – American developments, while differing from them in important ways. Importantly, in a context where, as Miriam Smith has argued, the “national” movement was never more than a “set of loose networks … rather than a coherent actor,” local queer organizations were the source of most activities. The prairies thriving activist scenes, in Winnipeg and Saskatoon in particular, would play an important role in generating local activism and contributing to the “national” liberationist scene. Westerners played a more significant role than earlier pan-national works have acknowledged, including [the fact] that western activist groups hosted three of the eight national gay and lesbian conferences held between 1973 and 1980.
Gay liberationist strategies and tactics continued to be articulated and used in the west well into the mid-1980s. At a time when many central Canadian organizations would shift to “rights talk” and legal “equality seeking” in the early to mid-1980s, westerners continued with various platforms of the liberationist strategies, including consciousness-raising, education, and human rights matters when they arose. Taking a historical, regional approach to gay and lesbian activism captures continuity and change, offers more perspective into social actors and local organizations, and deepens our knowledge of the breadth of regional queer political work. It was AIDS that changed the focus of western Canadian activist organizations, as well as activist migrations and burnout, not a shift to “rights” talk in the advent of the new Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
By 1985, AIDS had arrived in all the prairie cities and this plague dramatically transformed the organizational, activist, and queer communities in the various cities, as attention turned from liberationist goals to medical advocacy and support. Hopefully, future historians will research and write that social history. The connections and debates fostered about health, politics, sexuality, and relations between lesbians and gay men post-AIDS offers another vantage point on questions about place, sexuality, and queer politics. AIDS conclusively ended any anachronistic or utopian notion that prairie cities were not home to sizable populations of lesbians and gays, or that LGBT residents would be content to be second-class citizens with respect to medical care, political representation, or basic human rights protections.
From 1930 to 1985, Prairie Fairies demonstrates that queer people created communities; fostered social, educational and social service opportunities; and, indeed, created spaces for prairie residents to be gay or lesbian. People found pockets of urban spaces in which to be queer – this became a precursor to formal politics for some individuals, but also a way to assert a political identity in a place constantly trying to ignore, silence, or eradicate such differences. Putting the queer westerners back into the modern history of prairie cities and prairie societies reclaims important literal and historical space for prairie queer people, and moves them from the margins to the centre of the historical frame. From the 1930s through to the mid-1980s, queer westerners were part of vibrant queer and straight communities, and stories of these “mavericks” ironically fit beautifully within the prairie historiography at the very same time that their existence challenges everything we thought we knew about these provinces.