She can remember it well, the first concert that May in 2000, at what was then the historic Walker Theatre, and is now the Burton Cummings Theatre. The singers collected backstage waiting for their cue to go on. They weren't a professional choir, and while some could read music and some had performed on stage, for many, this was their first step into the spotlight. Some put on a bold front, others were quiet and contemplative – but still others were numb with fright. This was it ... There was no going back. A member of Rainbow Harmony Project since the beginning, Sally Papso recalls the trepidation of that night over 20 years ago. "Some of us hadn't come out to our families and friends or employers yet. Some of us were teachers. This was it, if you were going to perform this night, you would be publicly outed. There was no going back. But there was one thing for sure, afraid or not, each of us were determined to take that first step of courage, come what may."
Papso came to Manitoba in the '70s after growing up in Courtney, on Vancouver Island. The daughter of a logger and raised in a family active in the Labour Day celebrations, she had grown up surrounded by song and dance. As a long-time feminist-lesbian activist, she speaks with the perspective of someone well-versed in the LGBTQ2* community's social history.
In the early ‘70s and ‘80s in Canada, the gay civil rights movement confronted police violence and institutional discrimination at every turn. Papso says the LGBTQ2* community is historically a marginalized group: systemically silenced, erased, imprisoned, and pathologized.
Tired of "passing", tired of hiding in plain sight, tired of being denied dignity and fundamental human rights, all across North America, gay and lesbian choirs started raising their voices.
She says, "We wanted to put this message out there to the larger dominant culture, that afraid or not, we are no longer willing to be denied our inalienable human rights. We wanted to communicate that message through music and song, a way that's often more effective than talking heads, written letters or raised fists."
Fast-forward to the late '90s when a young musician and songwriter named Jeff Staflund moved to Manitoba from Saskatchewan. Discovering that Winnipeg hadn't yet organized a gay and lesbian choir, Staflund and a close group of friends got to work organizing. At the Winnipeg Pride in 1999, there was a booth with a signup sheet. They put an ad in Swerve, a local LGBT publication with their first meeting's date and location.
The following September, at what used to be the Norwood United Church on St. Mary's Road, 60 members of the lesbian and gay community of Winnipeg got together for the first time.
"I had always wanted to sing in a choir but I never knew where my voice fit in. When I discovered I wasn't an alto, they said, just find a spot where your voice fits – and I did, in the Tenors, and I've been there ever since," says Papso. That's how a non-audition chorus works; as you become comfortable with your voice, you find the place where you fit with everyone else.
And that's how those first months went, says Papso. "Our beginnings were about many things, claiming our rightful place and space and celebrating our lives through songs that told our stories. We weren't just a group of people that wanted to enjoy singing and happened to be gays and lesbians. We wanted to be out gays and lesbians, singing." I never imagined I’d get a standing ovation for being a lesbian. All that led to the night of May 20, 2000 at the Walker Theatre - the very place Nellie McClung had held her Mock Parliament, a pivotal moment in Canadian history. And here they were now, the creators and singers of Rainbow Harmony Project, Winnipeg’s first LGBTQ2* chorus, on the precipice of their own moment in history. A thousand people in the audience had never seen anything like this in Winnipeg before.
"When the call came, before we even made it out on the stage, the thundering applause started and seemed to go on forever," says Papso. "Some of us were crying. Some of us were stunned to silence. But, Rob Lindey, our accompanist, started to play the piano – and the show went on. I never imagined I’d get a standing ovation for being a lesbian." For Papso, the importance of the Rainbow Harmony Project's history - past, present and future - has been invaluable to Winnipeg's LGBTQ2* community, identity, culture, and heritage. She feels that the voices that have given rise to this choir are a gift, LGBTQ2* voices that history has tried to silence.
"Today this choir stands as a living monument to and for the continuation of our human rights and this choir to me is still as important as it was 22 years ago," she says. "It's from here that we continue to assert our rightful place and space. It's from here that we continue to pass a message to those who might need to hear it. And there's always going to be someone that needs to hear it. It's from here that we continue to alert the world to other oppressions and help to bring understanding to them. And it’s from here, we continue to say thank you to our audience, community, allies and families."
You can help Rainbow Harmony Project continue to be a monument for the LGBTQ2* community in Winnipeg by becoming a member or making a donation. Money raised ensures that, when COVID is over, the group can sing as one voice again.