Jonathan Niemczak, Pride Winnipeg President at the time of this interview, did not know which 200 meter stretch of the Canada Games 2017 Torch Relay he would be running, but he is clear on what the future focus of Pride Winnipeg needs to be.
“We have traditionally socially excluded groups,” said Niemczak at the June 2017 Pride flag raising ceremony at City Hall. “We still need to get these folks to the same level of privilege that I’ve achieved, that you’ve achieved. We really have to start shining a light on these individuals and on these communities.”
Those communities are the transgender people, two-spirited people and queer people of colour, who recently expressed their discontent in an LGBTQ2* community survey with how Pride Winnipeg seems to be made up primarily of white cisgender gay males. Some within those groups expressed their fear of uniformed police due to negative experiences.
In an attempt to remedy this situation, a joint statement with other LGBTQ2* groups was launched during Pride week, stating that Winnipeg Police could join the Winnipeg Pride parade as long as they were not in uniform. Niemczak is confident that such a pronouncement is a necessary first step towards shedding that light on traditionally socially excluded groups even if it may initially be a currently unpopular view with some individuals.
Born and raised in Winnipeg, Niemczak speaks of a happy childhood, coming from a loving family, in a great community and having awesome friends. He refers to the Luxton neighbourhood on Scotia Street where he grew up, as a very beautiful area.
Recalling his experience coming out as a gay man, Niemczak says he can almost remember the exact moment.
“I figured I was a little different when I was in grade 7 – I was in cross country and I was doing a practice and there was a gentleman in front of me and I kind of looked at him and thought, well, that would be fun. Then I thought, well that’s not right,” he says.
Like most people who came out at that time, Niemczak says it took him a bit of time to figure it out since there weren’t a lot of available resources.
Coming out in high school in 2005, Niemczak said he became quite popular with straight girls who wanted him to be “Will” to their “Grace” referring to the popular TV sitcom. Although it took his family a couple of years to become comfortable with his being gay, Niemczak says they have come a long way. “My mom, she volunteers now at the Pride festival,” he says with a smile.
Pride Winnipeg, this year celebrated 30 years and during that time, has evolved exponentially. Gone are the days when, as back in 1987 at the first march, participants wore bags over their heads. It was not a parade or celebration as it is today; it was a political march for human rights.
“There was still fear of what being out would do to their livelihood. You look at it now and it’s thousands upon thousands of people within the community and their allies marching in this big celebratory parade with colour and smiles and laughter. It’s just really amazing,” says Niemczak.
Niemczak’s advocacy extends outside Pride Winnipeg. On the national front, he has been working for the past decade, serving on various working groups on the Men who have sex with Men (MSM) policy with Canadian Blood Services, the end goal being to eradicate the policy altogether.
On the global front, he’s involved with the Dignity Initiative which is a “variety of Canadians, working on the Canadian government to take on a more active role in improving and promoting LGBTQ2 rights across the world,” Niemczak explains.
A continued involvement on the global front will be part of Niemczak’s future. “I do have a vast interest in global LGBTQ2 rights. When my time is done with Winnipeg Pride, I can see that as my next adventure.”
Indeed, literally carrying the torch for basic human rights for all the letters represented in LGBTQ2 will be Niemczak’s more immediate adventure on June 26 in Winnipeg at the Canada Summer Games. Asked if he had a plan B if he could not perform his torchbearer duties, Niemczak says an alternate won’t be necessary.
“I’ll be there unless I’m dead,” he says.
Jonathan, you can count on us to be there to cheer you on, in all your endeavours!