Winnipeg celebrated as ‘One Gay City’ on banned posters that finally see light of day

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Two of the Winnipeg campaign posters by Shawna Dempsey & Lorri Millan
Two of the campaign posters by Shawna Dempsey & Lorri Millan

Posters celebrating the gay life of a Canadian city are finally seeing the light of day 23 years after they were banned.

Winnipeg has long promoted itself with the slogan “One Great City”. Therefore, in 1997, when two local, gay artists decided to produce a campaign that highlighted how gay people didn’t always feel welcome, they decided to turn the slogan into “Winnipeg: One Gay City”.

Back then, the Canadian city wasn’t as inclusive as it is today. At the time, the city’s then-mayor, Susan Thompson, refused to acknowledge Gay Pride Day. Gay people were frequently subjected to verbal and physical abuse.

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In reaction to this, artists Lorri Millan and Shawna Dempsey decide to produce an advertising campaign highlighting the city’s queerness.

One of the images uses a smiling woman praising the city for its great fishing, over the wording “Winnipeg: One Gay City.” Another features a man painted as the Golden Boy (the well-recognized statue perched on the dome of the local Manitoba Legislative Building), with the slogan, “Where everyone is light in their loafers!”

Artists Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millan besides one of their Winnipeg posters
Artists Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millan with one of their posters (Photo: Supplied)

Another was a child wearing a tiara, with the slogan, “Where every child can grow up to be whoever they want to be.”

The campaign was never used. The women, who have been collaborating since 1989 and are now a well-respected art duo, originally hoped for their posters to feature in bus shelters. However, the ad agency in charge of the shelter spots refused them based on the gay-themed nature of the campaign.

Winnipeg: One Gay City
(Photo: Supplied by artists)

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Millan and Dempsey filed a complaint with the Human Rights Commission and reached a settlement in 1999.

Despite reaching a settlement, they decided it was then too late to run the campaign. The city had just elected a new Mayor, Glen Murray. He was the first openly homosexual mayor in any North American city. Because of this, Millan and Dempsey didn’t want any homophobic reaction to the ads to impact Murray, personally or professionally.

In an unplanned twist of fate, the images now feature on three bus shelters in the downtown Winnipeg area. It’s part of a new art project – entitled One Queer City – from the University of Manitoba School of Art Gallery. The project has been curated by Blair Fornwald.

“I think it’s pretty fantastic,” Millan told CBC.

“It’s great to see work that, for a whole lot of reasons, has never been seen before in the setting it’s meant to be seen in.”

“We’re thrilled that this work is finally being seen,” Dempsey added.

“But more than that, we’re thrilled that the world has changed. And now Winnipeg is a much, much, much more inclusive place than it was 23 years ago for LGBTQ, two-spirited, asterisk folks.”

Besides the work from Dempsey and Millan, the art project also commissioned images from other LGBTQ artists: Jean Borbridge, Mahlet Cuff, Dayna Danger, Larry Glawson, and Ally Gonzalo. They can be found at eight transit shelter locations until February 14.

Curator Fornwald told CanadianArt, “It’s a joyful project and proposes hope for the future.”