In the ten years since its founding, the membership ranks of Sault Pride have grown immeasurably.
The group, which aspires to unite and empower people of diverse sexual orientations, gender identities and gender expressions, started small in 2011 when Teddy Syrette won a Downtown Sault Ste. Marie competition and funding to create a new organization that would serve to bring together and support the city’s LGBTQ community.
Syrette’s vision at the time was to create safe spaces for all gay people and foster a supportive environment for the community.
It really took off when the band held their first Pridewhich was essentially a protest against then-Mayor Debbie Amaroso’s refusal to fly a pride flag in support of gay, lesbian and trans athletes competing in the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
“I know we kind of criticized Debbie but, really, I think she just misinterpreted or went too far in her interpretation of the laws on this in 2014,” said Sault Pride President Susan. Rajamaki.
Amaroso has since shown his support for the community by becoming a celebrating the wedding.
“We soon realized that two days was not enough,” Rajamaki said. “We went to a seven-day festival and it was very popular.”
She attributes the group’s success to its inclusiveness, both within its leadership team and among its participants.
“We have a team made up of all the strong personalities, but they come together to work towards a common goal,” Rajamaki said.
This goal is to organize events and activities that create safe spaces for LGBTQ people to support each other and just have fun being themselves.
For Rajamaki, it all started well over 10 years ago.
“Growing up in the Sault and dating Sir James Dunn in the late 70s and early 80s, I didn’t feel like I could be myself,” she said. “I realized at a very young age that I was queer, but I didn’t feel like it was safe to tell anyone how I felt. I felt like I had to keep the secret.”
When Rajamaki graduated from high school and moved to Toronto to pursue her post-secondary education, she also came out of the “closet”.
“I joined the pride organization in Toronto,” she said. “There I participated in and then helped organize pride events like the Pride Parade.”
When her mother’s failing health brought her back to the Sault some 20 years ago, she was determined to make sure other young gay men didn’t feel like they had to hide who they were.
She joined Jeremy Nadon, Murray Carson and Bob Goddere (known in the community as “Mother Goddere”) to form Algoma Pride and organize queer friendly events across the city.
“When Murray died, Algoma Pride basically died with him,” she said.
But Syrette revived it with a new name and Rajamaki got involved again. Eventually, Syrette continued to do other things and find other ways to serve the queer community, and Rajamaki was elected president of Sault Pride.
She said that even during the pandemic, when public health safety measures prevented gatherings, membership in the group was maintained thanks to social media and virtual meetings.
The return of Pridefest to Sault Ste. Marie this summer was a huge success with hundreds of people coming out to celebrate Pride, renew friendships and enjoy each other’s company.
When an organization is so tightly event-based, Rajamaki said it’s critical that leaders regularly review how events work and what changes could be made.
“Everyone has a say,” she said. “They all have something to contribute.”
After each event, the group comes together to review what worked, what didn’t, and what they could do to improve the next one.
As chairwoman, Rajamaki said her most important role is to ensure that group members remain respectful of each other’s sometimes very divergent viewpoints.
That, she says, is the secret to success — balancing strong and very different personalities through respectful discussion. The best way to do this is to make sure everyone is heard and feels like they have a voice, but maintains a respectful dialogue.
“Sometimes you just have to step back and let them sort it out, but if they start to get personal or mean, I might have to step in,” she said.
But the group would go nowhere without the drive and drive of the strong personalities leading it, she added.
As successful as Pridefest 2022 has been, the group is already meeting and planning new and different events to add in 2023 and seeing how they can change the events they plan to continue to keep relevant, fresh and interesting for the LGBTQ community and his allies.