This was originally posted in the June issue of The Walleye.
Article by Leah Morningstar, Photo by Jason Veltri.
From rural Wisconsin, Sobota arrived in Thunder Bay in the fall of 1969 and quickly immersed himself in Thunder Bay’s fledgling LGBTQ community. Everything was underground but there were designated meeting places if you knew who to ask.
Underground gatherings gave way to more official organizations such as “Gays of Thunder Bay” and then later, “Gays and Lesbians of Thunder Bay” and eventually evolved into more modern and inclusive incarnations.
Sobota and his counterparts secured an office with a call-in line, organized monthly dances in a rented hall, and held the first ever “gay led” media conference in Thunder Bay to protest the 1981 gay bathhouse raids in Toronto, and began tackling the question of AIDS.
In response to growing concern, curiosity, and misinformation, Sobota and members of the LGBTQ community got together and formed the AIDS Committee of Thunder Bay. It was the second such organization in all of Ontario.
The Committee worked for almost two years with zero funding and was excited to receive a grant of eighty-five thousand dollars in late 1987. They were able to hire a small staff and every year since then, funding has continued and the organization has grown.
Sobota was the executive director of AIDS Thunder Bay for 25 years. So much has changed since the early days. Education has helped reduce the stigma and medications introduced in the mid-90s have enabled so many people with HIV and AIDS to live longer fuller lives.
Sobota is technically retired now. He spends his time writing for various publications and writing plays. He loves film and theatre and strives to focus on gay authors and gay characters in order to continue propelling a minority into a place of normalization.
Looking back over his long life of activism and involvement, Sobota is thoughtful. He says, “First, I had to figure out who I was and then be comfortable with that person. Secondly, I had to figure out how to share that with other people. I’ve always wanted to help young gay and lesbian and trans individuals be themselves. I want to meet them where they’re at, give them a safe space, and just listen to them.” This philosophy was true in 1969 and it’s true today. Sobota has learned when to speak and when to listen and he maintains that with age comes wisdom.
This year, Sobota is the Grand Marshall of the Pride Parade. Upon learning of his role, Sobota was “shocked, flabbergasted, and humbled.” He’s been attending the pride parade since it first started in 2011 and it keeps getting bigger and better. Sobota, the members of the Thunder Pride Association, community members, supporters, and allies have all been working to break down barriers in Thunder Bay for fifty years.
Come out to the parade tomorrow; Sobota will be there too, waving proudly and jubilantly.