Local gay activist remembered as a ‘founding father’

Asher Webb led Osborne revitalization, fought against HIV/AIDS

  • Man about town: Asher Webb left his mark on the city, helping to organize the first Gay Pride Parade and working on ex-Mayor Glen Murray’s campaigns. – Jay R.

Local community organizer and gay activist Richard “Asher” Webb took his own life on Nov. 10, 2009. He was 49 years old.

“No one saw it coming,” said his brother, Ken Webb.

Among his many gifts, he possessed a strong sense of social justice that helped his family understand the plight of an entire community, his brother said.

By all accounts, Webb was a tireless advocate for cultural and business development in Osborne Village, a warrior against HIV/AIDS, an overworked campaign strategist and a vibrant drag performer.

“Asher became a role model at a time when he needed to put himself on the line to create change,” said Glen Murray, former Winnipeg mayor.

“He was the very first person I met when I moved to Winnipeg ... he played a very significant role in bringing people together and was politically active on all my mayoral campaigns.”

Webb was born in Winnipeg on July 12, 1960 but spent a large part of his young adulthood outside of the city. After graduating from high school in the Yukon in 1978, he studied linguistics at the University of Ottawa. He also worked as a Parliamentary page before moving to Vancouver in 1980, where he became an openly gay drag performer under the moniker “Jacqueline L’Hiver.”

In Vancouver, he helped open a hospice care home to help support victims of an HIV epidemic within the gay community. He moved back to Winnipeg in the mid-1980s.

“Asher was quite an entertainer,” said Murray. “A lot of what he did may not seem that extraordinary now, but at that time in Canada it was extremely controversial.”

Webb earned a computer programming certificate from Red River College in 1986 and began working at the Village Clinic, a local clinic dedicated to HIV/AIDS prevention and awareness. The clinic amalgamated with several other organizations in 1998 to create the current Nine Circles Community Health Centre, a larger HIV/AIDS awareness and reduction clinic.

“Asher was a gay man who chose to be out in a community where that was very hard,” said John Stinson, a former Village Clinic employee.

Webb was involved in organizing Winnipeg’s first gay pride marches in 1987 and 1988, at a time when people were afraid to even show up for the marches, let alone organize them, Murray said.

While Webb worked at the clinic, he tended bar at Gio’s Club and Bar from 1988 to 1993. Chris Vogel, former president of the Oscar Wilde Memorial Society, Gio’s board, remembers Webb from his days at the club.

“Asher came to work for us when we needed to distribute safe sex information in the club and the Village Clinic was refusing to give out brochures,” he said, with a laugh. “[I remember Asher] smuggling safe sex brochures from the clinic so we could have something to give out.”

Webb is also celebrated for his work as president of the Osborne Village Business Improvement Zone (BIZ) from 1996 to 2007. He worked to make the new Corydon development complimentary, rather than detrimental, to Osborne Village and worked to make the Canada Day celebration an annual event that closed off Osborne Street for a pedestrian mall.

According to Stinson, as the Village became one of the most densely populated neighbourhoods in the city, Webb advocated for more service development, like the Safeway and Liquor Mart stores.

Webb was his father’s primary caregiver during a struggle with prostate cancer between 2003 to 2006. Shortly after his father’s death, he left the BIZ and had recently returned to school, studying business at Red River College.

“I think he will be remembered by many as almost a founding father,” said Glen Sanderson, a long-time friend and Toronto hairstylist. “For myself, I’m just going to miss a really good friend.”

For more stories about Asher and his work in the community, see Ethan Cabel’s blog post.

Published in Volume 64, Number 14 of The Uniter (December 3, 2009)

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