Please note that this piece was written during September 17 and 18 and is not a response to Toronto Pride's statement of September 20.
"In a large number of societies, being brown still means occupying that middle space, on the cusp of whiteness and on the edge of blackness." Kamal Al-Solaylee, Brown.
Lead up to the parade
I signed up as a volunteer for the recent Pride parade in Toronto two days after the massacre in Orlando. News reports had come out that there were some who feared joining the festivities this year. That didn’t sit well with me. I’m a part time student and I was registered to two university courses this summer. Working full time and being deeply involved in my family left very little time for much else. But I thought setting aside six hours on a Sunday to help at the parade was the least that I could do this year.
My shift started at 9 am. To my surprise, I was not given a supervisory role even though I had indicated in the volunteer registration form that I wanted that role. This wasn’t my first time volunteering as a parade marshal. My past experience, I thought, qualified me to lead. Instead, my supervisor was a young white woman. I didn’t even realize she was my supervisor until I started asking around among the other volunteers. She didn’t introduce herself to anyone new who showed up.
We were assigned to the vehicle float staging area along the Rosedale Valley. Another Pride volunteer gave my supervisor the list of the floats. When asked if she knew what to do with the list, she said she didn’t. They gave her instructions to divide the floats among the volunteers. I gave her a pencil since she needed one to write with.
There were several other volunteers I had met that day. I also got to know the people at the floats. Meeting new people is probably one of the best things about working at the Parade. You get to know people in the community. People who are part of non profit organizations. These NPOs serve the community as a whole.
"Simply nodding or smiling at someone is the least I can do. But there seemed to be a wall between this dude and I. The only difference he and I had, as far as I could see, was that he was white and I was Filipino. He had a corner office, and I had a desk in a space I shared with a few others."
I also ran into a co-worker. That was interesting. I smiled when I saw him walking towards me. I got nothing from him. He just walked past me. This is a guy that I’ve seen at the office again and again. He and I have never had any real interaction at work since he started over a year ago. I realize that we can be busy at times, and so we can keep our head down and not engage with other people. But I personally try to acknowledge everyone at work that I may walk past. We’re on the same boat, after all. Orlando. Simply nodding or smiling at someone is the least I can do. But there seemed to be a wall between this dude and I. The only difference he and I had, as far as I could see, was that he was white and I was Filipino. He had a corner office, and I had a desk in a space I shared with a few others.
So imagine my surprise when I saw him from afar. He and I were at the same parade. Very cool. He was going to be riding at one of the biggest floats representing a big social media company, and I was a volunteer. Same parade, different ways of involvement. But I got nothing from him. There was even a point where we were a mere few feet from each other, waiting in line at the portable washroom. He saw me and he turned his back. Did not turn around the whole time.
A smoking hot fuck buddy was also marching that day. He said he wanted to give me a big kiss when we meet at the parade. I thought it was a great idea. Two Asian guys making out in the middle of the parade was exactly what I wanted. Certainly not something I’ve ever done before. The thought of me, an HIV positive person, being kissed in the middle of the parade was nice.
Two of the volunteers I had met told me that they really wanted to leave their position and go to the Liberal party float. I told them to let me know first if they did leave so that I could cover their positions. Noon was approaching and I was hungry. I asked my supervisor what we were going to do with lunch. Will Pride get food to us, or will we have to go back to the volunteer check-in to eat? She did not know. I looked at the radio on her waist and wondered if she knew how to use it. I gave her my granola bar when she told me that she didn’t eat breakfast and was starving.
Pizza came soon after and was distributed among the volunteers. As I sat and ate with another volunteer, the owner of a clothing store with a float at the parade came up and started talking to us. He was joined by a photographer (who, I later found out, is a really good one known to many people). We shared jokes and stories. This is what I mean about volunteering: people engage with you.
The parade starts - and stops
Finally, the word came that the parade had started. All the float drivers were notified and asked to get behind their wheels. Music blared. Float riders got into positions. Slowly, the floats moved forward.
The group of floats I was assigned to were still at the Rosedale Valley when it was time to observe a moment of silence at 3 pm for Orlando. To be standing in silence among the trees at the Rosedale Valley with other people was eerie. And incredibly sad, humbling. Making me remember what I was there for in the first place. Music and people came to life after the observance. The parade moved on.
Then it stopped again. I distributed bottled waters to the parade goers while dodging water guns aimed my way. Eventually, some of them asked me why the parade wasn’t moving. I had no radio, and my supervisor was nowhere to be found. So I walked from the end of the parade to the front where I flagged another volunteer on a bike. He told me that Black Lives Matter Toronto had staged a sit-in, but it’s been resolved and the parade was about to move shortly.
I took that script and went to every float driver along the parade to let them know what I’d been told. I can’t count how many times someone responded with “Will they (Black Lives Matter Toronto) be invited back again next year?” Again and again, my response was, “We’ll be moving shortly.”
Slowly, the parade did start moving. As I managed to get one float into the parade, I kept going back to guide the others in to it. Eventually, the same volunteer who was on a bike told me to enter and walk the parade with a specific float and he’ll stay behind to guide the few floats remaining. I noticed that the float that I was walking with had a sign that read “Black Spaces Matter.” I asked one person who was riding on the float what it meant. I’ve heard of Black Lives Matter, but what were “Spaces”? The woman told me that it had something to do with Black Lives Matter, but, she quickly added, “We didn’t know they were going to do this.” I simply nodded and kept walking.
My shift was only supposed to be until 3 pm. I clocked out at 6:30. I told my buddy that I was going to have to take a rain check on that kiss. I headed home, too tired and exhausted to join in the festivities.
Tucked in to my bed, I went on social media and read the reports on what happened. Hijacked. Ruined. Spat in the face of their hosts. I thought, “Oh dear…” Then went to bed.
At work the following Monday, three of my co workers got into a long discussion about what had happened at Pride. This was an interesting mix of individuals talking about the issue, I thought. All three are straight. One white woman, two black guys. One guy sounded like he was asking a lot of the questions (let’s call him Uno). The woman (let’s call her Dos) and the other guy (let’s call him Tres) made it very clear that they disagreed with what the black folks did at the parade.
“It inconvenienced a lot of people. You don’t just show up at someone’s parade and ruin it,” said Dos.
“They’re out of their minds,” said Tres.
“Don’t you think they have a right to stand up for what they believe in?” asked Uno.
“They need to get their own parade,” came the response from Dos and Tres.
I stayed quiet. I felt uneasy, as if I wanted to say something, but I didn’t know what. The discussion trailed off and everyone eventually went back to work.
I usually go to the library after work to study and work on my assignments. But I didn’t get anything done that evening. I was glued to social media, reading the articles about what had happened.
Tuesday came and I was back at work. In the afternoon, Tres asked everyone if we’ve read the open letter that the gay police officer wrote to Pride Toronto.
“That’s all that needs to be said! That’s the only thing that needs to be said about the issue. Poor guy,” said Tres.
Really? A white man’s voice is the ONLY one that needs to be heard? I thought. Heart pounding, I said “I was there working at the parade on Sunday.”
Dos asked, “Were there a lot of people?”
“Yep. I was only supposed to work until 3, but I had to stay much later because of the sit in.” I felt nervous.
“See? There you go. Even Miguel’s day got ruined.”
I mumbled something about the whole thing being ok, but I don’t think they heard me. I kept thinking, “That’s it? That’s all you can fucking say?!” I don’t know if I was talking to my coworkers or to myself.
"When Alexandria said, “Don’t boo! How dare you boo? We fought for you! We threw bricks for you! We got locked up for you! How dare you?” – I began to cry. Right there, at the coffee shop."
I was at a coffee shop that evening, intending to study. But I could not stop reading what was being said on social media. All the hate being thrown to the black community was sickening. Eventually, I watched the video that Black Lives Matter Toronto put up on their social media page. When Alexandria said, “Don’t boo! How dare you boo? We fought for you! We threw bricks for you! We got locked up for you! How dare you?” – I began to cry. Right there, at the coffee shop. Tears streamed down. I stuffed my laptop into my backpack and headed home, still crying.
When I got home, I went upstairs and gave my sister and brother-in-law a big hug. It felt like I haven’t seen them for awhile. My three-year old nephew said, “Uncle Miguel busy.”
I gave him a big hug too before heading to my room to rest for the night.
The following morning, I took the opportunity again to speak up when the subject was revisited by the same group of coworkers. I told them, especially to Uno, about the 1981 bathhouse raids. I told them about Stonewall, and how black people and people of colour were at the centre of the uprising, and that there wouldn’t be a Pride movement if it weren’t for black folks. “I didn’t know that,” Uno said.
“They have no right to be deciding who can and cannot march at the parade,” said Tres.
“And you don’t just show up at someone else’s party and do something like that,” said Dos.
“They – we - have every right to do that. And yes, that white gay police officer’s letter is heart breaking. His voice needs to be heard and honoured,” I said. “And, other people’s voices need to be heard and honoured too. The families of the thousands of murdered and missing indigenous women need to be heard. The sex workers' voices need to be heard too.”
Rage. That’s what I was feeling. But I maintained my calm by consciously focusing on my breathing. Speak clearly and calmly, I told myself. Stay reasoned and open.
I urged them to go look at the nine demands that were agreed to at the parade. Each and every demand is meant to build a strong and inclusive community, I thought. Uno seemed surprised that there were actually nine demands. I pointed out how funny it was that we were only talking about demand number eight.
“What would happen if we put the most vulnerable people in our community at the centre of the movement? Would the high rates of violence, homelessness, addiction and disease go down? It’s worth a try,” I said.
“They’re racists against white people. They refused to sell their t-shirt to a woman because she was white. Would they also refuse to sell their t-shirts to my daughter because she’s mixed? And one of their members tweeted something about white people,” said Tres.
“What did she say?” asked Dos.
“She said she wanted to kill them.”
“She needs to be punched in the throat!” came the quick response from Dos.
Or slap her. Or kick her. Or, better yet, lynch her! Isn’t that what we do around here? I wanted flip my desk and scream.
Remember all of the times when Dos lent you a hand when you couldn’t keep up with work. Remember when she laughed the hardest at a joke you made two weeks ago.
“Nothing will happen. Even other Black Lives Matter organizers criticized them for what they did at Pride. They’ll fail and they’ll look like idiots,” said Tres, a statement laced with derision.
I smiled and said, “Well, this queer person of colour will show up at the town hall. I’ll be there!” I was fired up and could’ve continued talking about it longer. But we all needed to get back to work.
There was another co-worker who sits beside me. She had stayed out of the conversations throughout the week. She’s my counterpart in the company. We have the same job title. She trained me and for the better part of my first year working at the company I worked closely with her. We didn’t always get along. Different ways of doing things caused friction between us. But for the past year or so she and I had grown very close, to the point where we were now part of each others’ social media network. We finished each others' sentences and we could shoot each other a certain look and start laughing from an unspoken inside joke.
The subject of superiority based on skin colour came up during one of our chats the following Thursday. I had told her that the LGBT community can sometimes be divided between different lines.
“Wait a minute, does your community have…hierarchies?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“So you’re saying that you’re fighting the same battle that I, as a black woman, has to fight against?” her voice rising.
I leaned closer and said, “Last Sunday made me realize that, buddy, we’re the same…”
“Same?!” She was visibly shocked. She looked like I just splashed her face with ice-cold water.
“Oh my god…I need tissue…” She got up from her chair and raced to the washroom as tears came.
Oh great…that’s just great.
I made another woman cry. This time, it wasn’t because of my devastatingly good looks.
I followed and stood at the hallway just outside of the washroom to wait for her. When she finally came out, we hugged each other before going back to the office.
“I don’t know why I’m so emotional,” she said with a laugh.
“That’s exactly how I’ve been feeling the past couple of days.”
Outrage was what I felt that Thursday night as I watched the murders of Alton and Philando on social media. This time, the murders felt personal. Very personal.
Then, Dallas happened. For the first time since I last used crystal, I went to bed in fear.
I woke up Friday morning and started bawling even before I got up. I felt the effects of lack of sleep from the last several days. I felt the effects of sadness, exhaustion, disillusionment, and despair. I emailed my manager telling her I couldn’t come to work that day. It was my first sick day for 2016. I called my counselor at ACT for a session. Thankfully, Fridays was drop-ins.
The dinner table at home has become a space for all kinds of conversations with my family, a space for those opinions to be challenged, questioned and fought for. It’s where my mom would tell us about what it was like to be a nanny in the early 90s. It’s where my dad talked about being accosted by drunk people at a downtown Toronto park. It’s where I told the story of when a homeless man on Yonge Street called out to me and said, “Yo, Jackie Chan! Got $0.50?” It’s also where we expressed our concerns for terrorism as Canada opened its doors to more refugees and immigrants.
Go ahead and read that last sentence again.
A fellow Asian friend recently asked me if I’ve ever faced discrimination. Aside from minor incidents here and there, I think that my situation is actually not so bad. I’m good. Call it my Filipino privilege. I’m thought of as hard working, obeying the rules. As much as I think of myself an idiot who barely knows what he’s doing in life, at least I don’t get stalked by the police, despite what my psychosis kept telling me during my years of crystal use. I know and believe that I have self-determination. I’m the one running my own show. But many many many others do not have the same experience. This year’s Pride taught me that that is my problem too.
It is my problem because I share a lineage with many people, including those who are criminalized. Those who are violated. Those who are over-policed. And yes, I also share kinship with those who stalk the most vulnerable. Those who close their doors to the needy. Those who stay unmoved for fear of rocking the boat.