Toronto Pride 2016 photos by Bob Leahy
It’s a popular meme that floats around during the month of June annually, as if to remind us all of our roots. The assumption is, of course, that we need reminding. The circumstances of this past week would certainly indicate that some of us do.
During the annual Pride Parade in Toronto, the activist group Black Lives Matter staged a sit-in that lasted 30 minutes. The group chanted ‘pride is political’, refusing to let up until Mathieu Chantelois (the Executive Director of Pride Toronto) signed on to a list of demands which he eventually did. The parade would continue in all its revelry, with a battle on social media about to ensue.
The aftermath would highlight stark differences of those who praised BLM’s actions and those who would condemn them as inappropriate. The days following would see a sharp divide on the social media accounts of many LGBQTI folk, including POCs, providing the utmost compassion on one hand and utter vitriol on the other.
Let me preface this next part by saying in no way can I personalize Blackness as a white person. That much should be obvious. However, I was alarmed at just how many of my personal acquaintances and friends seemed to forget our roots as queer folk (and unfortunately, were downright racist in their indignation at BLM’s protest during the parade). Then again, it is not at all surprising given the personal experience of two of my closest friends.
An interracial couple that I have known for many years has a two year old son. The last time we were out to dinner, his mother told me of a particular story that leaps to mind when I think of this particular issue. One day, she was out and about with her son. He was saying “mama” when a woman approached her. She asked how long had he been saying that to her, as if to indicate my friend was the hired help. With all the restraint she could muster, my friend promptly corrected her and told her that she was, indeed, his mother.
I bring up that story as it is very much emblematic of one end of the spectrum of ignorance surrounding the criticism of BLM’s actions. On one hand, people are lashing out at BLM saying that the parade was not the time and the place for such a political statement. This viewpoint screams of a lack of justification. How dare they! Pride is a celebration!
But Pride, at its very roots, was and is political. More than that, queers and people living with HIV should be incredibly grateful to the queer Black community.
Marsha P. Johnson, a trans woman of colour, was one of the first people to fight back in the Stonewall Riots of 1969 which started the LGBTQI liberation movement. Arguably, she was the one to throw the first brick. Following the riots, marches would occur in the streets of New York demanding rights for gays and celebrating gay pride. Marsha would later become an activist with ACT UP, the iconic HIV/AIDS activist group.
On the Canadian side of the border, ACT UP would lend inspiration to AIDS ACTION NOW! whose actions also were politically brave in nature during Pride. The most obvious would be the famous ‘die-in’ in 1992, protesting for better access to drug treatments for HIV and AIDS. It is because of those pioneers that I (and so many others living with HIV) are alive today.
And there you have it: the political birth of Pride and the early activists who were POCs (especially trans POCs and sex workers) gave us a lot to be thankful for. This is something we must remember. We also would be remiss to believe that we live in a postracial world, where Pride is only a celebration or one big party.
As allies to the Black community, we have a duty to listen with the utmost compassion to their demands of us and the systems of oppression that exist within society today. To turn away and exalt our own demands (because we have been inconvenienced as a whitedominated culture) flies in the face of the foundation of our shared history.
There has been much loosely defined rationale to embolden the argument that BLM’s actions were unfair and inappropriate.: 1) “I’d like to see them protest Caribana”; 2) “They were honoured guests and should not have turned the parade into a protest” 3) “They hijacked the parade and held us hostage” ; or 4) “They’ve driven a wedge into our community, by attacking the police.”
That last point is one of the most poignant, as it once again ignores our shared history and the modern day occurrences that gave birth to the Black Lives Matter movement. The queer community has long had a tenuous relationship with police. One only has to look to the bathhouse raids in 1981 and on Pussy Palace in 2000. We received a lacklustre apology from the Toronto Police Service that was even criticized by The 519 Community Centre. BLM’s request to have police (as an organization) not participate in the Pride parade with floats or the festival with a booth, is born out of the many years of mistreatment towards people of colour.
It did not come out of nowhere.
While those of us who marched in last week’s parade may have had to wait for 30 minutes, we all were able to go home alive. The same cannot be said for Sammy Yatim, Andrew Loku or the many trans POC and sex workers whose murders remain unsolved.
Why must we keep silencing the voices of those who would speak out for them? It was not long ago when politicians and the powers that be were trying to put the proverbial tape over our mouths, as we shouted for same-sex marriage rights.
So, while predominantly white cis persons complain that Black Lives Matter has driven a wedge into our community, the truth is this: they have shone a light on the sharp divide that already existed. It exists, because of the racism we never wanted to face as a collective and face it we must, if ever we are going to move forward in a spirit of compassion.
Let’s be conscious of the space we occupy due to our white privilege, as we listen to the demands of the racial minority groups that have given us so much. We cannot ask them to ‘come sit with us’, then take away the chair before they have chance to sit down and be heard at the table.