In 2005 the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published a series of satirical cartoons that depicted the Muslim prophet Mohammad. Violent protests erupted around the world and the mainstream press condemned the publication of the cartoons as unnecessarily provocative, insensitive and disrespectful. Oddly, the mainstream media spilled oceans of ink in pursuit of that controversy but, with fewer exceptions than you can count on the fingers of one severed hand, none of the stories were accompanied by reproductions of the cartoons.
I wanted to publish the cartoons in Xtra West because I believe that fiasco is an example of free thought and expression thwarted for all the wrong reasons. My publisher at the time — with admirable wisdom, tact and foresight — talked me out of a fight that wasn’t ours to pick in which we’d likely have our bruised and bloodied asses handed to us.
On another front in the battle against censorship, I have over the years searched out examples of gay pornography that Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) arbitrarily deems obscene. Some civil servant in Ottawa with an undergraduate degree in film studies and a bucket of unmitigated gall has a full-time job inspecting queer porn and culling material that could lead to my moral corruption were I to see it with my own eyes. It’s shockingly condescending, paternalistic and ignorant of the realities and nuances of human sexuality. I hate it.
But because freedom of speech and expression cannot be absolute — absolutist arguments don’t allow for desperate measures against real and overwhelming evil — every free expression conundrum is unique and complex and so needs new analysis.
In the spring of 2006, for example, a Jamaican dancehall music tour played a date in Vancouver. Among the featured musicians were at least two who are infamous for violently homophobic lyrics.
We considered that the oppression of queer people ought not to be justified through cultural relativism and that our responsibility as Canadian queer activists extends beyond our national borders. But finally we made the choice not to waste any of our valuable ink writing about the event. We have a queer community to celebrate, we reasoned, and we don’t have the page count for an exposé on every narrow-minded wack-a-doodle who comes to town with a “God hates fags” T-shirt and a chip on his shoulder. Besides, we decided, the dancehallers should be allowed to write and perform whatever drivel they like in the interests of free thought and expression.
We watched carefully. The musicians left quietly without incident after performing for a small audience that seemed ignorant of the gravity of the content. I don’t regret the course we chose then.
Last month I attended a press conference at the 519 Community Centre in Toronto called by Stop Murder Music (SMM) Canada.
“In Jamaica, for this year only, 98 gays and lesbians have been attacked in 43 separate mob attacks,” said SMM founder Akim Larcher. “Four gay men have been killed and four lesbians have been raped and all instances were directly related to their sexual orientations.”
The group wanted government to revoke visas for two Jamaican dancehall musicians who are infamous for their violently homophobic lyrics and who had upcoming concerts booked for Toronto.
Toronto’s queer people expressed themselves freely by promising to boycott Koolhaus if the venue proceeded with its plans to profit from violent threats against queer people by allowing the musicians to perform under its roof. Koolhaus did the right thing in the end.
The queer community prevailed without the help of law enforcement, government or the protection of the courts. It was a victory achieved completely self-sufficiently and tempered with free speech and expression. The violently homophobic dancehall musicians remain free to write and perform their songs but Toronto’s queer people have sent a clear message that we will not provide our tacit support to evangelists for homophobic violence by contributing to their popularity or financial success.
How sweet it is, how noble. It makes me so proud to be queer.