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Agitate for young, queer women of colour

New group has activist edge

LIKE COMING OUT TWICE. Agitate members Faith Nanji-Kassam and Indri say queer women of colour lack role models. Agitate is planning an October launch party. Check their website for details. Credit: Shawn Scallen

Agitate, a group of young, queer women of colour, wants to put a face to an often-overlooked segment of Ottawa’s queer community – women like them.

“We came out as queer, we’re people of colour,” says Indri, Agitate’s community outreach workshop facilitator who requested that her last name not be used. “Being able to say ‘I’m coloured and I’m queer’ is kind of like twice coming out – by the time we’re able to accept ourselves, we know what we want.”

Agitate wants to be seen.

“We’re providing a visible, out, queer face,” explains May El-Abdallah from the other side of the patio table at a cafĂ© on Elgin Street. “One of the things about communities of colour is there isn’t as much visibility and there aren’t as many positive models for queer people.”

El-Abdallah has to speak up over the background din of evening traffic to be heard by the other women at the table, who also include Ingrid Joseph (a pseudonym she requested Capital Xtra use). They credit El-Abdallah with starting the group in April, 2005 through the grassroots technique of swapping e-mails and calling a meeting.

“It started when we were talking about activism in Ottawa,” says El-Abdallah. “We could see there was a lack of resources for people of colour. Then why not be the ones who do that kind of thing?”

El-Abdallah, born in Kuwait to Palestinian parents, grew up in Lebanon and immigrated to Ottawa at age five. She is completing her fourth year in the law program at Carleton University, and met Nanji-Kassam through the campus queer centre. El-Abdallah, a centre coordinator, helped Nanji-Kassam “come out a little.” In fact, most of the Agitate members sitting on the patio know one another through their university activism rather than their academics.

“Although we’re calling ourselves queer women of colour, we’re not ‘The Other,'” explains Nanji-Kassam. “Everyone comes from a completely different background – our stories, our experiences, are phenomenal.”

Nanji-Kassam herself is a first-generation Canadian from Toronto with East Indian parents from Africa. Her mother is Ugandan and her father from the Ivory Coast. The community outreach officer for Egale Canada, Nanji-Kassam is also completing a mass communications degree at Carleton.

“We will work with any queer organization that will work with Agitate,” says Indri, “but one thing that I am adamant about is not becoming a token.”

Indri self-identifies as a queer Indonesian, since she was born in Indonesia and moved to Ottawa eight years ago. She’s completed her degree in English and political science, and works for a federal agency. Indri emphasizes that Agitate must reach the greater queer community with workshops, such as the one they held at Ladyfest this summer with the topic of “What are queer women of colour?”

“Our services are, after all, for our people, right?” Indri says, “people of colour.”

Agitate, which has about 15 members, has been making the rounds, walking in the Dyke March and participating in a Ladyfest panel discussion about privileged and activist communities. In late September, Agitate hosted a queer documentary night at the University Of Ottawa. Agitate also has a website, distributes flyers and is spreading the word through the media.

What Agitate is not, Nanji-Kassam emphasizes, is a counselling group.

“We don’t want to give the [impression] of a support group,” Nanji-Kassam says to murmurs of agreement at the table, “although we will accept everyone, have resources for everyone, and our events will be open to everyone and we’ll be everything that we possibly can.”

“There’s a general misconception when you’re trying to give a service for people of colour that it’s a support service,” adds Indri.

While Agitate plans to have an autumn launch party featuring black, queer female artists, it has delayed the event until some time in October and had no details at press time. Nonetheless, El-Abdallah hopes to see a show of interest and support from Ottawa’s queer community at the launch.

“Once we see how people react and how accepted we are, I think we can take the next step,” says El-Abdallah.

While Agitate’s focus may seem vague at present, members of the young, energetic group hopes to grow into a powerful voice in Ottawa, fill a much-needed void and bring some new blood to the queer community.

“I’m really happy about the group starting up,” says El-Abdallah. “This is exactly the kind of group that I’ve been looking for. I feel very at home. I never thought something that sprung out of an angry, negative situation could be so positive.”

“We plan on working with different cultures, different genres, differently-identified people,” says Nanji-Kassam. “But as a group, we’re queer women of colour.”

“And proud of it!” adds Indri with a playful laugh.