Twenty-one years old and nervous, I’m sitting in a cramped Vancouver office taking in the sea of faces circling me.
To my right sits an African-American man with his Caucasian partner. Seated across from me are two women from South East Asia, a man from India, and another from South America. Some are refugees, most of us Canadian queers fighting to have our same-sex partners immigrate through Humanitarian and Compassionate grounds, to live a whole life with our beloveds.
It’s 2001, before gay marriage is legal in Canada. The office I’m sitting is home to the Lesbian and Gay Immigration Task Force (LEGIT), an organization created by Chris Morrissey to ensure that queer couples are recognized by the Canadian government as legitimate partners for immigration.
This year, I had the delicious fortune of “happening” to be in the right city at the right time to experience Pride in Portland, San Francisco, Vancouver, Victoria and now, closing my summer of Pride, at home on Salt Spring Island.
My date is a dear friend who generally doesn’t “do” queer events, experiencing queers as too binary for her taste.
One of the Island’s Pride events is a panel discussion titled Love Beyond Borders: Human Rights in Iran and Canada. Panelists include Chris Morrissey, Arsham Parsi, Peyman Khosravi, and Jacob Schweda. I half-expected the evening panel to be an intellectual yawn of political debate. I was wrong.
Filing into Artspring theatre with a crowd numbering a little over a hundred, a slideshow sets the tone with an exquisite collage. Powerful images set against equally powerful poetry and quotes capture the hardship and torture of those who dare to act on queer love and desire in more dangerous parts of the world.
Stillness fills the theatre as photos of Iranians with nooses around their necks set for execution are juxtaposed with words filled with love and the necessity to be yourself.
Tears fall easily down my cheeks as one woman describes how lesbians are raped before execution. Fathers perform pride killings — murdering their gay child to “protect” the family name. Parents often wish their child had cancer instead of being gay. State-sponsored sex-change operations are performed to “cure” homosexuals.
Perhaps I’m naïve or unwilling to understand how love outside of the heteronormative box is so difficult for our global consciousness to grasp. What is so threatening about this love that it drives humans to commit such harmful acts against one another, even towards their own children?
Khosravi, a heterosexual former TV director and documentary filmmaker, was forced to flee Iran after exposing the lives of transgendered people is his film, I Know That I Am. He fled to Canada leaving everything behind, including his family.
“We’re all human first,” he tells the audience on Salt Spring. “It’s a task for everyone to defend human rights.”
Arsham, head of the Iranian Queer Organization, also fled to Canada to avoid execution. Sitting in a room with two people who have risked their lives to such extraordinary limits for queer rights is humbling. Their degree of steadfast focus and commitment to a cause models remarkable integrity.
It makes me ask myself, what action towards global change am I willing to make? Waking up at 4 am to write this article is a tiny drop in the bucket that I hope leads to much more.
Schweda, a queer 18-year-old graduate of Gulf Island’s Secondary School on Salt Spring and last year’s Youth Activist of the Year at Xtra West’s Community Achievement Awards, shares his experience of attending the prestigious Lester B Pearson College of the Pacific.
Many students come from countries where homosexuality is illegal or unheard of, he explains, recalling one student in particular from Afghanistan who thanked him after a sexual orientation debate.
She told him she now understood that homosexuality is not merely an act but an orientation, and that two people of the same gender can love each other and live whole lives together. In her home country, homosexuality is a crime lumped together with pedophilia and rape.
Shocked to hear that this could be news to anyone, I realize I’ve rubbed up against my own privilege of living in a country where queers such as Chris Morrissey have changed laws.
If it weren’t for LEGIT, my partner would not have been granted landed immigrant status in Canada. My life changed directly because of queer activists. I get to love freely; sitting before our panelists, I see it’s something I can no longer take for granted.
Deeply satisfied, slightly shaken, and full of inspiration, we walk across the street to a local restaurant, Barb’s Buns, for our Pride dance.
The crowd is a delightful crush of cross-generation queers and supporters. Amongst the high school students and elders, I dance to a beat of bellies filled with laughter. My heart warms to see the woman from the bank making out with her husband to a rousing chorus of “It’s Raining Men.”
Where I’ve experienced big city Pride parties full of anonymity, sex and consumption, this one was full of intimacy and the homey environment of someone’s living room.
The first girl to hit the dance floor is five years old. Dykes dance with fags who dance with heteros. The unpretentious and intimate atmosphere has us swaying silly for hours.
“Who knew gay people were so fun!” shouts my gender-fluid date.
The house closes to Brother Israel’s angelic “Somewhere Over The Rainbow.” A friend grabs the hand to his nearest right and we all find ourselves forming a circle, holding hands, ending softly in a group hug.
Timed perfectly to the last beat of the song, our DJ takes the mic. “Thank you for reminding me why I live on Salt Spring,” he cries.
I couldn’t have said it better.
Whereas big city Pride celebrations are full of fervour, Salt Spring Pride topped them all in bringing me back to my roots. It captured the essence of being queer — that our power lies in love and community, and a small group of people can change the world. It certainly changed mine.