When Canada’s border guards (our country’s foremost censors) marched in the Vancouver Pride parade this year, I was eager to hear what kind of subversions and counter-protests were planned.
Alas, there were none. In fact, onlookers clapped and cheered.
It’s distressingly clear that our community cannot tell the difference between symbolic and meaningful action.
A symbol, like shorthand, is something that stands for something else. For example, we use a rainbow flag as a way of marking queer-positive space. If the space were not actually queer positive, flying the rainbow flag would be a hollow gesture.
Similarly, the presence of politicians, police and other authority figures at Pride is symbolic. It is a way of making visible all the work they’re supposedly doing for equality and freedom behind the scenes.
I’m not against symbols; they can be powerful things. But they are not a substitute for actually helping the cause.
The case of Vancouver Pride is an egregious example. For literally two decades, Little Sister’s, the city’s gay bookstore, has dealt with regular seizures of books and magazines by the Canada Border Services Agency (or CBSA, formerly Canada Customs).
The heroic staff at Little Sister’s fought the border guards in court for years and Vancouver’s gay community held rallies in support of their efforts. The seizures continue to this day.
So when members of the CBSA marched in Pride this summer — in uniform, no less — I would have expected that their contingent would have been greeted with stony silence at the very least.
But no. They were applauded. Enthusiastically. Despite the fact that their institutional policy remains diametrically opposed to queer life. What exactly were people applauding?
In this debacle, the CBSA deployed symbolic action while the institution continues to, in practice, actively work against us. That’s where it crosses the line from hollow to hypocritical. Shame on them.
But really, shame on us, because we keep getting fooled by gestures like this.
In Ottawa, I can’t think of a better example than our chief of police, Vern White. He has attended close to a dozen gay events since his appointment in the spring of 2007. But at the same time, he has been polishing his bone fides as our most regressive, conservative chief in 20 years. So why do we keep inviting him to things?
Remember that, when White was first appointed, he publicly mused about whether the city should do AIDS-prevention work that involved dispensing clean drug kits. Then, he announced his support for tenant eviction legislation, despite the protests of Housing Help and POWER (Prostitutes of Ottawa/Gatineau Work, Educate, Resist). Under him, we’ve seen a rise in hooker sweeps and the introduction of due-process-skirting john letters.
You may also find it interesting to know that White’s officers are sitting on new information about a gaybashing cold case. It’s a case in which he has yet to express any real interest. After nine months, no one from the force has even tried to interview a key source.
And the list goes on. In the fall of ’07, White commissioned a report about the targeted recruitment of women, people of colour and queers into the police force. The final report, released in November ’07, highlighted sentiments amongst some of Ottawa’s rank-and-file officers that bosses somehow went easier on minority recruits. The head of the program was then replaced with a more junior staffer, kneecapping their efforts.
Yet, wherever he goes, we applaud him. Why? Because he shows up and flips our pancakes?
Like the CBSA showing up at Pride, Chief White’s presence at queer events rings hollow. Now, I’m not surprised that guardians of conservative institutions like the police and the border guards would choose symbolic gestures over actual change. I’m just surprised we let them get away with it.
It’s time we say to those who claim to be gay-positive that it’s not okay to show up at events to gladhand if you’re not willing to put your money where your mouth is. If you have your hands on the levers of power, put down the spatula and pull those levers occasionally.
And in the meantime, we’ve got to smarten up. We can’t let them off this easily.