Ata Hosseinzaddah left Iran seven years ago with his wife and teenaged children with hopes for a better life in Vancouver. He was not a stranger to Western ways, having earned a Master’s degree in systems management from a US university in the 1970s. But he’d returned to Iran to raise a family.
Soon after arriving here, he partnered with a relative to buy the European Deli on Davie St from the previous owner, also an Iranian. Things went along pretty much without incident for a couple of years, with the entire family focussed on making the business a success, until a Vancouver Pride Society board member dropped by for a chat.
It was then that Ata learned that he’d located in the very heart of western Canada’s largest gay community. And he learned about the annual Pride Parade and celebration.
“I donated $300,” he remembers, a big smile on his face.
You read correctly. This Shiite Muslim donated $300 in cash to the VPS. And free pop. Not only that, he’s offered free food for celebrations held by his neighbour, Little Sister’s.
Let’s fast forward a half-dozen years.
It’s January of this year. The franchise owner of a nearby chain coffee shop drops by and asks Ata if he’s happy with the Davie Village Business Improvement Area, the umbrella group of local businesses. Ata immediately associates the BIA with the aluminum cart he sometimes sees cleaning up garbage and weeding around trees. He’d like to see more cleaning done in the village.
“No,” he tells the woman. He’s not happy with the BIA.
She tells him about a form letter against the BIA that’s circulating on the street. He signs it Jan 19 and sends it to city hall.
He now says he didn’t read it before signing. That he didn’t realize the letter took aim at the rainbow flags flying over Davie St, flags that are very close to the heart of the surrounding gay community and many of Ata’s own customers. He figures 20 percent of his customers are gay. As one of his regulars myself, I think his gaydar is, shall we say, underdeveloped-we’re closer to 40 percent of his customers.
Some six weeks later, Xtra West publishes the result of a freedom-of-information request filed with city hall. Readers see the list of businesses that sent in form letters criticizing the rainbow flags and the renewal of the gay-friendly BIA. The European Deli is on that list, along with seven other businesses in the 1200 block of Davie. An enterprising soul creates a poster listing the letter writers, hinting at homophobia. The poster is hung in public view in a few Davie Village businesses.
A regular customer drops in to chew Ata’s ear. “I’m not coming here anymore,” she reportedly says. “I’m shocked.”
So is Ata.
Today, he insists he never meant any insult to the gay community and wouldn’t have signed the petition if he’d read it and had realized it criticized the rainbow banners.
He’s learned a lesson, he says. Ata doesn’t think he’s lost many customers, but he’s really upset that people who’ve seen the poster might think he’s a bigot. That he doesn’t know where his store is located. That he doesn’t support the gay community.
“When I believe that every human being is the same and everyone should live in peace and harmony, why would I oppose the rainbow flag?” he asks.
I have no answer.
But I’m left pondering a few things. Like the meaning of the rainbow flag, its underlying cry for celebrating diversity.
Today, flying over Davie Village, it can only be interpreted as a celebration of the entire community-all sexualities, genders, races, religions, political beliefs and other cultures. As a sort of outreach from the gay community to others.
I fully respect that we, as individuals and as a community, need to protect that flag, ensure it continues to fly. And I respect that people cared enough to make a poster naming those who questioned the flag.
But I cannot help but think that we’d get further in the long run if we made people like Ata feel a part of our community rather than erroneously label him a homophobe and boycott his business.
Let’s save the boycotts for our real enemies. Ata’s a friend of our community. He’s also a person of colour and a member of a minority religion-he also lives under the rainbow of diversity.
Gareth Kirkby is Managing Editor for Xtra.