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4 min

Lived & learned

Pride marshals share the secrets of their success

'IT'S NOT HOW YOU LOOK, IT'S HOW YOU FEEL.' Dyke March Marshal Zahra Dhanani is not afraid to dish. Credit: Nicola Betts photo

What’s a parade marshal do anyway? Sure, there’s a lot of pressure to get the party started, but it’s not a full-time job, is it?

We went to this year’s marshals looking for words of wisdom — we got some.

Zahra Dhanani, grand marshal of this year’s Dyke March, is a true Renaissance women. When she’s not spinning her blend at Funk Asia or lecturing on sexual abuse and body image, she’s saving the world, one refugee at a time.

Currently working in the field of restorative justice, 32-year-old Dhanani is a lawyer, public-speaker and activist.

“Fearless means being hot, sexy in your own body, your own skin. It means being courageous and hoping and loving regardless of all of the hard things that happen on a daily basis.

“Being named Honoured Dyke feels fabulous because I’m the first women of colour that has ever been named in the 10 years [of the march]. I’ve always stood for visibility, for marginal voices. The face of Toronto is changing and it’s not okay to have women of colour’s voices in the margins any more.

“Fuchsia, orange and red are the colours of the 200, 300 T-shirts we’re trying to get for the Honoured Dyke float, to focus on the mother earth goddess energy within us all. Our theme is ‘Mother Earth Is Fearless. ‘With that logo, we’ll funk it up.

“My advice for young girls afraid to come out is wait until you feel ready inside. There’s no rush to prove anything to anybody. Make sure you have a lot of support — whether it’s friends who love you no matter what, organizations that you can tap into — but make sure you’ve got at least one support person when you come out. Because there’s this whole theory that queerness is a white thing, when I came out I researched as far back as I could find in India and Africa and other countries about sexual orientation and women’s sexuality and was really affirmed to find that 5,000, 10,000 years back, women were loving women. And watch the L-Word!

“What I know now I wish I knew then is that fat women are extremely hot. That it’s not how you look but it’s how you feel. The people who I really want to hang out with are definitely not the people who are going to judge me based on how I look. Not people who can’t see my beauty if it’s not a size-two beauty. I figured this out after 10 years of therapy. I went to Hawaii to see cultures that appreciate bigger women. The hula dances weren’t done by size-two women like you see on Hawaii 5-0. They were these mountainous, huge women. So I travelled the world looking for different images of women.

“To ensure my sanity despite my crazy schedule I make sure that no matter what’s going on, everyday I take some time for silence. I have a really solid spiritual life. That keeps me grounded.”

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Not many couples can claim that they have been with their partners for more than 50 years. Even fewer would be able to say that they have lived openly with their same-sex partner through a golden anniversary.

Pride 2006’s two parade marshal couples, Robert Berry and Les Sheare, and Donald Middleton and Clayton Wilson, can claim both.

They’ve lived their lives openly, proudly and fearlessly, long before same-sex relationships were considered acceptable or respectable by society at large or seen as legitimate in the eyes of the law,” says Pride Toronto’s cochair David Anderson.

Robert Berry & Les Sheare

“It was a different world back then. We got called names, got harassment. We went through all of that. We were refused service at a restaurant once and that was very embarrassing — the maitre d’ was fired the next day. When people started calling names, we just ignored it.”

On relationship advice: “Certainly not to jump into anything. You have to know the person first.

“Getting married was a personal thing. When we found out about it, we raced down to City Hall. A piece of paper is just a piece of paper but you have committed yourself thoroughly. We were so pleased. We never thought we would see it in our lifetime and there’s a lot of people who deserve that credit.

“We believe in living life and enjoying life. We like to go out, dancing, MCC Church on Sundays. We’re not that old that we can’t party with the young ones.

“The hardest part of being gay is accepting yourself — learning to live with yourself — and be who you are and not be ashamed of it. Just being accepted for who you are, and being accepted by your families. Everyone is into physical fitness these days. We got an ab machine eight months ago and now our cat sleeps on it.

“I don’t like the word ‘queer,’ it comes from our generation. I don’t use any of those words, I just say, ‘I like men.'”

How do you make your relationship work? “We’re always there for each other. I’d be totally lost without him.”

On fearlessness. “Standing up for yourself and not being afraid of who you are and others. Gay people today should be themselves. Be open, quit hiding. There’s a lot of people out there that are still closeted. There’s a lot of support and help out there to deal with your problems.”

Donald Middleton & Clayton Wilson

Thoughts on marriage. “I’m not in favour of it at all. I don’t think it is a necessity. Actually, you get yourself more risk getting married than to stay as you are. Because I don’t want the garbage that goes with marriage: 50 percent failure. For those who need it, they should be allowed to have it.

“The most complicated thing was when we bought the house that we’re in now, just over 30 years ago, and what we thought was going to be the involvement was no problem at all, renting a rooming house and we didn’t know for sure how that was going to work out but the other fact is it’s helped to keep us together because we have to work with the house together. I think when you have commitments to one another, aside from your personal commitments, it helps.

“The most emotional moment is when we celebrated our fortieth anniversary and we invited our family and friends and we invited 80 people and 74 of them turned out. It was very humbling, driving back to Toronto from London, to think that that many of our relatives and friends were prepared to come and say, ‘Hey guys, it’s okay, we love you.’

“What we’ve let one another do is do their own thing. I made a point that I was not going to have to get involved in everything that Donald was doing because that immediately would be a shark tail. We do allow our freedom, we have an open relationship and we’ve never lied to one another about meeting people because I don’t think there’s many relationships, not necessarily just gay, that are totally monogamous. They may give that illusion.”