4 min

Notes from a Pride curmudgeon

Do you hate Pride? I did. Admittedly I’m not a big party hound and, after we were sanctioned pretty much equals to hets, it seemed the reason for the gathering had been lost.

Maybe I am in the minority. Although after I sent out a missive about my curmudgeonly Pride position I got a flood of emails back from friends telling me they weren’t keen on Pride either. It wasn’t Pride Toronto’s fault, it was ours.

As committed as I was to the cause — after years of activism, running the lesbian and gay film fest Inside Out, being on the boards of queer and arts organizations — I couldn’t shake the Pride hate.

Last year when a friend and Pride board member approached me and asked if I would join the Pride board I was horrified. Me?! The number one Pride curmudgeon? I think not!

I think I was so rude that he didn’t talk to me for a year. But, in a moment of madness, he tried again. This time he told me that Pride was looking to reinvest in its political messaging and wanted someone to head up its queer human rights campaign. Pride’s executive director Fatima Amarshi had been working on it over the past few years, a personal and passionate commitment, and they wanted to bring those efforts to the forefront.

I felt, at last, a reason to take off the curmudgeon mantle. It was a chance to get back out there and be there for a reason. It was a chance to give Pride meaning beyond the endless partying, a chance to get our asses off our laurels and contribute. I said, “Yeah, I’ll do it!” And here we are.

“When I was coming out…” is a terrible way to start my explanation of why I took on the challenge of this year’s campaign — titled Global Human Rights for Queers: What Out is About — but here it is. When I was coming out we were small groups of queers, fearless and fearful marching for our rights at Cawthra Park and down Church and Yonge. I won’t mention the year (no, it wasn’t as far back as Stonewall) but let’s just say that Xtra was in its nascence. In fact, I was one of the first “Xtra Special People” — a photo op for a lowly lesbo working at Glad Day Bookshop. I remember the last few years of the Body Politic and if you don’t, dear reader, then update your history because it is on those shoulders that you now stand.

What were we marching for? In part to include sexual orientation into the Ontario Human Rights Code. But, more importantly, for the simple value of equal rights and all that entailed: not being fired from your job for being queer, not being bashed or killed by angry young thugs if you looked like a big fag, dyke or tranny, not being arrested for “lewd public behaviour” (as in the bathouse raids), not being thrown out by families that couldn’t imagine a worse reality than a gay child, the end of your career if you were publicly outed and the right to be recognized as a legitimate partner when your significant other is sick or dying.

From the feminist movement we adopted the slogan “the personal is political,” which means that so-called personal problems are in fact political ones. This phrase revolutionized several movements including the queer movement. We were fed up with being cases for psychiatrists. We wanted to be liberated, to be out, we wanted to have the same rights others took for granted. And here in Canada we got them, more or less. Which isn’t to say our battles are over, but we have gained so much and that’s been in only half my lifetime.

And what happened when we stopped being bashed so often, when we weren’t dying from AIDS as quickly, when we got equal benefits and then marriage? Was it all over? Did we win the war? Did achieving our equality mean that we have done our bit, that we can close our eyes and enjoy our riches?

Having grown up in the Middle East I knew that Canada was only one country where queers lived. There were hundreds more and many still do not have anything close to our freedoms. We are not only queer in Canada, we are queer in the rest of the world too: where we travel, where we work, where we take vacations. We don’t live isolated from the rest of the world and therefore can’t afford to rest on our laurels. We still have work to do.

When I was making my 2005 film Zero Degrees of Separation, I was based in Palestine and Israel, in the heart of the conflict. I marched in the Tel Aviv Pride Parade in solidarity with my fellow Israeli and Palestinian activists (whose group Black Laundry was in fact banned from the parade but marched anyhow). We marched with T-shirts that read, “There is No Pride in the Occupation,” meaning that as long as Israel continues its brutal military occupation of Palestine, we cannot feel proud of anything.

I thought it was one of the best slogans I had heard and I’d like to adapt it to what’s happening here, along the lines of, “We are not free until all our brothers and sisters are free.” And, FYI, they ain’t. Being queer still results in the death penalty in seven countries (legally that is, leaving out the unofficial state-sanctioned murders that happen) and imprisonment in 80 countries. Have you ever vacationed in Belize? Jamaica? Saint Kitts? Panama? Saint Lucia? India? Well, if you did it was under the threat of state-sanctioned imprisonment with no precise indication of length. Can you imagine what it might be like to actually be a queer living there?

We can do more than imagine, we can make it a priority to educate ourselves, help where we can, start talking about global human rights for queers. It’s a start.

I am thrilled to have this opportunity to work with a board and staff who want to reinvest Toronto Pride with meaning and purpose. But we need all of you — the ones who love Pride and the ones who hate it — to be there and to support this initiative.

I want to invite you to march with the human rights contingent and the international grand marshal Gareth Henry from Jamaica. I want you to visit the Human Rights Centre at the 519 Community Centre over Pride weekend for more info about what is happening around the queer world and what is being done by courageous queers fighting for their rights and often their lives. I want you to watch Pride’s giant super screens on the streets for films made by queer filmmakers from across the country, filmmakers who will tell you about the need for a global queer human rights movement. I want you to look up, out and about — Canadian style — and make us the beacon for Pride worldwide. See you there.