In the latest controversy to hit Pride Toronto the organization is fighting off criticism that it’s trying to depoliticize the annual event and censor participants.
On May 27 the National Post ran a story titled, “Toronto Pride organizers ban anti-Zionist group.” The article claims that the group Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA) “has been banned this year, along with any other group that would advance a political agenda.”
Pride Toronto faced criticism last year after QuAIA marched in the parade under an “End Israeli apartheid” banner and more recently after 2009 Pride Parade grand marshal El-Farouk Khaki spoke at a QuAIA event titled “Coming Out Against Apartheid: 20 Years of Queer Resistance from South Africa to Palestine” on May 23 at Buddies in Bad Times.
But Pride Toronto was quick to counter that its policies were misrepresented by the Post and that QuAIA’s participation last year was a problem not because of its political message but because it was an unregistered group.
“There was some confusion where I said in the past marchers have slipped in from the side and that we were going to beef up security to ensure that doesn’t happen this year,” says Pride Toronto executive director Tracey Sandilands. “That is not because of the placards we’re carrying, it’s because we can’t afford to have individuals in the parade who are not registered participants, they are not covered by insurance. It is a liability issue for us.
“I want to be very clear. No one will be banned because of their messaging unless they contravene the hate crimes laws or antidiscrimination policies. But if they simply have a political position, whether it’s prevent global warming, save the whales or down with Israeli apartheid, that is not our decision to make [to stop them from participating]. Pride has always been a political platform.”
This year the number of volunteer marshals patrolling the parade route will be boosted to 80 from 25 to prevent unregistered groups from joining in.
But although QuAIA was unregistered in 2008 the group did not slip into the parade — they were invited to march with the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Toronto contingent.
“They did march with us,” confirms Stephen Seaborn, vice president political action for CUPE Toronto District Council, adding that it’s not unusual for CUPE to invite groups it’s worked with to join its contingent in the parade.
“We invite our community allies and partners to join us on that day,” he says. “Often our members are directly involved in various community groups so there’s a logic to it in our minds.”
This year QuAIA has registered to march on its own. “We decided to register to avoid any ambiguity and get clarity on Pride’s position, and to avoid putting other groups in an awkward position,” says group spokesperson Corvin Russell.
Does clamping down on groups jumping into the Pride parade betray the protest aspect of the event?
“Absolutely,” says sex rights activist and Spa Excess coowner Peter Bochove, “Nobody had to fill out their paperwork on Feb 6, 1981 [to protest the bathhouse raids]. They just showed up and away we went.
“When you don’t allow people to join the Pride Parade you’re no longer representing the community and that’s too bad… It no longer is a community event, it’s something that we’re allowed to watch.”
Longtime activist and AIDS Action Now cofounder Tim McCaskell, who defended QuAIA in a public letter to Pride in the wake of the Post article, says the reality is that Pride is no longer the small community event it once was.
“Trying to manage a crowd of a million people is a huge task,” says McCaskell, “so unfortunately I’m afraid that the days of spontaneous jumping in are gone. There really are practical safety reasons at stake. I have marshalled enough demonstrations and rallies over the last 30 years to know that. Groups registering in advance doesn’t seem to me to be a huge price to pay to make sure everyone gets home in one piece.”
Sandilands, who came to Toronto from South Africa to take up the executive director position late last year, says she was surprised when she learned that groups had to register in Toronto’s Pride Parade.
“It’s an issue I’ve given some thought to myself because in other places marchers are allowed to just join the parade and walk in it and it may be something that we review in the future,” she says. “I do think there’s a lot to be said for allowing members of the public to just join the march.
“[But] now is not the time to change the rules on something that requires as much attention as a liability… It’s three weeks away we’re not going to change it now.”
Also raising eyebrows is Pride’s May 27 statement attempting to clarify the organization’s position on political messaging in the Parade. The statement, available at Pridetoronto.com, distances both the organization and the event from its activist roots.
“Pride Toronto wishes to state publicly that it is a nonpartisan organization created to serve the LGBTTIQQ2S* community of Toronto in all its cultural, religious, ethnic and sexual diversity,” it states. “The organization does not have any affiliations whatsoever to political entities or causes. It exists for the purpose of delivering the annual Pride festival, which is an informational, educational and cultural festival.”
“Pride is a political event,” responds Bochove. “It reminds the authorities every year that there are an awful lot of us and they shouldn’t fuck with us.”
“I think that Pride is always ‘political’ in the broadest sense in that the visibility of the queer community is still a political statement in a homophobic world,” says McCaskell. “That said I would support Pride as an ‘informational, educational and cultural festival.’ In order to maintain its charitable status the Pride organizers cannot be seen to be taking political stands and that seems fair enough to me. Their job is to organize the festival. It is our job to ensure we put in progressive content. As long as no one is excluded we all benefit.”
Sandilands says the position Pride is taking is that it’s not political to be in favour of gay rights.
“It’s not that we’re not a political organization,” she says. “We as an organization put on the festival. People are entitled to have their own political position at the festival. What we’re working for is human rights for queer people all over the world. We are in favour of that.
“Just because the issue is fought in the political arena because it’s the politicians who make the decision as to who’s more equal than others doesn’t make it a political, partisan viewpoint. Our mandate is human rights for queer people and we will work for it in every country in the world and if we have to work for it or fight for it in the political arena so be it we’ll do it but that still doesn’t mean we’re taking any side other than that of the people.”
UPDATED: 3:46pm, Jun 11 to clarify the circumstances of QuAIA’s participation in the 2008 Pride Parade.