It’s Bob Christie’s love letter to Pride. Sort of.
The opening sequence of Beyond Gay: The Politics of Pride fades in with all the predictable scenes from a large-scale Western Pride parade: guys lounging curbside, leather-clad dykes astride throaty Harleys, grand marshals waving to crowds.
“It really was a feeling of gratitude that made me want to make a film that was a celebration,” Christie explains.
“I try to keep it about the idea of parade and what that means — about being public about your queerness and why it’s important for us to do that on the one day.”
Vancouver’s gay community has publicly paraded its Pride for more than 30 years, evolving into a more and more lavish, corporate-infused homage to that first 1981 march in which, heart-in-hand, many partook with bags over their heads to avoid social and legal repercussions.
Beyond Gay tries to answer the question of why we still need Pride parades, Christie says.
We strut because we can.
But it also asks us to do more.
“A Pride parade isn’t the end of our struggle; it’s just the beginning,” says Vancouver Pride Society president Ken Coolen, whom the film follows around the globe as he discovers Pride parades under siege, Pride behind police lines and the hostility of a still-unwelcoming world.
With Coolen narrating, Christie yanks us from the celebratory exuberance of Vancouver’s sun-splashed Pride to the chaos of struggling Prides in Warsaw, Moscow, Budapest: cities where a consortium of anti-gay forces — neo-Nazis, religious zealots and ordinary citizens alike — and, in some cases, the police and city officials — annually try to shut Pride down and stamp it out.
Far from his breezy, cool survey of Vancouver’s Pride parade route aboard a corporate-sponsored Segway, Coolen’s Moscow Pride foray is an exercise in Anxiety-laced Subversion 101.
To keep police and homophobic protesters off-kilter, Nikolai Alexeyev sends Coolen on a circuitous route to a conservatory named for gay composer Tchaikovsky. There, Moscow’s most courageous gay activists defy the mayor’s perennial ban on Pride to unfurl a rainbow banner, affirm their right to exist and go on a brisk 10-minute, half-block march before the cameras of carefully selected international media.
After years of violent opposition, police brutality and aborted marches, publicly marching even half a block is a significant victory.
Across town, other Moscow gays, holed up in an apartment against police and anti-gay protesters, drop a banner from a window.
“Rights to gays and lesbians. Prosecute the homophobia of Mayor Luzhkov,” it reads.
It is promptly egged.
Moments later, a gay man on the sidewalk below is beaten. Police detain him along with his attackers.
That’s progress, the man later says, meaning the police actually detained his attackers as well.
“It’s great for us to enjoy what we have,” Coolen remarks, “but our work is not over.”
For former Pride Toronto executive director Fatima Amarshi, a logical next step is for established Prides to embrace a more international scope.
“Prides, especially in Canada, have to change their political focus a little bit,” she says in Beyond Gay.
“We’ve won most of the legislative victories. You can’t go march for the same things you used to march for,” Amarshi points out.
“All of us were getting really good at festivals and at being entertainment-based. But how do we revive our roots? How do we revive our politics that’s current to the community of today?”
Like Amarshi, Gareth Henry sees Pride as an ideal tool for leveraging global change on the gay rights landscape, provided “gays and lesbians [in Canada] are empowered to stand in solidarity with gays and lesbians around the world.”
A gay man from Jamaica, Henry fled to Canada after 13 of his friends were murdered, including one man police officers handed over to a mob that eventually beat him to death then chopped him into pieces.
There’s something “very powerful, and I think helpful, when people — and I don’t mean just from the North, but people from everywhere — show up and bear witness to the injustice, because it’s easy to hide that stuff,” says filmmaker Aerlyn Weissman, who helped write Beyond Gay.
“It’s important for people who have some platform and some stature in other communities to come and say, ‘If you’re gonna beat people up, then you’re going to have to deal with me.”
“My goal with the film [is to] change people’s minds about Pride — from something frivolous to something significant, and from something redundant to something important,” Christie says.
Christie echoes the call to arms that Warsaw Pride’s Tomasz Baczkowski threw out to Pride leaders at the 2007 Zurich InterPride conference: if Pride is a movement, he said, we should move something.
But Christie acknowledges that a lot of people don’t want Pride to be political. “They want it just to be a party,” he says.
But it doesn’t have to be one or the other, he maintains.
“In every place I went to, the people that put on Pride — as opposed to the parade — always have important political themes.”
Take Sao Paolo, Brazil, and its three million Pride revellers, he says. “The message from the Pride organization is ‘Homophobia Kills.’ That is not a tourism slogan; that is not a beer-selling slogan.”
The ongoing Pride battles of people like Alexeyev and Baczkowski should give us pause, Weissman adds.
“Today, I may be living in this reality and having this kind of legislative freedom to be who I am. But if I get on a plane and land in another city, I don’t have those rights that I think are just part of the landscape.”
Even our own legislative gains are not so set in stone that a Conservative majority couldn’t possibly whittle them away, she notes.
“You can find yourself 18 months down the road in a very, very different legal and social situation,” Weissman warns. “If there is any message, it’s that the things that you feel are natural, and that you enjoy without thinking about them, can be taken away — surprisingly quickly.”
Christie acknowledges how easy it is in Canada to cocoon ourselves in “our bubbles of complacency and safety” — and how hard it is to galvanize people into a sense of activism from a place of comfort.
“It’s slow to come, and there’s many different levels of people you have to convince,” Christie says.
But we need to show people over and over again that there are gay communities struggling to stage Pride marches around the world who need our support, he says. “To make people go, ‘Yeah, you know what, there is more we can do. There is a reason to go walk in the parade.’”