3 min

Queer around the world

Bill Schiller becomes Pride Toronto's first international grand marshal

“It was a killer,” says Bill Schiller of Russia’s first Pride march, held last month in Moscow. “I’ve been in many places, [but] I’ve never been in a place where I thought, ‘We’re all going to be killed.'”

Schiller, secretary general and cofounder of the International Lesbian And Gay Cultural Network (ILGCN), was in Moscow in May for the first stage of ILGCN’s international conference, held just days before Moscow Pride. Although the city had banned the parade — Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov had called it “unacceptable” — a few dozen queers took to the streets near the Tomb Of The Unknown Soldier and at city hall, and came face-to-face with an army of homophobes.

“People were punching, were kicking,” says Schiller. “Next to each neo-Nazi was a small woman with a babushka making the sign of the cross, throwing eggs and tomatoes… or there was a man with a full uniform and a beard from the church making signs of the devil.

“There was at least 1,000 riot squad police…. I’ve never seen warfare in the streets like that before…. Several [Pride participants] were arrested, several were beaten up in front of our eyes and there was nothing you could do.”

Afterward, marchers met up at small gay bar. “We drank vodka and beer and celebrated that we had survived,” says Schiller, “and these youngsters — these stupid, idiot youngsters — are already planning Moscow Pride number two, even though they were arrested and punched, themselves. They are terribly courageous. When you work with them you get courage to do it as well.”

Schiller is being honoured this month as Pride Toronto’s first-ever international grand marshal on account of his contributions toward the promotion of queer culture around the world.

Born and raised in Chicago, Schiller travelled to Peru as a member of the Peace Corps when he was 17. Rather than return to the US, which was embroiled in the Vietnam War at the time, he went to Sweden, where war resistors were welcomed. He worked different jobs, learned the language and eventually became a citizen. For about 30 years he’s been a journalist with Radio Sweden.

Schiller is a member of the Nordic Homo Council, a group which focusses on using queer culture to counter homophobia; Nordic Rainbow Humanists; and Tupilak, an organization of queer artists from Nordic countries.

In Greenlandic mythology a Tupilak is a figure with the power
to destroy enemies. Today, Tupilak’s enemies are “homophobia and the silence over the enormous contribution of lesbians and gays to the world’s culture.” Schiller says he’ll be presenting Pride Toronto with a Golden Tupilak in recognition of the organization’s newfound focus on international issues. (See sidebar below for more.)

“If you’re in Europe,” he says, “you hear these politicians, these vicious, homophobic politicians, tell the mass media, ‘You are nothing. You have donated nothing. You contribute nothing. You are only in the bushes. You are on the barstools. You are not Tchaikovsky. You are not Shakespeare. You are not Sappho.’

“These idiots know nothing about our history, and the truth is sometimes we don’t even know our own history to say, ‘You bet we contribute. You bet we do more than our share of the world’s culture…we do great things, and many people don’t know it.'”

Schiller was present when ILGCN was created at the 1992 International Lesbian And Gay Association conference in Paris to promote queer culture around the world.

“[Some conference participants] thought culture was quite unimportant,” he says. “[They thought] the most important thing to do was to write to the prime ministers, write to the presidents, to do the political work. Some of us said, ‘That’s only half of the battle.’

“You can change the legislation — in Sweden the legislation is practically perfect, but the environment is not. There are still neo-Nazis here, too. The battle to change human beings’ minds must be both political with legislation and cultural. We need films like Brokeback Mountain. You need poetry. You need music. You need a lesbian film festival. You need all kinds of things to reach out to people.”

Schiller says he hopes to retire from his full-time job in a year and a half.

“My man bought a little house on an island in the archipelago and he’s painting and he’s fixing it up and he wonders why I’m not helping.”

His man will have to wait a bit longer for the home renovation help. Schiller’s next stop is the second Riga Pride, to be held Jul 21 and 22 in the Latvian capital.