6 min

Tempers flare at third Pride Toronto Panel

"Let's just say it, it's about QuAIA"

Rev Brent Hawkes listens to the discussion as lawyer Doug Elliott speaks at the Pride Toronto Community Advisory Panel at the University of Toronto Dec 6. Credit: Andrea Houston

UPDATED – DEC 8 – Tensions were palpable at the third Pride Toronto (PT) Community Advisory Panel at the University of Toronto (U of T) Dec 6, with Justine Apple and Elle Flanders hammering home each side of the ongoing and polarizing debate over Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA).

During the summary presentations, Apple, the executive director of Kulanu Toronto, a Jewish gay and lesbian social group affiliated with Hillel of greater Toronto, says, “Pride is and always will be political. Issues should be gay focused. Middle East politics should not be brought in.”

At that, Flanders, also Jewish and a member of QuAIA, stops Apple’s summary.

“Wait,” Flanders says. “Not everyone felt that way.” Apple nods, carrying on with the summary.

Later, Flanders tells Xtra that Apple’s summary presentation didn’t accurately reflect the views expressed during the group discussion.

“I don’t even think it was intentional, but it was reflective of one side only,” she says.

About 20 people are at the session, held in the Faculty of Law’s Bennett Lecture Hall in Flavelle House. Participants split into two groups, huddled together on either aside of the lecture hall. Panel members moderating this session include Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto pastor Rev Brent Hawkes, lawyer Doug Elliott, financial advisor and co-founder of the Pride Committee for Free Speech Michael Went, U of T law professor Lorraine Weinrib and founder of Nichola Ward.

Up to this point, the narrative at the panel sessions has very much covered a wide gamut of issues, hinging mostly on issues of transparency, governance, PT leadership, funding and PT’s role in the community. Most of the focus has generally been on PT as an organization. While QuAIA’s place within that discussion has never gone unmentioned, that debate was most dominant at the U of T panel.

The meeting doesn’t have a hostile tone, but it is much less about “bridge-building” than the previous two sessions. Many of the same points are brought up, but with fewer euphemisms at the U of T panel.

“People [at the panel sessions] are looking at QuAIA and Kulanu and assuming these two groups started all this debate,” Flanders tells Xtra. “It’s just one of the many reasons we are where we are today. If it wasn’t Kulanu and QuAIA, it would have been something else.”

At each small discussion group, the never-ending debate around QuAIA’s right to participate in the parade, free speech and how PT dealt with the events that unfolded last year, go round and round.

“Where do we draw the line if we start excluding groups?” Carol Pasternak asks during the summary presentation, a position Flanders is pleased to hear put on the record.

“I was impressed to hear her say that,” Flanders says. “That group’s summary sounds like it was a better reflection of both sides.”

During her group discussion, Stefonknee Wolscht says there are gay, lesbian and trans issues in Canada that need to be resolved first, before talking about Middle East politics. She says there’s plenty of oppression at home.

“World politics should not be put on a soap box at Pride,” she says. “We still have trans rights to fight for here [in Canada], sex worker rights. There are many issues in our own backyard. I’ve been hearing about Middle East politics all my life.”

At the beginning of the panel session, while Hawkes is explaining the purpose of the Community Advisory Panel, Flanders cuts in, to let everyone know the real the purpose of the panel’s recommendations.

“Let’s just say it: it’s about QuAIA and all the discussions surrounding that,” Flanders says. “The city is fully expecting a report and will not do anything until the recommendations are in their hands.”

The panel was appointed, not elected through a democratic process, to report back to PT by late January. Its mandate is to “develop recommendations to ensure Pride promotes freedom of speech, inclusiveness and individual expression.”

Those recommendations, while not binding on PT, may be used to determine the future of funding by the City of Toronto or other sponsors and financial backers, Hawkes has said.

In Tom Chervinsky’s discussion group, it is suggested that there should be two Pride parades, one that’s “an official Pride Toronto event,” and another that welcomes all groups, political, religious or otherwise.

“Pride is the time when LGBT people are in the majority,” says Chervinsky during the group discussions. “It’s Pride Toronto’s responsibility to create a space that feels safe for people. Anti-Semitism, in its classic form, is on the rise in Canada, especially in the LGBT community. I feel less safe [in Toronto] than I did three, four, or five years ago. It’s a concern. And it scares the crap out of me.”

Following the session, Apple tells Xtra she thinks it’s a good idea to create two Pride parades.

“That would be a great way for them to express their views in their own space, in their own time, with as many people as they want there, let them spread their words, beliefs and values,” Apple says. “Then let the official Pride parade be the celebration of gay rights.”

But Flanders says she really wants to veer the conversation away from the idea of two Pride parades.

“I think it’s ridiculous and it’s nonsense,” she says. “It’s suggesting there’s normal and abnormal participants in Pride.

“These are not people who want to fight for civil rights, civil liberties, human rights. If you want to party, go to a bar. Pride is much more complex than that. So let’s end this conversation before it begins. It’s a ridiculous conversation,” Flanders sharply adds.

And the idea is one of many “nonsensical” suggestions proposed at the panel sessions that are distracting people from the bigger picture, Flanders says.

For Flanders, human rights are always queer rights, and Pride Toronto must advocate for human rights around the world, “whether that’s gay, Jewish or South African.”

“What is Pride really about?” Apple asks. “Why are we here? What’s the purpose of Pride? For me, it’s about inclusivity and diversity. Pride originated out of Stonewall, and I think we have to uphold that Pride is partially political, but we have to put the LGBT back into Pride.

“This group [QuAIA] has created a huge break in the community. Israel is not an apartheid state. It’s the only democracy in the Middle East to uphold LGBT values, so seeing the word ‘apartheid’ in the parade is false and very inflammatory,” she adds.

In all the back and forth debate, Flanders says she worries the real issues are being lost. This isn’t a fight between QuAIA and Kulanu, she says.

“This is a fight between conservative forces and leftwing forces,” she says. “People critical of the Harper government and those who are just fine with the way things are.”

No other city-funded cultural festival or event is put under the same scrutiny, she says. The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), for example, has many films that are politically charged.

“The big question here is are we allowed to legitimately be critical and say that the state of Israel is doing things it shouldn’t be doing, things that are affecting queers? That’s the big question here,” she says. “All the other issues are red herrings.”

The U of T panel was the last of the sessions devoted to general discussion. The remaining sessions are targeted to specific groups or organizations. Along with the sessions, the panel is collecting feedback through an online survey, a questionnaire handed out at the sessions and a Facebook group.

Panel member Michael Went tells Xtra more than 760 online surveys have been completed.

“By the time you write your story, there will be many, many more,” Went says.

Went says the panel is well aware that there’s no limit to how many times a person can fill out the survey, and the online settings were left that way specifically in case more than one person in a household wishes to contribute.

When asked if they will watch to see if the same IP address is submitting multiple surveys to “stuff the ballot box,” Went smiles, saying diplomatically, “Survey Monkey has many tools to track that sort of thing.”

Hawkes said 17 groups have requested targeted consultation sessions so far, including the deaf community, who recently posted an invitation on Facebook. The session, hosted by the Ontario Rainbow Alliance for the Deaf (ORAD), is on Dec 11 from 2pm to 4pm at the 519 Church Street Community Centre.

The next panel session will focus on trans issues. It will be held Dec 9 at The 519.

The panel came about as part of PT’s June resolution to rescind its censorous ban on the phrase “Israeli apartheid” in the Pride parade. Made up of “LGBTTIQQ2SA leaders and friends,” PT says, the panel is to consult with the community and make recommendations “regarding Pride Toronto’s ongoing working relationship with the broader LGBTTIQQ2SA communities.”