It’s a Saturday night and the kick-off party for the University Of Ottawa’s annual Pride Week has yet to hit full stride. Students mill about The Lookout. Most men wear T-shirts clinging to well-defined bodies; they gossip in tight clusters of friends. The women do the same, but display a wider diversity of body types and styles. Glow-sticks abound, fashioned into all manner of made-at-home jewellery.
It’s Pride, university Pride, and though tonight is for celebration, participants have something to say about the state of gay culture, politics and the issues of the day. They grew up in an era when gay liberation seemed so yesterday, and memories of the Stonewall riots and Pierre Trudeau getting the state out of the bedrooms of the nation became hazier with every passing year. And then came a same-sex marriage debate that changed the geography of rhetoric and made the personal so very political again.
But to the students partying on this Feb 5 night, pride is an everyday feeling of acceptance for being who they are. It’s something inside them, and something they expect of the institutions around them.
“I think we are pretty lucky on the University Of Ottawa campus, because people are accepting,” says Jean-François Royer, a communications student. “We don’t get as many issues and problems with the other students as I’ve heard that some other campus groups feel.”
The sense of acceptance that comes with pride is something mentioned by other students as they share their stories. And their expectation of fair treatment hangs on their voices.
Pride is about “making sure that safe spaces are upheld in classroom situations,” says Blaine Martin, a theatre major. “If a prof is out of line as far as making homophobic comments or whatever, then I see it as my duty as a queer student to do something about it.”
At universities, and especially in classrooms, the word “queer” itself might often be seen as homophobic. But if academics and administrators have declared a moratorium on the use of the word, they forgot to let these students in on it. Though academia has largely declared attempts to reclaim the word a failure, at U Of Ottawa the word has taken on a life of its own.
What’s for sure is students are intimidated by acronyms starting with G and ending in, well, seemingly never ending. GLBTTTQI* confuses, those interviewed at the Pride party agree: some people don’t know what all of the letters stand for. Many say that the term queer simply embraces all facets of a community, making it easier to feel a sense of belonging.
Adds Tim Jolly: “Our strength is in numbers and in our visibility. Too many societies try to sweep us under the rug and pretend we don’t exist,” says the law student who came to Ottawa from Alberta, “but our big fight is to make sure that they recognize us, to make sure that they realise that we’re there.”
Of course, in any news report about the gay community these days, the question of marriage inevitably comes up. Most interviewed felt sure the bill now before Parliament will pass. Most simply pointed to a personal feeling that it’s “about time,” and is an equality issue. But not all agree, and those who disagree seem to have strong opinions on the issue.
“There are many other things that we should be fighting for first,” Jolly says. “Marriage is essentially a very homogenising straight concept, so it’s about making gay people straight so that we can live in our white picket-fenced houses, raise 2.5 kids and have a dog.” Jolly’s quick to add that he hopes we now see the fight through, and recognises that it all boils down to freedom of choice.
Martin’s also unimpressed that the same-sex marriage issue is the focus of the day.
“I’m not too into the whole equal marriage thing,” Martin adds. “I think it’s great and it’s definitely historical what’s going on, but I think that there are more important issues as far as within the queer community. Everyone’s gotta pick their battles, and that personally isn’t one of my battles.”
Once marriage goes through, what’s next? What does the upcoming generation of queers see as their next big fight? The answer is almost unanimous.
“I think it’s important to look at transgendered issues – they’re definitely a community that’s been ignored in the queer spectrum for a long time,” says Jeremy Dias, a psychology major who also volunteers his time with Bruce House and Canadians For Equal Marriage.
Kerry Chalmers agrees. “They can be fired for being trans,” says the English major. “They have absolutely no rights or protections, they can be evicted and there’s absolutely nothing to stop people. And that’s a real push that I want to see in the future.”
Jolly adds another concern for the future: “I think that there’s a lot of work to be done in terms of making sure that the environment for children of [queer] families is really positive. Not just working on adoption, which is still a huge issue for [queer] families trying to adopt, but also making sure that there are resources for alternative-family structures.”
Acceptance is still on Royer’s mind. “I know in some cities other than Ottawa we need to work on gaybashing and the acceptance in general of individuals as individuals and not as a group.”
A new generation. Partying with Pride, preparing to take their place in the gay community, tomorrow’s issues at the ready.