(Author’s note: I use the acronym LGBT2SQ+, which stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, two-spirit, and queer. The + is for people who don’t define themselves by a label or perhaps identify with a label that is not in the acronym. I often have people asking me what two-spirit means, so you can click here to read more.)
As a gay man, I’m part of a wider LGBT2SQ+ community. That community includes a whole lot of people, a diverse rainbow assortment of people. Pride is the time of year where we come together to celebrate — celebrate who we are, the rights we have, and the place we have in society. Sometimes, it’s still about fighting for rights we have yet to achieve — the right to be heard, the right to have a place in the community, and a right for safety.
The Toronto chapter of the Black Lives Matter movement had a sit-in protest in the middle of the Toronto Pride Parade, bringing it to a halt for approximately half an hour until the president of Toronto’s pride committee agreed to their demands. Among their demands, they are seeking better ethnic representation in official pride events and pride staff (beyond just African-Canadians, but also Asian and First Nations people) and a removal of police participation in next year’s Pride Parade and pride-related events. (Click here for the news article.)
This sit-in protest and their demands have been widely criticized and mocked by online commentators. (However, almost everything is mocked and criticized by online commentators, so what else is new.) Black Lives Matter has been criticized for disrupting the Pride Parade for selfish reasons and for demanding special privileges for future pride events, such as increased funding for Black Queer Youth. They’ve also been roundly criticized for their demand that the police be evicted from next year’s parade.
However, while it is easy to criticize BLM for disrupting the celebratory Pride Parade, many (if not most) of those criticizing BLM are missing the history and context of this sit-in protest. There are three main issues at play here — there is a historical whitewashing of the LGBT2SQ+ community in society, media, and politics; there is a general distrust of police among marginalized persons (such as ethno-minorities and sexual and gender minorities); and, historically, the LGBT2SQ+ rights movement was started with a protest by trans people and people of colour.
All three of these things are all tied up together and can be difficult to talk about discretely. However, I’ll start with the whitewashing of the LGBT2SQ+ community, as it’s perhaps the easiest starting point. I’ve noticed this within my own city’s pride festivities in past years — all of the celebrities brought in are white and the festival promotes socio-normative standards of attractiveness. This marginalizes people of colour and people who do not fit into society’s definition of attractiveness.
In my city, there was a case of racism a few years ago in the LGBT2SQ+ community that sparked a city-wide discussion and debate, which has led to the local QPOC (Queer People of Colour) group having a much more prominent presence in pride events. My local Pride Parade and Festival is much more diverse and inclusive than it used to be. However, much like Toronto’s Black Lives Matters protest in the middle of the parade, it took a serious incident here in my city to finally spark that critical conversation and incite change.
I’ve had several other discussions on whitewashing of the community over the years, too. I was once given an resource to use for LGBT2SQ+ history month — a list that had a profile of a person to promote every day of the month. About 75% of the list were white people, all of them were considered attractive by the media, and all of them were celebrities. In protest, I made up my own list, seeking out scientists, writers, and activists, and especially searching for people of colour, trans people, and two-spirit people. I strove to create an LGBT2SQ+ history month that was more representative of the actual LGBT2SQ+ community that I lived in. I wanted profiles that celebrated people for their accomplishments and activities, not for being beautiful or famous.
Change is happening in my local community — it’s slow, but it’s happening. I was pleased to see at this summer’s pride festival a number of events run by QPOC and the local two-spirit people organization. In previous years, when these groups ran events, they were secondary to the main events. This year, they were primary events.
Now to get to some of the more difficult aspects behind BLM’s protest at the parade. BLM demanded an absence of official police participation in next year’s events, which means no float in the parade and no booth at the pride festival grounds. While neither supporting nor criticizing this demand, it is important to recognize the context. In the eighties, the gay community in Toronto fell victim to the police during the bathhouse raids. Hundreds of people were arrested — and in the process, a lot of them were outed against their will in a then-largely-unaccepting society. In the USA, police raided Stonewall, arresting people there, too, just for being LGBT2SQ+.
However, black Canadians and Americans have been disproportionately targeted by the police. In the USA, the ratio of black prisoners is far higher than the ratio of black people in the country. In Canada, specifically in Toronto in recent years, black people have been targeted by the police, subject to random ID checks. This Toronto pattern was an example of “Driving While Black,” in which black drivers were pulled over and their ID checked for no apparent reason other than the colour of their skin.
While it is demoralizing and oppressive to be targeted for being gay or to be targeted for being a person of colour, queer people of colour are at an intersectionality of oppression. They are subject to oppression both for their gender or sexual identity and for their skin colour.
BLM’s demand for less police presence is, in a roundabout way, related to the whitewashing of the LGBT2SQ+ community. Because queer people of colour don’t feel safe in these environments, they are less likely to participate. And if they are less likely to participate, then their needs are not met as readily as other groups’ needs. And if Toronto Pride isn’t adequately meeting the needs of queer people of colour, then they are less likely to attend or participate. It’s a vicious circle.
And the third major component is the history of the gay rights movement. The Stonewall Inn, in New York City, was a bar that catered to the most marginalized members of the LGBT2SQ+ community, including “drag queens, transgender people, effeminate young men, butch lesbians, male prostitutes, and homeless youth” (via Wikipedia). The police raided the bar with the intention of arresting everyone. However, while police raids on other bars went according to plans, the attempted raid on the Stonewall Inn sparked days of violent riots, protests, and community uprising. It was the Stonewall Riots that were a major step forward in LGBT2SQ+ rights, and it was led by the most marginalized people in the community, a fact that was whitewashed over in the Stonewall movie in 2015.
Pride Parades started as a way to mark the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. Pride Parades are, essentially, a protest movement, they are not a celebration.
In modern day western society, it’s easy to forget the roots of the LGBT2SQ+ movement, it’s easy to forget that it’s not just a day of celebration, and it’s easy to forget that in all of our partying, we are still marginalizing large swaths of our own community.
So was Black Lives Matter right in stopping Toronto’s Pride Parade to make their demands? I’m not offering my opinion one way or the other — that’s for history to decide. What I do hope, though, is that this incident sparks a conversation in Toronto — perhaps even sparking a conversation nationally or internationally — about the role of queer people of colour and other marginalized groups in the LGBT2SQ+ community.
I have to give credit to Black Lives Matter, though, for the scope of their demands. They are interested in not only their own place in the community, but also in the place of other marginalized groups. In demanding more funding and stage space for their own groups, they also demanded funding and stage space for other groups (mentioning the South Asian community by name). In demanding more staffing and resources for their groups, they also demanded more ASL interpreters for pride events. (Being deaf is another avenue of oppression. A queer person of colour who has a hearing loss is impacted by a triple intersection of oppression, making them even more marginalized.) Earlier today, a colleague has informed me that the media neglected to even mention that the Black Lives Matter sit-in protest was made in conjunction with an AIDS organization. HIV-positive people are stigmatized in the LGBT2SQ+ community, despite advances in safety and health. By BLM staging their protest with the AIDS organization, they were also supporting that organization and their right to have a place in the LGBT2SQ+ community.
There are no easy answers in any of this. As of writing this, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who was participating in the parade (and was Canada’s first sitting Prime Minister to participate in a Toronto Pride Parade), has said nothing on the incident. Trudeau has proven to me that he is not a politician that arrives at quick and easy answers, rather he is a politician that does the right thing, no matter how difficult it is. Right now, the right thing is for Black Lives Matter, Toronto Pride, and the Toronto police to have a conversation and figure out their way forward. It must be a conversation that brings all three groups to the table and gives them all time and space to say what they need to say.
Despite what commenters on the internet will tell you, there is a problem of whitewashing and marginalization in the LGBT2SQ+ community. It is shameful. The community is represented by happily-married white same-sex couples, usually in a suburban home with an adopted child. While this is absolutely a part of the community and a part that should be celebrated, those segments of the community are adored and the marginalized segments are ignored.
The LGBT2SQ+ community — and modern society — are all the richer for including all voices in the conversation. We lose so much when we marginalize groups — so much wisdom, experience, and uniqueness are lost when we focus only on what media tells us to focus on. Black Lives Matter has taken a bold step to raise their voices, and to raise the voices of those who exist in the margins with them.
Did their sit-in disrupt the celebration of the day? Perhaps. Did they achieve their goals? That remains to be seen. But did people listen to their point? I hope so.
Cameron D. James is a writer of gay erotica and M/M erotic romance; his latest release is Seduced by My Best Friend’s Dad (co-written with Sandra Claire). He lives in Canada, is always crushing on Starbucks baristas, and has two rescue cats. To learn more about Cameron, visit http://www.camerondjames.com.