Jun. 16, 2010 - Issue #765: Whose Pride?
An issue of Pride
Censorship issue could be a moment of transition for the queer movement
Between the swirl of big pink taffeta queen costumes, next-to-nude corseted men and people just looking to celebrate who they are, one could say every colour of Edmonton's rainbow was represented in Churchill Square last Saturday. With appearances by groups as diverse as Edmonton's E-ville Roller Derby to the Two Spirit Circle of Edmonton, and speeches by every major political party, city councillors and a few corporate sponsors, the diversity of the gathering shows how far Edmonton's Pride has come and how fierce it's become in it's 30-year history. And the word many used to describe it is success.
In amongst the Edmonton crowd was one particular group whose very name is at the heart of a divisive controversy across the country: Queers Against Israeli Apartheid, formed mere weeks ago here in Edmonton in solidarity with a group in Toronto, marched with close to 40 supporters in the Pride parade with little evidence of the controversy being witnessed just three provinces over—a controversy that has raised a lot of questions about the ownership and growth of everyone's Pride festivals.
Although the use of the word apartheid in relation to Israel has formed a number of debates in the country over the past few months, it has directly impacted the organizing of Toronto Pride. On May 25 Toronto's Pride committee, under pressure from funders and supporters, announced a ban on the use of the phrase "Israeli apartheid" from the festitivities. This made the participation of the returning group "Queers Against Israeli Apartheid" impossible. Reaction has been intense: 23 award winners have handed back their Pride awards, every speaker scheduled to talk at the international human rights panel refused to participate, both the appointed Grand Marshall and Honoured Dyke have refused the appointment and a group, the "Pride Coalition for Free Speech," has formed.
The ban has activists wondering which comes first: corporate funding or the defense of queer rights everywhere.
In its justification for banning the phrase "Israeli apartheid," the Toronto pride commitee made reference to the threat of losing not only city funding but that of corporate and non-governmental organizations. But with alternate events currently being organized, it seems Pride Toronto is in danger of losing more than just its funding.
"We've seen these movements become larger and more mainstream, more corporate, and in a way that's the way of the world," explains Shawn Syms, a Toronto-based activist and participant for the last 20 years in Toronto Pride. Syms states that there is a role for corporate sponsorship and participation, and that it is necessary, but not at the cost of all voices in the community. "It's the responsiblity of Pride Toronto, as stewards of these events, to make sure there is room for all types of groups."
Edmonton Pride Week Society board member Michael Phair couldn't agree more. He maintains that the role of the grassroots is at the heart of what makes Edmonton Pride work. "There is still a significant political aspect to Pride in this city. The roots of Pride in Edmonton, and the celebrations, grew out of the advocacy and the importance of the involvement in community action, and that still is part of what motivates and keeps the community together."
Phair names the controversy in Toronto as a possible transitionary moment for queer movements. "Things change and it's a matter of looking at how one can accommodate to that change."
Edmonton Pride responded to the grassroots last year when a group of activists, the Queer Resistance Army, called out the Edmonton Pride committee for giving corporate naming rights for the Pride Parade to TD Bank. In response, the committee went back to the simple Pride Parade title, while TD continues to maintain a high "rainbow" level of funding and participate in the festitivities. This year the committee accepted the newly formed "Queers Against Israeli Apartheid" with almost no questions asked.
"They were very open," says Marcus Peterson, a co-organizer of the Edmonton-based Queers Against Israeli Aparthed. He explains that he got a call from a Pride organizer letting him know that all political stripes were welcome."She wanted to make sure we weren't there to start any violence or hate speech or to create an unfriendly atmosphere for them. We focus on non-violent direct action so that was no problem."
It's an example of how the challenges brought forward by the grassroots can be met and acted upon—a necessary component to any successful movement, explains University of Alberta women's studies professor Lise Gotell. "Contestation and political conflict are inevitable within social movements."
Having studied gender politics, social movements and the law, Gotell is firm that these debates need to happen for the growth and definition of a movement. "If you look at the women's movement there were divisive issues in the '80s and '90s around questions of race and pornography and certainly efforts on many sides of those conflicts to disavow the other side, to say, 'This is the only feminist position, the other positions are no longer feminist.'"
Gotell states all social movements are inherently pluralistic—they cannot simply hold one political agenda. And that's what is being evidenced in Toronto today. "The mainstream of the movement is captured by a celebratory recognition style politics," says Gotell. "It's become depoliticized and that creates a division between the mainstream and those who want to maintain a radical politics."
Peterson believes that with the growth of corporate sponsorship it becomes a question of ownership. "Pride committees, around the world, have been relying on corporate funding, and we felt there wasn't enough dialogue happening," he explains. "There wasn't enough questioning of this overturning of what Pride has meant from the beginning—the proper representation of all peoples."
And, like all movements, the queer movement has struggled to represent all people. "The thrust of the movement in the '80s and '90s was assimilation, it was to have the same rights as heterosexuals," explains Gotell. "So it's not about transforming social relations, undermining heteronormativity or power relationships of any form because queer people are racialized, women, they're poor, but the interests of those constituencies within the queer movement are marginalized if we take Pride as an expression of what the queer movement is today."
Peterson echoes the need to keep fighting for rights of all: "Just because we have the legal right to get married or society has progressed since Stonewall, doesn't mean we need to sacrifice our rights, or stop fighting for the rights of other people. As the old saying goes, 'as long as there are people oppressed no one is free.'"
With almost 30 years of history, the LGBT movement has proven itself to be one that responds to its community. The very name itself has expanded to include the diversity of its membership, and it seems every year the events expand to include more voices.
Toronto Pride was once named a Canadian institution. With 30 years of history behind it, there's an opportunity to build on the strength the queer movement has found in its diversity. Syms is hopeful this diversity will prove to be the building blocks of a stronger Pride. "Sometimes you can feel disillusioned about the current state of affairs with a Pride committee in a particular place and we have to remind ourselves that it's not just inevitable. We have to remember that the people on these committees, who are really caring, hardworking people, need to be reminded of all the different communities they serve because these communities appreciate the work they do and they want to ensure their own voices are heard in the decisions people make." V
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