Good evening and welcome to all of you.
As many of our friends and neighbors continue to be detained or face charges related to this weekend’s demonstration of State-mandated violence, it must feel odd to turn our attention, now, this evening, to something—to anything else.
There are many links, of course, between this weekend’s events and tonight’s intended discussion of politics and nationalism.
I want to draw your attention to just one, captured in that wonderful protest chant of an upbeat and peaceful crowd cheering on those lovely boys offering lap dances to the police at the barricades: you’re sexy, you’re cute, take off your riot suit!
This beautiful queer moment showcased the kind of clever, ethical and meaningful creative political response that I think our conversation here tonight similarly aspires toward.
By that I don’t mean you’ll get to see any lapdances tonight – well none are planned – but you will hear from people trying to figure out creative ways to form ethical, informed and meaningful political responses to the policing of and punishments given to certain kinds of sex.
Over the last few weeks, Toronto’s queer community has witnessed a lot of creative political organizing. When four members of Pride Toronto’s Board voted to censor the words “Israeli Apartheid,” queer men and women rose in protest against the poor judgment of a small group.
A doctor and a writer, a DJ/lawyer and a social worker, a filmmaker and a Volunteer Coordinator, a newspaper publisher and a playwright, a Liberal Zionist and a bike mechanic, and of course those phenomenal Lesbian Revengers —one by one people from all walks of life—though shamefully not a single elected official!—came together to say no, we will not be silenced.
The Pride Coalition for Free Speech, whose overflowing meetings looked more like the City of Toronto than any other queer space I have ever encountered - has won this round. The ban is gone. Queers Against Israeli Apartheid will march down Yonge Street next Sunday.
The reversal is an important step, but a first step, for the ban has worked to unleash anger and frustration about much more than censorship;
We have now heard from Blockorama and Asian Xpress, from Nik Red and Kenji Kenjiro about how they feel Pride has marginalized Black, Asian and trans communities;
We have heard from those who are fed up with the vapid and unfettered commercialization of what was once primarily a fight for sexual freedom, a fight for love;
We have heard from Dykes who will take the March back and from environmentalists opposed to the overconsumption that has come to characterize mainstream gay culture;
We have heard from some people invested in returning Pride to its political roots, and from others (myself included) who have said, this parade, these names, this rainbow flag is perhaps not for everyone everywhere, is perhaps not for me.
Tonight we will enter into a set of conversations that cut across many of the questions that have been raised over the last few weeks and that are also at the heart of QUAIA’s work.
Not just in Toronto but across the world, queer communities and LGBT organizations are being asked to account for some of their failures including: an often arrogant and dangerous tendency to impose one model of organizing and one understanding of sexual politics and culture for everyone, and without due attention to their sometimes violent implications; their reluctance to acknowledge or challenge racism, and their complicity with nationalist projects that punish and vilify the most marginalized and the most demonized peoples: immigrants and refugees, people living under occupation, people living in postcolonial states in the Global South, persecuted ethnic and religious minorities, trans people, economically dispossessed people.
Last week, a group of queer people of colour and trans activists, including the organization SUSPECT, helped convince the iconic queer scholar Judith Butler to refuse the ZivilCourage Award offered to her by the local Pride committee.
In refusing the award, Butler called attention to the ways in which Berlin LGBT organizations were inciting racism, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment in their declarations of gay pride. Not just in Berlin, but in Stockholm and London, in New York and San Francisco, in Paris and Amsterdam—invocations of hate against Muslims and Arabs, against people of colour, against immigrants, against people of the Global South—are being cloaked in cheers of gay pride.
Sometimes, this homonationalism is pursued explicitly, as in B’nai Brith President Frank Diamant’s recent reaction to Pride Toronto’s reversal of the ban on the phrase “Israeli apartheid.” Mr. Diamant commented,
“It is an irony that the same Islamists who propagate the lies about the Jewish State that the members of QuAIA are regurgitating, are also unequivocally homophobic.
It is a shame that the only Middle Eastern state that QuAIA wish to target, Israel, is also the only state in that region where a Pride parade could take place.”
Mr. Diamant recently shared a panel at a G20 conference on faith with such stalwarts of gay liberation as Karl Rove, and the Presidents of the Canadian Family Action and Canada Christian College – organizations that have poured enormous energy and a great deal of money into fighting gay marriage abortion rights and sex education here and the world over. But in the battle against QUAIA, Mr. Diamant recasts himself as Queer Hero, and pinkwashes the Israeli State as refuge for gay and lesbian Arabs, Muslims, Palestinians, despite its institutionalization of an apartheid system and maintenance of a blockade and violent militarism that punishes all Palestinians, including queer Palestinians.
Sometimes gay pride and racism-nationalism are strewn together with more subtlety.
Last fall I watched in horror as mostly queer Toronto audiences enthusiastically cheered on performances of “To Be Straight With You,” by my otherwise favourite dance company DV8. The centerpiece of the show was a literal splitting of the world into the “good” global North and “bad” global South, with characters taking African, Asian and, of course, Caribbean accents to tell stories of how brown and black and yellow queers have to be saved from the barbarism of their own people, and rescued by enlightened gays and lesbians like Peter Tatchell, and by extension, their nations like Israel, Canada, the UK and Sweden.
It’s what we hear from many organizations working at an international level.
It’s what we see in films like the one originally scheduled for screening tonight, which in its trailer trots out one body of colour after another to declare how homophobic his or her people are, and how much solace is to be found in the arms of liberal Canada.
As was put forward in Frank Diamant’s statement against QUAIA, events like Pride which typify a certain kind of gay liberalism, have come to be viewed as new markers of progress, allowing places like Canada and Sweden, and also Israel, to be tagged as “civilized and Open” and others like Jamaica, Uganda and Iran to be reviled as the most backward, homophobic places on Earth.
If a country has a big loud Pride parade with a lot of rainbow flags, that’s seen as a sign of progressive sexual liberation, and if it doesn’t that absence must mean oppression.
This view of freedom makes no room for an understanding that sexual cultures might not be universal, and might operate differently in different places—and does not recognize that the demand to experience and express love and desire in certain ways can have horrific consequences for the people whose lives are claimed to be help (I’m thinking here especially of the suicide of the Indian Professor Dr Sreenivas Siras after he was forced to take up the mantle of gay liberation in his retiring years).
One of the most commonly mentioned pieces of evidence of a people’s savagery is anti-sodomy law.
The irony of using existence of laws criminalizing anal sex to name who is civilized and who is not is that they were put in place by Britain and other colonial powers in Jamaica, in India, in Uganda, to do the very same thing: mark civilized peoples from uncivilized ones—only now the conditions have been reversed.
Now, if you’re a country with anti-sodomy laws, you’re marked as a barbaric state, but not so long ago, having the laws meant were what made you civilized, having been concocted by Europeans anxious about open and freer forms of sexuality, including homosexuality, they encountered in colonies.
It’s as ridiculous for Zimbabwe’s Mugabe and Uganda’s Musevni to claim those laws as defenses against “imperialist” pressures to legalize homosexuality as it is for LGBT rights activists to use their existence to condemn whole cultures of people.
Anti-sodomy laws are of course a problem, and ought to be opposed everywhere. Homophobia and heterosexism are certainly urgent problems requiring redress in Uganda and Jamaica and Palestine as they are also, in different ways and with different strengths of punishment and protections, in Canada and Israel.
To take a State law or a form of music or a religious code as a clear indicator of a whole society’s complex views of sexuality is extraordinarily arrogant.
Take my birth country of Trinidad and Tobago, which has some of the worst laws in the world. There, both male and female same-sex sexual activity are illegal with punishments of up to 25 years imprisonment, and an immigration act forbids gay men and women from entry to the country. And yet: Trinidad is by many other measures a very queer place, and I am certain that you are more likely to end up flirting with an Immigration officer than being kicked out by him or her, because no has ever been stopped from entry to Trinidad for being gay.
It is one thing to voice opposition to a law and quite another to make grand declarations that overlook the particular histories and contexts of how sexual regulation laws and anxieties developed in certain places, and to demand the same strategies and forms of politics for everyone everywhere.
As Angela Davis recently commented,
“The assumption that somehow people from the Global South, people of colour are more homophobic, is a racist assumption.
If you consider the extent to which the ideological structures of homophobia, of transphobia, or heteropatriarchy are embedded in all our institutions, the assumption that one group of people is going to be more homophobic than another group of people misses the mark.”
Perhaps no one quite appreciates the complexity of the task of simultaneously challenging homophobic ethno-nationalism and homonationalist racism, in these inescapably transnational times, as the people whose lives operate in spaces in these multiple pressures are strongly felt.
Tonight, we have the honour and the pleasure of hearing from two people who have taken a leading role in struggles for sexual rights in such places, who will share with us their insights on how to negotiate some very difficult tensions. Please join me in welcoming to the stage the Director of al-Qaws, a nonprofit organization working for sexual and gender diversity in Palestinian society, Haneen Maikey, and the Co-Founder of Caribbean Pride and the Coalition Advocating for Inclusion of Sexual Orientation, Colin Robinson.
VIDEOS OF SEX/INTERNATIONAL