Wednesday, June 9, 2010

A Turning Point for Pride Toronto

In 1981, Toronto police raided four gay bath houses. The gay community was accustomed to harrassment, but the scale of these raids pushed the community past a breaking point. As with the 1969 Stonewall riots in NYC, gays in Toronto finally stood up for their rights and fought back. Massive protests and rallies led to the annual Pride celebration which has become one of the largest of its kind in the world.

I occasionally re-read the accounts of the protests, and admire the activists who won us our rights and paved the way for the degree of acceptance that the gay community enjoys today. I wish I had been able to participate in those protests, but at that point in my life - still a teen - I was still deep in the closet, deep in denial.

Now out and proud, I've come to enjoy Toronto Pride immensely. Coming out relatively late in life, I now find it important to get out in the streets during Pride, and surround myself with my community. For one week a year, I get to experience being a part of the majority; it is an experience I savour. I've always thought the size of the celebration was a good thing. The more people, the better.

Yet complaints about Toronto Pride have become commonplace, and it seems they increase each year. "It's too big." "It's too corporate." "It's too crowded." Many of my gay friends have lost interest, and no longer attend the parade itself. A couple of friends used to invite me to a big Pride brunch with all their friends, and then we would all make our way over to watch the parade from start to finish. A few years ago, they stopped the tradition. They no longer attend Pride at all - even going out of town on the big weekend. This slow trend has been alarming for me, as I feel increasingly abandoned - alone at a dance with a crowd of strangers. I've wondered what to do to reverse that trend, but the corporatization of Pride has seemed inevitable and unstoppable.

Until now.

Pride Toronto, the committee which organizes Pride, has bowed to pressure to try to ban the group QuAIA (Queers Against Israeli Apartheid) - which has marched peacefully for the past two years. The first move was to try to set up a system of "approval" for each and every placard or banner to be used in the parade. When public outcry forced them to rescind that decision, they reverted to banning the words "Israeli Apartheid", which would effectively silence QuAIA's message. Or so they thought.

The response has been swift and powerful. 23 current and past recipients of Pride awards and honours have made public statements and attended a news conference to return their awards until Pride Toronto's censorship decision is reversed. Numerous other prominent members of Toronto's LGBT community have condemned Pride Toronto's action; many have pulled out of Pride events.

Pride Toronto has done its best to counter the criticisms, claiming that they have no choice - that without this act of censorship, funding and possibly permits will be withdrawn by Toronto city council. The instigators of this whole debacle, zionist activists, including Martin Gladstone, lobbied city council with a misleading videotape which paints QuAIA as a scary and violent organization. This propaganda has also scared some of the general public and even some of the LGBT community itself - especially those unfamiliar with details of the Israel/Palestine conflict.

There are also ominous claims of great financial losses as regular Pride participants have supposedly pulled out for 2010 or threatened to pull out. None of these participants have been named by Pride Toronto. Pride Toronto has also made no mention of the participants who have pulled out in protest of the committee's own censorship action.

Even many of those who may not agree with QuAIA's specific message have come out in their support, on the basis that Pride has always been - and must continue to be - about free speech and political messages. It should be noted that while the list of statements against Pride Toronto's action grows daily, there have been no notable statements in support of their censorship.

A town hall meeting on Monday at the 519 Community Centre was packed - standing room only. The point was not to reach consensus - an impossible task given the many different viewpoints on this controversy - but to establish the need for change, both from within and without, and to get people together and get them started on networking and connecting to share and implement alternatives. Some will conduct a split - alternate marches and events not sanctioned by Pride Toronto; others will be taking part in official Pride events, especially the parade, but with messages of solidarity with QuAIA - and perhaps defiance.

There is so much more to say about this issue, and it would be a full-time job to report it all, as there are new developments each day.

To my non-political friends, I am trying to provide a quick summary here. Even if you are not inspired to take action on this, you'll do well to be informed.

For myself - my energy and desire to remain involved in activism are renewed. As many are saying, this is a turning point. Pride must not be allowed to continue on this track - where critics and sponsors are allowed to dictate what we can say and do; if we had given into that in past years, we wouldn't be here now. Pride Toronto is not defending - nor speaking for - our community. If we let this go, where will it end?

Below are some links on the developments so far, thanks to Rick Telfer and his Facebook group, "Don't sanitize Pride: Free expression must prevail", which I would recommend joining. I doubt anyone will read all these links, but I would at least urge you read through this first one - the speeches and statements from those who returned their awards to Pride Toronto, and their reasons why:

Video of the speeches

Video of Town Hall meeting:

Pride Toronto's arguments are also effectively refuted in many of these links:

NEWS: "Rachel Epstein, Sky Gilbert and El-Farouk Khaki are just three of the more than 20 past honoured dykes, grand marshals and award recipients who will return their honours to Pride Toronto."
► EVENT: (on Facebook)

STATEMENT: "Open Letter to Pride Toronto, from Walker, declining 2010 Community Service Award"

NEWS: "Toronto mayoral candidate and gay community bon vivant Keith Cole is the latest in a growing number of artists and activists to withdraw from Pride Toronto’s Pride celebrations."

NEWS & EVENT: "Sasha Van Bon Bon organizes event to directly compete with official Dyke March"

STATEMENT: "Wise Daughters Craft Market withdrawing participation: Funders must not be permitted to dictate Pride"

STATEMENT: ILGA (International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association) expresses support for the right of Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA) to participate fully in Pride Toronto events

COMMENTARY: "Pride Toronto: Disingenuous or Inept?" by Sara Malabar (former Pride Toronto staff member)

STATEMENT: "Aswat, Palestinian queer women group, condemns the Israeli military attacks on the Freedom Gaza flotilla and call people all over the world to exercise their right to protest the apartheid regime in Israel and elsewhere."

COMMENTARY: "The myth of Israeli morality"

NEWS: Protesters demand Pride Toronto reverse censorship decision

NEWS: Decision to ban use of 'Israeli Apartheid' angers gay rights activists

VIDEO: Protest at Pride Toronto press conference

EMAIL CAMPAIGN: Say No to Censorship at Pride Toronto

NEWS: Dr. Alan Li rejects appointment as Pride Toronto grand marshal

NEWS: Jane Farrow rejects Pride Toronto honoured dyke title

STATEMENT: Open Letter to Pride Toronto from founders of Pride in 1981

STATEMENT: Queer Ontario Opposes Censorship by Pride Toronto at 2010 Pride

NEWS: Pink Triangle Press tells Pride Toronto to reverse "Israeli Apartheid" ban

EVENT: "Take back the Dyke" (march)

STATEMENT: Glen Murray, MPP for Toronto Centre on "hate" and censorship

VIDEO: QuAIA's Tim McCaskell on Pride Toronto's censorship

VIDEO: Pride Toronto's censorship

PROPOSAL: Pride Community Contract

COMMENTARY: Who is Martin Gladstone and why has he been trying to de-fund Pride Toronto?

ESSAY: The radical roots of Pride

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