Toronto’s queer elders bear witness to decades of activism


The Pride project Return, Seek, Carry documents the stories of 20 queer elders through portraits and oral histories.
Courtesy of Jocelyn Reynolds

Pride Weekend is finally here and things still aren’t what they could be, thanks to the pandemic. But even though the parade isn’t happening IRL, there are still opportunities to get out and explore Toronto’s queer history.

Buddies in Bad Times Theatre has produced Pride In Place, reaching out to more than 75 artists to create 22 digital, in-person and object-based projects all over the city. One of them is Return, Seek, Carry, an installation created by Jocelyn Reynolds that presents the stories of 20 queer elders as a combination of portraits and oral histories. (It’s on the side of the Buddies building at 12 Alexander through July 5, and also available in a digital format.)

The goal is to create connections between the past and present generations of LGBTQ2S+ people. On the latest episode of the NOW What podcast, Reynolds and leZlie Lee Kam – who’s one of the project’s facilitators as well as one of its subjects – discuss the project, and how it points the way to a thriving future for everyone.

“That was always one of the original intentions, definitely,” Reynolds says. “To invite a dialogue between past generations and current generations, as well as future generations, by creating this archive. It’s something that a bunch of the elders touched on in their interviews: if we can have these conversations between generations, then there’s really no need for us to keep reinventing the wheel. We can share experiences and we can share wisdom, and then that will help us have these conversations and join forces in order to take down the oppressive institutions and individuals that are still marginalizing us.”

Looking for subjects to share their stories, Reynolds asked Kam – whom she’d met at one of Buddies’ intergenerational peer mixers – to reach out to her friends and fellow activists. And they ran into a couple of unexpected stumbling blocks.

“Every single person that I asked said, ‘Well, I don’t think I’m an elder. I’m too young to be a senior or an elder,’” Kam laughs. “So I had to talk them into that aspect of it [and] say to them, ‘Well, think about all your years of activism.’ And everybody is so modest; this is just the work that we do. These are just the lives that we lead.

“[From our point of view] we are not raging and ranting activists,” Kam continiues. “This is just our everyday; we feel we must do this work in order to survive, and in order for younger people not to have to go through what we went through. So on those two fronts, I had to be persuasive. And now I’m hearing people who are my friends and colleagues in the project saying, ‘Oh, I’m so glad I said yes, thank you so much!’ And Jocelyn made it so easy in terms of the conversations.”

And because NOW is collecting stories of radical moments that shaped Toronto’s queer history, here are Jocelyn and leZlie’s:

“A moment in Toronto’s queer history that was pivotal to the culture was Black Lives Matter-Toronto’s Pride Action in 2016. Their action was a powerful reminder that the first Pride was a protest, that the foundation of our movement is Black trans women, and that our most vulnerable community members are still fighting for their right to survive and thrive in this world.”

– Jocelyn Reynolds

“Mine happened in 1999, when for the first time in the Pride parade queer dykes, lesbians of colour and transgender women took up space, and we went under the banner of Queer Women Colouring The Century. And it was the first time that dykes and lesbians had a big truck, like the white boys – first time, and it’s never happened again – and on our truck we had two gigantic signs. One said ‘Stop police racism’ and the other said ‘Stop the criminalization of peoples of colour.’ And the Toronto police came to us and told us we could not be in the parade with those signs on our truck. And we said, ‘We are going into the parade,’ and they sent two white undercover female officers with their hands on their guns to tell us we could not go into the parade.

“And we defied them, and we surrounded the truck with media and people with cameras – because there were no cell phones back then – and we let them know they were being watched. And they had no choice but to let us go into the parade. So back in 1999 was the first time we defied the police. Dykes and lesbians of colour.”

– leZlie Lee Kam

Hear the entire conversation on the NOW What podcast, available on Apple Podcasts or Spotify or playable directly below:

NOW What is a twice-weekly podcast that explores the ways Torontonians are coping with life in the time of coronavirus. New episodes are available Tuesdays and Fridays.




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