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Two years after Black Lives Matter-Toronto's seminal protest, it's the question Black, trans and queer people of colour are asking ahead of Pride's annual general meeting next Tuesday (December 4)
From Los Angeles to Washington, DC, to Edmonton and Toronto, Pride festivals are facing boycotts and protests that have threatened to halt the annual parades altogether.
But the most vocal challenges to Pride organizations aren’t coming from religious conservatives and homophobic politicians. They’re coming from segments of the queer community that say they’re being marginalized by increasingly corporate festivals that are too cozy with political, police and military institutions.
In Toronto, it’s not clear where Pride will draw the line on participation now that police have been invited back to the parade. And it seems we won’t find out: the organization’s annual general meeting, scheduled for December 4, will be closed to the media and general public.
Has the Pride festival movement lost touch with the communities it was built to serve?
Pride Toronto is no stranger to intra-community controversy.
From 2010-12 the festival was torn over whether to allow Queers Against Israeli Apartheid to march. Since a 2016 protest by Black Lives Matter–Toronto briefly stopped the parade, the organization has barred uniformed police officers from participating.
In the wake of BLM-TO’s 2016 protest, full and partial bans on police and military participation were also instituted by Pride festivals in Kamloops, Edmonton, Calgary, London and Vancouver. The Halifax Regional Police volunteered to stay away from that city’s festival this year out of respect for the “national debate.”
Amid that ongoing discussion across the country, Pride Toronto is backtracking.
After voting to uninvite uniformed police in 2017, the group announced in October that the cops would be welcome to apply to march in next year’s parade.
That decision doesn’t sit well with members of BLM-TO.
“Our community was very clear multiple times as to what an inclusive Pride is, and time and time again Pride has shown that they are not committed to ensuring that the most marginal of us feel welcome and safe,” says BLM-TO co-founder Pascale Diverlus.
Diverlus says she can’t rule out further protests from BLM-TO at Pride 2019.
“We’re fed up. We’re tired of asking Pride to prioritize us,” she says.
But Pride executive director Olivia Nuamah says bringing the police back will help build bridges between police and queer communities of colour. On that count, the organization is set to announce funding from the feds to the tune of $1.2 million.
“I don’t see a way that relationship [with police] is going to get better unless I’m involved in making it better,” Nuamah says.
Meanwhile, a parallel debate is taking place around the heavy corporate presence at Pride.
Anti-corporate sentiment is strong in Toronto’s queer activist community, and complaints about the predominance of sponsors like TD, Pfizer, Trojan and OLG, among others, are a perennial subject of contention.
But organized opposition to corporate involvement hasn’t yet taken hold here the way it has in queer communities south of the border.
No Justice No Pride, a loose organization of queer activists, has blocked parades in Washington, DC, New York, Seattle, Columbus, Minneapolis, Boston and Phoenix, calling out the LGBTQ movement’s “complicity with systems of oppression that further marginalize queer and trans individuals,” and ties to the U.S. bank Wells Fargo specifically for its involvement in the Dakota Access Pipeline project.
#NotOurPride boycotted Los Angeles Pride in 2016, accusing organizers of excluding poor and trans community members by turning several events into ticketed live music concerts. The group succeeded in convincing organizers to turn the parade into a resistance march free of floats and corporate sponsors in 2017, but the floats and logos were all back this year.
In New York City, meanwhile, Reclaim Pride collective is organizing a counter-march to contrast the heavily corporate 2019 Pride parade, which is also that year’s World Pride Parade celebrating 50 years since the Stonewall riots.
“T-Mobile did not throw the first brick, and this annual Pride march or parade should not be turned over to corporate floats,” says Reclaim Pride member Ann Northrop. “We certainly hope that people around the world, including in Toronto, will follow our lead.”
But Nuamah calls such anti-corporate stances “simplistic,” arguing that they further marginalize members of vulnerable communities who feel validated by seeing their employers participate in the parade.
“Many queer people work in these organizations,” says Nuamah, who adds that queer communities are “sometimes too quick to make judgments, the same judgments that marginalize queer people of colour. If you’re a queer woman of colour who’s a worker in that organization, who am I to judge what they do to survive?”
There’s also the question of Pride’s handling of the attendance of politicians at Pride.
All through Rob Ford’s mayoralty, for example, Pride Toronto begged the mayor to march in the parade – as if the tradition of a mayor’s participation was more important than Ford’s well-documented homophobia.
Pride Toronto now seems willing to go down that road again with Rob’s brother, newly minted Ontario premier Doug Ford, despite his government’s renewed attacks on a queer-inclusive sex-ed curriculum. Ford said during the election campaign this spring that he would not be attending Pride as long as the police were uninvited.
Nuamah has already said Ford is invited to come next year. She offers simply, “He’s an elected representative. One of the main reasons I find this hard is many members of my own community see themselves reflected in what he says.”
The online satirical publication The Beaverton, among others, has mocked that stance, but Nuamah calls the criticism hypocritical.
“You could argue that Justin Trudeau has done much to undermine Indigenous rights. If we really wanted to support Indigenous rights, couldn’t we argue that?”
Other Pride events have taken a firmer line on political participation.
In 2015, Vancouver Pride effectively barred the governing BC Liberals by making participants sign a pledge to support trans people in the province’s human rights code, a stance the BC Liberals had long opposed. The party reversed its position and passed a trans rights bill in 2016.
Both the Edmonton and Calgary Pride festivals have banned Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party from marching the last two years, saying the party has been unable to demonstrate a commitment to all segments of the queer community after the UCP opposed a bill to support gay-straight alliances in Alberta schools.
While Nuamah supports the decision to bar the UCP, Pride’s annual general meeting at Harbourfront Tuesday (December 4), will be closed to the media and general public.
Nuamah says “the media presence reduces this to a facile drama for the consumption of straight communities. What we’re trying to do is centre the voice of our actual membership.”
Rob Salerno is a journalist and filmmaker based in Toronto and Los Angeles.