An Everyday Epic Battle: Pride Toronto, Blackness Yes, Israeli Apartheid and Sticking Together

By Deputy Editor Thea Lim

I am from Toronto, though I now live in Houston.  I get most of my Toronto community news through Facebook, and I have been watching with disgust and amazement for the past two months as my Facebook feed has filled up with reports about Pride Toronto, Blackness Yes! – a community organization that celebrates black queer and trans history – and Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA).

Long story short: Pride Toronto, which is an internationally famous week-long celebration of queer and trans pride, has made conscious or unconscious attempts to curtail the wholehearted participation of queer and trans folks of colour and their allies in Pride. They have attempted to relocate and shrink black-identified spaces, and they have banned QuAIA from participation in Pride 2010.  This year queer & trans people of colour (QTPOC) and their allies may participate in Pride, but only as long as they check their histories and politics at the door.  Short story long? Hang on to your hats, this is an epic tale.

Blackness Yes!

The first news I heard of this mess was in April, when the Blackness Yes! Blockorama party was asked to move by the Pride Toronto organizing committee for the third time in 4 years.

Blackness Yes! organizer Syrus M. Ware describes Blockorama and Blackness Yes!:

Since 1998 Blockorama has been a party at Pride where black queer and trans folks, their allies, supporters and people who love them came together to say no to homophobia in black communities and no to racism in LGBTQ communities. To say Blackness Yes at Pride – loud and proud…We have built Blockorama out of love, through sweat and toiling. For 12 years, we have claimed space, resisted erasure, found community, shared memories, built bridges, embraced sexuality, and found home. Blockorama is not just a party or a stage at Pride. It is a meeting place for black queer and trans people across North America- Blockorama is the largest space of its kind at any Pride festival on the continent.

Yet Pride Toronto has multiple times tried to move Blockorama further away from the main events, or relocated the party to smaller spaces that will not fit the huge crowds Blockorama draws.  Blockorama is a hugely important part of Pride, not only a black space where queer black folks go to party, but also a space that has always been immensely welcoming to non-black folks of colour.  Pride Toronto’s moves – whether or not they are racist – indicate a lack of sensitivity, care or even basic awareness of the size and meaning of Blockorama.

University of Toronto professor Rinaldo Walcott wrote this letter to the Pride Toronto organizing committee, upon news that Blockorama was to be moved again:

…at the same time that Pride Toronto has moved Blocko three times, Pride Toronto has also taken on the mantle of global human rights as its signature issue.

It is in fact the discrepancy between Pride Toronto’s treatment of local black communities participation in pride events and its attempt to position itself as a global player in the LGBTQ global rights movement that I find particularly offensive, disrespectful and unmindful of the very communities residing here that Pride Toronto would seek to champion overseas.

How can this be? How could it be that Pride Toronto did not see this ethical dilemma before it? Is it because Blocko is the last non-commercial space at pride? Is it because like much else in this country Pride Toronto too believes that black people as a constituency can be ignored? These are genuine questions, not accusations.

…We will not as black people here and globally stand to be exploited by white folks who now want it to appear that all is well at home, but not elsewhere.

On April 13 Blackness Yes! held a community meeting to protest these moves.  Deviant Productions, an alternative youth media collective, made a video of the meeting:

You can read a transcript of the video here.

In many ways this community mobilisation was successful.  3 days after the meeting, Pride Toronto agreed not to relocate Blockorama to a smaller venue for this year, and agreed to work with Blockorama, starting in July, to put a stop to the yearly migrations and find a permanent home for Blocko at Pride.

However negotiations are stalled around the matter of a dancefloor. This is a queer dance party, after all.

Blockorama site coordinator Syrus M. Ware says of the Blockorama site for this year: “Where we have been put is lovingly refered to as the ‘swamp’”: Blockorama requires temporary flooring in the park to ensure the safety and accessibility of its dance space.  Pride Toronto agreed to find funding for said dancefloor, but it is two weeks to the party and the money has yet to come through.

Ware says, “The sponsorship ask has still not been sent to me. I worry that this will not come through this year –  it does not seem to be one of Pride’s priorities. We have not yet been contacted about a date to plan for a better site for next year…we will wait and see what happens on the day of.”

He continues, “We have deliberated very long and very hard about whether or not to pull out of Pride this year. After our meeting, we met and strategized with QuAIA…We have decided to stay in the festival for this year- but we dont know about next year. We are committed to creating space to celebrate and shout Blackness Yes!, and we will do this with or without Pride Toronto.”

Israeli Apartheid

At the very same time as they were dealing with Blockorama drama, Pride Toronto was doing some shady dealing around another group of QTPOC and their allies. A letter dated April 14th (as in, the day after the Blockorama meeting) from the City of Toronto’s executive director of culture detailed a conversation where Pride Toronto’s board discussed ways to ban Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA) from marching in the Pride parade. On May 25, Pride Toronto announced that QuAIA would not be allowed to march in the parade or participate in Pride, due to the City of Toronto’s complaints over the term “Israeli Apartheid”:

…the participation of Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA) may contravene the City’s own anti-discrimination policies in relation to “place of origin” and that Pride Toronto, as a recipient of City of Toronto funding, is required to adhere to said policies…

QuAIA states that they use the word “apartheid” because it is the best way to describe a system of differentiated (queer) rights based on race. On their website they explain:

Today, in response to increasing criticism of its occupation of Palestine, Israel is cultivating an image of itself as an oasis of gay tolerance in the Middle East. As queers, we recognize that homophobia exists in Israel, Palestine, and across all borders. But queer Palestinians face the additional challenge of living under occupation, subject to Israeli state violence and control. Israel’s apartheid system extends gay rights only to some, based on race.

QuAIA is a diverse group, their membership including Jewish, Muslim, Arab, Palestinian and white queer and trans folks.

This ban hinges entirely on language – QuAIA would be allowed to participate in Pride and even articulate solidarity with queer Palestinians, if only they would stop using the word “apartheid.”  After expressing her distaste for the ban, Ellie Kirzner, editor of a leftist entertainment weekly in Toronto wrote:

I think it’s time to try the window; Queers Against Israeli Apartheid, change the name of your organization…I fear the use of [the word "apartheid"] has unmindfully offered a lever to the other side. It’s time to declare less and deliver more…Would the sky fall if Queers Against Israeli Apartheid became Queers Against the Occupation? Or Queers for Mideast Justice? Or just about anything that would advance the plot on behalf of Palestinians?

While I understand Kirzner’s just-do-whatever-works-for-the-movement approach, doesn’t the kerfuffle kicked up by a single, shocking word – because again, it is about the word, not the existence of the group all together – mean that we should talk about why this word upsets us so much?

In the world history of oppression, we often like to attach fixed definitions with specific illustrations to fluid terms. And so our definitions are too small to capture our terms; we have the language to describe our world, but we don’t know how to use it. For example, we attach “American slavery until 1865″ to “racism” – so anything that happens in America that isn’t on the level of the enslavement of others based on race, cannot be racism. Or we attach “assault in a darkened place by a stranger” to “rape,” so that when a woman is attacked by a man she trusts, it cannot be rape. Or we attach “South Africa before 1994″ to “apartheid”, so that anything that does not involve the worldwide horror at South African apartheid, cannot be the systematic separation of rights by race – even when it is.  Oppression, racism and systemic cruelty are ideas and machines that work by changing shape.  If we hope to confront and dismantle them, we need to blow open our definitions.

Depressingly, money is at the heart of Pride Toronto decision to ban QuAIA. From the CBC:

The use of the words has put the Pride organizers on a collision course with the City of Toronto, which says the name of the group ‘Queers Against Israeli Apartheid’ violates its anti-discrimination policy.

In 2009, the city gave the Pride festival $121,000 to help defray costs.

Xtra! quotes Pride Toronto board co-chair Genevieve D’Iorio:

D’Iorio says city and corporate sponsors are threatening to pull funding, and banning the phrase “Israeli apartheid” is the best position PT organizers could take. Pride simply wouldn’t happen, she says, without the city’s financial and in-kind support.

Pro-Israeli groups in Toronto have been pushing for QuAIA’s ban since last year; the May 25 decision has been on the table since last November.  A group called Reclaiming Our Pride argued that QuAIA was a “disgruntled group using Pride as a platform to further their own political agenda…only groups supporting gay rights can be in the parades.”  This stance seems to miss the point that QuAIA’s mandate is to support gay communities in Palestine (key word: gay).  The whole “this Palestine stuff is diluting my parade” line is unpleasantly close to the whole “anti-racism is making feminism lose its focus” argument that we are all so tired of hearing.  Both gay rights activists who only want to talk about sexuality, and feminists who only want to talk about gender, forget that there are many women and queer & trans folks who are also…people of colour. You can only parcel out sexuality and race when your worldview is imbued with white privilege.

Lobbyists who pushed for the banning of QuAIA have also complained that QuAIA is trying to make Pride “political.” Yet the nature of Pride is political to begin with and that is inescapable: pride celebrations exist around the world to celebrate and take space for a identity that is political because it is politically marginalised.  And yet in Toronto Pride is contorting itself to betray its own purpose, as it attempts to silence members of its community when Pride is supposed to be about coming out into the open.  In an gruesomely ironic turn, the slogan for this year’s Pride Week is “You Belong.”

And the commercialisation, depoliticisation and white-ification of Prides worldwide has become a matter of grave concern. San Francisco has an alterna pride called Gay Shame; this year in Toronto a counter-Pride celebration called Take Back the Dyke has been set up in order to, organizer piKe Krpan says, return Pride to its political roots and reject the commercialism, police escorts and censorship policies of Pride Toronto. On Sunday, an international group called No Homonationalism announced that superstar academic Judith Butler has refused her Zivilcourage (civil courage) Prize from Pride Berlin, saying

the parade had become too commercial, and ignor[ed] the problems of racism and the doublediscrimination suffered by homosexual or transsexual migrants.

3 days after Pride Toronto announced their decision to ban QuAIA, the grand marshal for this year’s Pride parade stepped down. Dr Alan Li wrote:

I was a keynote speaker at the second Pride celebration in 1982. I thus remember very clearly our communityʼs battles against censorship that attempted to invalidate our concerns, minimize our struggles and silence our voices. I remember struggles to ensure that the many diverse voices in our community were heard.

Prideʼs recent decision to ban the term “Israeli Apartheid” and thus prohibit the participation of the group Queers Against Israeli Apartheid from participating in Pride celebrations this year is a slap in the face to our history of diverse voices. Prideʼs choice to take preemptive step to censor our own communitiesʼ voices and concerns in response to political and corporate pressure shows a lack of backbone to stand up for principles of inclusiveness and anti-oppression.

In early June, 23 recipients of Pride Toronto awards – honoured dykes, grand marshals, special award honourees and international grand marshals – returned their awards in protest of Pride Toronto’s banning of QuAIA.  You can read a full list of their statements here.  This is a video of the event, also from Deviant Productions:

A surprising addition to the list of honourees returning their awards is Matthew Cutler, who identifies as a Liberal Zionist and makes the argument for why the term “Israeli Apartheid” should be allowed in the parade, despite the fact that it causes distress to some members of the Toronto queer and trans community. At 3:48 he states:

[The] use of a term “Israeli apartheid” continues to offend me, but has led me to conversations Israel, Palestine and the Middle East…conversations which have helped me to become a more engaged and informed Liberal Zionist. [I return my award] with the hope that generations of young people like myself will continue to be offended, will continue to grow learn and discuss difficult ideas and issues…

The Guardian (a UK paper – news of Pride Toronto’s ban  has reached far) makes similar criticism:

At a time when many countries are becoming more critical of Israel’s policies, Canada seems to be moving in the opposite direction. A general reluctance to engage in open debate about the Palestinian issue is exacerbated by pro-Israel groups’ efforts to shut down discussion…Since the beginning of 2010, the federal government has systematically cut funding to Arab-Canadian organisations and to UN relief works in Gaza. In March, the Ontario provincial legislature issued a unanimous condemnation of Israeli Apartheid Week, while the federal government considered introducing a similar motion.

However, self-censorship reached new heights last month when Toronto’s Pride Committee – which organises one of the world’s largest gay pride celebrations – announced it would be banning use of the term “Israeli apartheid” at the festivities…But when asked, neither Pride Toronto nor Giorgio Mammoliti – the Toronto city councillor mainly involved – could explain in detail what was discriminatory about describing Israel’s privileging of its Jewish citizens over others as a form or racism and apartheid.

QuAIA plan to march in the Pride parade anyways.

Sticking Together

While news of the active exclusion of queer and trans folks of colour and their allies from Pride Toronto has made me feel depressed and tired – this is my hometown, and many of those excluded are people I love – I also have been deeply moved by the mobilisation of my community, and the solidarity across communities of colour.

Ware from Blockorama told me a grisly tale about attempts to fracture Toronto’s QTPOC communities:  “We were approached by many ‘Blocko supporters’ after [our April 13 meeting]…the most concerning was an ally from TD Canada Trust.  This ally has been a great supporter of Blocko…during the weekend of April 19, 2010, while we were considering whether or not to accept Pride’s offer and to stay in the festival or not, we were contacted by the TD rep. They indicated that they would offer us their full support, but wanted to know first, ‘what was our position on QuAIA.’”

In other words Blockorama were offered funding that they desperately needed to keep their black-identified party afloat, in exchange for breaking rank with a queer Muslim, Arab and Jewish group. Ware says TD’s support would’ve been enormous for Blockorama, to the point of putting pressure on Pride to treat Blockorama better, since TD is a huge sponsor of the entire Pride celebration.

Blockorama declined TD’s offer. Ware and Blackness Yes! say

Our liberation and freedom will not come at the expense of another communities. We stand in solidarity with QuAIA and all of the other groups marginalized within Pride and also broader LGBTTI2QQ organizing.

Blockorama and QuAIA have been working on a Pride Community Contract together to strategise a way forward.

What truly depresses me is how the battles that both Blockorama and QuAIA are fighting are just so normal. Which is why I called this post “an everyday epic battle” – all this debacle with Pride Toronto is typical of the struggles that people of colour face every single day to make themselves a space, even within supposedly inclusive spaces. The insensitivity, meanness, attempts to divide and the silencing are cruelly banal.

But it also warms my little heart that these everyday violent putdowns so often meet a Fight: a kicking and screaming refusal to back down, and a determination to stick together.


Apologies that transcripts are not available for the posted videos. I contacted the creators of the videos and they hope to have transcripts eventually, so I will come back and add them in if that is possible at a later date.

Thanks to Elisha, Syrus, piKe, Alexis and Michelle for all their help with this piece!

UPDATE: The Blockorama Displaced video now has a transcript. Thanks Lali and Deviant Productions!

UPDATE:

23 June 8:30 pm: Pride Toronto has lifted its ban on “Israeli Apartheid.” From Xtra:

Pride Toronto (PT) has reversed its May board resolution banning the term “Israeli Apartheid” and will instead require all participants to sign and abide by the City of Toronto’s non-discrimination policy.

Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA) — the target of the ban — has declared a victory and congratulated the queer community for pushing PT to reverse its censorship decision

“This is a victory for the Palestine solidarity movement, which has faced censorship and bullying tactics from the Israel lobby for far too long,” said QuAIA member Tim McCaskell in the release

Brad Fraser, another member of the coalition, says that the ban would not have been lifted had it not been for the popular revolt of queer people over the last month.

“It’s a tremendous victory for anyone who dared to speak out,” says Fraser.