To Celebrate or Protest? Some Reflections on Pride Toronto 2016

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by Matt Sheedy

On July 3rd I attended the Pride parade in Toronto, which drew increased media attention this year in light of such things as its proximity to the Orlando massacre, a terror threat on a “German-language ISIS fanboy channel,” and the announcement that Canada’s Prime Minister would be marching in the streets. As with other events that I’ve attended or places that I’ve travelled to, I went with the idea of writing a post from the field (e.g., see here, here, and here). In my experience, this prior intention not only makes the events or places more interesting, like a sleuth looking for a lead, but also helps to hone one’s scholarly chops by forcing attention to the relationship between theory and practice. For example, it highlights how authorship is always a selective process of inclusion and exclusion since personal tastes, one’s subject position, and the fact of sheer chance (i.e., noticing this instead of that) cannot ever be avoided. Beyond these autobiographical dimensions, the role of discourse is also of central importance since it conditions the way popular narratives are framed and what gets called to our attention in the first place. As Hayden White has observed, all narratives are fictions that depend upon the various discourses that bring them into existence.

One leading contender vying for my attention was the highly publicized appearance of Justin Trudeau, and not only because he was the first sitting Prime Minister to ever march in a Pride parade, but also because his youth, charisma, good looks, and flare for political theater have lent him a global celebrity status rarely seen among Canadian heads of state. Not surprisingly, a sea of cameras and screaming onlookers snapped photos as he passed (see image below), which prompted the satirical website, The Beaverton (Canada’s answer to The Onion) to post a headline the following day reading, “Pride Parade Joins Justin Trudeau’s Walk Down Street.”

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Among other things, Trudeau’s celebrity status offers a fascinating case study for those interested in the role of charisma and performance in shaping the identity of social formations (such as the nation-state of Canada). This is particularly evident when placed against the near-decade of neo-conservative rule that preceded him (2006-2015), which went largely unnoticed in most Euro-Western countries, and has seemingly been forgotten in favor of a triumphalist discourse of Canada as a progressive bastion of tolerance and multiculturalism.

Far and away the most provocative act came at the behest of Black Lives Matter activists, who staged a sit-in at the intersection of Yonge and College Streets that delayed the parade for approximately 25 minutes, and included speeches on the struggles of black transgender and queer folk and their on-going marginalization. The sit-in ended when the head of Pride Toronto agreed to and signed a list of demands, including a commitment to hire more black trans, queer, and Indigenous people on their planning committee, and the “removal of police floats/booths in all Pride marches/parades/community spaces.” Not surprisingly, it was this latter demand that generated the most controversy and backlash, along with complaints over the sit-in itself during what many argued was supposed to be an “inclusive” and “celebratory” event. Although some BLM activists were interviewed after the event and given space to explain their reasons for staging the sit-in (e.g., the on-going history of racism between law enforcement and people of color in and around Toronto, including much higher rates of random street checks or “carding”), this tended to be obscured by a narrative of disruption and unreasonable demands.

Behind these various rhetorical moves are competing ideological views between those who understand and identify Pride as a “celebratory” event based on “liberal” principles such as equality, tolerance, and inclusion versus those who aim to highlight more “radical” elements and their marginalization (e.g., Dyke, Trans, bi- and pan-sexual identities and their relative erasure), along with the exclusion of queer people of color, and what many criticize as the mainstreaming of white, gay males as the prototypical queer, often placed in hetero-normative frame (e.g., married, monogamous, middle-class). For scholars of religion, these examples offer a useful point of comparison with how narratives about religion, from both insiders and outsiders, function in relation to things like power dynamics, authenticity claims, and contests over legitimacy and representation.

There were also a few adversarial representations at the parade, as seen with the various signs pictured below (the one cut off to the back left reads: SATAN RULES OVER ALL THE CHILDREN OF PRIDE). As luck would have it, a contingent of “Ismaili Queers” passed by as I was snapping a few pics of these signs, providing a rather interesting juxtaposition between common representations of a more tolerant “Christianity” and an intolerant “Islam,” while also calling to mind the role of chance in making such a comparison in the first place.

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One of the more interesting things at Pride Toronto that did not receive much media attention was the presence of LGBTory—Tory being a British designation for “conservative” used in commonwealth countries like Canada—as a contingent in the parade. Formed in 2015, the group describes itself on its webpage as follows:

We are a network of LGBT Canadians from all walks of life and diverse identities, but we all share a belief in the fundamental conservative principles of individual liberty, personal responsibility, reward for hard work, a free-market economy and democratic government. Our goals are to provide a forum for Canadian LGBT conservatives to gather and share ideas, to act as a voice for our members and supporters, and to lobby for policies that advance the conservative philosophy while standing up for the democratic rights of minorities. We also aim to show that the LGBT community is not monolithic in its support for left and centre-left political parties.

Significantly, LGBTory has lead lobbying efforts to get interim leader Rona Ambrose to reverse the party’s official stance opposing same-sex marriage (*there is no word on any move to change the group’s name in light of the insertion of “Tory” in the place of Transgender), which was overturned at the Conservative national convention this past May. This move lead Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to both applaud the shift, while also getting in a few jabs at the Conservative’s positions on a variety of issues:

“Our Conservative friends are also meeting this weekend. They’re in Vancouver where, among other things, they’re debating the merits of marriage equality – in 2016. More than a decade after we made same-sex marriage legal in Canada,” Trudeau said, drawing cheers from the crowd.

“Ten years from now, they might finally be willing to admit that climate change is real. Or realize that tax cuts for rich people don’t help the middle class. Or that government shouldn’t be allowed to legislate what women can wear on their heads.”

I found these comments to be particularly interesting for thinking about long-standing ideological positions that are seen to be the sine qua non of a particular political (or religious) identity, as well as for examining the kind of rhetoric that is used to justify significant shifts in official party policy. For example, a 2015 article quotes LGBTory (which is no longer found on their home page) describing themselves as “conservative LGBT activists who want to break the left’s monopoly on the LGBT community.” Although it is certainly understandable that people who identify as queer and conservative would want to end discrimination in their party’s official platform, the rhetoric being deployed here suggests a strategic appeal, where fellow conservatives are encouraged to get with the program lest the loose votes to other parties. Here we see an example of how changes in material conditions, such as the legalization of gay marriage in Canada in 2005, and the increased presence of queer narratives in pop culture and news media, have led to ideological shifts that had previously appeared to be unshakable, often justified in (mainly Christian) biblical terms and represented as timeless values.

One further example that helps to historicize such shifts in official policy and the attending ideological justifications that follow can be seen with the gap between the former ruling Conservative Party’s affirmative position on gay rights abroad, while at the same time opposing same-sex marriage (along with trans rights, and a host of other policies) at home. In this instance, a hawkish ideology on foreign policy saw a strategic advantage in calling out abuses against queer folk abroad in order to demonize a perceived enemy (almost exclusively in relation to Muslims and Muslim majority countries), which may have ironically helped to shift conservative perspectives at home on domestic policies like gay marriage.

While I don’t want to undercut the central role of activists and queer folk in general in helping to shift public sentiment on these and related issues, paying attention to how changing material conditions can provoke a shift in policy (and hence ideology) helps us to conceptualize the ways in which both efforts for social change (such as gaining legal rights and challenging binary classifications on gender and sexuality) and the perceived interests of certain groups (such as the Conservative Party’s anti-Muslim agenda) function together to shake up what once appeared to be timeless and eternal values.

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One possible answer to the question that I posed in the title–“to celebrate or protest?”–is of course both, depending on things like one’s subject position (e.g., ethnicity, gender, sexual identity, etc.), and current political-ideolgical understanding. The rapidly shifting discourses on race (e.g., the influence of Black Lives Matter), and sexual identity (e.g., transgender identities and actions), enabled largely through a social media environment that provides non-dominant voices a platform like never before, suggests that the ideologies and purported values of various self-identified groups (e.g., political and religious) are being forced to re-imagine, discard, or double-down (e.g., “All Lives Matter”), on their previously held positions, thus highlighting both the resiliency and malleability of social identities, as well as their fragility in the face of material change. Paying attention to how such battles play out on the plane of queer politics, as with contests over representation at Pride parades, is, I would claim, a valuable and important site for analyzing how social change functions, where identities and ideologies flow in multiple directions in response to the world around them.

Matt Sheedy recently defended his Ph.D in religious studies at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, and is associate editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. His research interests include critical social theory, theories of secularism, as well as representations of Christianity, Islam, and Native traditions in popular and political culture. His dissertation offers a critical look at Jürgen Habermas’s theory of religion in the public sphere.

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