We’re here, we’re queer
In 2010, Toronto Pride Week was postponed by a week to avoid disruption by the G20 Summit that was descending upon the city. During the huge, infamous demonstration on Saturday, June 26, past Prides echoed through the aural landscape of breaking glass, distant sirens and helicopters: a modified “we’re here, we’re queer” chant rang out as we walked up Yonge Street.
My “gang” decided to lie low after the riot, wary of the police backlash. We drowned ourselves in radio, web and Twitter streams of the fallout. The street dance party scheduled for that night was cancelled because its organizers were in jail. Some braved the hostile city to make their own dance party happen outside the detention centre. This temporary prison was soon named Torontanamo Bay for its terrible conditions and the deplorable treatment of detainees. Our friend on the scene sent a text message saying, “They cornered us, I’m being arrested.” We didn’t hear from her again until her release.
In hindsight, the instinct to stay indoors made sense in light of the treatment of demonstrators by riot squads at the 2008 Republican National Convention demonstrations in St. Paul, Minnesota. Wherever they are, riot police have a way of creating their own worst-case scenario. At the close of the anti-war convergence, I was arrested and charged with “presence at an unlawful gathering.” For reasons that were never explained, we were herded with gas and compression grenades, and hundreds of people, including bystanders like a family with young children, were arrested en masse.
I sent my own “I’m being arrested” text message and got casually roughed up by my arresting officer. Eventually I was taken to the temporary holding facility built specifically for the week. When the officer dealing with me learned I was from Canada, she paused her routine and asked, “And what gives you the right to protest here?”
From riots to rights
Historically, Toronto Pride is rooted in “Canada’s Stonewall”: Operation Soap, a series of bathhouse raids carried out by the Toronto police in 1981 that recall the 1969 raids at the Stonewall Inn in New York City. Hundreds of men were brutally arrested; it was a city mass-arrest record not surpassed until the G20 protests last summer. By 2005, due in part to an ongoing outreach campaign, relations between queer communities and police had changed, and incoming Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair appeared in the parade.
Canada is frequently lauded for its relatively advanced affording of rights to lesbian and gay citizens. Other than the continuing ban on blood donations by men who have sex with men, there is a sense that we have “arrived,” that there is nothing left to fight for at home. As a result some eyes turn to other countries, typically those in the global south, to continue the struggle. Much like the citing of the plight of women in Afghanistan as justification for the U.S. invasion of that country, the persecution of deviance from heterosexuality is cited to justify interventions of varying severity. Such condemnations of the repression of alternative sexual cultures often ignore that many anti-sodomy laws were introduced as “civilizing” measures by the very colonial and imperialist powers whose citizens now decry them.
The 1969 Stonewall riots and associated outpourings of rage and frustration broke with the existing assimilationist homophile movement, which sought to include sexual minorities into the oppressive, exploitive majority. A new movement emerged that favoured universal liberation instead, affirming that sexual “deviants” could never be free without everyone being free. That the Stonewall Inn’s clientele included many trans, black and Hispanic people also encouraged an intersectional understanding of liberation that takes into account the interactions of various kinds of oppressions and resistance.
In the years that followed, this emphasis on solidarity and intersectionality was mostly left behind as activists focused on petitioning states for rights instead of challenging the power structures that cause inequality. Today, most Pride parades are dominated by crass commercialism and devoid of political messages. Capitalism has almost fully co-opted homosexuality, and the buying power of wealthy gay men and lesbians is sought by the large corporations which continue to profit from the oppression of queers at the margins. Pride Week in Toronto features a cocktail party with Police Chief Bill Blair, underscoring the lack of analysis of the role police play in maintaining a social order where the few enjoy the fruits of the labours of the many.
Some queers still see their liberation bound up with the fates of all. Before the G20, I attended a session about how to make a queer presence felt at the protests, a particularly difficult proposition amid a sea of demonstrators where any identifying characteristics can be used against you regardless of whether you participate in anything illegal (it should come as no surprise that black bloc garb is favoured by many to ensure anonymity). No one had suggested it at the session, so I was thrilled to hear the “we’re here, we’re queer” message during the G20. While some may feel the battle is over, others are still out there fighting for equality for all.
The author’s name was withheld by request, out of fear for personal safety. The author is a radical queer hacker and adventurist from central Canada.