Sunday, April 6, 2008

QUEERMONTON Week of April 3, 2008, Issue #650


Last week I sat down with Michael Phair to talk about queer activism both before and after the Vriend v Alberta case. Looking back I always find myself inspired that the case had its beginnings in Edmonton, that our queer community came together to raise money, awareness and that we had an impact on the eventual victory. When I look back I wonder where is the community now? Why aren’t we more active?

It was these questions that made me think that this week’s column, coinciding with the Vriend v Alberta Supreme Court verdict anniversary, was going to be a Larry Kramerish essay telling homos to get off their asses. I met with Phair hoping that he felt the same way and would provide me with a quote. He did not oblige, instead we had a conversation in which he said a simple and insightful thing: “Things have changed.”

These three words gave me permission to look back on our history with more clarity and kindness, with less judgment and impatience. It allowed me to see that the present is vibrant with action, and I just hadn’t recognized it.

Then I started thinking, what has changed, how has it changed and where are we now? Being something of a compartmentalizer I walked away from the conversation and began to organize what I know about queer history and activism. I came up with seeing our history in three waves.

Mattachine to the Bathhouses: Standing Up and Standing Proud

The first wave of queer activism was about gaining recognition of homosexuality in the mainstream culture through targeted efforts or responses to systemic violence. Groups like the Mattachine Society, founded in 1950, worked to “unify ... educate ... assist [homosexuals].” The group communicated and worked towards achieving their goals through meetings and publications like One and The Mattachine Review.

One of the most defining moments of the first wave is the Stonewall riot that took place on the night of Jun 29, 1969. It was one of the earliest and now one of the most often referred to moments of homosexuals fighting back, in this case against police, mafia intimidation and blackmail. Stonewall is also the reason we celebrate Pride in June.

Laying the foundation for the second wave were the bathhouse raids that were happening across North America, specifically in the early ‘80s, including the 1981 Pieces raid in Edmonton. Typically men were either charged or threatened with out-dated and rarely enforced “bawdy-house” laws. Most charges never made it to court but the experience changed the lives of those involved, most often leading them to come out about their homosexuality (either voluntary or otherwise) and/or become politically active.

The efforts of the Mattachine Society and the experiences of the Stonewall riots and the bathhouse raids created a sense of empowerment that informed homosexuals that they didn’t have to be ashamed of who they were and that they deserved fair treatment and equal rights.

AIDS to the Courthouse: Gaining our Rights

Empowered and angry by the experiences of the first wave, the second wave of queer activism is built upon the lessons learned from being on the defensive and applying them offensively in securing rights, privileges, freedoms and access for all sexual minorities.

The AIDS epidemic provided poignant reasons for homosexuals to get organized and political. As thousands needlessly died, both the media and governments remained silent about what was being called the gay plague. Queer-led groups like ACT UP created media spectacles that captured people’s attention and shamed businesses and politicians into lifesaving action including research and development. Out of the AIDS crisis many queer leaders and groups, like The Lesbian Avengers, emerged.

The cornerstone of the second wave is the legal victories. Vriend v Alberta as well as same-sex marriage debates that were happening around the world ensured that more than just being seen, queers were being protected under the law and recognized as full citizens for who they were.

Suburbs to Art and Culture: Living our Rights

For me the third wave of queer activism is the living out and animating of our hard-won visibility and rights. It is about applying the notion that the personal is political to queers and that everything we do no matter how abstractly, is a form of activism. We are our activism.

Of course Michael Phair has been providing Edmonton with an example of third wave activism for almost two decades. During his 15 years on city council he went from being the gay one to being a much-loved symbol of what makes our city great.

We see the third wave activism in the mainstream through Ellen, who early in her career wouldn’t even come out, but has now become a 21st-century icon. Seeing her every day on TV, knowing that she is a lesbian, has a transforming affect on the viewers. Gay goes from exotic to ordinary, which some queerists may argue is a step back for true queer activism and is part of the danger of having queer culture be lost to the mainstream.

More actively we see third wave activism being practiced through art and culture including sport. Groups like Team Edmonton and events like the Outgames counter popular misconceptions that gays can’t throw and lesbians can’t dance while creating a space outside of nightlife for queers to be social and feel good about themselves, while the Exposure Festival and the musical Bash’d, which recently won a GLAAD award, use art to showcase the queer contribution to the modern human experience, often enlightening a viewer to the realities of queerness.

In the end third wave queer activism is as simple as writing this column—or reading it for that matter. In my next column I will look more into the third wave by suggesting that Edmonton is an illustration, if not an epicenter of third wave activism

QUEERMONTON Week of March 20, 2008, Issue #648


Growing up gay you learn how to record your life in two ways: an edited version that you can share with everyone and a second one that is the truth, full of excitement and shame.

The first version is the one you share with your family, it is your way of protecting them from the things about yourself that scare you the most.
All children pick up signs that tell them what is acceptable in the world around them, what will cause grief, what will bring joy. As a gay kid you are even more sensitive to signs and signals, especially to things around gender and sexuality. You might not know what the words mean, but your ears perk up when you hear the word faggot, your heart drops when someone says the word sissy. You fear deep down that you are these things so you do everything in your power to distance yourself from the words and the feelings. In the process you push people away, creating a moat of unspoken words and Swiss cheese stories.

I think about all this now, almost a week after my Grandma died. She survived the depression in rural Europe, a bombed out London during WW II, endless winters on the plains of Alberta, the death of her only child at a young age, the loss of her husband in the bed right beside her and yet under the childlike guise of wanting to protect her I couldn’t bring myself to tell my Grandma that I was gay—and now it is too late.
I was close to her. Really, I was my Grandma’s only living relative and she was my last connection to a past. I was her precariously last genetic link on this chaotic planet of strangers. We were each other’s past and future. I see now how I kept parts of myself from her as a way of preserving our bond, a misguided attempt at protecting her, when really it was me that was afraid.

I would visit her at least once every two months at her home in Innisfail, staying the weekend, collecting the stack of Reader’s Digest books and MacLean’s magazines she had saved for me, spending the Saturday night talking about history, current events, politics and the plight of celebrities. I would call her about once a week, listen to what was new in town and then tell her about work and friends, nothing more.

Last week, as I sat in palliative care watching my Grandma sleep into death, I realized that the time had passed in which I could tell her about who I really was and whom I loved. I knew that I was not going to play out a cliché, self-serving scene of confession where I got to feel better by unloading my baggage on to her soul that was preparing to move on up.

She didn’t deserve that. She had never tried to stop me from telling her I was gay and I had never attempted to tell her. I knew I was gay, I was pretty sure she knew I was gay and the silent, shared knowing was going to be the closest we would come to acknowledging it in this lifetime.
By not asking about girlfriends, relationships, marriages or the prospects of great grandchildren she was communicating to me that she knew I was different. By keeping the silence I was confirming to her that yes, indeed I was.

Although I could blame a culture that supported this unspoken agreement as an excuse to why I never felt secure enough to talk to my Grandma about me being gay I must take responsibility for my actions. It was me who chose not to break through the comfortable impasse we had reached and thus robbed us both of an opportunity to grow and transcend a little in this lifetime.

By not “coming out” to my Grandma I gave life to the culturally inherited, wrongly held, internalized homophobic belief that says people will not accept you, that loved ones will turn their backs. I didn’t give her an opportunity to prove it wrong and I didn’t give myself a chance to be accepted by her.

Earlier this week, after seeing my Grandma laid to rest, my boyfriend took photos of me in my Grandparent’s old neighbourhood. Standing there paralyzed by posing for the camera I remembered pacing those streets convincing my 11-year-old self how easy it was going to be to keep my gayness a secret for the rest of my life, resolving never to get married to a lady and just keep my feelings about other dudes to myself.
Of course the resolution was not to keep. I “came out,” got involved, made friends, had sex, found myself in relationships with men, all without sharing it with my Grandma. It was what I knew to do.

Sitting on her couch one Saturday night a week or two after she saw Brokeback Mountain in the Innisfail Theatre, my Grandma mentioned how sad she was that the two cowboys never got to walk off into the Alberta sunset together.

It was a tender, small, giving moment that I let pass. In all her generosity and kindness she crossed the moat and I chose to remain uncomfortable and silent. I see now that by saying that, in her own way, my Grandma had said it all for both of us.

QUEERMONTON Week of March 6, 2008, Issue #646

“The moral issue raised by this case is not about homosexuality,” said Lyle Kanee, lawyer for the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC) during the 1998 Vriend trail, “it’s about equality.”

The CJC, Alberta Civil Liberties Association and the Canadian Human Rights Commission were intervenors in support of Vriend during the Supreme Court case. As allies (straight supporters of LGBTTQI rights) they understood that the fight to ensure sexual orientation was protected under the law across Canada was about more than sex—it was about human rights. Through their work, the allied groups illustrated effectiveness and the need for contributions from allies in creating change. They also set the standard for allies that would come after them.

A currently active ally is U of A student Gillian Scarlett, who, along with a full course load and other volunteer activities, is also the Siderite Coordinator and organizer of the upcoming Day of Silence.

Her busy schedule and commitment to queer rights is how she has always led her life. “Social responsibility should be encouraged,” she says. “Everyone in society should work towards queer rights because it’s about human rights over and beyond being gay.”

It was a notion that Scarlett formed growing up in Lacombe, Alberta, with one gay friend and a lot of time on her hands to think.

Making the jump from rural Alberta to the U of A was a relief and confirmation that “campus was more open-minded than my small town.” What she realized, though, was that there was still human rights work to be done.

In her first year Scarlett joined Siderite, a U of A campus group that brings the University and students living in residence together to ensure that the campus is a queer-friendly place to live. As an allied group, Siderite founder Sarah Flynn explains the nerdy yet appropriate name “refers to a chemical compound that becomes stronger as particles join together and do not break down when attacked by outside chemicals.”

Creating the group was Flynn’s response to the 1998 death of Mathew Shepard, “and in recognition of the homophobia I was experiencing and witnessing in rez—I mean, really, how different is Wyoming from Alberta? It seemed just as likely that something similar could occur here.”

In its first year Siderite members were victims of a gay bashing and property damage, which Scarlett points out “wasn’t that long ago. This is not ancient history.”

Last year, less than 10 years since its creation, Siderite was in danger of folding because it did not have an incoming coordinator. “We were struggling to find someone,” recalls Scarlett. “There were a few obvious choices but they were already overextended.” Not wanting to see Siderite fall, Scarlett took on the role as coordinator herself.

Initially she had reservations about her role, but thanks to the group’s support she came into her own while beginning to develop a broader understanding of what queer could mean. “Queer is all-encompassing. I have queer thoughts and life. Standing apart and having my own experience is important to me and informs what it means to be queer.”

As for reaction to Scarlett as a “straight” woman leading a queer organization, the only dissent came from members of social activism groups like Make Poverty History and Save Darfur. In a level voice she reenacts her response to them: “What about you? You’re not living in a Third World country; you’re not living in the Sudan. Why do you care about those issues?”

By turning the tables and asking them to consider their motivations, Scarlett empowered the social activists to see the interconnection of human rights.

It is this kind of strategy that expresses Scarlett’s queer-mindedness and how thriving in rural Alberta gave her diplomatic skills. “Being from a small town with liberal-minded parents had its advantages” muses Scarlett. “It taught me to see both sides of the fence because I had to witness bigoted perceptions that I didn’t agree with. I learned that you couldn’t come across aggressive if you want people to consider what you are saying. Kindness counts for a lot.”

Growing up, Queer as Folk was an early favourite, providing her a role model in the form of Diane, the earth mother “fag hag” who minded a diner while partying and occasionally raising hell with her de facto queer family. Along the way Diane ends up queering the group by having her voice as part of the conversation.

It is voices, or rather the absence of voices that the Siderite-led Day of Silence is about.

Students and the general public are invited, says Scarlett, “to spend the day in silence to echo the silence queer and ally students face everyday to protect themselves from homophobia.” People are also encouraged to wear green to create a sense of solidarity.

The Edmonton Day of Silence will be observed on Apr 2, the 10-year anniversary of the Vriend decision, which still has yet to be read in to the Alberta books. At 3 pm everyone is invited to the U of A Celebration Plaza in front of the Students‘ Union Building to break the silence and feel the weight of repression lifted together.

“For me,” Scarlett grins, “the Day of Silence along with the other Vriend-related programming is a fantastic week for human rights in Alberta. It honors an important legal precedent, increases dialogue in the human rights community and speaks to the power of collaboration.”