Black people are familiar with two questions: “Where are you from?” “What are you doing here?” And, when speaking about racism, two more: “What do you mean? Are you sure?” These are not isolated queries: they’ve instead become a part of many conversations between black and non-black Canadians.
I believe this is why many people couldn’t understand why Black Lives Matter Toronto challenged policing practices as part of their participation in the Toronto Pride Parade last week, or why the group was an honoured guest in the first place. The questions since hurled at them by bystanders, commentators and media have essentially translated to: “What are you doing here? What do you mean racism exists in this space?” Most telling of this misunderstanding was the declaration that they were invited into a space reserved for LGBTQ people, and that their discussion of black issues were inappropriate here.
The idea that Black Lives Matter Toronto came out of nowhere, or specifically the United States, ignores a long history of black Canadians fighting for social equality and equity here. Not only is the violence black people experience in Canada (including at the hands of police) dismissed, Black Lives Matter and those who stand with them are thought of as capitalizing on a terrible situation that just does not exist here. As recent public discussions over carding and the police killings of Andrew Loku and Jermaine Carby have shown us, this simply is not true.
It is neither unpatriotic nor impolite to speak about the racism black Canadians face inside and outside of Pride. The same goes for speaking up about how the system of policing in Canada has exacerbated these experiences, both inside and outside LGBTQ communities. I believe that Black Lives Matter Toronto absolutely does honourable work.
For this black queer femme, I not only stand with Black Lives Matter Toronto, they also speak for me. They are the LGBTQ group that has my full interests at heart.
Black Lives Matter speaks to the realities of many black people, in particular the lives of LGBTQ people who are black and Canadian. We must remember that many of the co-founders are women and/or identify as queer. They demonstrate that many of the issues LGBTQ face include more than just homophobia, but also racism. Emphasizing these interconnected realities challenge the narrative of inclusivity and tolerance often told about Canada and Toronto Pride.
Black LGBTQ Canadians have been working to address discrimination and racial harassment within Pride Toronto and the Toronto police for years. In the late 1980s, for example, black lesbians and gay men worked within the Black Action Defence Committee to respond to the 1988 police killing of Lester Donaldson, sparking the creation of the Ministry of the Attorney General’s Special Investigations Unit in 1990. Black LGBTQ people have also continuously challenged the troubling and constant relocation of Pride event Blockorama to undesirable locations. But more lasting changes must occur: the SIU has been criticized for including ex-police officers among its staff and providing limited information about their participation and roles in the unit, and there are still concerns about how Pride demonstrates its support for the black queer and transgender spaces.
It is frustrating that any visual presence of racial diversity, no matter how tiny, is often interpreted to signify success on a much grander scale. We may see black people in floats and marching at Pride, however, Pride’s decision making body is populated mostly by white gay men. It is important to remember that some visual diversity does not translate into an effective diversification of an organization, in this case Pride.
This past February and March, Black Lives Matter Toronto set up a tent city outside of Toronto Police Service headquarters to demand more information about the death of Andrew Loku, a 45-year-old man killed by police in 2015. The group also insisted that the death of Sumaya Delmar, a black transgender women from Toronto, be properly investigated. During this protest neither Chief Mark Saunders nor Mayor John Tory chose to meet with these black Canadian members of the queer and transgender community.
This past June, 49 people were murdered at a gay night club in Orlando, Fla. Significantly, they were largely Latina and Latino, and therefore included black people. In the coverage of this massacre these details were ignored and glossed over, with many lesbian and gay people claiming in a general sense: “We are Orlando.” In fact, Mayor John Tory spoke at the vigil held at the 519 Community Centre the same evening of the shooting, and stated that he and Toronto Chief of Police Mark Saunders were committing to providing increased security at the upcoming Pride events to ensure that members of the LGBTQ community were safe.
Why the immediate response to Orlando, but no immediate response to the LGBTQ Canadians who were asking for an accounting of violence in Toronto’s black community? Are the lives of black Canadians not a queer or transgender issue? When Tory writes a letter in support of police within 24 hours of Pride, but waits months to set a date for a frequently requested public meeting to discuss the concerns the black community has with policing in this city, he has betrayed the public.
MPP Michael Coteau of the Ontario Anti-Racism Directorate is holding a series of community meetings to discuss racism. The first of these community meetings will be held in Toronto this Thursday. At this initial meeting, Coteau and Premier Kathleen Wynne will meet with Black Lives Matter Toronto. Even though Tory will also be in attendance, it is important to note that this is not the meeting he promised to have with Black Lives Matter Toronto back in April. It seems as though Tory is attempting to curry favour by insinuating himself into the OARD’s public community meeting. How, exactly, is this leadership?
Last week, Black Lives Matter made nine demands of Pride Toronto. Only one referred to the presence of police in Pride events. Yet it is this demand that seems to have most people alarmed and disgruntled. For many Canadians, the police are not a force that deals in safety, but trauma, violence and harm. When the media focuses on and ridicules this one demand, they’re minimizing the complicated realities black LGBTQ people experience in Canada.
The police are not a community in the way black or LGBTQ communities are. They are a state institution charged with the responsibility of patrolling society. Individual members of both the black and LGBTQ communities may have jobs in policing themselves, and they may find a place to exist throughout Pride, regardless of their profession.
The language of “us and them” is prevalent in media reports on the 25-minute sit-in Black Lives Matter held at the parade. Since when did a sit-in become something likened to the type of hostage-taking tactic used by terrorists? Why is this group being likened to bullies and thugs? Perhaps it is because the LGBTQ community is thought to be a separate, more vulnerable and palatable community than black people, despite the fact that both identities can and do overlap. What would it mean if we measured the success and safety of the LGBTQ community based solely on the experiences of black and indigenous queer and transgender people? Would we come to the same outcome, that we are all welcomed and that we are all treated fairly? I think not.
To use the phrase that many love to respond to “Black Lives Matter” with: if all lives mattered, then perhaps more Canadians would speak up against the violence faced by the most marginalized of our city and nation. And instead of hiding behind the claims of colour-blindness, step into the difficult and painful conversations we need to have about how to disrupt and end racism in our nation, city and the LGBTQ community — including Pride celebrations.
OmiSoore Dryden is this year's co-host of the Blockorama stage at Pride. She is also an assistant professor at Laurentian’s Thorneloe University in the women's, gender and sexuality studies department.
UPDATE: Shortly after this column was published, Mayor John Tory’s office contacted TVO.org to say a community consultation on systemic racism and inequalities in the services provided by the city is in the works and is planned for September. No date or location has yet been set. The consultations will be open to the public and any organization or interested individual is invited to attend, the mayor’s office says. TVO.org will continue to watch this story.
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