Amita Kumari writing from Toronto, Canada, Live from Palestine, 14 July 2010
As a young person with a nondescript sexual identity, I always found myself on the sidelines around issues of homo-nationalism; Pride Toronto’s decision to ban the term “Israeli Apartheid” from its festivities for 2010 has served as an important reminder as to why this has been my case, and why I fail to ascribe to any label of “gay,” “queer,” “lesbian,” “bi-” or what-have-you.
Racism, as we should all know, is as prevalent in any gay community as it is elsewhere in the great west. This became clear to me in my earliest days of venturing out into gay clubs and villages as an adolescent, where familiar racist mentalities were unapologetically adorned, and novel terms like “curry queen” were introduced to my vocabulary. I felt it almost instantly — that exclusion and invisibility that was familiar, but more heartbreaking coming from another “other.” My wee little brown body hid behind my white girlfriend as she fit seamlessly with the community, and I desperately searched for some semblance to me — my history, my culture, my experience. Little did I find, in those early days, but some bizarre colonial patriarchal portrayals of older rich white men and their kept younger “boys” of Color — and though some might quite aptly assume based on this depiction, that I’m some “old timer,” I should point out now that I was born in the ’80s. At best, amongst the women I would see a white-dread unabashedly adoring her “Nubian Queen,” holding her up on a pedestal of ethno-exotification to keep her own dreads intact stronger than any market beeswax could guarantee. This was the case ten years ago, and sadly, it still rings true today, though I’ll happily admit that I have noticed some progress on these fronts in the “community,” and there are more and more exceptions to the old rules, but exceptions they still are. A fringe community, albeit somewhat segregated, of Queer People of Color offers at least some alternative to gay-normativity.
Needless to say, I have never felt truly welcomed or valued amongst the gays. Even when the most popular and trendy homosexuals thought of me as cool enough or cute enough to hang amongst them, they never offered me a space that valued my history, culture or experiences, as I was a minority among them. They were and are “color-blind” neoliberals, and any mention of racialization or power is the ultimate party-pooper. To add to this, the white die-hard gay activists have always told me that being gay and “out” was harder than being a racial minority. This of course they know because they know what it is like to be a racialized minority where you grow up seeing everyone you love — your grandmother, your father, your mother, your brother, your sister — dehumanized and disrespected daily because of the color of their skin. I know what this is like, and I also know what it is like to be “out” and visibly read as not straight … and well, lets just say it’s like apples and oranges. Yes, apples and oranges of pain. And so with this knowledge that the “community” never really had my brown back, I took the sidelines on any homo-nationalistic efforts. I would never feel overly compelled to march during Pride, nor have I ever fashioned any rainbow paraphernalia, or with any sense of safety or security consider myself apart of the gay community. These points of tension of course do sound familiar: was it the first wave or second wave feminists who allowed women of Color to speak? Are we on the fourth wave now? Are we past that yet? I truly have no idea — I stopped calling myself a feminist when I was 12.
So was I really that surprised when Pride Toronto and its gay activists, backed by big banks and federal conservative pockets, and propelled by the glitter of excessive commercial advertising, decided to ban the term “Israeli Apartheid” from its 2010 events? No, of course not — this is racism alive and well, finding its way in every nook and cranny of any alleged safe spot that it can. But it still begs for commentary and outrage here and elsewhere. To completely censor and, need I say “undemocratically,” silence members of their own “community” from speaking freely on the illegal and murderous colonization of an entire sepia-toned people in the Middle East, is unjust, and reeks of hypocrisy coming from a community that claims a strong allegiance to and reliance on the principles of human rights.
Is Israel’s massive wall in the occupied West Bank which is guarded and enforced by one of the top military powers in the world, and which is intended to keep the sepia-toned people from crossing back to their native homeland that is now claimed largely by European settlers, not in fact an “apartheid” wall? Do the millions of people in Gaza who are either being murdered by the Israeli military or starved to death by the Israeli siege and blockade not qualify as a humanitarian crisis? Does this not sound even remotely familiar to the other apartheid the world once idly stood by and watched or denied, but now unanimously condemns? When (even) the UN and Red Cross in Gaza are begging the world to hear that they have no aid supplies to support the 1.5 million Palestinians that are aid-dependent — children are starving, have no running water, basic necessities or medical aid — is Pride Toronto telling us that the gay disco must go on without any mention of this very real Israeli apartheid? And you dare say this with pride? Never before has this word so strongly and ironically evoked feelings of shame.
Maybe my concerns for the crisis in Gaza take precedence over any celebration of my sexual liberation because I am a daughter of a midnight’s child of Bharat (now India and Pakistan) and I know all too well the story of borders drawn by white hands and how quickly they draw blood and destroy a people. Maybe I know this because I am a Canadian, and in my short lifetime alone I will have witnessed the complete extinction of up to ten Indigenous languages — and Aboriginal cultures along with them — on Turtle Island. Or maybe the differential in concern between myself and Pride Toronto (and newfound ally Prime Minister Stephen Harper), with facts and figures in plain view, comes simply from the fact that some people’s definition of genocide and apartheid depends on the color of the bodies that are piling up in front of them.
My thoughts return to some romanticized imaginings of the early days of Pride marches around the world that wholeheartedly welcomed queers who took the stage with condemnations of South African apartheid, even when the rest of the world lay complacent and/or apathetic. Imagine today if a group of “Queers Against South African Apartheid” were banned from Pride Toronto; the thought, of course, now sounds preposterous, just as I am sure the thought of banning the term “Israeli Apartheid” will seem outrageous in the near future, if it doesn’t already today for those whose ideas of justice lag until validated by mainstream media.
As Pride Toronto defended itself in its decision by claiming that the term “Israeli Apartheid” created an unsafe space for pride-goers, they must realize that there was a time, and quite possibly still is, that the term “South African Apartheid” irked some of its participants. It isn’t too far-fetched to think that some white South Africans, who fled to Canada in the 1990s after they realized their heyday under apartheid was coming to an end, would be “offended” by any criticism of their home state. I ask myself: what is Pride Toronto doing to protect them? What is Pride Toronto doing to protect those people, and there are several, who are “offended” or feel “unsafe” around bodies of color — or even worse — bodies of color who speak?
The gay-politicos never cease to amuse me; I do recall in recent times that the gays of the great west were uniting in their condemnation of Jamaica and its alleged particularly outstanding problem of homophobia. I’m not sure if they were condemning Jamaica the state, Jamaica the actual physical piece of land, or Jamaican people. Nonetheless, “Boycott Jamaica” was a very palatable term on the tongues of gay activists, in sharp contrast to the outrage towards the mere discussion around the boycott, divestments and sanctions (BDS) movement to address Israeli apartheid. Notwithstanding some of the troubling news of homophobic violence in Jamaica that has come to surface, I do wonder why the gay community is so quick to point the finger at Jamaicans.
By the same token, nowadays I often hear these cute white hipster lesbians with their fancy haircuts, mock, in all their entitlement, what they understand as “hip hop” when they hear pop icon Lil Wayne use the phrase “no homo” after a verse describing love for men in his life. From pigeonholing dancehall music and now hip hop, one must wonder how Color, whether here, in the Global South, or in the refugee camps of Gaza, is such an easy target for gay activists. I can’t help but speculate that some of the neoliberal racism that I have witnessed in the Canadian gay “community” has some role to play in this quick condemnation.
I also wonder why discussions around the “bad homophobic Jamaica” lack any historical context of colonization — how colonial powers have historically used same-sex violence as a tool of repression with long-term cultural and psychological consequences, and how colonial powers have used and imposed sodomy laws to distinguish the civilized from uncivilized. To point out the absurdity that the reprimanding of “Bad Jamaica” lacks any historical context of colonization I am forced to quote Celina Jaitley, a contemporary Bollywood actress and beauty queen. Commenting on decriminalizing homosexuality and addressing homophobia in India, Jaitley says that “Over 100 years ago, it wasn’t Indians who frowned upon homosexuality, it was the British who came on our land and introduced their colonial laws, and it is high time we repeal them.”
Why is it that such contextualization can so easily be articulated by a big-time Bollywood actress and yet escapes liberated gay activists of the west as they readily demonize Jamaica and jump on the “boycott Jamaica” train? Why is it that the same gay activists censor and silence any criticism of Israel and its racist apartheid policies? Oh yes, it is because the liberated gay activists of west have bought into the racist Israeli propaganda machine in its claims that Israel is the only safe haven for gays in the Middle East. I have read the signs adorned by Zionists outside the Israeli consulate in Toronto: yes, of course, Israel is protecting the world’s gays from the regressive and uncivilized third-world, Islamo-homophobic ways of Palestine. Perhaps that’s why the Israeli military had to sweep in on the Freedom Flotilla carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza — they had to protect the gays on the ships from entering third-world lands with untold homophobic violence, and safely escort them to the Gay Holy Land. I mean, who cares if it’s a racist apartheid state that terrorizes and aggressively dislocates indigenous inhabitants — this place has the sweetest gay bars.
When I, along with a good part of the world that may have been previously disaffected, watched in horror as Israel attacked and mass murdered frontline peace activists on those flotillas in international waters carrying much needed aid to the people of Gaza, I wondered if such a blatant, western media-documented, unapologetic and violent act would force the Toronto gay scene, that was censoring criticisms of Israel, to take a more just position. As it turns out, it didn’t.
So as I sat on the sidelines of homo-nationalism in Toronto, I watched as people on the front lines of justice for Palestine were raided, terrorized, killed and denied entry into Gaza by Israeli forces, all the while Toronto Pride upheld its stance on denying a very real Israeli apartheid. Though I’ve never felt compelled to take the streets for Pride, I did this past month, on several occasions, walk alongside folks that I resonated with in important ways, in vocalizing my outrage against the illegal and inhumane acts of the Israeli state. From the front lines on those ships, and more than 60 years of heartbreaking and tireless resistance of the Palestinian people, all the way to sidelines of homo-nationalism in Toronto, I am profoundly moved, inspired, humbled and outraged in solidarity against Israeli apartheid.
And to my pleasant surprise, so too were a number of people from what I am told is to be my “queer community”: honoree after honoree of Pride Toronto 2010 declined their awards in response to the ban on the term “Israeli Apartheid.” In a movement more profound and influential than certainly any show Pride Toronto has put on in recent years, a significant number of queer Canadian leaders showed their “community” and any other attentive Canadians, that they would not conspire in silence and censorship with the corporate and political powers that benefit from the suppression and extinction of the Palestinian people who have been under attack in their homeland for over 60 years.
Reading those statements and letters of decline from queers with some moral compass and intellectual integrity, formed for myself perhaps the first moment that I felt even mildly inclined to identify with queerness, or any form of queer politicization. And so it seems in these past few weeks that my non-community took me from Pride to shame to admittedly some real pride again. Those letters against Pride Toronto’s racist censorship that I read week after week were truly like an early birthday gift, and for that I am thankful. Though I will continue to steer clear of any sort of essentialized identity politics, the queer voices that spoke to myself and others this past spring certainly offer the promise of spaces for activism and ideas of justice that appreciate the complexities of (non-)identity, and importantly offer an opportunity for collaborative, sustainable and successful social justice work here and abroad.
Pride Toronto, days before its 2010 festivities, detracted its ban on the term “Israeli Apartheid” — perhaps under advisement of a few lawyers who reminded them of some skeleton of alleged Canadian “democratic” principles of free speech and human rights, or perhaps in a desperate attempt to diffuse a potentially shaming resistance movement. However, the racist and oppressive tactics they have used this year are undeniable and unacceptable. Only because we live in litigious times where we too often forfeit our own sense of morality, I encourage any individuals or organizations that have the energy, to hit Pride Toronto and all of its backers where it hurts — in their pockets and/or in some form of public “outing.” It’s about time that we start to question gay-normativity, and force it out of the closet as often being racist and discriminating. It’s about time for boycott, divestment and sanctions.
Amita Kumari is an independent writer and filmmaker in Toronto.