Canada's queer rights movement exists because of Black people — but that history is often ignored

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Marsha P. Johnson, a Black trans woman, is credited as being one of the main activists who lead the 1969 Stonewall Riots, considered to be an integral moment in igniting the modern-day queer rights movement. 

Johnson and others made history after police raided the Stonewall Inn — a known refuge for the LGBTQ2 community in New York City — on June 28, 1969. During this time, homosexuality was illegal in most U.S. states and bars could be shut down if employees or patrons were gay. 

That night, the community decided to fight back against police surveillance and protested, with Johnson leading the charge.

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Stonewall is considered to be the inception of the LGBTQ2 rights movement and sparked modern-day Pride parades, including Toronto’s.

Black queer Canadians in Toronto have also always been at the core of Toronto’s own history when it comes to protests and activism for equal rights, said Beverly Bain, a professor at the University of Toronto Mississauga, teaching women and gender studies in the department of history.

“The Black community has always been integral to Pride in this city,” said Bain.

“Black people and trans activists have always been at the front of these protests…they’ve been very visible in that struggle.”

But Black and queer people of colour have been pushed aside in Toronto and at the city’s pride parade, where their contributions to creating the celebration is often ignored, she said. 

Bain believes in order for pride parades across the country to serve not only white, wealthier queer people, a serious re-imagining of what pride should be and represent needs to take place.

Global News spoke to experts about the history of Toronto’s queer movement, why Black queer people have been excluded from these spaces, and whether systemic change can be made to how pride is celebrated. 

Bathhouse raids a ‘turning point’

To understand the origins of queer rights movements in Toronto, the 1981 bathhouse raids is one place to start, said Bain.

On February 5, 1981, around 200 police officers raided Toronto’s bathhouses and arrested hundreds of men. 

Bathhouse patrons were subjected to “excessive” behaviour by police, including taunts about their sexuality, according to The Canadian Encyclopedia. In one night 286 people were arrested, the largest single arrest in Toronto’s history at the time, and most arrested were found innocent of the charges, according to the encyclopedia. 

“What was being penalized was gay sex and lesbian sex. That is what was considered obscene… the lives of LGBT and trans-people were considered illegitimate and unnatural,” she said. 

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In the 1980s, it was still illegal to be queer in Toronto, there were no protections from the state and queer relationships were not seen as legitimate, said Bain. The bathhouses were raided as obscenity laws were in place, but police did not target heterosexual people for expressing their sexuality in private, she explained. 

In response to the raids and arrests, the next night, thousands protested on Yonge Street. This was considered a turning point for the queer community, as Pride Day was held in June 1981 without backing from the city. 

Black queer people were at the forefront of these initial protests following the bathhouse raids, and their work was crucial in leading the LGBTQ2 rights movement in the 80s, she said. 

The bathhouse raids also indicate the significant of grassroots organizing and the power of protesting — as this was a time when people could not be ‘out’ in their lives and the state had authorized the police to surveil gay men, said R. Cassandra Lord, an assistant professor of sexuality studies at the University of Toronto Mississauga. 

“It’s important to think that the bathhouse raids, and the response to it, was the turning point in creating an unauthorized demonstration. It was about decades of gay men and lesbians at that time….at that point being surveiled by the state, by police,” said Lord. 

“It’s a Toronto specific event that becomes a larger moment in the Canadian imaginary of how pride has come to be,” she said. 

How Pride has historically left out Black voices

But the role of Black queer people in the Toronto protests and the Stonewall Riots are not at the forefront of the discussion when it comes to Toronto Pride today, said Bain.

“Black and queer people of colour in this city have always been ignored. And the reason for that is about racism and how whiteness works,” she said.

There has been an assumption that Black people and racialized people were not queer, and could only belong to communities of colour rather than the LGBTQ2 community, said Bain. 

Black people have been positioned in the context of heterosexuality and the LGTBQ+ movement’s imagery is white queer people overall in Canada, she said. 

A 2014 report that examined racism within queer communities found that lesbian, bisexual and queer women of colour in Toronto were made to feel “invisible” in both queer and racialized communities.

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This rejection of Black people in queer spaces feeds into why pride parades have had consistent issues with diversity and exclusion, said Bain. 

Pride parades in Canada being used as a commercial enterprise for businesses has meant it is not connecting with roots in protesting against the state and police violence, said OmiSoore Dryden, an associate professor in the department of community health and epistemology at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia.

Since pride events in cities like Toronto are now a part of mainstream Canadian life, it’s a big draw for many and cities profit from it, said Dryden.

“It becomes very business structured,” she said. “But for other folks…there’s always been contention from a group of LGBTQ folks who are predominately white.”

Dryden says some advocacy organizations for LGBTQ people have been historically white and their goal has been to integrate queer people into everyday society, without dismantling current systems of oppression. 

This means they may advocate for more queer police officers, but not asking why police may be inherently problematic for the queer community due to police’s history of violence and surveillance of queer people.

“Many of us … are not really interested in being included in the system as it exists. We’re interested in transforming the system so we can just be ourselves,” she said.

“We don’t want to be the same as everyone else.”

Looking at Pride now, the parade has left behind LGBTQ2 folks who don’t fit in well to existing systems, and that includes Black queer people, she said.

Black Lives Matter performed a sit-in at the 2016 Pride Parade in Toronto, asking for several reforms that had actually been in the works for years at Pride, including providing space for Black queer youth and asserting that Pride be more inclusive. 

They also demanded that police no longer walk in the parade, due to Toronto police’s history of brutality towards the queer community. Uniformed police officers are no longer allowed to walk at the parade since 2016 and Vancouver has also followed suit.

An ‘opportunity’ for Pride to return to its roots

Dryden says Black queer people need more than just a seat at the table.

“There’s a way if city funding had been pulled from Pride, there’s other ways we could acknowledging stonewall and other things that still need doing… and what queer life would look like without attempting to try to fix this corporate pride model,” she said. 

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With the Pride parade being cancelled this year, and with calls to defund the police in Toronto following the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet in the city and protests against anti-Black racism worldwide, this is a moment where Pride can be changed, said Bain. This year Toronto Pride has virtual programming including specific online events for the BIPOC queer community. 

Currently Black people are protesting all over the world against anti-Black racism, said Bain. This also include queer and trans Black people who are in the streets calling for change, and this is a moment for queer spaces in Canada to be challenged to transform as well, she said.

“If we don’t use this moment to transform our world into one that’s more just and livable … then I think we’ve missed an opportunity because we will not be able to recapture it.”

© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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