Home > Current Affairs, History, Politics > Black Lives Matter’s Toronto Pride Protest and the Other Side of Inclusiveness

Black Lives Matter’s Toronto Pride Protest and the Other Side of Inclusiveness

Toronto’s generally quiescent political scene, engaged in low-level rambling skirmishes over transit plans and minor public policies for much of the term of establishment-friendly Mayor John Tory, erupted this past weekend over a high-profile protest launched by the political action group Black Lives Matter Toronto during this year’s Pride parade through the city’s downtown. Halting the parade’s progress with a half-hour sit-in on its route, the invited activist group extracted a set of concessions from the parade authorities for future Pride events (although statements after the event from the organizers who signed the agreement indicate that they consider it non-binding). Black Lives Matter demanded greater representation, funding, and opportunities for black LGBTQ persons in future Pride activities, but also more controversially took aim at the police, whose discriminatory targetting of black persons is the core problem that the wider BLM organization aims to address.

BLM Toronto asked that police floats and booths be barred from future Pride events, at least those “accompanied by uniformed, armed” officers, which they referred to as a “stark reminder of the history of brutality faced by the LGBT community and visible minorities”. It goes without saying that this was a controversial demand, and discussion of the “no police” concession as well as BLM’s protestation tactics in general burned up media of all sorts through the city and across Canada and the world in the wake of the long weekend. Mainstream Canadian media, one of the most whitewashed institutions in the country, harumphed at the rudeness of these uppity rabble-rousers, and conveniently-placed gay Toronto Police officers made the media rounds criticizing the proposed exclusion of an official police participation in the parade. Even conservative media outlets like the Sun, hardly beacons of tolerance and acceptance of gay rights at any other times, became pride_logoovernight converts to their protection when it meant using them as a cudgel against more despised minorities (similar rhetoric buttresses the right-wing media’s frequent eruptions of Islamophobia).

Much of the foofaraw swirling around BLM Toronto’s protest can be traced down to the changed and changing nature of the Pride event, and most especially its public perception and socio-political role. One obvious riposte to those criticizing the protest is that the Pride parade’s origins lie in political activism, so engaging in further activism in its midst is hardly inappropriate but indeed appropriate. This argument, however, disregards how far Pride has come from its beginnings as a strident protest against the stigmatizing and criminalization of homosexuality. The raids on Toronto bathhouses conducted by Toronto Police over 30 years ago, for which chief Mark Saunders tentatively apologized for in the lead-up to Pride Week, were among the catalysts for the early Pride marches in the city and an open expression of desired rights by a then-radical and socially-marginalized alternative subculture.

Today, Pride is much altered from its more agit-prop early years, or even the comparatively adults-only display of open sexuality that followed. It has become an officially-sanctioned, corporate-sponsored, family-friendly, thoroughly mainstreamed public festival of celebration and inclusiveness. Even if conservative and bigoted elements of society remain quietly uncomfortable with it – as displayed by the firm, repeated refusal of Toronto’s previous mayor, the late Rob Ford, to attend to parade, a clear dog-whistle to the prejudiced portion of his Ford Nation voting base – Pride has achieved a level of cultural acceptance that was hoped for but only barely imagined by those who birthed it. This growth of popular tolerance and acceptance mirrors that of LGBTQ lifestyles and civil rights in general, but also reflects the altered form of political activism in favour of LGBTQ rights.

Pride was once about (and partly still is about) fighting for a right to be allowed to exist, to live as you are and not as the straight bourgeois order insisted you must be. With that ground won and much more, the LGBTQ rights movement takes aim at the stubborn vestiges of discrimination in the law. Legal actions and government lobbying, the practical paths to civil liberties, have taken precedence. If Pride events still have a political dimension and have not been reduced to a simple excuse for a party, they have moved towards a role of shaping the public image of gay life as fundamentally positive, as “normalized”. They are about raising “awareness”, that vital social justic buzzword that can sound like a call to self-satisfied inaction when uttered in the wrong way.

But Pride’s gospel of inclusion has meant that it has allowed many parties and forces to claim a share of it, to use it for ends that often differ from and sometimes even contradict that which the event is understood to mean. For LGBTQ persons, Pride is supposed to be a celebration and legitimation of their identity, an idealized if ephemeral safe space of not merely tolerance or acceptance of that identity but a much-needed glorification of it. For friends, allies, and loved ones of the LGBTQ community, it’s a way to openly express support for that community, still so often besieged by prejudice. But for a great mass of the public and for society’s institutions in particular, Pride is an opportunity to safely and enjoyably establish their bona fides as an open-minded and accepting wider community, no matter their views on and conduct towards the LGBTQ world every other day of the year.

This patina of positive image-branding for politicians, corporations, small businesses, and other insitutions is not universally rewarded; publically displaying acceptance of homosexuality is more expected in Canada or Western Europe than in much of the United States or Russia or certainly than the Middle East or Africa. But the key point to grasp is that as much as Pride has always belonged and still does belong to the LGBTQ community, the drive towards inclusiveness has meant that it belongs, to some extent, to everyone. And when everyone owns a piece of something, they will all have expectations of what it ought to be. And many of those who feel Pride belongs, at least in part, to them did not approve of BLM protesting in its midst as they did. They have bought into Pride, and this is not what they feel they have paid for.

For Pride, winning the sanction and even the support of government, police, and corporations has meant giving representatives of those bodies a seat at the table, a piece of the rainbow pie. Black Lives Matter Toronto, representatives (self-appointed, perhaps) of another discriminated minority whose image-burnishing possibilities have proven less attractive to the forces flocking to Pride, want a piece of that pie, too, even if they need to resort to radical activist tactics to get it. One unsettling truth exposed by BLM bringing Toronto’s Pride parade to a standstill on Sunday is that despite its embrace of inclusion and its annually unprecedented acceptance in the mainstream of Canadian society (that was sitting Prime Minister Justin Trudeau whooping it up in the middle of the parade, and even the Conservative opposition marched the route), the event and by extension the LGBTQ rights movement still has less space than it ought to for other minorities. In a country frequently smug about its progressive tolerance but afflicted with unsightly racial blind spots, perhaps this weekend’s exposure of the fragmentation of minority interests that would be stronger if united in solidarity will begin to be remedied.

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