LGBT leaders in open rebellion against Pride Toronto for censoring 2 words: “Israeli Apartheid”

Gay pride parades (now evolved into LGBTQ and straight ally parades) were originally created to give gays and lesbians a way to defy shame, embrace free speech, and fight an unjust status quo. And now in Toronto? No longer.

On June 7, over 20 high-level past and present awardees and grand marshals left their statuettes at the door of Pride Toronto following the resignation of the parade’s international grand marshals. They were protesting what will surely be remembered as one of the most shameful actions ever taken by a pride group: succumbing to pressure from Canada’s excessively right wing B’nai Brith to bar the group Queers United Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA) by banning the use of the phrase “Israeli Apartheid.”

Talk about backfiring. Performers and speakers continue to jump ship and the condemnations are coming fast and furious. One can only hope that if for no other reason than the principle of it, people wearing “Israeli Apartheid” stickers will show up at pride parades all over the world, including and especially in Toronto.

The Canadian gay and lesbian paper Xtra has really remarkable coverage of the sequence of events. We wrote extensively about the story here before it was announced that the words “Israeli Apartheid” would be banned not just from the pride parade but also from the trans and dykes marches. (Presumably QuAIA can come to the party if they change their names to “Queers United Against Israeli Mmmmmmm”)

What’s worse, in justifying their stunning decision, Pride Toronto literally made up threats that didn’t exist. They claimed that InterPride, owners of the WorldPride brand, threatened that Toronto might lose its right to hold World Pride in 2014. Interpride issued a statement in response:

“It was never our intention to suggest that Interpride would withdraw Pride Toronto’s hosting of World Pride 2014 and any interpretation along those lines is misleading and incorrect.”

Toronto Pride also blamed QuAIA for ”loss of funding from Canada Council for the Arts ($34,000).” The CCA responded again saying their loss of funding had absolutely nothing to do with QuAIA. Xtra writes:

The ranks of the so-called Pride Toronto refuseniks — those who have refused honours from the organization out of protest over the censorship decision — grew again today after the 2010 Youth Leadership Award winners turned it down. In an open letter addressed to Pride Toronto’s board of directors, the Unity Conference Committee wrote:

“The reasons and rhetoric why Pride is censoring language are the same that are used against educators speaking about sexuality, gender identity, homophobia and transphobia in schools.”

Makes you wonder who, exactly, is going to get the hardware at their Gala and Awards Ceremony on June 30.

Meanwhile, you can let Pride Toronto know what you think of their shameful decision and write them a letter here.

An open letter from former Pride Toronto director Fatima Amarshi:

Two weeks ago, I watched footage of Pride’s leadership flanked by police and enclosed by a fence, tell our community that its most basic right to free-expression would no longer be guaranteed.  Like many of the other former staff and volunteers who have dedicated so much of themselves to the build the organization that you have inherited, I was shocked and heartbroken by the decision.  But as vehemently as I disagreed with it, as the former Executive Director, I understood what an immensely difficult position Pride was in, and was sympathetic to the toll that this was taking on you.  I also remembered an organization that struggled hard to keep itself rooted in the community and was both willing and capable of self-reflection, so there was hope that you would find a way to rectify this.

Many of you that still sit on Pride’s Board and committees are respected colleagues who have worked with me to re-politicize Pride and expand our community’s biggest platform for self-expression. Together, we put politics front and center into the event with our international human rights program, paid tribute to the fearless and extraordinary heroes still fighting religious bigotry, rights of sex workers, trans rights, etc…showcased more queer art in more genres and more places than ever before, made the Dyke March trans inclusive, gave queer families a truly great family pride celebration, launched new community stages, worked on dis/ability access, and most importantly, unanimously rejected the same voices that called on us to ban QuAIA well before this year.  So until this week I sincerely believed that once the community voiced their concerns, you would listen, understand, and realize your mistake.

But watching you consistently turn a deaf ear to the community over the last few weeks, and whip yourselves into such an impenetrable siege mentality that you chose to lock your doors and call the police to protect your property when the community came calling on Monday, is not just heartbreaking, it is appalling!   To effectively bar the likes of Gareth Henry, Rachel Epstein, Tim McCaskell, your own choices of ILGA, Dr. Li and Jane Farrow for honours this year, from participating in Pride for standing up for the very principle that led to your founding, and then dismiss it in a press release as “regrettable”, is not only short-sighted, it’s cowardly.

It is the very people that you should be celebrating and calling on for support — people who withstood arrests, violence, governments and a public that denied them far more than permits over the last thirty years — that you are barring from your doors with police officers.  These are the very people that have so fundamentally changed the legal, cultural and political landscape in this country for queers, that today, on your 30th anniversary, you have the luxury of facing only permitting and noisy election year saber-rattling as your greatest challenges.

Pride the movement and the organization quite literally grew out of the act of “parading” our queerness long before this became anyone’s idea of celebration.  It was precisely by exercising our right to express our love, lives and sexuality, in spite of how uncomfortable it made anyone, that we were able to demand justice and equality for ourselves.  We learnt early on that in order for our right to free expression to stand, we had to stand behind it as a fundamental and unequivocal principle.  And that requires valuing diverse voices and even vehement disagreements within our community.  So to suggest that censoring language doesn’t negate our history or infringe on the principle of free speech, is disingenuous and the worst kind of self-rationalizing.

So Pride Toronto, I say to you now: it’s time to wake up and turn to the community, instead of against them! As of yet, you have only managed to justify your decision as some sort of pre-emptive protection against a series of “ifs” and “maybes” and have done nothing to prove that your demise is really inevitable or imminent.  This community has a legion of lawyers, fundraisers, organizers and a powerful voting bloc that can still work with you to fight for whatever you need, so let them.  And for those of you that are too tired, step aside with our gratitude for shouldering the burden so far, and let those in the community that have the capacity and ability, fight the rest of the battle for you.

As you go into your 30th Anniversary, I challenge you to take a long hard look at your own mission statement and remember exactly what it is that you are supposed to be celebrating and the covenant you made with your community: “Pride Toronto exists to celebrate the history, courage, diversity and future of Toronto’s LGBTTIQQ2SA communities”.  I can think of no better way for you to truly honour and celebrate the history and courage of our community than to emulate it by facing up to your own mistake and reversing this decision.

Fatima Amarshi
Former Executive Director of Pride Toronto (2005 – 2008)

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