Photo of Pride 2008 by Sweet One.
The floorboards of the 519 Community Centre‘s second floor auditorium were put to the test earlier this week. Indeed, many of those in attendance likened the atmosphere to dance parties held in the same space. But instead of getting down, several hundred participants at Monday night’s “Our Pride Includes Free Speech” community fair were up in arms over Pride Toronto’s attempt to effectively censor the group Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA) during this year’s thirtieth anniversary festivities.
Last month, the Pride board voted 4–3 in favour of banning the term “Israeli apartheid” from the march, a move, the board insisted, aimed at sidelining “discriminatory and exclusionary messaging” rather than specific individuals and groups. This nebulous ban on two words mystified many interested parties, including Avi Benolo of Simon Wiesenthal Centre for Holocaust Studies. Despite his organization’s opposition to QuAIA’s participation, Benlolo said Pride organizers were “playing with words,” adding, “They’re disallowing the words ‘Israeli apartheid’—I don’t really know what that means.”
Since then, prominent members of Pride’s past, present, and future have continued to come forward and denounce what they see as a form of censorship that contradicts the spirit of Pride’s necessarily political origins. Several founding Pride organizers and committee members penned an open letter, calling the ban “a very dangerous precedent for the exclusion of certain political perspectives within our movements and communities from Pride events.”
When this argument failed to sway members of Pride’s board to reconsider its ban, twenty-three Pride Toronto honourees decided to protest by returning the awards and titles bestowed upon them by Pride. The hundreds who gathered Monday night to voice both outrage against the ban and solidarity with QuAIA represent a growing, formidable challenge to Pride Toronto’s ill-advised and reactionary clampdown on select political messages.
Pride Toronto’s executive director Tracy Sandilands, as well as some city officials, initially argued that QuAIA’s participation amounted to a breach of Toronto’s non-discrimination policy, which dictates the conditions for groups applying for city funding. Ironically, that very policy explicitly prohibits applicants from engaging in discrimination based on “political affiliation.” Suggestions by Sandilands, Councillor Kyle Rae (Ward 27, Toronto Centre-Rosedale), and others that QuAIA’s name contradicts the right of other Pride participants “to be free of hate activity” imply that the term “Israeli apartheid” is itself an inherent expression of hatred.
But by this logic, any strongly-worded condemnation of state policy or behaviour could be interpreted as hateful. Those who have used terms like “war crimes” or “authoritarian regime” to describe George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, China’s persecution of Falun Gong practitioners, or Iran’s suppression of students’ and women’s movements could all be deemed guilty of inciting hatred simply for articulating a stance against state actors. As one of the candidates to replace Rae in this year’s upcoming election, Chris Tindal, puts it: “The [Pride] Board did not pass a comprehensive anti-discrimination policy—they banned two words.The decision was ad hoc. Had they gone through an open process, there would not be such anger.”
Mayoral candidate Giorgio Mammoliti’s (Ward 7, York West) motion [PDF] to de-fund Pride if QuAIA is allowed to participate further strains the credibility of the non-discrimination argument. City bureaucrats have the authority to interpret their own policy and deny funding when appropriate. Mammoliti’s motion supplants the bureaucracy and cynically suggests that council has no faith in its own non-discrimination standards. Futhermore, since QuAIA’s members can still participate as long as they avoid two words, the ban does not directly address Mammoliti’s motion, which advocates that funding and support be revoked “if Pride Toronto does not invoke the City of Toronto’s anti-discriminating policies and if Queers Against Israel Apartheid participates in this year’s Pride Parade.”
Pride Toronto has also raised fears [PDF] about violence, saying in the ban resolution that, due in part to a violent incident last year, “the potential risk of violence in this year’s activities is of heightened concern.” Another Pride document [PDF] elaborates that “[a]lthough Pride Toronto took specific lengths to ensure each group felt safe and address concerns prior to the festival, a bottle was thrown into the parade from outside the barricades.” Given that Pride is still allowing QuAIA’s membership to participate in the various Pride marches, and that if they abide by Pride’s ban they will likely be the only group without signs, it’s tough to see how the ban mitigates security concerns. The sensible response would be to bolster security, as Pride did in response to fears of violence before last year’s parade. In fact, as long as QuAIA’s members can march, a failure to single them out for extra security seems irresponsible, especially since they were the target of the bottle attack.
A police escort is probably not what the authors of the ban had in mind, but last year’s incident cannot be seen outside the context of what the resolution describes as “ongoing written and verbal threats to the safety of participants.” Pride Toronto did not respond to requests about how many such threats have been received, and whom they target. However, if any of the current threats are against QuAIA, its members deserve to be informed and protected. The ban guarantees that “[a]ny group who wishes to participate and march for Queer Palestinians or are against Israel state activities related to Queer Rights are welcome to do so without the use of the term ‘Israeli Apartheid.'” Organizers must complement this reality with appropriate security measures.
Calls for QuAIA to defuse controversy by changing its name have been popular. Celebrating Pride, we have heard of late, is more about partying than politics, especially the contentious politics of Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. May, a queer Palestinian activist in attendance at Monday’s event, spoke with us and addressed the suggestion that Pride is the wrong venue for QuAIA’s message: “When I go out to celebrate, I don’t leave half of myself at the door.” It’s an apt point, given Pride’s decision to protect people’s right to participate while limiting their ability to identify themselves, their organizations, and their beliefs.
Lawyer, activist, and 2006 Pride honouree Zahra Dhanani received some of Monday night’s loudest cheers. After her remarks, she spoke with us about the legitimacy of the ban: “How do you create inclusion by excluding people from the parade? It’s paternalistic. Our Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects the right to political speech and the freedom of association. The people who call it hate speech are actually people who are threatened by it, and who benefit from what’s happening in Israel. Why would [QuAIA] listen to people who don’t give a damn about the people in Palestine who are dying today?”
For Savannah Garmon, a member of QuAIA and one of the last speakers at the community fair, the action against her organization is about dividing and conquering. She warned the audience of “forces out there who don’t want us to work together.” Garmon cited a call that personnel from Pride mega-sponsor TD Canada Trust allegedly made to Blockorama, a group that provides spaces “for black LGBT people during Toronto’s gay pride parade.” The purpose of TD’s call? Garmon claims it was, at least in part, to inquire about Blockorama’s position on QuAIA.
This is the context for contemplating the significance and relevance of Pride’s thirtieth anniversary, decades removed from institutionalized police brutality at the Stonewall Inn in New York City, 1969, as well as the now-infamous police bath raids in Toronto in 1981. Corporate sponsorship, tourism dollars, and the desire to maintain hard-won public approval contribute to a festival climate that is increasingly, in the words of another Ward 27 candidate, Kristyn Wong-Tam, “sanitized and devoid of political controversy.” Consider the comment by Len Rudner of the Canadian Jewish Congress that the ban “is not about free speech, it is about financial accountability.”
But for Garmon and most attendees at the community fair, Pride Toronto is an ongoing political struggle which has itself evolved to include identities like dyke, queer/questioning, transsexual, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and two-spirited—identities which continue to be dismissed, trivialized, or simply misunderstood by much of the general public and political leadership. In a one-on-one discussion with us, Garmon shared her view that the Pride board members “have gotten themselves spooked over this issue. The reason they want to ban us from using this phrase [Israeli apartheid] is because they realize it has resonance. The only way they can defend it is by saying, ‘Shut up, don’t talk about it.’ That’s every reason for us to continue.”