Negotiating Space: Queering Black History Month
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Negotiating Space: Queering Black History Month

Reflecting on the contributions and struggles of Toronto's queer black community.

“There’s always someone asking you to underline one piece of yourself—whether it’s Black, woman, mother, dyke, teacher, etc.—because that’s the piece that they need to key in to. They want to dismiss everything else.”

—Audre Lorde: Interview. Denver Quarterly 16.1 (1981): 10-27.

In 1981 the Toronto police raided the city’s bathhouses and arrested more than 250 people, one of the largest mass arrests in Canadian history. The raids were a catalyst for unprecedented protests that sparked a social justice movement among the queer community in Toronto.

That same year, a 35 year old Jamaican immigrant, Albert Johnson, was shot and killed by the Toronto police.

When the queer community organized themselves outside 52 Division on Dundas Street West to protest the raids and arrests, they did so with Lemonica Johnson, the widow of Albert Johnson. Lemonica Johnson joined hundreds of people from the queer community that night. She marched with various anti-racism and anti-gay coalitions that came together that night and spoke about the need for communities to come together against police brutality.

Almost 40 years later, that need still resonates, and a panel discussion at Ryerson hopes to carry on the intersections of Black LGBTQ history and activism in the city of Toronto.

On Thursday February 25, Ryerson University will play host to the sixth annual Queering Black History Month Talk, an event that features artists, activists, and educators from Toronto’s queer black communities.

While a student at Ryerson University in 2011, Lali Mohamed founded the first Queering Black History Month (QBHM) in a desire to give voice to perspectives that weren’t being heard on campus.

“At the time, there wasn’t a space inside the institution where black queer people could commune and congregate to speak to our various histories. It was my way to capture the rich legacy of organizing that queer and trans communities have cultivated in Ontario and to share it through photography and a panel discussion,” Mohamed told Torontoist.

The value in having a space for one’s community was echoed by Beverly Bain, one of three speakers at the event this year, who teaches Women and Gender Studies at the University of Toronto Mississauga.

Bain’s talk will centre on the work and lives of prominent black lesbians in Toronto who were instrumental in not only vocalizing the concerns of their various communities through their activism, but also provided a platform for others to tell their stories through the creation of Sister Vision Press.

“What happens in black history is that queer lives tend to disappear and an event that aims to recall those black queer lives and the work they have done is still necessary today. We exist and have always existed in this movement and in this city alongside other struggles,” said Bain.

The intersection of multiple identities and multiple social movements is also evident in the work of the Somali-Canadian artist Abdi Osman, who will also speak at the event.

Osman has spent the last decade archiving and chronicling the lives of queer black people, and stresses the importance of sharing these perspectives.

“These are our stories and if we don’t tell them, who will?” asks Osman.

Bain, who studies black and queer diaspora, adds that understanding these intersectional narratives is often overlooked but remains important: “We celebrate the legacy of black lives but we somehow don’t celebrate the legacy of black queer lives—as if we have not been part of a larger struggle.”

For founder Mohamed, QBHM isn’t just a celebration of the queer black community but an affirmation of a community’s ability to thrive despite attempts at its erasure.

“We must continue to speak to the lives of those of us who live and love on the margins in an effort to not be erased and disappeared,” said Mohamed.

His words echo the long-ago sentiment of author and activist James Baldwin, still sought for today.

“The place in which I’ll fit will not exist until I make it.”

Queering Black History Month takes place at the Thomas Lounge inside the Ryerson Student Centre at 55 Gould Steet (The Corner of Church and Gould), Room 115 (main floor) on Thursday, February 25 at 6 p.m. Tickets are free, but require an RSVP

CORRECTION: July 5, 2016 This article originally misspelled Lemonica Johnson’s first name. We regret the error.