This year, Pride coincides with the gearing up of all the Canada 150 hoopla. I feel it’s important that as a LGBTQ2SI+ community we are mindful of Canada’s history and not get swept away in a toxic wave of homo-national patriotism.
A few weeks ago, my friend Stacey Mortimer contacted me to tell me about an event she attended where an event production company revealed it’s theme for their Pride dance event: “Celebrating 150 of Gay”. Stacey wrote to the production company to voice her frustration. In her letter, she included the many reasons why the theme was problematic, but also how harmful the reveal itself was carried out. Here is an excerpt of her account:
“The dj stage became adorned in two standard sized Canadian flags with the rainbow theme while tarts poked with flags-on-a-tooth-pic were offered up with joy around the ballroom. I am not sure the servers of tarts, nor the production company and their representative on stage caught the murmur of dismay and the scene that quietly flowed from the Indigenous, Two Spirited and allies that dotted that space at least in the proximity of myself. Tarts were refused and shock seemed to ensue. Some, walked away. I am not sure if the production company were aware of any Two Spirit people in that room, or not…what is relevant is that in that precise moment Indigenous, Two Spirit people and the history of the colonial genocide perpetrated onto them were made invisible and not worthy of respect, not to mention the reconciliation owed to them.”
It’s safe and obvious to say that sexual and gender diversity is older than 150 years globally, and this land is ancient. It’s an insult to erase the unique history of LGBTQ2SI+ people on this continent and an added injury to Indigenous LGBTQ2SI+ people. The catastrophe of loss as a result of colonization is real and ongoing. It includes the lives and cultural wisdom that was once had around Indigenous expressions of gender and sexual identity. At one time, they existed with words, roles and reverence unique to each community and territory. There was living with respect and purpose without shame. The term “Two Spirit” came into common use in the 90’s as a general descriptor. Its origins are embedded in the Ojibwe (Anishnaabe) language with the concept of “Niizh Manidoowag” (Two Spirits). Not all Indigenous LGBTQI+ people use this term, and rightfully so. While it’s pulling double duty as an umbrella, it does have specific meaning and context in Anishnaabe and in many other nations worldview. However, isn’t meant to be a “pan-indian”, sweeping catch all.
The residential school system has played a significant role in the damage. The perspective of the LGBTQ2SI+ experience is rarely discussed and it is because of the violent imposition of religion and homo/transphobic values that reserve communities are often not safe. Indigenous LGBTQ2SI+ youth face double the risk of trauma, mental illness and suicide because of this legacy. Add to that isolation, no access to support, health care and disparaging living conditions due to systemic neglect (no clean drinking water, housing etc.) Indigenous youth are in severe crisis. I’d be pretty hard pressed to find an Indigenous LGBTQ2SI+ youth celebrating 150 years of being gay in the true north, strong and forget about free.
The formal written construct of the institution that is “Canada” is what’s turning 150 years old. The long and terrible road that has paved it’s way has been grinding much longer and the continuation of genocide since is still at work – insidiously through Indian Act policies, resource extraction industry, child welfare, justice and health care systems.
Buzzwords like “reconciliation” have no meaning until there are actual systemic and social changes. It starts with everyone. Pride is a key event that needs to be mindful of this. Stacey took responsibility as a witness in a hurtful situation and wrote to express her concerns. Thankfully, the company listened to feedback and has changed their theme for the dance. This is only one situation though. This is one time minds and hearts were open enough to let a fuller scope reality in, and that it matters to do so.
Oh so much doom and gloom! Make no mistake, there is plenty of resilience I personally like to celebrate. The first on-reserve Pride in Canada took place on Six Nations reserve in 2015 and has continued now annually. The first time a Chief ever acknowledged and addressed Two Spirit people in public was Chief Derek Nepinak of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs at a Pride Opening in Winnipeg last year. I am aware of many people doing incredibly powerful reclamation work in language and taking up our places and roles in our spiritual spaces. There are amazing Two Spirit musicians, authors and artists contributing to the arts and gaining more visibility (though not without a constant fight). Two Spirit Pow Wows are springing up in Canada and US. People are showing up and bringing the fullness of who they are to Pow Wows with regalia that honours everything beyond the gender binary. There are more people reaching out to LGBTQ2SI+ elders to learn. There are children being raised in families housed in earth moving, hetero-patriarchal shattering love, both on and off reserve.
For me, my pride is political. It is at once an ecstatic and quiet expression of my own and our collective resilience. It is a loud screaming rage of demand to stop the violence toward the land, water and people. As the warriors at Stonewall, it is a demand for justice and change. #resist150