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Features / June 30, 2016

Resist Pinkwashing: A Pride Guide

Pride hits Canada's biggest city this weekend. Here, a survey of art projects that are keeping Pride political, in Toronto and elsewhere.
2015 Pride Toronto parade. Photo: NaJin Lim. 2015 Pride Toronto parade. Photo: NaJin Lim.

Last week in Toronto, Black Lives Matter protesters showed up for the unveiling of a mural made in honour of Pride, which continues this weekend in one of the largest such celebrations in North America. Their chant of “apology not accepted” was precipitated by Toronto Police chief Mark Saunders’s apology for the 1981 bathhouse raids, known infamously as Operation Soap—the largest mass arrest in Canada before the 2006 Stanley Cup riots, with a body count of over 300.

The apology was, protesters claimed, pinkwashing: when companies, politicians, celebrities and others pledge superficial allegiance to the LGBTQ community, eliding greater, more problematic and systemic forms of discrimination and marginalization they themselves perpetuate.

Art’s role in pinkwashing, notably the public works springing up around various cities either in direct or indirect response to the Orlando shootings, or various Pride-related exhibitions in both corporate and non-corporate spaces, is not to be discounted. Art can underscore and celebrate diversity while also being a scrim for lingering, under-addressed and under-represented issues and concerns.

For our 2016 Pride coverage, we’ve chosen to focus on artists addressing topics acutely affecting the LGBTQ community in Canada—celebrating the diversity of this community, and reminding us of the significant work that still needs to be done.

Local histories

The riots that came after Operation Soap in Toronto were Ontario’s own Stonewall, forming the roots of Toronto Pride. And Police Chief Saunders’s apologies, though welcome, did not extend to later raids that the police did on female-oriented bathhouse events like Pussy Palace in September 2000. Montreal writer Matthew Hays’s recent Walrus piece reminds us that even our historicization of Operation Soap in Canadian LGBTQ history is misinformed, as it was not the first of its kind. Several years earlier, police raids on two Montreal gay bars resulted in the arrest of 146 people, followed by thousands protesting and clashing with police, and, eventually, swift changes to Quebec law later that year, which amended the Quebec Human Rights Charter to recognize sexual orientation as a barred form of discrimination.

LGBT archives are in focus for some artists this year. Created by Hazel Meyer and Cait McKinney, Tape Condition: degraded is an immersive installation and community digitization station on now through September that engages with Toronto’s Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives collection of more than 3,000 VHS tapes, about one-third of which are porn. Throughout the summer, a working digital transfer station will be situated in an immersive installation designed to evoke the CLGA of the 1980s—the heyday of both VHS and Canadian police censorship of queer porn. The installation is hidden behind a “false wall” that references the archives’ attempts to protect the porn collection from police raids in the 1980s.

ChromaLives,” which wraps up today, is a small-scale reprisal of the November 1983 exhibition “ChromaLiving,” organized by Andy Fabo and partner Tim Jocelyn, who later died due to AIDS-related causes. From the Toronto Star: “For Fabo, it’s a welcome correction, decades later. ‘When the Queen Street shows from the ’80s were enumerated some years later, ‘Chromaliving’ was often left out,’ he says. ‘What I really like about this project is that it introduces a kind of continuity, I hope, between generations that’s always kind of missing here.’”

HIV/AIDS awareness and education

In Canada, those who are HIV positive are legally obliged to disclose their status before engaging in sex that poses a “significant risk” of transmission—even though HIV-positive people undergoing antiretroviral treatment and with an undetectable viral load essentially pose zero risk of transmission.

Canada’s draconian laws around HIV criminalization are an important reminder of the role stigmatization and silence play and have always played not only in treating the virus, but also in understanding what it means to live with HIV/AIDS. They certainly do nothing to provide awareness and education about HIV/AIDS for younger people who did not live through the epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s.

Several pride-related events across the country have memorialized lives lost from HIV/AIDS, including a candlelit vigil at Pride Toronto on June 28 and a performance of composer Lyle Chan’s string quartet An AIDS Activist’s Memoir on June 24 at the Roundhouse Exhibition Hall in Vancouver. The exhibition “Drama Queer: Seducing Social Change,” a recent part of the Queer Arts Festival, took a slightly different approach, looking beyond historic loss to argue that queer art which demanded an emotional response was a crucial factor in combating the epidemic.

Diverse spaces

During Saunders’s apology for the 1981 bathhouse raids he failed to mention the violating 2000 raid on Club Toronto on Mutual Street, which occurred during a women’s bathhouse event known as the “Pussy Palace.” (Police settled a civil suit resulting from the raid in 2005.) The omission is not surprising: LGBTQ spaces skew towards gay males, and the canonical, mainstream history of LGBTQ activism often lacks an intersectional breadth.

That’s So Gay: Come Together,” which runs at the Gladstone Hotel in Toronto until August 11, specifically addresses the intersection between sexuality and “experiences of race, disability, class and multiple identities.” Montreal’s Slut Island Festival, which runs this year from July 7 to 17, presents performance and music that allows participants to “confront and address our internalized racism, sexism, transphobia, ableism, homophobia, fat-phobia, sizeism and the harmful behaviour which stems from it.”

Two-spirited communities

“Two-spirited” is a term that has become more common of late, though it is often little understood by those both within and without Indigenous communities. To use shorthand, it refers to Indigenous people who possess spirits of both masculine and feminine genders—but it can embody many aspects of the Western reading of what it means to be LGBTQ, indeed what it means to be sexually fluid.

For Toronto Pride, Two-Spirit Electric Pow Wow celebrates two-spirit community members on July 1 with Indigenous art and music. Programmed by and for two-spirit people, the event features Tribe Called Red’s DJ Shub, two-spirit artist Shawnee, and JUNO award-winning duo Digging Roots at TD Village Stage in Toronto.

The Ontario Aboriginal HIV/Aids Strategy has also invited hand drummers and traditional dancers to march in this year’s Toronto Pride Parade on July 3, followed by 2-Spirited People of the First Nations and ODE Youth Group marching behind Black Lives Matter Coalition.

Trans advocacy and activism

The transgender community has received an explosion of attention lately, but there is a lot left out of the discussion. At Saunders’s apology, Black Lives Matter protesters mentioned Sumaya, a young Somali trans woman whose 2015 death has allegedly been improperly investigated by the police—an advent that is, lamentably, all too common, particularly for cases involving trans people of colour.

Artist, musician and writer Vivek Shraya will be exhibiting, performing and grand-marshalling at Pride Toronto this weekend. Shraya’s photo series Trisha, on view at the Gladstone Hotel, recreates vintage photographs from her mother, a demonstration of the importance of the role of asserting and reclaiming histories to contemporary advocacy. New York City artist, performer and DJ Juliana Huxtable, who was recently in Toronto as part of the Images Festival, brings FIST, one of the hottest parties around, to the OLG Central Stage at Pride Toronto on July 3. The event description tells us “every flavour is welcome.” So it’s a hot party but it’s also a queer one, promising to “put women and trans allies in total control for the biggest, baddest and most diverse crowd to come together and go off.”

David Balzer

David Balzer is the author of two books, Curationism: How Curating Took Over the Art World and Everything Else, winner of ICA London's 2015 Book of the Year, and the short-fiction collection Contrivances. He has written about art and culture for the Globe and Mail, the GuardianFrieze, Artforum, The Believer and others, and from 2016 to 2019 was editor-in-chief and co-publisher of Canadian Art.