Category Archives: LGBTQ

The Liberal Side of Pakistan

Before travelling to Pakistan, most of my friends and family warned me about the dangers I would face, urging me to stay safe. I didn’t know what to expect when I arrived – a country wracked by fanaticism and terrorism, or a nuanced experience of life filled with conservatives and liberals alike.

I found the latter – and I’ve mostly been immersed in the liberal side of Pakistani culture. Of course, this is giving me a bit of a skewed sense of Pakistan, but it is also a side of Pakistan we rarely see in the media.

The Pakistan I witnessed is a Pakistan where religious and secular people can live in harmony, working towards the common goal of countering extremism. A Pakistan where people drink alcohol and smoke pot in the evenings as they joke about the recent reports that ISIS killed two gay men by pushing them off tall buildings, saying “Well, that’s certainly a different interpretation of Sharia law.”

It’s a Pakistan where I mingled with people in the LGBT community, some who identify as activists and some who do not. And a Pakistan where a group of liberal youth hosted a civil society dialogue in the basement of an Islamabad hotel, a few blocks from the infamous Red Mosque, called “Thinking Beyond the Military Offensive; The Need to Challenge the Extremist Narrative.”

That same day, the Punjab government issued an ordinance declaring “A person shall not, by words spoken or written, use any formal forum to support terrorism or terrorists, or attempt to create sympathy for any terrorist or terrorist organisation, or to oppose action of Pakistan army, air or naval force, police or Rangers against any terrorist or terrorist organisation.”

These youth call their group Khudi. Their Twitter account describes them as “a youth-led initiative that challenges extremism & promotes tolerance, pluralism & democratic values through active citizenship & civic & political education.”

I had the opportunity to visit their offices in both Lahore and Islamabad last week. And the friend I stayed with happens to work for them 🙂

One of the speakers at the Khudi event in Islamabad was Mohammad Jibran Nasir who, in the wake of the Peshawar school attacks last month, has started a campaign against terrorism and terrorist sympathizers. He’s received threats from the Taliban and consequently sleeps in a different house each night. There’s an article about him on Buzzfeed for those who want more info.

So yes, this is a different Pakistan than the one I was warned to expect. And yet, it’s still a Pakistan where the majority of people having these discussions, at least in a public sphere, are men. The patriarchal culture definitely needs to be addressed, and perhaps one way of beginning to tackle that is by countering the religious fundamentalism in the country.

“All our hopes lie in this country becoming secular,” one lesbian activist told me. It seems that, on that front, and from what I experienced, progressive Pakistan agrees.

Paragraph 175: Male Homosexuality and the Third Reich

On Thursday night, I went to a lecture with my aunt about homosexuality and the Holocaust. I began to write a blog post about it yesterday and then thought, “This is super interesting. More people need to see it.” So I wrote to my editor at Xtra and the result was this article.

It was edited down to make it much more newsworthy, but I wanted to share my original opening, as I think that the quote from the survivor should be shared.

Gay men were not only persecuted by the Nazis, but were re-victimized when liberating armies put those rescued from concentration camps back into prison, Dr. James Waller explains

“In order not to mutually incriminate ourselves, we decided to no longer recognize each other.”

These words, recorded as the testimony of a gay survivor of the Third Reich, struck Dr. James Waller, the Cohen Chair of Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Keene State College in Keene, New Hampshire, as particularly heart wrenching.

It was as though they also could no longer recognize themselves, Waller explained. He likened this to what many LGBT people continue to experience today, particularly in countries where homosexual acts are illegal and the LGBT community is forced to “not recognize” who they truly are, at least publicly.

On November 6, Waller gave a public lecture during Holocaust Education Week in Toronto, co-sponsored by Facing History and Ourselves, Kulanu Toronto, and The Equity Studies Program at New College, University of Toronto. Entitled “Do No Harm? Nazi Doctors and the Persecution of Gay Men,” the lecture looked at the psychological, social, and cultural factors that influenced Nazi policy against homosexuality.

For more on how ordinary people, such as German doctors, can commit extraordinary acts of evil, see Waller’s book “Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing.”

Zambia’s Pervasive Homophobia

I got published!! It’s been such a crazy adventure trying to get this piece out, but it finally happened in late July. And I just realized I never wrote a blog piece about it. So here we go!

Last Fall, I took a writing course at Ryerson University with the amazing Carla Lucchetta (check out her writing) where I wrote a pitch letter for this piece, as well as a first draft. Just before Christmas, I pitched a story on LGBTQ rights in Zambia to Daily Xtra, and just after the new year, they accepted it! But then there were delays with editing, then my editor left for another publication, etc, etc. But now I’m finally published!!

Welcome to Zambia!

Welcome to Zambia!

I’d visited Zambia the previous summer, and also travelled through Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe. While in Zambia – a country, like many in sub-Saharan Africa, where homosexuality is illegal – I interviewed Juliet Mphande, the Executive Director of LGBTQ organization Friends of Rainka. These were my original opening two paragraphs, for the writing class:

In Zambia, a landlocked country in southern Africa, Juliet Mphande leads an LGBTQ organization, Friends of Rainka, which aims to advance, promote, and protect the human rights of sexual minorities. It’s a difficult place to be doing that kind of advocacy. A 2010 study showed that 98% of Zambians find homosexuality intolerable compared with 11% of Ugandans who do find it tolerable. It is within this context that I arrange to meet Juliet at a Lusaka location that won’t bring too much unwanted attention to either of us. As I search for someone who could be her on the open-air patio of the restaurant we’ve chosen, a recent front page headline in Zambia’s daily national newspaper swirls in the back of my mind: “Cage Filthy Homos….they are worse than dogs.” This is not a place to be openly gay, even for a white, blonde Canadian like me. Finally, I spot a solitary woman at a booth just inside the restaurant. I join her, and we begin to discuss the reason I am there – to learn more about the situation of LGBTQ people in the country. “Enough is enough,” Juliet begins.

It’s summer 2013, and this is the first time I’ve considered myself an “unwanted tourist.” I am travelling through a country, as an openly gay person, where homosexuality is illegal. I’d been to other countries, also on the African continent, with jail sentences for the “crime” of homosexuality, but I wasn’t yet out – to myself, or to anyone else. Back then, I had an acceptable level of contempt for the laws of the countries where I travelled, but that was it. I didn’t have to think about my own personal safety. While I was incensed by other people viewing my friends as being “sinners” or less deserving of human rights, I now felt a new level of hurt, when that hatred and prejudice were directed at me.

Lusaka Painting

A painting in the Lusaka national museum. I don’t know about you….but it appears to be depicting lesbian activity (which would technically be illegal). I think it’s beautiful.

It was a very surreal experience travelling through four countries where I knew I wouldn’t be allowed to live and truly be myself. Where I knew that people like me were struggling to live their lives in fear and hiding. There were glimpses of these lives as I wandered along my trip. I brought a Canadian LGBTQ flag with me, and took a photo of it in every country I was in – my own little act of rebellion. Then there were the other gay and lesbian travellers I’d subtly suss out and warm up to, like the woman who worked for MSF who spoke to me about being gay and working for an international organization in countries where homosexual acts are illegal. There was the book I stumbled across in the national museum in Lusaka about sexuality in Zambia, with its three paragraphs on homosexuality. It described how women in America “chose” to be lesbians because of fear of contracting HIV/AIDS.

Interesting.

And finally, I met with Juliet Mphande.

Juliet

The incredible Juliet Mphande

And the final result of all this travel and exploration? My very first commissioned – and paid – piece published in Xtra on July 26, 2014, entitled Zambia’s Pervasive Homophobia. Hope you like it! The ending is one of my favourite parts:

I ask if she’s afraid and mention David Kato, a well-known gay rights activist in Uganda who was murdered in 2011. Mphande appears unfazed. “It’s not a job; it’s who I am,” she says. “The worst thing that could happen is to not be an activist.”

Shortly after I got back from my trip through southern Africa, I was killing time at the Indigo at Yonge and Eglinton before meeting a friend for dinner. There, just before I left the store, there was a table lined with books for Gay Pride. “Wow,” I thought. “I’m home.”

Amnesty International marching in the World Pride Parade, Toronto 2014

Amnesty International marching in the World Pride Parade, Toronto 2014

World Pride Parade, Toronto

On Coming Out During World Pride

It’s currently World Pride in Toronto and it is FABULOUS. I’m celebrating by attending concerts, lectures, drag shows, readings, and parades. But last night I did something to personally celebrate: I came out yet again. This time, it was to one of my former high school teachers.

Deborah Cox performing at Nathan Philips Square during the Opening Ceremonies of World Pride

Deborah Cox performing at Nathan Philips Square during the Opening Ceremonies of World Pride

Sometimes I forget that being queer means having to constantly coming out to people. Whether it be my dentist (“no….I don’t have a boyfriend”) or my hairdresser (“yeah, I don’t really have any interest in 50 Shades of Grey”) or my colleague (“well, if I get married it won’t be to a man, so….”), it always starts off the same way. I get that feeling of momentary panic where I think, this person doesn’t know. How will they react? Do I even give a shit if they don’t react well?

Last year, I had my last run in with my past life in high school.

It was like a mini-high school reunion. I’d prepped myself to encounter about a dozen people that I hadn’t seen for nearly 10 years. People whose lives I’d maybe glimpsed as they flashed by on my Facebook newsfeed.

My friend was still good friends with the bride, who we’d both gone to school with. She was invited to the wedding and had a plus one, so asked if I’d like to go and keep her company. I agreed, and was looking forward to seeing some of my former comrades. But I was a bit nervous about one tiny yet extremely significant detail – I went to a Catholic high school; many of the people at this wedding I knew to still be devout Catholics, and here I was no longer Catholic, working for the, you could say, competitor of the Catholic Church in Canada – the largest Protestant church in the country, The United Church of Canada.

And I’d come out just over two years ago.

I’m very open about being queer – all my family and friends know, save for my grandparents for fear of giving them a heart attack. One of my aunts did want me to tell my grandmother, in case she said something homophobic in front of me. (My response? “Well, she’s actually more racist than homophobic, so maybe I’ll consider it if I’m actually dating someone and she’s not white. Otherwise, why deal with it now?”)

So I knew that this might come up, and that some of my former classmates might not have heard the gossip yet. (Because, really, why is this news?). I started talking to one guy, whose girlfriend was there with him, and as we chatted about life and our jobs and how we’d been doing, the inevitable question came up.

“So, what about you? Are you seeing anyone?”

And now the fun began. What would I say? Would I lie? No. Ok then, how would I do it? Would I say, half-apologetically, “weeeeeeell….I’m kinda gay now.” Would I just jump right in with, “Well, yes, actually I’m dating this great girl and…” Or would I have a little fun with it, drag it out until I finally had to use a pronoun or give a name?

I went for somewhere in between. Basically telling him I’m gay, without any half-apology, and that I am dating this great girl right now. End of story. (well – I’m single now, so there is more to that story, but for another time)

His response was very interesting. I think he was kind of shocked, but tried to cover it well. I told him that everyone had been very supportive, and he agreed that that’s how they should be. And then he launched into this slightly-hard-to-follow monologue about people he knew when he was living in Seattle. First, it was about the gay men he knew who chose to be chaste. (Great. So why are you telling me this?) Then I talked about having faced some discrimination (he was shocked by this. “Really? In Canada?” he asked) but that I wasn’t too worried about being attacked in the street for being gay, because it seemed like homophobic men were more likely to beat up other men over that issue. So then he launched into anecdotes about how the men he knew back in Seattle were often more flamboyant and in-your-face than lesbians generally are. (Riiiiiight….?). And then came the kicker:

“Well, y’know, I feel like I’m a sinner, everyone’s a sinner, so why should I judge others? I wouldn’t want other people to be commenting on my sins.”

Seriously?!?

I looked at his eager face, spitting out these overcompensating ramblings that obviously came from a place of discomfort. He was so sure he was being open-minded. Generous, even.

“Well.” I said. “I think the problem there is that I wouldn’t consider it a sin.”

“Oh, right, sure, maybe you wouldn’t…” And the rambling began again in earnest.

I tuned him out, imagining better comebacks in my head but also just wishing that my friend would come save me from this entire situation.

************************************************************************************************

And so here I was again, coming out to someone from my past. This was one of my favourite teachers in high school, who I had kept in touch with since graduating, but who I hadn’t spoken to in a couple of years. I’d wanted to, but honestly I was scared. Scared of rejection or of being treated differently by someone I admired and looked up to while growing up.

This past weekend, I’d had my prototypical stress dream which involves going back to high school, while still being in university or working or whatever (basically I’m told that I haven’t technically graduated and have to go back to complete two courses, and then of course don’t go because I’m working or studying or living on another continent). I’d actually had a similar dream months ago, in which this teacher featured, and I’d started a draft email to her but never actually sent it. This time, spurred on by Pride, I decided to do it.

Melissa Etheridge, at the Opening Ceremonies for World Pride, told us that coming out was the best thing she'd ever done. I agree.

Melissa Etheridge, at the Opening Ceremonies for World Pride, told us that coming out was the best thing she’d ever done. I agree.

I started by apologizing for not having written for so long, and then jumped right into it:

Honestly I think I’ve been putting off writing to you because I’m scared of rejection. So let’s rip off the bandage – I’m no longer Catholic and I’m gay.

I’m thinking neither of those things will be a huge surprise to you. 🙂 But there’s always a small piece of me that fears a negative response to either of those things, because I have experienced that. But hey, it’s World Pride and it’s all about being proud of who you are, right?

And then I added some more about life and what I’m doing now. And signed off, putting my phone number at the end.

Then this morning, at about 8.20 am – which was ironically when high school used to begin – my phone rang. And it was this teacher! She immediately told me I was being silly and that of course she didn’t care about any of that, but she understood why I might be worried. Because people are ignorant, but that’s their problem and has nothing to do with me.

Of course, I knew all of this already – and was pretty sure this was how she would respond – but hearing it from her in person (or over the phone) was so affirming and wonderful and lovely. I was on a high all day, feeling accepted and supported and loved.

Sure, I should feel like this regardless of what other people think, but it can be hard. World Pride is a wonderful thing, but there are still protests – albeit small ones – that I’ve seen, telling people like me to repent or face going to hell.

So I’m going to take all the good news and happiness and support I can get! Happy World Pride everyone!! 🙂

Hot Docs: Children 404

I feel I am human.

– Justin/Pasha on living in Toronto for the past 6 months

Child 404 Logo; source: Wikimedia Commons

Children 404 Logo; source: Wikimedia Commons

The second movie I saw yesterday was Children 404. Another heavy movie, but one well worth the watch. A film by Pavel Loparev and Askold Kurov, and co-presented by Cinema Politica, Children 404 tells the story of LGBTQ youth in Russia, a population made even more invisible by the country’s recent “gay propaganda” law. The film focuses on the stories told through the Children 404 project – an online community started by Elena Klimova, a Russian journalist who wrote a series of articles on LGBTQ youth in Russia last March. It is called Children 404 after the “Error 404 – Page Not Found” on the Internet, the idea being that these children are invisible in Russia, that some people don’t believe they even exist. So they are reclaiming their identity – bolding proclaiming “We’re here and we’re queer” (though maybe not in so many words).

In these months after the Sochi Olympics, the situation of LGBTQ rights in Russia has fallen somewhat off the radar. Even when it was on the international agenda, rarely did LGBTQ-identified youth have a voice in the mainstream media. And so it was incredibly interesting and important to hear from these youth themselves. We heard from a boy who lives in Sochi and describes it as a very homophobic city, who is humiliated every day and had to move from his mother’s house to another district where no one knew him. According to the directors, he doesn’t think anything has changed since the Olympics.

There were stories of youth being thrown out of their homes, of mothers telling their children that they wished they’d miscarried rather than give birth to a sick monster like them. There were stories of social workers and therapists blaming the LGBTQ youth for their own harassment – telling them, for example, that it is because they hate the homophobes that the homophobes hate them back. And that if they loved them, they would receive love in return <insert collective groan from the audience>. Elena and her partner share a bit of their story as well, and about how they were both fired from their job when their relationship became known.

The film also follows Pasha, a 19-year-old young man who is planning to move to Toronto to learn English, become a journalist, and realize his dream of having a family with a male partner. The scene where he sings the Canadian national anthem in his broken English (“We stand on guard for free!!” he sings joyously) inside Lenin’s Mausoleum is one of my favourites.

Pasha’s family is one of the only supportive ones we see in the film. His mother is incredibly loving and protective, and even his somewhat racist (they talk about him having “black children” with a “black woman” in Toronto, who they will then take fishing, etc) grandparents know about his sexuality and actively love him just the same. It made me tear up. A lot made me tear up.

But what really got me was when the Q&A reached its second or third question and it was revealed that Pasha was in the audience, as many of us suspected and hoped. As he came up to the stage, he received a long standing ovation. It was powerful.

He now somewhat jokingly goes by “Justin” as well, an homage to Justin Bieber (who Pasha mournfully refers to as “straight” in the film).

The Directors with

The Directors with Justin/Pasha (second from the left) during the Q&A

The words “fag” and “faggot” are used quite liberally throughout the film, as we witness the harassment taking place firsthand. It’s a jarring word, and one that I don’t usually encounter in everyday life. One of the most incredible things Pasha does during the film is create a poster regarding a social living index (I’m unsure which one he uses) that reads something along the lines of “Russia is 66th and you can’t be gay here. Canada is 2nd and gays can get married. Maybe we should start focusing on the important things?” He then stands in what I believe is the Red Square in Moscow, enduring the ensuing taunts. One man spits on him and calls him that horrible F word; both are brought to the police station and both are eventually released, Pasha believes, because the police did not want to deal with the other guy.

Many of the questions during the Q&A involved what we could do, here in Toronto, for LGBTQ youth in Russia. All three men – the directors and Justin/Pasha – said that talking about this issue is the most important thing we can do. “You can help us by talking about it,” Justin/Pasha explains. “The problem of children 404 is that society wants to pretend they don’t exist, so we need to bring them out into the open.”

Justin/Pasha will be at World Pride this summer. He is one of the lucky ones, able to get out of Russia. As he repeatedly tells the audience, it’s impossible for 99% of these teenagers to move to a country like Canada. They need money, they need a visa. He hopes that the Canadian government will learn about the issues facing Children 101 and will begin to support them in immigrating.

Last night was the international premier; it was an honour to be one of the first audiences to see this impressive documentary. It did have a small showing in Moscow earlier, the directors told us. It must’ve been only days ago, as they also said they finished the film only the week before. As the screening in Moscow was about to start, Orthodox activists broke into the room with weapons and police, trying to find minors and accuse the non-minors there of gay propaganda. The police checked everyone’s documents; there were no minors there, and the audience chanted “We want to see the film” while the search went on. The directors don’t know what the repercussions will be for having produced this film; they don’t know if it will become banned in Russia. Children 404 became available online last night in Russia, after the screening took place in Toronto. Hopefully many Russians will see it; hopefully it will have an impact.

As Elena said in the film, changes in society’s viewpoints are inevitable. 60 years ago, things were much different in the USA, she says, referring to racial segregation in the South. “And what is 60 years? Only 2 generations!” she exclaims. Elena sees a future as an elderly woman, when children will wonder in amazement at the idea that gay people were discriminated against in her country. Her hope is inspiring – I too believe it is inevitable, but for the sake of the Russian youth struggling today, I pray it comes sooner rather than later.

Verdict: 5.0/5.0

Check it out – there’s three more screenings!

I Wonder: Am I at a Human Rights Conference?

I warn you: this is the blog post in which I vent. The blog post that is controversial, is quite critical, and I admit is biased. It’s how feel about all that has happened, and what my emotions are.

First, yesterday, we had a conversation about the blogs we wrote before coming here and the Facebook discussions we had about them. The facilitator asked me if he could use a conversation I had with another young leader, since it garnered the greatest number of comments. It started out as a blog post about the voices of homosexuals in Uganda being silenced. It elicited a very positive response re this human rights issue, with both me and another young leader “coming out” to the group. In fact, I said I was a bit worried about attending this conference because I’d been to a similar “young leaders” conference where I experience some homophobia, and now I felt silly about that because the response was so positive.

Then someone else jumped in. Someone who said LGBTQ people are spreading disease throughout society. And quoted those infamous Bible passages. Ignorant, yes. And I was surprised and saddened that I had to deal with this at a human rights conference based in Canada! Once I arrived here, I learned that said individual is not in fact Christian, but is Muslim. Which angers me to no end, that someone is using my holy book, when he is not of the same religion, to say that I am a sinner of one of the gravest of all sins!! And the Qur’an doesn’t even say anything about homosexuality!!

Then, today I did a presentation on Idle No More. In a very short amount of time, about 10 minutes (this was part of a larger workshop), I tried to give some context as to why Idle No More was founded and grew. I stated the fact of colonization, of genocidal policies that saw the deaths of the majority of the Aboriginal population in Canada. I began by asking if anyone knew who’s land we were currently on. Of course, no one did. I didn’t know until I looked it up myself, that this land is Kahnawake Mohawk Territory. I spoke of the residential schools, of cultural genocide, and tried to give a balanced approach by speaking about how my church, which happens to be the organization I work for, was complicit in these schools. How both the UCC and the Canadian government apologized for these schools, but that an apology is not enough in either case. What happens after the apology, to restore right relations, is what counts.

I tried as best I could to not speak on behalf of Aboriginal people. I showed videos of young people speaking about the movement, including an awesome rap video. I spoke about how I, as a white settler, enjoyed more funding for my education and my health care. I spoke about the amazing Cindy Blackstock and the government’s efforts to spy on her and derail her case against them, rather than actually look at the issues she raised. And I talked about Bill C-45, the women who started Idle No More, and stated INM’s vision as stated on their website.

I’m the only Canadian young leader at this conference. I carry this as a badge of honour and as a serious responsibility. It is not my job to put on a good show for the visiting young leaders, to pretend that Canada is this perfect example of democracy and respect for human rights when that is not the case. So I chose to do a case study on Idle No More, and to explain the situation as best I could, from what Aboriginal people have told me. Not to come up with solutions, not even to critique the movement at all. My part of the presentation was simply context-setting.

So I began my part of the presentation with a caveat. I said that Canada is a great country, that it does, by and large, a good job when it comes to human rights. But it is not perfect. And I hold it to a higher standard because (1) I am Canadian, so who else should do it? and (2) Canada is a democracy. It is not Syria or the DRC. It is a First World democracy and if it purports to be that, it should be that for all citizens.

Afterwards, one of the funders of this conference, a Canadian, who had been sitting in on this workshop told me that my presentation was “offensive as a Canadian.”

Like, whoa.

I was obviously upset when I heard this, as I was expecting some disagreement but not that my presentation was “offensive” to my country or as a Canadian. It smacked of the nationalistic sentiment that one should not criticize one’s country, out of loyalty or patriotism or whatever. I wish I’d said, “Y’know what I find offensive as a Canadian? The average standard of living for Aboriginal people.”

This person did apologize to me afterwards, twice. I understand that this person may get their back up when they hear criticism of Canada, but it still makes me wonder – this is a human rights conference, correct? It’s not a conference about how the rest of the world is violating human rights and Canada is so awesome. It’s a conference about the human rights of all citizens of all countries and, I thought, to acknowledge how minority groups in those countries are the most vulnerable to human rights abuses.

The other young leaders generally supported me. One of them even sent me this article after. I’m glad they were listening; I’m glad they got to hear a snippet of the truth and not only the “official party line.”

Finally, I recently discovered that the Centre for Israel & Jewish Affairs is one of the sponsors of this conference. Basically, they do not like the United Church of Canada, and have told Canadian Jews to have nothing to do with “The” United Church or United churches because of the recent decision to take economic action against Israeli settlement products. And I work for the UCC. So this could be interesting.

It hasn’t come up yet, but I sense there is a fear to bring it up. I’ve spoken to others who work/study at McGill and those attending the conference, and there’s a general feeling that speaking about the conflict in Palestine and Israel would be uncomfortably controversial, based on the opinions of some of the conference’s funders and sponsors. I hope Palestine comes up soon. I won’t be bringing it up, as I feel I need to fly under the radar a bit for my own sanity and emotional health. But if it is raised, I will not back down from what I feel is right – that Israel has a legitimate fear for its safety but that that does not justify collective punishment against the Palestinian people. Maybe throw in the fact that it is Canadian foreign policy that the settlements are illegal. And I hope that when it is raised, there will be calm discussion, rather than personal attacks or accusations of anti-Semitism.

So, this brings me to my final questions: Is this a human rights conference? Or is it a human rights conference for everyone except maybe LGBTQ people, Aboriginal people, and the Palestinians?