How Evalyn Parry Got Me to Pakistan

So yeah, I know. I’m late jumping on the bandwagon that is the love people have for Evalyn Parry. I’d been hearing about her for years from my friends (especially the Quakers), but had never had the pleasure of seeing her perform. Until this past November, when I went to see SPIN at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre in Toronto.

And I was blown away.

Seriously, people. SPIN is awesome. Evalyn Parry is awesome. Annie Londonderry is awesome. Everything about this is awesome.

So naturally, my obsessive self bought the SPIN album on iTunes. (sidenote: you should all do this right now. Stop reading this blog, go buy SPIN, and then come back. I’ll wait.)

And I’ve been listening to it a lot. So much so that I (only somewhat) jokingly said that The Ballad of Annie Londonderry would be my theme song for this year and a half journey I’m on.

And while I did pack much more than just a pearl-handled revolver and a change of underwear, I have brought the spirit of Annie Londonderry along with me.

A young woman in her 20s (ok, so she was early 20s and I’m late, but who’s counting?), who travelled around the world on her own for over a year. Sure, she did it the entirely environmentally friendly way, via bicycle, but I like to think I can still be a kindred spirit.

Annie Londonderry set off from her home in Boston to stick it to the Man.

Would you take a dare, would you take a wager? What would you wear, would you wear bloomers? Would you care to change things, would you dare to change things? …. would you go alone?

I hope I can make a little change in the world as I go, as I write about human rights and LGBTQ rights in the various countries I visit.

Unfortunately, my crappy android phone had issues putting new music onto it so I hadn’t been able to listen to the album much in Toronto while I was out and about getting ready for the trip. But I decided to bring an old iPhone on my trip with me and put the album on there.

So, as soon as I got on the plane for the 12.5 hour flight to Abu Dhabi (and after watching that super horrible movie – see former blog post), I attempted to sleep with the songs of Evalyn Parry in my ear. And it worked – I was lulled to sleep (again and again, as I constantly wake up on planes) by her melodic tones. I especially loved Open Letter to Igor Kenk, Bicycle Thief:

Then, when I was in Abu Dhabi airport, wandering around and trying to find a bathroom so I could change into my longer skirt (with long tights underneath) and put a scarf around my neck for modesty before boarding the plane to Pakistan, Parry’s song “Amelia Bloomer Sings for Fashion Reform” ironically came on.

Listen ladies, you’ve got me to thank for
Letting you show a little more
of your leg, your legs! …
In my day, a woman couldn’t show her ankles
Not even the legs of a table could be seen
it would be deemed obscene to show the length of your leg
your leg, your legs,
your legs: your political legs

And here I was, about to put my political legs away! So thank you, Evalyn Parry, for serenading me on my journey to Pakistan (and now into India) and for making me smile. You’re awesome!!

Random fact: I couldn’t post this til I reached India as Pakistan has blocked youtube for blasphemy concerns. I’m sure there’s a way to get around that, but I figured I could wait a week 😉

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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.

The Many Faces of Old Lahore

First Day in Pakistan

As I woke up yesterday on what was a Lahore morning for me, but was really 1.30 in the afternoon, I washed my face in my friend’s sink on the fourth floor of an apartment building attached to Liberty Market. A huge bird – it looked like an eagle to my Canadian eyes – swooped down from the roof of the building; cars, rickshaws, motorcycles and people bustled underneath it.

Before I left, one of my colleagues presented me with an image of a crowd of people in a balcony, cheering me on. Those people are my former colleagues at the United Church, my friends, and family – both chosen and by birth.

I definitely feel you all here with me in spirit, cheering me on! It’s so amazing to feel like I’ve got this whole journey – this whole life – ahead of me. And who knows where it will lead! 🙂

Welcome to Pakistan: Don’t Get Sentenced to Death!

“May we remind you that bringing drugs into Pakistan is a serious offence and results in a mandatory death sentence,” the flight attendant calmly announced.

Those were the words that greeted me upon my descent into Lahore airport. “Whoa,” I thought. “Here we go.”

It had been an interesting 24 hours. I packed my bags at my parents’ house, had a nice dinner, and went to the airport. There, I was told my camera backpack was too big as a carry on because the flight was full (a moment I would replay over and over in my head on my two flights with Air Etihad, when I saw much larger carry ons being hefted into the overhead compartments). So, not wanting to send all of my camera equipment into the abyss that is checking luggage, I got a laundry bag out of my suitcase and pitched my camera and lenses and cords into it. Y’know, with a few pieces of clothing to act as a buffer. I don’t know what I must’ve looked like in the airport, with my purse and a laundry bag slung over my shoulder.

Quite posh, I should think.

On the first flight – just over twelve hours to Abu Dhabi – I decided to watch a movie before attempting to sleep. I chose “Hector and the Search for Happiness” as it seemed thematically relevant. Plus, I love Toni Collette and she’s in it (albeit briefly) and this is one of the films I wanted to see at TIFF last year.

Well, I should’ve read the Rotten Tomatoes reviews before making this decision. That, or just fast-forwarded to Toni’s part.

Honestly, this movie is awful. At various times I thought, “I really should stop watching this.” But I kept thinking maybe – just maybe – it would get better.

The real clincher was the racist way the film dealt with “Africa.” No, not a country in Africa, just “Africa.” Where of course the protagonist gets life advice from a sick orphan, has a close encounter with a lion, and gets kidnapped at gunpoint only to eventually be released when he name drops a non-African gangster who is somehow in charge and is warmly welcomed back by adoring African women who make him sweet potato stew and dance for him. (Spoiler alert: Don’t see this movie)

Seriously, people. The other places he goes to are deemed worthy enough to be properly identified. He goes to “China” specially, Shanghai. Not just “Asia.” He goes to Los Angeles, not just California or the United States or the Americas. But when it comes to Africa, he just goes to Africa. No specific country because don’t you know that all of Africa is one homogenous country?

Finally, I made it to Abu Dhabi airport where, on my walk from the plane to the terminal, I passed the City of Manchester Football’s private airplane. Kinda cool.

Things I found reassuring about Abu Dhabi airport:
1. The presence of WH Smith and British chocolate.
2. A doodle of a penis inside the stall at the women’s washroom, proving there are the same idiots all over the world.
3. No snow or ice!! 20 degrees!!

Things that unsettled me about Abu Dhabi airport:
1. Somehow, it was evening again and I found myself waiting in an airport at 9pm two days in a row.

Other notable occurrences on my voyage to Lahore:

  • Flying over the mountains in Iraq and Iran was an amazing experience. So gorgeous! Don’t worry – it doesn’t make me want to visit those two not-exactly-super-safe countries anytime soon. But I would fly over them again.
  • It really is a man’s world in Pakistan – men are everywhere. When we landed in Lahore, a bunch of men began standing up to remove their carry on luggage before the plane had stopped, ignoring the female flight attendant’s orders to remain seated. At the baggage claim, it was a veritable sea of men, with the few women and children travelling at 3 am sitting on benches to wait.
  • In clearing customs in Lahore (which was quite easy), there are some interesting signs for designated lines. The usual “Pakistani passport holders” and “diplomats” and “foreign passport holders” were joined by a line exclusively for “ladies” and one for “Deportees from Saudi Arabia.”

There’s gotta be a good story there.

Toronto’s Historic Distillery District

What a Difference a Year Makes

Last year, on Christmas Eve, my parents met my girlfriend for the first time. It was the first girlfriend they’d ever met, and they absolutely loved her.

In retrospect, it was too early for an introduction but it made logistical sense at the time.

This time, last year, I was happy. I was falling for someone I affectionately called the “hot doctor” – she was pretty gorgeous, and doing a psychiatry residency. I had a job I enjoyed, though I was on the lookout for my next step, career-wise, and I was renting an apartment with two amazing roommates and awesome neighbours upstairs and down.

Fast forward to this year, and I’ve moved out of my apartment on New Year’s Eve. On Monday, I’ll be starting my last two weeks at work. The girlfriend? We broke up in an unspectacular fashion early on in 2014.

So here I am, girlfriend-less, apartment-less, and soon-to-be-jobless and benefits-less.

Am I crazy?

No. I’m exhilarated!

What a difference a year makes. But even though I was in a great place last year and most of those variables have changed a year later, I’m STILL in a great place! And I have a grand adventure ahead of me, something I’ve always wanted to do. Something that’s scary and exciting all at the same time.

Here’s to 2015!

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Selma: The Must-See Movie this Holiday Season

“I felt like God told me I would play this part,” David Oyelowo told a crowd of Torontonians at TIFF Bell Lightbox earlier this month. When he was 7 years old, he wrote an entry in his prayer diary that one day he would portray Martin Luther King Jr.

That dream became a reality with the production of Selma, Ava DuVernay’s latest film venture. The young director – tipped to be the first Black female director ever nominated for an Oscar – has only been making films for the past 5 years. “I’m just getting started,” she says.

And what a start – Selma is an ambitiously successful depiction of King’s vision of a civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965.

“This film couldn’t be more relevant right now,” TIFF Artistic Director Cameron Bailey said as he hosted a post-viewing Q&A.

A month after the 32-day shoot wrapped on Selma, Michael Brown was shot dead. It was a “cultural moment that echoed through the world,” DuVernay told the crowd. DuVernay sees similarities between the cultural moment of Selma and that of Ferguson. We say “Ferguson,” she explained, and not the name of the person killed (like we did with Rodney King or Trayvon Martin). Just like with Selma.

Oyelowo further made the parallels between 1965 and today. As the film portrays, Black people were unfairly judged by a jury of their “peers,” who were, in many places, all White because you had to be registered to vote to be on a jury and only White people could register to vote. Even after the law began to change, it was extremely difficult for Black people to register. In some jurisdictions, an already-registered voter (and all of them being White) had to vouch for you before you could vote.

Today, Oyelowo explained, we have a situation in which local prosecutors are supposed to be the people who indict the police officers accused of unlawfully shooting or restraining the Black men in these cases, and they’re not going to do that because that would discredit their past cases. “We need to press the issue that there needs to be change,” he said.

DuVernay said that she feels like there’s a reason there hasn’t been a film centred on Martin Luther King Jr in the fifty years since the march from Selma to Montgomery occurred.

“The time is now. It feels like the right time,” she explained.

It nearly wasn’t like that. As both Oyelowo and DuVernay attested, the original script was much more focused on President Lyndon B. Johnson, portrayed by the amazing Tom Wilkinson. As usual, the story was told through White eyes, Oyelowo sighed. “I love White people, by the way,” he jokingly assured the audience. “It’s ok.”

But this film is not about White people, nor should it be – we have enough of those. It’s about Black people, told by Black people.

“Watching the film, there were moments when I couldn’t breathe,” a member of the audience told Oyelowo and DuVernay, referring to both the filmmaking and the story. For the film doesn’t shy away from the more brutal aspects of the civil rights movement – one of the first scenes depicts the infamous moment that four little girls were killed by a bomb in a Birmingham Church. It’s horrifically beautiful – the cinematography by Bradford Young, mesmerising.

This style was very purposeful. A Phantom Camera – high speed, super slow motion – was used in four scenes throughout the film, at a point of high emotional impact. DuVernay chose this style to make the audience really watch what was happening. “It was very intentional, to force you to look at this,” she explained. Rather than when, in real life, the horrors of the world can get so overwhelming that we tune them out.

This isn’t the first time Oyelowo and DuVernay have worked together. Nor, does it seem, will it be their last. Bailey brought up the idea of a muse, with DuVernay agreeing that that is exactly what Oyelowo is to her.

“A muse doesn’t just have to be an older gentleman and a hot young blonde,” she quipped.

Selma opens in limited release on Christmas Day before opening wider on January 9. Go see it.

Freedom is like religion to us
Justice is juxtaposition in us
Justice for all just ain’t specific enough
One son died, his spirit is revisitin’ us
Truant livin’ livin’ in us, resistance is us
That’s why Rosa sat on the bus
That’s why we walk through Ferguson with our hands up
When it go down we woman and man up
They say, “Stay down” and we stand up
Shots, we on the ground, the camera panned up
King pointed to the mountain top and we ran up

One day, when the glory comes
It will be ours, it will be ours
Oh, one day, when the war is won
We will be sure, we will be here sure
Oh, glory, glory
Oh, glory, glory glory

– Lyrics from the song “Glory” by John Legend and Common (who also appears in the film), which plays over Selma‘s end credits

The F Word – What’s in a Name?

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Yesterday was the 25th anniversary of the Montreal Massacre – a day when Marc Lépine entered the École Polytechnique, separated the women from the men, and executed 14 young women claiming he was “fighting feminism.”

Commentaries have been circulating on the Internet for the anniversary, a couple written by friends of mine such as this one for the Inside Agenda Blog and this one for The Ottawa Citizen.

I met up with one of those friends on Friday night and we talked about feminism. For her, part of a different generation than I am, she felt like the Montreal Massacre was the moment that really transformed her into being an “active feminist.” I’ve heard this sentiment a lot recently, or at least many of the women who are older than me have been taking to newspapers, blogs, Facebook, and other social media sites to speak about where they were when they heard about the Montreal massacre.

I was three-years-old when that attack happened. So it wasn’t a defining moment of my life. “So when did you become a feminist?” my friend asked me. “When did you first hear about feminism?”

I had to pause and think about that. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t a feminist. And I know there’s a woman in particular who I have to thank for that: my godmother and aunt, Margaret Wells. Not only did she take me to my first human rights meeting when I was a baby – an anti-Apartheid meeting – but she also gave me a truck for my first birthday, hoping to instill some feminist ideology into me.

It worked. And I am forever grateful for that influence, and hope to nudge my goddaughter, Margaret’s granddaughter, in a similar direction.

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Me with my amazing goddaughter Olivia (and her puppy, Charlie)

I feel that my Aunt Margaret gave me a sense of righteous anger – I first learned about the Holocaust from her and she’s still my go-to date for human rights themed lectures and movies. That righteous anger swelled in me. It grew so that I felt enraged as a Catholic student towards the inequality I witnessed in that religion. Side note: there are of course many strong and empowering Catholic women in the world; I got to know one, a nun who was connected with my church, who told me something I’ll never forget: “Never stop asking those questions.”

And I never would stop asking those questions. I try to push the envelope, to ask why things are the way things are. I’m a shit disturber who tries to look at things from the viewpoint of the oppressed – who is benefitting from this?

It’s even reached the point where I’ve been told I’m “offensive as a Canadian” for speaking about Aboriginal rights. At a human rights conference at McGill University.

I digress a bit, but that was all to say that, basically, feminism and human rights and righteous anger over the injustices of the world are all bound up in the same snowball of activism for me. They’re in there with my anger about racism and homophobia.

Last night, my roommate and I had a heated discussion about feminism. We basically believe the same thing when it comes to women’s rights and the fact that women and men should have equal rights, but she refuses to call herself a feminist. For her, it’s a dirty word that excludes men and asserts that women are better than men.

We argued about how that’s not what feminism is about. I said that “real” feminists don’t think they’re better than men. Of course, there are extremists in every movement, so there are self-declared feminists who do hate men. But why tarnish the entire movement with the brush of a few?

Feminism, I argued, is not about being better than; it’s about acknowledging that women are not yet seen and treated as equal to men across the board. Because of that, we’re working to elevate women’s rights. Not so that they will be more or better than men’s rights, but so that they will be equal.

“Well then why call it feminism?” my roommate asks. “It’s equalism. So just call it equalism.”

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Can it really just come down to semantics? I wondered, why is claiming the word – feminist – so important to me?

For me, I think it comes down to the fact that women are not yet equal to men. So, if the word I use to state my belief that men and women are equal privileges women with its “fem” syllable, then so be it. I often see the same people who decry any privileging of women’s experiences over men’s being dismissive of attempts at inclusive language that seek to bring women into a male-dominated language.

I am a feminist because of the Montreal massacre. I am a feminist because the media of the day – and to some extent, this is still the case – tried to sanitize the event into being the “crazy act of a madman” rather than a direct result of the systemic misogyny in our society.

Shelley Page wrote a fantastic article about this in The Ottawa Citizen yesterday:

Twenty-five years later, as I re-evaluate my stories and with the benefit of analysis of the coverage that massacre spawned, I see how journalists— male and female producers, news directors, reporters, anchors — subtly changed the meaning of the tragedy to one that the public would get behind, silencing so-called “angry feminists.”

I like being a feminist. I call myself a fucking kick-ass feminist because it does push buttons. If it makes people uncomfortable, then I’m ok with that. People need to be uncomfortable if we’re going to bring about change.

If calling myself a feminist is being radical, then I welcome that radicalism. Because we need that kind of radicalism in this world. This is a world where fewer girls are born than naturally should be because of sex-selection abortion. A world where the birth of a son brings great joy while the birth of a daughter brings sorrow. A world where boys are not “supposed to” play with dolls lest they be seen as less masculine or, God forbid, even gay.

This is a world where homophobia is mired in misogyny, where the worst thing a man can do is become “like” a woman.

This is a country where women still make less than men for the same work, where over 1000 Aboriginal women and girls are missing and murdered and the government doesn’t give a damn. A country where women are afraid to complain about sexual harassment or press charges after an assault or rape because of the repercussions – against the women, not the perpetrators – that those accusations can bring.

Until all that changes, I’m calling myself a feminist. And I will do so unapologetically, and with pride.

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I changed my profile picture on FB to this image on the day I was sexually assaulted in London. It was my way of not being a victim.

Charles Sy Is Canada’s Next Opera Star

So, I’ll admit it. I’m not the biggest opera fan. I’ve been to two operas in my life, the second one most recently this Fall when I saw the Canadian Opera Company’s (COC) rendition of Madama Butterfly.

My thoughts? Well, it’s not going to pass a Bechdel test anytime soon, but it sure was beautiful, both visually and aurally. I posted that comment to my Twitter account and the COC retweeted me, which I thought was pretty cool of them.

Basically, I have really enjoyed opera. I just don’t know much about it. So when I was asked to report on the COC’s Centre Stage, an Ensemble Studio Competition Gala affectionately referred to as “Opera Idol,” I jumped at the chance. I wanted to hear more opera, and I wanted to possibly bring a younger audience to the genre, through these seven young opera hopefuls vying for a place in the COC Ensemble.

(I did bring a colleague/friend and Opera aficionado to help me out with the more technical bits)

It was an evening of splendour and romance – as the lights dimmed to start the show, I spotted a woman in the balcony reaching over to squeeze her partner’s hand. The seven finalists – narrowed down from a pool of 175 young opera hopefuls – shone among the starry background and lanterns illuminating the stage at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto, along with the baubles and sparkly dresses donned by the female contestants.

But the greatest moment, for me, was witnessing soprano Adrianne Pieczonka, Canadian opera royalty, perform. When she came onstage, the elderly man sitting beside my friend loudly whispered to his companion, “She’s a lesbian!” before muttering away. My friend started laughing and whispered to me what he said. I really wish I’d been sitting beside him and heard. Because I really hope I would’ve leaned over to him and said, “So am I. You’re surrounded. It’s a conspiracy!”

I looked her up later, and she is married to a woman, and they have a daughter. Not that it matters, of course, but as a fellow queer person who still deals regularly with everyday example of homophobia, this little tidbit of information made me love her even more.

Read my full article on Style Empire