Challenging Unjust Systems: Pride is a Riot (1/3)

By Pedrom Nasiri and Sean Bristowe, UCalgary graduate students and members of the GSA Gender and Sexuality Alliance Subcommittee.

Pride may look different this year. Celebrations have been driven online, parades have been cancelled, and all in-person activities have either been postponed or significantly reduced in size. But the crisis of a global pandemic is not the only reason Pride may look different for many of us. For the last six months, public consciousness has once again oriented to the crisis that is the precarity of Black, Brown, Indigenous and people of colour’s lives, to militarised forms of state-sanctioned racial violence, to institutional Whiteness, and to the rhetoric and practices that seek to legitimise it all. Too often the violence of unjust systems fade into the background of everyday lives. Yet, in this moment, the sights and sounds of those fighting for systemic change — of those resisting unjust systems — are unmistakable. As Pride week unfolds in Calgary, so too do these demonstrations against racial violence. Some readers may be asking why a segment on Pride has begun by discussing these protests against the murders of Black folks and police violence. That’s because under all of the corporatisation and sanitisation of Pride, resides a spirit of perpetual resistance and protest against unjust social systems. In that which follows, we explore some moments from the rich history of 2SLGBTQ+ [1]resistance in Canada and the United States, placing a special emphasis on the often muted, yet prominent, role of Queer-people of colour. We end not only with a note that Pride is — and will always remain — a riot but also that the struggle continues today in the fight for Black, Brown, and Indigenous 2SLGBTQ+ lives.

Tracing the origins of Pride in Canada and the United States requires a return to the not-too-distant past when homosexuality and transness were classified as mental disorders; when homosexual practices were outlawed; when discriminatory hiring practices against Queer persons were permitted; when 2SLGBTQ+ families were not granted formal equality under the law; when engaging in homosexual acts resulted in surveillance by the state; when the Indian Act enforced systems of patriliny and gender-normative behaviours on Indigenous persons; and when acts of violence against Queer persons were state-sanctioned. Granted, even as we write this, some of these systemic forms of violence remain with us today. It takes a long-standing series of events, oppressions and tyranny to galvanise individuals into a rebellion, and we lack the space and time to discuss it all here. As a result, we have elected to orient the reader to some key moments in the fight for Queer liberation both in Canada and the United States. 

While Stonewall is remembered as the riot that ignited the gay liberation movement in the United States, others moments of Queer resistance came before it. One of the first uprisings was the Cooper’s Donuts Riots of 1959. At the time, many legal jurisdictions contained laws that made it illegal for an individual’s gender presentation to not match the gender shown on their identification cards. Police raids, harassment, and violence were a commonplace for those establishments that served the trans community. As a result, many business (including those owned by Queer people) were openly hostile to trans persons and regularly barred them from entering. 

Located between two gay bars in downtown Los Angeles, Cooper’s Donut shop was uniquely welcoming to the trans community. This made Cooper’s a routine target by the Los Angeles Police Department who would regularly arrest, interrogate, beat, and fingerprint many 2SLGBTQ+ customers as a tactic to disperse the community. A common tactic employed by the police was to contact local news agencies before the raid, and have them take photos of 2SLGBTQ+ customers as they were forcefully removed from the premises. One evening, two police officers entered Cooper’s with the intention of harassing its 2SLGBTQ+ customers. After making their rounds and demanding IDs, the officers attempted to arrest five 2SLGBTQ+ patrons. However, the constant attacks and indignity at the hands of the police reached its boiling point that night, and the community fought back. They rallied to the defence of the five 2SLGBTQ+ patrons, throwing coffee, donuts, and trash at the police officers until the officers fled in their car without managing to detain anyone. Recognising the power they wielded en-masse, the community united and took to the streets, rioting against police harassment and brutality. 

The Cooper’s Donuts Riots were followed by the Compton’s Cafeteria Riots in 1966, the Black Cat Riots in 1967, and the Stonewall Riots of 1969. Each of these events were fuelled by trans and gender non-conforming people, sex-workers, and Queers who routinely faced state-sanctioned violence and discrimination, especially at the hands of the police. Some of the leading figures of these riots were trans women-of-colour, such as Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, and Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, who drew practices from contemporary social movements and applied them in the fight for Queer liberation.

Turning to Canada, it was not until May 14, 1969 that the Canadian federal government decriminalized homosexuality between two consenting adults and even later at the end of 1973 when homosexuality was no longer considered a mental disorder. Quickly following the Stonewall riots in New York City, the first Canadian university gay rights group was formed in 1969. They were united under the name University of Toronto Homophile Association (UTHA). In August of 1971, the first gay rights protests were held in both Ottawa and Vancouver. The Body Politic (1971 – 1987), a Pink Triangle Press publication, is widely considered one of the most important Canadian queer publications in our history. On television in 1972, a Toronto cable community channel aired Coming Out, a series that featured queer Canada’s queer issues. 

For a more local context, since the founding of the University of Calgary in 1969 there has always been a significant and important representation of 2SLGBTQ+ on campus. In 1972 the first student led group was founded; they were called the Gay Liberation Front. In 1978, the Gay Academic Union (GAU) was created to help discuss and encourage critical engagement with queer issues. The GAU led to the founding of GLASS (Gay and Lesbian Academic Students and Staff). GLASS advocated for the support of the 2SLGBTQ+ community throughout their history. Most notably, by publishing a story in the Gauntlet that encouraged involvement in Blue Jeans Day (see picture). Finally, GLASS changed their name (date unknown) to Queers on Campus, which to this day, remains a prominent group of queer student leaders on campus.

Unfortunately, even with these significant changes in policy, medical discourse and social inclusion, violence and police brutality against 2SLGBTQ+ peoples living in Canada continued. Similar to the United States, bar raids were a common occurrence for Queers in their communities. In 1974 in Toronto at the Brunswick Tavern a lesbian band was physically and sexually assaulted by police for daring to perform a song titled “I Enjoy Being a Dyke.” In Montreal in 1975, a historic bathhouse was firebombed resulting in three deaths. The Toronto police raided several bathhouses in 1981, resulting in the arrest of just under 300 people. In response to the raids, thousands took to the streets the following night and protested along Yonge street. This was a major turning point for Queer liberation in Canada, and Queer Black, Brown, Indigenous and people of colour were always at the forefront of these protests.

Despite the prominent positions of Queer Black, Brown, Indigenous and people of colour in 2SLGBTQ+ liberation movements, Pride is regularly sanitised as a series of peaceful movements led by Whites. While many remember the names of Queer activists Harvey Milk and Elaine Noble, fewer recall the names of Johnson, Rivera, and Griffin-Gracy. Further, Pride has always been about challenging violent policies, institutions and structures that oppress 2SLGBTQ+ people. Far from peaceful movements, these Queer challenges have been met with forms of widespread, armed resistance. In the face of this resistance, non-violent forms of protest – including rioting and demonstrations – have been and will undoubtedly remain a significant component of Queer liberation movements. 

Continuing the tradition of sanitizing the work of Queer Black, Brown, Indigenous and people of colour commits its own form of violence against members of our community, and the powerful coalitions made in the fight for our liberation. Pride today is sold as a celebration of how far we have come. When Pride, in its current form, is sponsored by massive corporations who claim to have our wellbeing in mind, or encourage and even center the inclusion of uniformed police officers, these parades across Canada fail to acknowledge our history and are unfortunately another symbol of performative allyship. It is the opinion of the GSA2 that when our Queer siblings, especially our Black, Brown, Indigenous and people of colour kinfolk, continue to face violence in the form of police brutality, or from society, community and institutions, the fight (and protest) is not over.  

To be certain, significant advancements have been made in the fight for Queer rights since the 1950s. Canada’s decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1969; the inclusion of “sexual orientation” into the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1995; the legalisation of same-sex marriage in 2005; and the recent passage of the Transgender Rights Bill C-16 in 2017 have all been monumental steps towards 2SLGBTQ+ liberation. But our work is far from done. Queer people continue to experience forms of state-sanctioned violence and harassment in our contemporary period. As recently as 2002, a Calgary-based bathhouse was raided by police and 15 people were arrested and charged under bawdy house laws (specific to sex work legislation). While the Calgary Police Service have dramatically changed their internal structures and claim to support the lives of Queer Calgarians, violence in Calgary persists at the hands of law enforcement. Aside from police-centered events of discrimination and prejudice, two city sponsored Pride crosswalks were installed downtown and were almost immediately defaced with violent vitriol in 2019. In the past few months there have also been at least three reported examples of hate crimes targetted at several of Calgary’s Queer community members. Thankfully, though, Calgary has seen some recent success in Queer liberation  – on May 25, 2020 city councillors voted with a margin of 14-1 in favour of banning conversion therapy. Nevertheless, remembering and honouring that the violence persists today is why we need continued advocacy and activism. 

In 2019 alone, 331 trans and gender diverse people were murdered. So far in 2020, a year already plagued by immense loss due to the pandemic and ongoing overdose crisis, 21 trans women, the majority of them Black, Brown or Indigenous, have been murdered in the United States. The murders and loss of our trans kin is a public health crisis. Until our community, both local and global can recognize this crisis as such and the murders cease, pride must continue to be a protest. Finally, even though Calgary Pride looks differently this year, in a virtual landscape our voices can still be heard – let’s stand together centring our Black, Brown, Indigenous and siblings of colour. 

For further information on 2SLGBTQ+ history, police brutality and the violence against trans women of colour in Canada and the United States, we have compiled a list of resources that we encourage you to read. Furthermore, if you are a Calgary student in need of support or would like to connect with a community of 2SLGBTQ+ students, please do not hesitate to reach out to the GSA2 (e-mail: gsa2.gsa@ucalgary.ca), if you are a graduate student, or, for undergraduates, The Q Centre (e-mail: qcentre@ucalgary.ca) and Queers on Campus (qcampuscalgary@gmail.com).

About this Pride article series:

Happy Calgary Pride 2020 from the GSA2! As Calgary Pride week 2020 kicks off, we want to acknowledge that Pride is not simply a diversity event that happens once a year. For this reason, we want to bring light to the continuous efforts that are necessary to protect our rights to love, be loved, and be whoever we want to be. It is also important to acknowledge where pride started and whose efforts we are building on.

We stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and embrace and celebrate that Pride was and continues to be a protest led by Black and Brown trans women. Furthermore, we acknowledge Indigenous sovereignty and the importance of supporting Indigenous led efforts to decolonize our communities. Queer and trans Black, Brown, Indigenous and people of colour experience disproportionate discrimination and targeted acts of violence in our communities. The GSA2 and its members are proud to co-exist with our racialized kinfolk and recognize that queer and institutional spaces, like universities, often do not foster inclusion, justice or reconciliation. Therefore, we call upon all GSA members, queer or not, to meaningfully engage with our communities and speak honestly of the harms we have all contributed to. We encourage you to read the three articles that we have put together with some history on why pride is still a riot, some advice on how to go about discussing these issues, and some actions that you can take in the classroom:

  1. Challenging Unjust Systems: Pride is a Riot by: Pedrom Nasiri and Sean Bristowe
  2. How to create an inclusive classroom as a graduate lecturer or TA by: GSA2 Subcommittee
  3. How to discuss issues of politics, gender, and sexuality by: Danielle Lefebvre, Rob Clifton, Rebecca Frederick, and the GSA2 Subcommittee

Who is the GSA2? We are the Gender and Sexuality Alliance of the Graduate Students’ Association. The GSA2 serves the 2SLGBTQIAP+ (Two-Spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, agender, asexual, aromantic, pansexual and all gender and sexually diverse identities) and allies graduate student body at the University of Calgary. Through education and networking events, the committee works to increase the visibility of gender and sexual minorities within the university and the broader 2SLGBTQIAP+ community of Calgary. We are committed to providing a friendly, safe and welcoming environment for all, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race, ability, body size, professional experience and education, socioeconomic status, religion or other lived realities. Please reach out to us at gsa2.gsa@ucalgary.ca if you would like to learn more or if you have any questions.

Resources: 
  1. Skipping Stone is an agency that connects trans and gender diverse youth, adults and families with the comprehensive and low barrier access to the support they need and deserve.
    https://www.skippingstone.ca/
  2. Calgary Centre for Sexuality is a nationally recognized, community-based organization delivering programs and services that work to normalize sexuality and sexual health across the lifespan. 
    https://www.centreforsexuality.ca/
  3. Sovereign Spirits: Treaty 7’s Two Spirit Indigiqueer Society is a grassroots organization created to represent Two-Spirit & Indigiqueer Folx across Treaty 7, including the Blackfoot Confederacy, the Stoney Nakoda, the Tsuut’ina and the Metis Nation of Alberta Region 3. https://www.facebook.com/sovereignspirits
  4. Two-Spirited People of Manitoba Inc. is a community organisation designed to develop and foster support, education, and community events for 2-Spirit (Indigenous Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender) persons. 

Check out their manifesto here: https://twospiritmanitoba.ca/tspm-manifesto

Check out their organisational page here: https://twospiritmanitoba.ca/

  1. Voices: Calgary’s Coalition of Two-Spirit and Racialised LGBTQIA+ is a community coalition who are committed to advocating for racialised and marginalised communities. Find them here: https://www.yycvoices.ca
Selected Bibliography:
  1. Faderman, Lillian. 2016. The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle. New York: Simon and Schuster.
  2. FitzGerald, Maureen, and Scott Rayter, eds. 2012. Queerly Canadian: An Introductory Reader in Sexuality Studies. Canadian Scholars’ Press.
  3. Valerie J. Korinek. 2018. Prairie Fairies: A History of Queer Communities and People in Western Canada, 1930-1985 
  4. Warner, Thomas E. Never going back: A history of queer activism in Canada. University of Toronto Press, 2002.
  5. https://thegauntlet.ca/2017/08/29/the-university-of-calgarys-lgbtq-history/ 

[1] Two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, agender, asexual, aromantic, pansexual and all gender and sexually diverse identities