In our 2019 film, “Yellow Peril: Queer Destiny”, we had the privilege of working with Dora and Vicky, lion dancers in Vancouver who are breaking through barriers in the lion dance community, by challenging assumptions that ‘only men can lion dance’. Check out Dora’s story below!
For tickets to the August 20th, 2019 premiere of Yellow Peril: Queer Destiny, please visit this link.
By: Dora Ng
After every performance, someone would always ask me how much Fluffy (the lion costume) weighed.
Women and nonbinary people who ask this often wants to hear it is REALLY heavy, so they can be impressed and inspired.
Some men will ask only to tell me about how much heavier the lion heads were “back in the day,” unlike now when the lions are so much lighter and “anyone” can wield them.
Most people are just innocently curious.
I had no idea how much my lion actually weighed. Some days it feels almost weightless, and on other days it feels heavy, and just wiggling it leaves me short on breath.
On all days when I hold a lion head I also carry the additional weight of the patriarchy. From the moment someone who is not a boy pick picks up a lion, they are closely scrutinized. If a boy finds the lion head heavy, he is expected to be able to develop the strength he needs eventually. If girl shows any sign of struggling, she is immediately told that “see, you (and all girls) are not strong enough after all.”
I’ve faced this many times over the years. The moment I pick up a lion head someone will step in and tell me that I will never be able to wield it. I was not allowed to struggle and I was not given room to fail or experiment. One mistake or a bead of sweat and the lion was taken from me. This experience was on infinity loop until I met my lion dance partner, Vicky, who shared the same experience and we decided to try again, together this time.
When we started performing together and started getting decent, people would “compliment” us by telling us that we were “almost as good” as men” or “like men.” They meant well, so we took it.
A couple of months ago I watched a lion dance competition at CanAm, a multi-discipline martial arts competition. There was only one girl lion dancer in the competition. She was very young, and paired with a much older and experienced dancer. Her stage was set up with props that suggested that her lion will attempt multiple jumps and stunts.
The moment she lifted the lion head, I knew that she was not very experienced. I worried about the tricks she was going to perform, but hoped for the best. Not surprisingly, she was not able to land some of the jumps and stunts. She looked so bummed in the end, and I knew that part of the disappointment was that as the only girl lion dancer in the competition, she had not represented as well as she had hoped she would.
I wanted so much to say to her that it was fine, that this was part of a process and that she is allowed to fail and that I know she will grow and that I see her and I too, understand what it feels like to carry the weight of representation, that as minorities in the sport, how our performance will shape people’s opinions of the abilities and potential of all performers who are not men.
The more diverse lion dancers are, the less of this extra weight we will individually carry. With every woman and nonbinary lion dancer I see, I feel some of the weight lift.
But I do not want to give this long and bummer answer after every performance so last night I finally weighed the lion.
Love Intersections has been invited to be the Local Artists in Residence at the Vancouver Queer Film Festival for its 30th Anniversary year!
For us, it is the hard work and fearlessness of those in community over the past 30 years and beyond, that have given us the freedom and courage to create and take risks in our own self-expression as Queers of Colour.
“History has a pattern of writing out queer people of colour – and we want to rewrite that history,” says Co-Artistic Director David Ng, “we started Love Intersections because we were tired of just talking about the lack of representation, so we decided to share our own stories, and other stories from the margins.”
Love Intersections was founded in 2014 to explore ways of challenging underrepresentation, through sharing stories of queer people of colour. As part of their residency as local Artists in Residence at the Vancouver Queer Film Festival this year, Love Intersections will showcase a selection of their original works, as well as the world premiere of their series “FINDING UNTOLD QUEER STORIES”. The 6 part STORYHIVE series illuminates stories of underrepresented queer people of colour who live in Vancouver, in an anthology that visits different corners of the queer community, outside of mainstream representation. The 6 episodes include the following:
#1. Finding the Origin Story (QUEER ORIGINS)
The introductory film of a six-part episodic series tells the story of how Love Intersections began with Jen Sungshine and David Ng, as they embark on a queer and questioning journey together in search of local, untold stories.
#2. Finding Queer History (QUEER HISTORY)
In search of their queer and political ancestry, Jen and David look for the missing and hidden stories of queer activism and organizing in Vancouver. Speaking to queer ‘elders’ Ron Dutton and Fatima Jaffer, with special appearances by Symone Says and Maiden China, they uncover the powerful and fascinating contributions that queer/trans people of colour have made on our city’s cultural landscape.
#3. Finding Queer Dance (QUEER DANCE)
Changes in the city, gentrification, and a rising cost of living are affecting the access to social spaces for many of us in Vancouver. Historically underground dance parties and clubs have provided essential refuge and sanctuary for queer people seeking community and belonging. Talking to queer organizers in Vancouver, Jen and David explore current challenges and barriers to creating inclusive queer dances amidst a hostile world.
#4. Finding Queer Sports (QUEER SPORTS)
Why is it important to have a queer gathering space for playing sports? David and Jen visit the queer dodgeball league (Double Rainbow Dodgeball) on Halloween night, featuring several teams dodging foam balls in full costume. They find a dynamic community of queer people of colour who gather over sports, and learn how to play and create meaningful connections through physical activity.
#5. Finding Queer Disability Language (QUEER DISABILITY)
David and Jen connect with Amar Mangat and Vivian Ly, who are part of the Deaf, and Neurodiverse, communities, respectively. Parallels between Deaf identity, Deaf Culture, and Autistic identity and Autistic Culture are drawn as both individuals challenge neurotypical and hearing-privileged ways of understanding disability, language and access within queer culture.
#6. Finding Family & Hope (QUEER FAMILIES)
How is ‘family’ defined in queer culture? How does the notion of family relate to or exist in cultural traditions and intergenerational living? In this film, Jen and David meet with two couples at different stages of defining queer family: Alex & Sian Hoe, a gay couple who is ready for children, and Hayfa & Liza, who just brought a baby (Mio) into this world, whose very presence strengthens the multigenerational bond alongside Hayfa’s mom, Carla, in this life-affirming story.
The ”FINDING UNTOLD QUEER STORIES” world premiere is at the Vancouver Queer Film Festival, August 18th, 2018, at 2pm at the SFUGoldcorp Centre for the Arts. This film series is funded through Telus STORYHIVE program.
It has now been over a year since UBC’s rainbow Pride flag was burned down during the university’s annual OUTweek in February 2016. OUTweek is meant to bring recognition to students of diverse sexuality and gender identity backgrounds, and the burning of the rainbow Pride flag brought to the forefront a grim reality: not everyone agrees with what the flag stands for.
According to UBC student Brooklyn Fink, a transsexual woman who burned the flag down, “I intended in burning the flag only to illustrate my displeasure at the university’s failure to come to an agreement on the fact of the flag’s offensiveness.” As Fink stated in a VICE article, “I would like it if transsexual wasn’t included in LGBT.” What was clear in her motivation behind burning the flag — whether or not such an action was justified — is that Fink wished to express her disagreement in having her trans identity grouped together with the rest of the LGBTQ2+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, two-spirit) community.
Considering UBC’s rainbow Pride flag burning, some of you may be familiar with a more recent controversy within the LGBTQ2+ community regarding the rainbow Pride flag once again. There has been talk about adding black and brown stripes to the current rainbow Pride flag.
The addition of black and brown comes from Philadelphia’s Office of LGBT Affairs, which unveiled the new Pride flag this month after saying, “It’s a push for people to start listening to people of colour in our community, start hearing what they’re saying, and really to believe them and to step up and say, ‘What can I do to help eradicate these issues in our community?’”.
On the other hand, disagreement to the addition of the black and brown stripes has stirred concern. One article from the Truth Revolt argues, “but wait, where’s the white stripe? Is the flag — which now also has to represent skin tones — now discriminating against Caucasians?”
Since Gilbert Baker designed the original rainbow Pride flag in 1978, multiple interpretations of Pride flags have been created to reflect the nuanced identities within the LGBTQ2+ acronym. Take for example, that the colours blue, pink and white symbolize transgender people; pink, purple and blue for bisexuals; and black, grey, white, and purple for people who are asexual. Adding new colours to the Pride flag is not unprecedented – only this time black and brown are being considered to be added to the mainstream rainbow Pride flag rather than as a separate flag.
Vancouver City Hall raising the blue, pink and white transgender flag in July 2015. Arlen Redekop/The Province
As a member of the LGBTQ2+ community, I personally have no issue with this.
I have no issue with adding black or brown because I acknowledge that right now, black and brown bodies are facing a disproportionate level of backlash within the LGBTQ2+ community for trying to make Pride parades political again by addressing the needs of their members who have not reached full equality yet. I know, controversial stuff, but I am siding with whichever groups of people currently continue to face ongoing systemic discrimination.
With that being said, is backlash to adding black and brown to the rainbow Pride flag in response to a certain demographic of LGBTQ2+ people who are seeking to assimilate into mainstream society? Does this assimilation include a resistance to political fragmentation?
According to Amin Ghaziani, associate professor of sociology at UBC and Canada research chair in sexuality and urban studies, we are living in a “post-gay” moment.
In a press release, he stated that our modern era is “characterized by a rapid assimilation of gays into the mainstream, not to mention the assimilation of straight culture into queer cultures as well.” In Ghaziani’s research of Princeton University’s LGBT student organizations’ name changes over a 38-year time-span (1972-2010) showed that LGBT student organizations gradually started to name themselves as more aligned to being as expansive and inclusive as possible — names like “Pride Alliance” replaced student organization names that had previously been more about distinct identities such as with the “Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Alliance.” I don’t think it is a coincidence that UBC’s very own “Pride Collective” follows this cultural shift too.
By moving towards an “Us and Them” rather than an “Us versus Them” logic, the change in LGBTQ2+ student organizations reflect the LGBTQ2+ community moving towards assimilation and inclusivity. No longer do some members within the LGBTQ2+ community see a need to distinguish themselves as separate from mainstream society. By understanding this important cultural shift in our society from Pride parades to LGBTQ2+ student organizations, how might we make sense of adding black and brown stripes to the rainbow Pride flag?
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau became the first Prime Minister to March in Vancouver’s 2016 Pride Parade. Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press
While considering the addition of black and brown to the rainbow Pride flag, Ghaziani raises an important point to consider from an interview previously conducted by UBC: “Pride parades have become more community celebrations than political statements … [in which] concerns arise about the viability of distinct queer culture.” These “distinct queer cultures” are visible in the annual Vancouver Dyke March, Vancouver’s Queer People of Colour march last year, Winnipeg’s first-ever Transgender March this month and more recently the March on Pride in Vancouver in response to the police presence in Vancouver’s larger upcoming Pride parade this year. What these marches all share in common is a shared queer culture that is significant enough to be made into a separate march distinct from the annual Pride parade. Similar to how there are different types of Pride flags for transgender, bisexual, and asexual, there are different types of marches that signify contextually unique political needs.
Vancouver’s March On Pride held on Sunday, June 25, 2017 centered Black and Indigenous LGBTQ2+ voices. Janet Rerecich/DailyXtra
If there are multiple iterations of the annual Pride parade through separate marches, how might these help make sense of the controversy of adding black and brown stripes to the rainbow Pride flag? I think that as long as discrimination towards racialized black and brown queer people exists, the need for their existence must be acknowledged in the additional colours of the flag to reflect the most contemporary cultural issues in our society.
Just like how many of us make an effort to recognize and acknowledge that we are on unceded Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh land here at UBC as a form of activism until Indigenous rights are achieved, I see the additional colours to the Pride flag as a similar move — to soar with pride until racialized discrimination ceases to be an issue within the queer community.
So where does UBC proceed from here? Does UBC consider adding a black and brown stripe to the Pride flags they fly during their annual Pride week? Or does UBC consider raising the additional transgender flag, bisexual and asexual flags too? Such questions have no easy answers and should invoke deep critical thinking about the meaning of inclusivity within the LGBTQ2+ community.
In an ideal society, I would think that one symbol — which has undoubtedly been the mainstream rainbow flag — should represent and include everyone. But if it takes adding black and brown to the rainbow Pride flag to spark a discussion over the needs of racialized queer people, I am all for conversation starters about fighting against racism in the form of two additional black and brown stripes. Whether or not UBC chooses to add black and brown to their Pride flags next year, I hope that a conversation has precipitated over the fact that racialized issues are indeed relevant to the LGBTQ2+ community and are deserving of their own political rights.
Yes, you heard that correctly, rather you read that correctly.
I know, I know that is a loaded statement, let me explain. The idea of forced assimilation has been used globally by many colonists who set out to perpetuate their ideas of superiority over all other folks who are not themselves. This way of thinking, of course, has many flaws in its foundation and application which is visible in history when one looks at this fact critically. This can be seen in statements such as “I want to get rid of the Indian problem. I do not think as a matter of fact, that the country ought to continuously protect a class of people who are able to stand alone… Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department, that is the whole object of this Bill.” Duncan Campbell Scott.
Why would I want to be a part of any form of assimilation, never mind invite other folks to participate with me, right?
I would like to draw your attention to the first sentence in this letter, particularly the word invite. For an invitation by definition is a cordial request in which another party is capable to accept or deny at their discretion. Essentially I am saying that I am willing to engage with you in who I am and what my culture is, of which is at my disposal and in deciding to keep secret, sacred, aspects which are not meant for the general population to myself. In doing so, I would expect the same from you well respecting your boundaries in and if you so choose to share with me.
This is the distinct difference between forced assimilation and an invitation to assimilation. The invitation will have both parties consenting to this form of cultural exchange. With this cultural exchange, we will assimilate both of our cultures into something new and uniquely ours. The possibilities for new experiences are astronomical, in its spectrum of potential.
I must stress again the importance of both parties being consenting to this experience less it be cultural appropriation.
Now we are getting to the meat of the matter, what is the difference between cultural exchange and cultural appropriation? This question is big, with many contradictory, extremely varied, and passionate answers to both definitions. The question then becomes how do we navigate these experiences while still honouring our experience?
My name is Jeremy Jones, and I am of Coast Salish ancestry coming out of the nation of Snaw-Naw-As (Nanoose First Nation) on Vancouver Island. Growing up indigenous I have had the opportunity to witness many beautiful meldings of cultures. It is my wish and desire to provide more space for the possibility of cultural exchange.
A couple weeks ago, I was was surprised to find out that my partner – who is a White-Canadian of Scottish descent – didn’t wash his rice before cooking. I am Chinese, and so rice is a staple in my diet (obvs), and I naively assumed that rinsing rice prior to cooking (to remove the starch) was a universal norm. My partner and I shared this really nice moment later that day where I washed rice with him, our hands rubbing the rice under running lukewarm water, clockwise, and only clockwise as to not break the grains – just like how my grandmother taught me when I was 10 years old. I have this vivid memory of her showing me how you need to feel the rice run through your fingers, and I think about how her grandmother must have taught her the same thing in her home village in Indonesia, and her grandmothers grandmother before that.
Sharing a part of my culture with someone, as minute as washing rice may be, is in my opinion one of the most profound aspects of human diversity. It’s what makes us who we are, and in underpins all of our interactions with each other. That moment of washing rice with my partner, passes on the generations of culture from my own familial history. It’s this moment, this interaction in our interpersonal relationships that makes this project that we are about to embark on so interesting to me.
One of the things that motivated us about starting a project and a dialogue about cultural exchange is around the conversations on cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation is complex: in a nutshell, cultural appropriation is the taking, exploiting, and/or profiting off ‘another’ community’s culture. The popularity of wearing an Indigenous War Bonnet (headdress) to Coachella or other music festivals (or at Halloween…) is a prime example of this: non-Indigenous people, taking a representation of a sacred object, exploiting it as a fashion accessory, and completely disregarding the meaning (and sacredness) and importance behind the item from the communities that the culture came from.
As this conversation has evolved, what we noticed happening on social media was that the conversation has become very binary. The exhibition of culture is either appropriation or it isn’t – to the point where we’ve seen real online conversations that eating food that is not of “your” own culture, is considered cultural appropriation (actual conversation about how eating sushi as a non-Japanese person is cultural appropriation).
What we hope to do in Diverse Appetites, is to further explore cultural appropriation, and nuance the conversation by finding ways of doing ethical cultural exchange. This is not to deny in any way that cultural appropriation is problematic – of course it is, and it is in it’s worse form, a sinister form of colonization and racism. But we hope to shift our focus towards finding solutions – and finding ways that we can appreciate and exchange culture, while contending with the power dynamics that inform our relationships day to day.
What does cultural exchange look like? How can we share the beauty of cultural diversity, while also grappling with racism?
Is there such a thing as ethical cultural exchange?
One part of my culture that I love has to do with is family. I once got a fortune cookie that said “Cherish your family.” and I thought yeah, you know what, I really do and I want to work on it more. My family is very much about everybody supporting and being there for everybody regardless of what’s happening. If one person is fighting with someone else, it doesn’t matter, we’re family and it will get worked out because we’re all on the same team. I really like that and I aim to share it with the chosen family in my life as well.
What really bothers me about cultural appropriation is that it’s a continuation of everything that colonization was and is. It’s about taking the pretty things that are nice to look at or wear -like a bindi or Black hairstyles – but the whole underlying reason behind their existence is not even considered, much less the discrimination people from those cultures experience when they wear the same things. I think there needs to be much more thought and dialogue in terms of how we can do cultural exchange.
I am mixed race; my Dad’s family was from Goa, he was born in Malawi, in Africa, and my Mom is Zimbabwean. I was also born in Zimbabwe and the world reads me as Black so I identify as African/Black. My parents met in Apartheid-era Southern Africa, and so that was very interesting… them getting married as two people whose skin colours “didn’t match”. Being their first-born child has been a unique experience in cultural exchange and belonging to two very different cultures, but at the same time being read as a Black woman and identifying very strongly as a Black woman, especially in present-day North America. I remember food as always being a key element of learning about each of my parents’ families growing up, whether that was watching my aunt make a curry from scratch or my grandmother cook real sadza.
What is challenging as somebody who has moved from Zimbabwe to Vancouver is almost having to take on a North-American history that isn’t my personal family’s history in addition to my narrative as an African immigrant…and feeling that I want and need to address that additional history now that I live here because I totally experience what it is to be black in North America. That’s a very interesting thing to have had to learn.
Our newest Love Intersections collaborator, the amazing Danny Ramadan, shares his experience coming to Vancouver as a queer Syrian refugee, and shares a new program he is spearheading with Qmunity (a queer resource centre in Vancouver), “Routes to Roots” – a drop in for LGBTQ newcomers and refugees.
Imagine yourself as a tree; a beautiful, fully grown, tree that carries delicious fruits and spring flowers unmatchable to any other. Now, imagine a war on trees, those who want to cut that fruitful tree down, to burn it to ashes. Those who want to eradicate trees.
Like the hero of a story, the tree pulled itself out of the ground. It pulled up its own roots in a painful, unimaginable way, and managed to stand tall to escape that hateful land. It went through a lot of hardship, and traveled across many borders, until it finally found green, welcoming soil, and it decided to root itself there.
Like that tree, LGBTQ-identified refugees and newcomers had to uproot themselves from the soil of their home countries, seeking the promise of a bright future, escaping the fire of homophobia, and the axes of transphobia, in search of safety, security, and prosperity here in Canada.
But planting a tree in foreign soil is not easily done.
When I arrived in Vancouver among the very first LGBTQ-identified Syrian refugees, I was hit by a wave of happiness. I knew my future here would be bright, beautiful, and magical. I felt that I had finally found a place where I could be my true self, and represent who I am to the community at large, without fear of persecution, homophobia, or othering.
I didn’t realize, however, how much time and effort it would take for my roots to grow.
Integrating into a new country requires an equal effort from the newcomer themselves, to learn the traditions and the ways of the new culture, as well as the local community to welcome these newcomers and refugees, and support them as they go through this mesmerizing, yet challenging, transformation.
Building those roots and integrating into the Canadian community is a unique challenge for queer and trans refugees. While other refugees can rely on the local community native to their country of origin; LGBTQ-identified refugees and newcomers moved to escape that exact community back home, running away from homophobia and transphobia, and seeking freedom in Canada.
Queer and trans newcomers and refugees come across challenges in finding solace engaging with their heterosexual compatriots in diaspora.
With this unique experience in our hands here at QMUNITY, we understood a distinctive need in this new and growing community: the need to integrate in an authentic and supportive environment.
That’s why QMUNITY is running its latest project: Routes to Roots!
Routes to Roots (R2R) is a drop-in group for queer and trans identified folks, from both the newcomer and refugee communities, as well as the local community.
The drop-in will act as a social hub to form a connection between those communities. It will include social games, hangouts, events, and fun nights together to create meaningful friendships within the local LGBTQ community, and the newcomers and refugees community. The hope is that we will be able to help the newcomers and refugees feel that sense of belonging that many of them need so desperately.
We aspire to have each drop-in facilitated in two languages: English and another language.
Our Kick-Off meeting is Thursday, the 5th of May, 2016 from 6 pm to 9 pm. We will be meeting in QMUNITY’s main office (1170 Bute Street). This drop-in is unique, as it will have a space for the newcomer and refugee folks to let us know what kind of social activities they would like to see. We hope that through this drop-in, we will be able to focus our services to provide solutions reflecting the challenges faced by this community.
During this month’s drop-in, facilitated in both English and Arabic, we will be collaging, playing social games, and getting to know each other for three hours. The space is located on the second level of the building, and attendees should be aware that there is a flight of 23 stairs to reach the office.
Depending on the season, we hope to provide a variety of activities: in summer time, we may go biking, hiking, or go to the beach together; in the winter season, we may go to the Aquarium, or to the Vancouver Public Library.
The program will also provide a unique opportunity for the local community of queer and trans people of colour, as it will be a meaningful space for them to integrate with the newcomers and refugees, and connect with them on matters of race, sexuality, and being settlers in the land of Canada.
Integration into a new community is hard, like planting a tree in foreign soil; I know that first hand. But here at QMUNITY, we hope that we will be able to provide a nourishing ground for these fruitful trees to grow and flourish.
Do you have questions? Get in touch with Danny and he will be here to answer them all: firstname.lastname@example.org
hope we can realize that behind Pink Shirt Day is a very simple and raw act of kindness. Extend your heart, show compassion, and empathy, just like we do on Pink Shirt Day, and in this simple process I believe various forms of oppression can be alleviated. Initiatives to end bullying will require dismantling systemic forms of oppression, but first, love is required, and that love starts with the love you hold in your heart.
Two years ago I partook in the celebration of Canada’s national anti-bullying day as I slipped over my pink shirt and zealously celebrated all-things pink. I was in grade 12 and took pride in mobilizing my high school’s pink-shirt day with what I thought was a tangible solution to the complexity of bullying.
At my school, we had every student, teacher, and custodian’s name posted in the front hall in the form of miniature paper pink shirts, creating a hall flooded with the colour pink.
Yet today I look back at myself and wonder if pink-shirt day really made a difference.
Pink-shirt day originated in Nova Scotia when a gay high school teen was bullied because he wore the colour pink to school. In response, his friends encouraged their friends to all wear pink the following day in an act of solidarity, through protesting bullying.
What happened in Nova Scotia is a prime example of what happens on a day-to-day basis in schools – the targeting of boys who transgress hegemonic masculinity. This is rooted in homophobia and misogyny.
One of the things that I reflect upon is whether or not through anti-bullying day we actually challenge these systems of hegemonic masculinity and misogyny, which cause people harm. Yes, it’s great to blatantly frown upon “bullying” – but how do we actually address the systemic issues that underpin bullying? Are we actually engaging our communities to find solutions against the harms caused by misogyny, homophobia, and femmephobia; why is it that every over day of the year it is still awkward for a guy to wear the colour pink? How can we find ways to challenge the continuous persistence of masculinity by critiquing the social disapproval towards deviances from gender norms?
As students and adults embrace anti-bullying day by wearing pink shirts, going on marches on the street, and preaching the rhetoric of kindness and respect, I am concerned that this movement against bullying will become a façade – which we advocate against “oppression” (in the form of bullying) for one day – yet we will overlook the systemic impacts of how oppression actually operationalizes. I am concerned that when students (like myself) wear pink shirts, they go home and give themselves a feel-good pat-on-the back for challenging bullying, but forget where bullying stems from.
We cannot forget that bullying is a systemic issue; not all students (and adults) are equally susceptible to being bullied, bullying targets those who are socially on the margins. Issues of race should be talked about, issues of cultural and ethnic differences, body shapes, fatness, homophobia, transphobia, gender variances, the way certain people smell, the way certain people dress, the way people talk, the lisps certain people have, the eye twitch that one girl has, the way one walks, and the list goes on, are all things people can be bullied for. This is what anti-bullying day really should be about: yes, wearing pink shirts, but also organizing and finding strategies to combat the root causes of bullying and oppression.
When we wear a pink shirt, we should be willing to address issues of racism, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, mental health, religious differences, and body image among the variety of reasons why people are bullied. Otherwise, when we wear a pink shirt to preach anti-bullying and stop there, we are in fact perpetuating bullying by saying we refuse to take further action in dismantling systemic discrimination. Bullying is in fact perpetuated because we convince ourselves we are addressing the issues of bullying, but we are merely masking our own insecurities to take action and speak out against various forms of discrimination ranging from transphobia, homophobia, Islamophobia, fatphobia, colonialism and classism.
By merely wearing a pink-shirt and convincing yourself that you are not a bully is a myopic measure that silences the reality of bullying on a larger scale. Simply wearing pink carries symbolic power, it visually creates an image of solidarity, but solidarity can be expressed by showing compassion and taking action to fight systemic forms of oppression, too.
We recognize the unacceptable acts of physical aggression and blatant name-calling, which often come to define bullying, but we are gradually becoming numb to the ways that produce bullying in the act of speaking against it.
Pink Shirt Day reminds me of the challenges I face in my journey, as someone who strives to organize against oppression and bullying. There is something liberating about getting excited to mobilize change when your friends, teachers, and co-workers all wear pink (I remember this good feeling), yet I am reminded that for the other 364 days we must not let various forms of oppression go unchecked. Simply, I hope to find ways to take the fun and love of Pink Shirt Day and use that energy to move one step further to build long term goals and cohesive communities that challenge oppression.
I hope we can realize that behind Pink Shirt Day is a very simple and raw act of kindness. Extend your heart, show compassion, and empathy, just like we do on Pink Shirt Day, and in this simple process I believe various forms of oppression can be alleviated. Initiatives to end bullying will require dismantling systemic forms of oppression, but first, love is required, and that love starts with the love you hold in your heart.
In October 2011, at 28 years old, I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder type 1. For me, for my life, this label has been extremely useful and in some ways, I grieve for the years of my life I spent living without it. I know several people with the same diagnosis who had severe episodes earlier in life, during their teenage years and so were diagnosed earlier. I somewhat envy these people. That they were prepared for an adulthood living with mental illness. That they were aware earlier and were treated earlier – even if their subsequent recurrences of their illness were as severe and as debilitating.
But, my story conforms in many regards to the narrative of Bipolar diagnoses. The most common bipolar diagnoses are given to women in their 30s, after a significant manic or depressive episode. And that’s how it happened for me. Between 2010-2011, I hurtled between, hypomania, depression, mixed episodes, a few weeks of clarity here and there, and finally, this culminated into what I believe to be my first true manic episode that lasted around 5 weeks. It was exhilarating and terrifying. I had delusions and breaks from reality. It was wonderful to feel powerful and frustrating to feel completely unable to wield it. In a break that lasted a day or two, I called the university clinic for a Mental health assessment. An hour with the psychiatrist would reveal that I had all the classic symptoms of the illness, without question. However, the doctor offered me this, “The diagnosis and label of Bipolar Disorder is only useful if it is useful to you. It is up to you whether you want to identify with it.” Indeed.
As I started counselling and psychiatric therapy, I quickly began to research and read everything I could find about the disorder. I took every personality test. I made my partner my editor to ensure I was unbiased in my answers – keep in mind I was in the middle of a Master degree and so very much attached to peer-reviewed papers and qualitative evidence. On one hand, it was uncanny, to read my “personality” in a book. It was a revelation. It was an explanation. It gave me some sort of reason for some of the things I had done, some of the feelings I had felt and some of the confusion I had lived with for years. On the other hand, I couldn’t believe how I had been living with this illness for what seemed to be my entire life, without anyone ever noticing. Did I hide it that well?
When I look through my past, I can see the echoes and shadows of bipolar disorder. As a queer person, I have been marked and scrutinized and othered. As a queer femme, my perspective as an outlier in the queer community has made me negotiate and re-negotiate my identity and what space I feel I am entitled to and welcomed into. My illness has complicated and changed my perspective on my queer identity in many way – silence about my illness and its affects, isolation through periods of depression, and the repression of the many sexual encounters that have confounded my gender and sexual identity.
As a queer femme, sometimes all you have as proof is your history of queer sexuality. All the womyn you’ve fucked, or who’ve fucked you. Sometimes I feel there is a calculation or formula about it. When did you come out? Are you active in the queer community? Are you a top or a bottom? If you’ve fucked men, how many and under what circumstances. The last question is one I have trouble answering. How many men have I fucked? What do you consider fucking? It’s in the double digits. Not quite in balance with the womyn with whom I’ve shared a bed, or a bathroom stall. Under what circumstances – rebellious teen, sexually abused girlfriend, drunken mistake, roofied at a bar, cherished friendship turned loving and sexual, for shits and giggles. The one circumstance that has *almost* remained constant has been mania or hypomania if we’re being specific. My special blend of mania is extremely hypersexual, with no inhibitions or impulse control. I’ve often explained it as “pushing the envelope”. There was a certain pattern – I’d dress provocatively, catch some random guy’s attention and off we’d go. I don’t really remember much else – my ego took over from there. I don’t know if I had a good time, but afterwards, I’d often feel pretty confused. I knew I loved women, that I loved the curves of their bodies and felt such fulfillment in our encounters. I never identified as straight or bi. Mostly I identified as a lesbian – with bad habits. Those experiences pretty much barred me from the LGBTQ community. I don’t think I passed anyway.
How do I explain or reconcile my sexual history with my queer identity, with my femme gender and my illness? Do I have to? Does it matter? Are other queer people entitled to my history and what it means to me, what it has meant to my own concept of identity? I was diagnosed at 28 years old, after a lifetime of mood swings, of personality changes, of unbridled ego, of devastating lows. In every way, I was fractured and broken. I like to describe depression as the thing that destroys you. Mania is the thing that destroys everything you love. Though the reverse is also true. In the past 4 years since my diagnosis, I have been putting myself together – for the first time discovering the characteristics, values, thoughts that make me truly me. I have clung to my queer identity and femme gender as buoys in a deep and stormy sea of change. It turns out that queerness and mental illness aren’t very different in the end. I have been marked, identified, seen, ignored, othered by both. I’m not sure which prepared me for the other, or if I was ever prepared for either at all, but at this moment, in this time and place, I am finally ready to reclaim who I am, in every complexity.
It may be hard to admit for some, but I believe that had “Mohammed Sharaz” been “Matthew Smith,” it would have not peaked the VPD’s interest and the media would have sensationalized it as they did. Many people have said that this incident should be blamed on the media and not the authorities as the authorities were simply making sure “people were safe,” but they are missing the point in how the authorities felt the safety of shoppers was at risk in the first place. This racialization of suspicion is not something that is new- nor is this an isolated incident- and as a brown Sikh man with a beard and a turban, I know that all too well.
This past Friday- January 15, 2016- an article posted by a popular Vancouver-based social media outlet went viral in local and national spheres on the internet. The piece featured images that had been leaked from the Vancouver Police Department of three men that had been deemed “suspicious.” The title of the article (which has since been changed) sparked a reaction that is all too familiar in today’s post-9-11 society: “Vancouver Police searching for 3 Middle Eastern men videotaping Pacific Centre Mall.”
People immediately began jumping to conclusions about the probability of another terrorist attack in North America, and several other news articles shared the news and added to the frenzied fear-mongering. However, as we all know, the three men in question ended up being innocent after all, and an article released later on Friday night explained the not-so-sinister motives of the group.
The frenzy has since died down, and the rash Facebook posts made by people have been deleted, but this event has opened up a “Pandora’s box” of issues that Vancouver, and Canada at large, has often denied or has avoided addressing. Racism is a problem that is thought to have been long gone, but that is unfortunately a myth. When racist events occur, the public reacts as if this is something out of the ordinary, and as Manisha Krishnan outlines in an article from Vice, the way these events are addressed never acknowledge the systemic racism that has always been in place.
However, people of colour across North America know too well that these occurrences are simply and physical manifestation of the underhanded discrimination that occurs daily. While Friday’s incident was not violent like the pepper spraying of Syrian refugees on the evening of January 8th was, the incident brought attention to something that is a daily occurrence, is very vicious, and enables attacks like the one we saw on Syrian refugees- microaggressions.
The Racialization of Suspicion
In a manual from the University of California’s Office of the President (UCOP), microaggressions are defined as “everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.”
Whether we like to admit it or not, these snubs are very much a part of the Vancouver landscape, one only needs to ask around to see how these racist undertones thrive as we continue to ignore them. It’s these microaggressions that set the stage for what Mohammed Sharaz and his two companions went through on Friday. It’s these microaggressions that painted a group of visually-impaired men, who were snapping pictures of landmarks in order to make it easier to find their way around Pacific Centre, as “suspicious.” It may be hard to admit for some, but I believe that had “Mohammed Sharaz” been “Matthew Smith,” it would have not peaked the VPD’s interest and the media would have sensationalized it as they did. Many people have said that this incident should be blamed on the media and not the authorities as the authorities were simply making sure “people were safe,” but they are missing the point in how the authorities felt the safety of shoppers was at risk in the first place. This racialization of suspicion is not something that is new- nor is this an isolated incident- and as a brown Sikh man with a beard and a turban, I know that all too well.
I became observant in my faith a few years ago, and I began keeping my beard, let my hair grow out, started wearing a turban, and became an Amritdhari- “baptised,” or “initiated”- Sikh. While this transformation changed the way I viewed my life and the way I viewed the world, it also changed the way that the world viewed me. The first thing I noticed was how I was getting “randomly” selected for checking more while crossing the border to meet family, or while flying. While on the Skytrain, I have seen this racialization of suspicion manifest, as people shift uneasily when I walk onto the train, or when the seat beside me is often left unoccupied, despite the fact that the everyone in the train is packed in like sardines and people are left standing and struggling to keep their balance. An acquaintance I knew from my clean-shaven days in high school once asked my cousin why I have “gone Al-Qaeda,” and once an elderly woman on the bus told me that it wasn’t good to keep my people, as “my people” had beheaded James Foley in Raqqah.
The stories go on and on. In Ontario, two day after the horrific attacks that took place in Paris, a couple erected a sign asking Muslims if they were “sorry for the slaughter of innocent people by [those] whom represent your religious beliefs.” In December, Valerie Kaur, a renowned activist in the Sikh community, was asked to present her breast pump to be searched “to prove she was not a terrorist” by passengers and staff on a flight home to Los Angeles. While Brazilian-American comedians Nick Giassi and Jobson Chaves were filming a video in Florida, a woman drove by and began yelling racist, xenophobic, and Islamophobic obscenities at them. Lastly, this past September, Ahmed Mohamed, a Muslim high schooler from Irving, Texas, was arrested for suspicion that the homemade clock he brought to school was a bomb, and a month ago Armaan Singh Sarai, a Sikh high schooler from Arlington, Texas, was arrested and forced to remain in a juvenile detention for three days after a bully made a false accusation that Armaan had a bomb in his backpack.
It is quite interesting to see how there is a pattern of brown, black, Muslim, and perceived-to-be-Muslim people have been continually marginalized in the name of security and safety. Therefore, it can be seen how dangerous these microaggressions truly are, as they aren’t mere opinions, but rather they provide the platform for racial profiling- despite the fact that authorities constantly deny that it takes place. However, while authorities keep doing what they do, it is the everyday public that has the most impact on how microaggressions affect people of colour. Thus, it is imperative that the information the public receives is not sensationalized or used to trigger the witch-hunt syndrome we all saw Friday night.
Seeing the bigger picture…
While it is questionable why the VPD found the three men suspicious- and we should be critical of the methods the police have used to identify a possible threat- the social media outlet that leaked the information is also to blame. The chief editor of said-outlet refused to acknowledge what they did as fear-mongering and claimed that they simply believed that the public should know what was going on. That would be absolutely believable, but their choice of language and the way in which they used by-lines which blatantly grabbed people’s attention, while feeding into existing microaggressions that paint brown men as suspicious, only fueled the fire of fear-mongering that we see plaguing North America.
What happened on Friday has gone by, and I am sure we all know what we can learn from this now- how dangerous microaggressions are, particularly the racialization of suspicion. However, there are things that you can do today to ensure that this does not occur again:
Hold media sources accountable for delivering unbiased information without sensationalization, or the use of microaggressions.
Be critical of methods used by politicians and authorities to determine or deal with a threat, be it Harper’s Bill C-51, or the use of racial profiling in the police.
If you shared the original articles online, make sure you take them down, and tag every person who liked or commented your post and let them know what had actually happened.
Don’t be a bystander! Way too often we hear people making off-handed comments and we let it slide, but don’t do that! Address the issue if you feel safe, or offer your help to someone who just faced that awful treatment.
Learn to unlearn racist behaviours. We all say or do things that can be oppressive, and many times we have no idea we are doing anything! Be mindful, and try to catch yourself when you clutch your purse when a black or brown man walks by, or ask yourself why you shift uncomfortably when you see a man with a turban or a woman in hijab.
It was awful what happened to our new neighbours from Syria, and it is sad to see how three men who were visiting Unceded Coast Salish Territories were given such a rude welcome, but it is important to not see these as two isolated events and two address the underlying issue. “This is not Canada” does not do justice to the microaggressions that have been festering in our communities for years. We must be introspective and realize how the institutionalized racism in our combined thoughts and actions, and the lack of acknowledgment thereof, has enabled these events to happen. People of colour often feel muzzled from voicing their concerns, as people use the existence of the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms to refute lived experiences that many of us face. However, that must stop. The only way we can truly move on and solve this problem is if we allow people to be heard, and acknowledge the problem exists in the first place.
In these first few weeks of January, my faith community worldwide observes Guru Gobind Singh Ji’s Gurpurab — the anniversary of the incarnation of the tenth Sikh Guru — and during these days we reflect on Guru Gobind Singh Ji’s teachings. In one of his writings, Guru Ji addresses us and says, “Maanas Ki Jaat Sabhai Ekai Pehchaanbo,” which translated to “Recognize the human race as one.” I believe that this line immortalized in Guru Ji’s works can teach us a great deal of how we can move on, and I pray that we contemplate, live, and breathe these words so that we may see a more equitable society.