I think Ottawa’s Capital Pride serves as a good case study on the mechanics of prejudice.
Capital Pride purports to represent the interests of the queer community in Ottawa and Gatineau. In practice they only serve white, upper or middle class, able-bodied, working-age, anglophone, cisgender gay individuals. For the purposes of this article, I’ll shorten this latter group to cisgays, but know that when I use that term I mean all of these qualifiers.
In this article I’ll focus on Capital Pride’s prejudice against trans people, people of colour, and francophones. I would assert that participation by these communities is despite of, rather than due to, the board of directors for Capital Pride. Though their exclusion is well-known to members of these communities, I will nonetheless substantiate these claims.
The theme for Capital Pride this year is “Free to Love.” It is focused on sexual orientation to the exclusion of gender-related issues. It speaks to the attention by cisgay activists to issues abroad this year, in particular Uganda and Russia. It also speaks to a general lack of awareness for queers at home. There is a perception among cisgays that Ottawa-Gatineau is a done deal.
This is substantiated by comments made by Jodie McNamara, the chair of Capital Pride:
After last year’s record-breaking attendance of 75,000 spectators, the Parade will once again march down Bank Street through Ottawa’s LGBT Village on Sunday, August 24 under this year’s theme, ‘Free to Love’. ‘Free to Love’ is about celebrating the rights and freedoms that many of us in Ottawa enjoy, while standing with those for whom the struggle continues.
This talk of “standing with those for whom the struggle continues” is not referring to others in the area. It’s talking about people abroad. The fight in Ottawa is thought to be over.
This is in a city where half of the homeless youth are queer. Where in Gatineau, transgender people are forced to undergo sterilization. Where politicians equate trans people with sexual predators on television.
Just this week both of Canada’s national newspapers published pieces portraying trans people as delusional and a threat to children. Barbara Kay of the National Post wrote the article Transgendered advocacy has gone too far, railing against acceptance. Margaret Wente of the Globe & Mail wrote an article entitled The march of transgender rights. It’s concluding paragraph sums up the sentiments within quite well:
But today, people demand affirmation for their “personal truth,” no matter how distorted that truth might be. Transgenderism is not so much the “next civil rights frontier,” as Time magazine declared it, as a way for intimidated liberals to declare their bona fides. Enough is enough. And for God’s sake, leave the kids alone.
Both newspapers are seen as authoritative and the pieces they published will perpetuate the misconceptions that feed the violence faced by trans people. Yet to the likes of Capital Pride’s Chair, there is no problem here.
That ignorance extends beyond the personal beliefs of the organizers. It constricts all the rights-oriented discussions that would occur during Pride. The mandates that Capital Pride put together do not allow the space to have these local marginalized voices heard. The events are to explicitly focus abroad.
The description for the human rights vigil:
This year’s vigil will look at what it means to be “Free to Love” around the world, and will be hosted by special guest Stephanie Battaglino.
The description for the awareness-raising conference:
This is a free event that plays off the festival’s 2014 theme, “Free to Love”, and will feature Stephanie Battaglino as the keynote speaker.
The speaker at both of these, Stephanie Battaglino, is a corporate vice president at a large American insurance company. She will have no knowledge of the context in this area.
If the ignorance is this lack of awareness for the plight of queers in Ottawa, the prejudice is silencing these voices by assembling mandates that make them unwelcome.
Capital Pride Marginalizes Francophones
Capital Pride’s mission statement states that it represents the Ottawa-Gatineau region. There are approximately 314,000 individuals whose mother tongue is French across both municipalities. This does not include the higher number of whom speak French but don’t have it as their mother tongue. Many are not fluent in English.
All 45 of the 45 events at Capital Pride will either be unilingual English, or in English with a French component. 0 of the 45 events will be unilingual French. Anything of substance will only be offered in English. The speech by Stephanie Battaglino at the human rights vigil will only be in English. Her keynote at the conference will only be delivered in English. There will be no translator. Three of the three panels at the conference will be conducted in English. Six of the six films presented are either with an English audio track, or if they’re in a foreign language, given English subtitles. There will not be French subtitles available for films whose audio is not in English. The one discussion group will only be conducted in English.
So what’s in French? The latter half of the guide, which describes these English-only events. The French portion is a translation job, given that there was no original content in that language. The translation is sometimes done with comically poor results. For instance:
Portez vos vêtements en cuir et votre engin de fétiche avec Fierté!
This, along with a token few words in French at a flag raising and introducing the next musical performer at one event, constitutes what Pride organizers believe to be accessibility. This view was affirmed in an article by the Ottawa Citizen a few years ago entitled “Pride party adds francophone flair”:
”For a long time, a lot of francophones and people of Gatineau have not had a lot of queer-oriented events,” Capital Pride spokeswoman Lauryn Kronick said. ”It’s pretty sad that there’s a lack. We want to make it more accessible so that francophones will come out and not feel as though they’re being neglected.”
This year’s official Pride Guide is available in English and French, there will be more francophone performers and MCs will speak in both official languages, Kronick said.
This year, every single performer will do their act in English. But the MCs will introduce them in both official languages.
It is ignorance to entertain the idea that describing unilingual English events in French in the guide constitutes accessibility. Or that having stating the name of the next all-English performance in French makes it accessible in that language. It is also ignorance to think that making an event that excludes a third of the local population by virtue of an accessibility barrier is anything short of prejudicial.
Racism, Transphobia, Fat Shaming in the Guide
There are other cues that speak to who an event is for. Some of them are not in words, but images. I’ve compiled a list of all the faces more than a few pixels wide found in the guide Capital Pride distributed for 2014. I omitted the faces of five young children which were accompanying their (white cisgay) parents. That leaves 52 faces.
The organizers of Capital Pride’s mission statement is:
The mission of the Capital Pride Festival is to perpetuate the spirit of pride in the gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, two-spirited and questioning (GLBTTQ) community in Canada’s National Capital Region of Ottawa–Gatineau.
- 0 of the 52 people are actually trans.
- 2 of the 52 people are fat. It would need to be 27 people to accurately reflect Ontario.
- 2 of the 52 people are queer youth.
- 4 of the 52 people have grey hair.
- 4 of the 52 people are of colour. It would need to be 12 faces to accurately reflect the diversity in Ottawa.
- 52 of the 52 people are presented to be able-bodied.
- There are 7 drag queens but 0 drag kings.
- There are more straight cisgender male actors depicting trans people (1) than actual trans people (0).
Note: The exact figures are not known. I based the above on making assumptions about each face. Please see update #3.
In short, the organizers have put together a guide that replicates the racism, ageism, ableism, toxic beauty standards and cis-sexism that exists in society.
I think it bears mentioning again: in an event that purports to represent trans people as one of the six identities explicitly mentioned in its mission statement, Capital Pride’s booklet with fifty-two faces did not include a single trans person.
The bias favours one specific group: white, thin, middle to upper class, able-bodied, working age, cisgender gays. If the guide accurately reflected the diversity in Ottawa, there would be three times as many people of colour. Instead, those faces are replaced by white people. If it accurately reflected the queer community, there would be a number of trans and genderqueer folk. Instead, it’s even more gay men and women.
Representation is important. It’s messaging about who is actually welcomed, the results of good words put to practice. The faces in the guide are about who organizers envision as being part of Pride. Right now, that vision is one without people of colour, fat people, trans people, or people with disabilities.
One could pass off the prejudice as mirroring the bias’ of its corporate corporate sponsors, as most faces come from their advertising. However, Capital Pride’s own record fared no better. Representation in the portions where Capital Pride had full creative control was worse than the corporate advertisements.
Incentivized Against Accepting Marginalized Queers
If prejudice against marginalized queers is embedded throughout Capital Pride, it does little to help that it is incentivized against their acceptance.
This is a consequence of Capital Pride’s dependence on corporate sponsors and positioning itself as a city festival, both of which rely on public approval.
It wasn’t always the case.
When Capital Pride had its inaugural event in 1986, it was a celebration for this society’s most reviled. Public approval was not a requirement.
This was at a time where gay bashings were a fact of life. Where police conducted mass arrests of gay people. Newspapers ran fearmongering pieces. It was twenty years before same-sex marriage. There was little public support and no major company wanted to be associated with that kind of movement.
Pride was a beacon in all of this. Pushing acceptance.
The dynamics are different now. Corporate funds do not come without strings. It means Capital Pride does not want to risk pitting corporate brands against public opinion by proxy through their association with people that society does not like. It means less leverage to oppose prejudiced representation in advertising. It should be noted that corporations never lead public opinion on matters of acceptance. This is as a principle of financial self-interest. Capital Pride’s dependence on them thus curtails the organization’s capacity to lead the way on matters of acceptance. That also ties in with Capital Pride’s relationship with City Hall, which again is sensitive to public opinion as a matter of political survival. There is a reason why Capital Pride would never allow the voices of the marginalized, like sex workers, to front public facing events like flag raisings.
Given it’s history, it’s a most unfortunate evolution.
Nothing About Us Without Us
Capital Pride only organizes to serve cisgays. They speak of inclusion, but their actions demonstrate otherwise. Talia Johnson has a quote I very much find relevant:
Many people in these communities see themselves as being accepting and inclusive, but when one looks at the situation in more detail how they see themselves isn’t necessarily the reality experienced by the people who are supposedly accepted and included. When this disparity of thought and experience is pointed out the first response on the part of the community is often defensive, “of course we’re inclusive and accepting, see, we say so in our welcoming statement!”
Marginalized queers have been speaking out against Capital Pride’s exclusion for years and offering paths to move forward. Take for instance the article Ottawa Pride Invisibilizes Trans People, published in 2008. The board of directors have ignored these voices while maintaining they’re inclusive.
This brings me to the last thing I’ll examine for this article. This is the board of directors for Capital Pride:
Six out of seven board of directors are white. Seven out of seven board of directors are middle class. Seven out of seven are able-bodied. Six out of seven are cisgender.
They are not recipient to the kind of prejudice they facilitate. None of them stand to benefit from making their event more accepting. It is more likely that they would see it as a net loss. There are no voices of marginalized people on the board to raise those interests. The representation problem then is not limited to faces in the guide, but extends to the make-up of the organization itself. It becomes easier to understand why Capital Pride is prejudiced and only serves cisgays. It is a sad reality that this same prejudice places obstacles for marginalized queers to take on leadership roles, further inhibiting the removal of those barriers.
This is not an article on how Capital Pride can move forward to be more accepting.
It will come to be more inclusive in time, but not be because it led people there. Rather, it’s tied its own hands so that it can only trail the march of progress.
It’s unfortunate that there is such a fantastic opportunity for awareness raising that is being squandered away.
Pride is dead but it’s reputation lives on. I see it every time a baby queer wants to go to their first parade. It’s still important.
Will I participate in the festivities?
There’s not a lot of alternatives out there.
Update #1: This article has generated a bit of activity in other places. In particular, it’s being misconstrued by some cis gays as an attack on their identities. This is a discussion on the desire to see inclusion at Capital Pride match its own mission statement. Identifying the ways in which it fails to do so is not an attack, nor is having a more diverse Capital Pride that treats others as well as it does them.
Update #2: I said that seven out of seven board of directors are white. The correct figure is six out of seven.
Update #3: A criticism has been brought forth that I passed off the figures on the identities represented in the guide as fact, when instead it was based off of assumptions I was making on each face. I find that criticism entirely valid. There is a representation problem that is immediately visible in the guide and I was trying to put numbers to it. The approach I took relied on assumptions that were rooted in my own bias. I could have erased someone’s identity. I apologize if I did so. Were I to re-write this article I would handle that section differently.