by Emma Teitel
Last summer, Justin Trudeau made history when he became the first sitting prime minister to march in the Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal Pride parades (not all at once, of course).
Today, the PM will again make history when he becomes the first sitting prime minister to participate in another more understated but equally important celebration: the Halifax Pride parade.
Some say Trudeau is all style and no substance. This may be true, but sometimes style counts for a great deal.
Thanks to the PM, norms are slowly shifting to a point where it’s standard for a prime minister to attend not only a major city’s Pride celebration, but a smaller city’s celebration as well: a city such as Halifax, where Pride isn’t an international tourist draw.
This means that when someone new is elected to the office of prime minister – a Conservative perhaps – the national expectation around major Pride events will be one of attendance.
It will be unusual for a sitting PM to skip a well-known city’s Pride parade, not commonplace. This is a good thing. This is real-world progress that you can see with your own two eyes and applaud.
Or, if like a number of LGBTQ activists in this country you’re determined to be miserable until the day you die, you can lament Trudeau’s presence at Pride instead, and label it “pinkwashing” – the LGBTQ equivalent of “whitewashing.”
Not everybody thinks Trudeau’s planned attendance at the Halifax parade this Saturday is a wholly positive thing. Some, such as Kehisha Wilmot, head of Halifax’s Mount Saint Vincent University Queer Collective, believe Trudeau’s participation is a distraction from the event’s more marginalized participants.
“We have people of colour doing things in this parade,” Wilmot told Halifax magazine The Coast this week, in a story headlined “Trudeau Pinkwashing Pride parade.”
“And the big thing we’re currently now looking at is we brought down a white guy in a high-position role to be our focus.”
I don’t want to diminish the work done by groups such as Wilmot’s because it is important work. Yet a reminder is in order that a world leader’s presence at an event does not impede activists from making their voices heard.
Trudeau was in attendance at Toronto’s Pride parade in 2016, where Black Lives Matter Toronto managed not only to stage a successful protest that effected tangible change, but to dominate media coverage in the event’s aftermath.
But Trudeau’s presence isn’t the only thing irking some of Halifax’s LGBTQ groups, and similar groups across the country, several of which have boycotted official Pride events in their respective cities in recent years.
The corporatization of Pride is perceived as a big problem, too: corporate sponsors preaching equality atop enormous company floats, cheesy guys in logo-embroidered thongs handing out coupons for various discounts. “Happy Pride! Here’s five dollars off your next souvlaki platter!”
The corporatization of Pride is a fact lamented by many queer activists in the west who appear to yearn for the good old days when the businesses we frequented and services we used didn’t want anything to do with us.
Don’t get me wrong – I understand that corporate interests should share the stage with grassroots organizations, but the refusal by some in my community to see the upside of corporate involvement in Pride leads me to believe that a number of LGBTQ activists are completely out of touch with reality.
Moreover, these activists are ever eager to identify privilege in other people, but they are utterly blind to the privilege they enjoy themselves: they have integrated into a community of like-minded people. Yes, they are marginalized in society at large, but they have found a place where they belong.
Not everyone enjoys this privilege. Take, for example, my friend Yvonne Jele, a gay refugee from Uganda, who is practically brand new to Canada (she fled her native country last year). Jele, who lives in Toronto, was overjoyed when she learned that the leader of her new home was marching in her city’s Pride parade.
“People who are mad (that Trudeau participates in Pride events) don’t know what it’s like to not be accepted by your leaders and government,” she told me recently.
Jele has some thoughts about corporate interests in Pride, too: “I think everyone can show support during Pride,” she said. “It’s important for businesses to do so because it shows that the business is
These broad gestures of support by politicians and businesses matter a great amount to people who aren’t yet integrated into a tight-knit queer community, and they matter to closeted kids who are watching and reading about Pride from a distance, absent the support of such a community.
It’s a very good thing for these kids to know that their banks, hardware stores, coffee shops, internet providers and, yes, their leaders, take a public stance in favour of their rights.
No, these businesses and politicians aren’t by any means perfect. Yes, some of them make errors and false promises.
But their participation in Pride parades across the country is a gesture of goodwill felt deeply by those who have not yet found their home away from home.
The prime minister’s presence at Halifax pride this Saturday will not matter most to the out and proud, but to LGBTQ people who are neither. And the activism of the former should not extinguish the hopes of the latter.
Emma Teitel is a national affairs columnist.
Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services