PERSONAL
06/23/2020 10:28 EDT

The Dance Floor At Pride Is Essential To Revolution. So Is Defunding The Police.

Our battle is the same now as it was 50 years ago.

As told to HuffPost associate editor Connor Garel

It was the first time I ever thought to myself, Oh, there’s a place for me. 

I was 22, and it was the summer of 1999, or 2000, and I was walking around the Pride festival in Toronto without seeing too much diversity, without seeing too many Black people. Then, suddenly, I stumbled upon Blockorama

Out of nowhere, I found myself in this sea of Black queer and trans people, hundreds who had gathered and set up DJs in this parking lot in the Village, filling it out. It was beautiful. There was music, and there was dancing, and I remember feeling — maybe for the first time, though I’d been out since I was 14 — truly at home. 

Watch: Meet Syrus Marcus Ware, whose art brings visibility to Canadian activists. 

The dance floor is essential to revolution

As an artist and an activist, I’ve learned how important the dance floor is for queer people. I’ve been organizing with Blockorama for 17 years now. These spaces are essential to the revolution. We’ve met our lovers in these spaces. We’ve met activists in these spaces. We’ve become politicized in these spaces. 

When we spilled out at night into the alleys around Club Manhattan, in the late 1990s, we were creating community. When AYA and Zami — social support groups for Black queer folk — would go out together to the bars on Church street to try to confront some of the anti-Blackness, to go and to take up space, they were creating spaces of activism. These are political sites — clubs and parties.

Pride began as a protest. It’s still a protest.

Pride is one of those spaces, too. Parties like Blockorama end up becoming these homecomings. They end up becoming the basis for us to find community — to be connected with other people, to see ourselves reflected, to be celebrated, to be in a Black-affirming space. And, for some people, this is the only time of year they get to do that. It’s home. It’s safety. It’s a nourishing space. It’s a space of survival. It keeps the movement going.

Pride began as a protest. It’s still a protest. 

Fifty years later, the revolution is still happening

I think it’s very telling that, right at the beginning of Pride month, which is a month meant to commemorate the organizing efforts of Black trans women fighting police brutality in the late 1960s, we’re witnessing the exact same protests, 50 years later.

Right now, we’re seeing the Black Lives Matter movement, which is largely led by Black queer and trans people — including me — rising up against police brutality and saying, “We will not take this anymore.” I think it’s important to remember that it was just a few years ago when Black Lives Matter Toronto stopped the Pride parade for 30 minutes — in part, to demand the removal of uniformed police from the parade — and we were heavily criticized by so many white queer people for doing that. They supported having police there.  

Now, it’s interesting to see all of the calls to defund the police come from even the most unlikely sources. This was the message we had in 2016. And it seems the rest of the world has finally caught up.  

THE CANADIAN PRESS/UPC/Gary Hershorn
A man is restrained by Toronto police outside the Ontario Legislature after about 1,000 gay rights demonstrators marched through the downtown area protesting the February 5, 1981 arrest of nearly 300 men in four city steam baths.

What we were looking for in that moment, in that 30 minutes, was solidarity. Pride, particularly in Toronto, started directly as a response to police brutality in the bathhouse raids of 1981, and that specific violence would have destroyed spaces where our communities gathered intentionally. 

Police didn’t just raid bathhouses during Operation Soap. They destroyed them. They took sledgehammers to them. They purposely tried to destroy places where we gathered. And what we were saying when we stopped the parade was that this police violence is still happening. Maybe it’s being done now to a different part of the same community — Black queer and trans folks specifically — but it’s still happening, and we want support. That’s what we were asking for.

What we’re seeing now is people realizing what the police force truly is. Every day, on national television, police are showing themselves to be what they are: a brutal, violent force that is decidedly anti-Black and white supremacist. 

And so we have to think about Marsha P. Johnson, and Sylvia Rivera, and Miss Major, and all of the queer trans women of colour who stood up against police brutality, and whose efforts gave us many of the freedoms we have now. They did that because they had nothing left to lose. And so how dare we ignore or erase their legacy. 

Reform is not a solution. We’ve tried reforms. We’ve tried countless things to make the police presence safer, to make them less racist, to fix the system. But the system isn’t broken. It was built this way. This is what the police were designed to do. They’re just carrying out the actions of the state. They were intended to be on the streets, brutalizing our communities. No amount of money, or training, or body cameras, or a Black police chief will stop the killings of Black and Indigenous people. 

This is not about reform; this is about abolition. We need to continue the work of those who made Pride possible until the project is done.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Blinch
In 2016, Black Lives Matter Toronto halted the Pride parade for 30 minutes to make a number of demands — including a ban on the attendance of uniformed police.

Pride might be online, but that doesn’t change its urgency

Pride is happening online this year. And one of the things I’ll miss, about Blockorama specifically, is the crowd — how you can’t walk two feet without seeing someone you haven’t seen in a year, and you have this sudden moment to reunite. It’s hard to replicate that energy online: the shoulder-to-shoulder jostling, thousands dancing and getting free, the feeling of being in close quarters, the possibilities.

Some things will be missed. I’m sure we’re all going to come out of this whole thing with a real yearning and a desire for human contact. But there are other things we’re gaining from this moment.

One of the biggest challenges with Pride has always been accessibility, and having it online immediately makes the festival more accessible for disabled people. So there are going to be people who are coming to Pride this year who may never have been able to go before. 

And with these online dance parties, all of the stresses and pressures of getting ready and going out are lost. You can be cooking, or cleaning, and be participating at the same time. It’s a way to bring your life into the community, and your community into your life, in a more intimate way. We get to see a little bit of people’s homes, and to spend time with them there. 

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Thousands of Canadians attended a Black Lives Matter protest on June 19, where they painted "DEFUND THE POLICE" on the street in front of the City of Toronto police headquarters.

Having a space where you can come and just be is still important, even online, and especially for those quarantining with homophobic relatives who don’t understand who they are, or trans people who are being deadnamed by their families. Not everybody is in a safe or supportive environment where they’re quarantining. 

Pride being online this year doesn’t make it any less important. We can still use online gathering as a space for activism. We can pick up the causes people are fighting for — like prisoner support funds, or fundraising efforts for Regis Korchinski-Paquet’s family — and use these online dance parties to find out when the next march is, how people are getting involved in their communities, and what we can do to help. You can have whole conversations with people you otherwise never would have engaged with.   

Pride, an irresistible revolution

I’ve been working in organizing for about 25 years, and I’ve had a professional art practice for just as long. I’ve always been guided by this Toni Cade Bambara quote: “The role of the artist is to make the revolution irresistible.” That’s what I want to do. I want to make the idea of revolution irresistible.  

We are living in a world that just isn’t working for so many of us. We could live in something that is so much more beautiful, where we could actually have our freedoms, where we could have actual safety and security, where we could have everything that we needed to survive and to thrive. I believe that’s possible. 

I need my daughter to grow up in a world where trans people’s lives are celebrated and supported. We rarely see trans people live to be elders, since we’re so often killed because of transphobic violence. I want an end to that. 

Pride is, and always will be, a time to make the revolution irresistible — to call for greater activism, to create more safety in our communities — as much as it’s a space to celebrate the fact that we’ve survived another year and that we’re here together: that we’re here, we’re queer, we’re trans, and we’re not going anywhere. 

That we’re taking up space, because these communities belong to us, too. 

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