Sometimes the most important moments happen before the event begins…
By Colin Druhan
My most vivid memories of Pride are never of the parades, but of the people I met before the parade ever started. That’s where I have the most memorable experiences: just waiting for something to happen.
I had one of my most formative Pride experiences when I was en route to the Toronto Pride Parade shortly after my arrival in Ontario from Nova Scotia, where I grew up. I lived in a part of Toronto that, at the time, was not festooned with Rainbow Flags. If you’d asked people in my neighbourhood, I don’t think many would have known it was Pride at all. That might have contributed to the attention I was getting as I minced down the steps of a subway station in an outfit that left little to the imagination and that screamed I was headed somewhere queer (or at least festive).
My face reddened with every hurtful comment I heard. I was barely an adult and this was the early 2000s, so I was not raised in the culture that encourages sassy clapbacks to assholes. My strategy back then was to keep my head down and to not respond. Rise above. Never engage. Stay safe. I went to the end of the platform hoping to get some distance from other people, straight people. Two guys followed me. At first they acted like they just wanted to ask questions about the parade. Where is it? What time does it start? Then they got uncomfortably close. Their questions persisted and came so quickly and sharply I knew they weren’t actually looking for answers: Why are you even going there? Why are you proud to be a faggot? What’s wrong with you?
Then I heard someone else. “Hey, I thought you got lost!” A butch woman lumbered towards us. I had no idea who she was, but I saw one thing that gave me comfort. Her shirt was covered in indiscernible buttons, but one stood out, plain as day. In all caps it read: DYKE. “I’ve been waiting for you forever!” she said with a wink, as if she knew me. To the guys hassling me, the fight now looked a little more even – two on each side. It was no longer worth their effort, so they backed off. I’m absolutely sure she told me her name, but I don’t remember it. We didn’t exchange contact information. I was too shaken to think of it and while this wasn’t before cellphones, it was definitely before I owned one.
We talked the whole ride to Yonge Station. Well, she talked and I listened. “When you see somebody giving one of us a problem, it becomes your problem too,” she said. “There’s a lot of bad people out there, so we need to be the good ones.” She stayed with me until we got to the parade, where we went our separate ways. We didn’t become lifelong friends. She wasn’t a high-profile public figure or community leader. She was just a person who saw another person in trouble and decided to help. It wasn’t a huge burden for her to take on. But she made a difference early on in my life as an out queer adult.
That incident doesn’t stand out to me because it was the first time I was accosted or harassed – I’d faced homophobic harassment that resulted in real violence before that – and it definitely wasn’t the last time I felt threatened. It has become such an important memory for me because it was the first time I felt that an entire community of people I didn’t even know was behind me and ready to take action to protect my safety just because we had something in common.
Because I now work for a queer and trans advocacy agency, I get to travel to a lot of Pride festivals every summer. For the past several years, I’ve been lucky enough to attend the Halifax Pride Parade with my parents, who still live in Nova Scotia. That’s not something I ever could have imagined doing when I attended that parade as a teenager and young adult. Back then it was a much shorter route, it was off the beaten path and it attracted significantly fewer spectators. It’s been so inspiring to see my parents become such vocal supporters of our communities, often through attending the parade. To their delighted surprise, among the marchers they’ve seen many of the unions to which they belonged over the course of their respective careers. They’ve pointed out all of the people they know as these people walk past with their community groups, employers or places of worship. They (sometimes embarrassingly) introduce me to complete strangers as their son, of whom they are incredibly proud. These are the moments that stand out to me the most, when I get to talk to people I would not have otherwise met.
Here’s another vivid memory: two new parents, both of whom were straight and cisgender, told me about why they brought their baby daughter to the parade for the first time. “Whoever she grows up to be, I want her to remember coming here. I want her to know we support her no matter what,” the father told me. I’ll never forget that simple statement because it reflects the attitude I think our communities need to succeed. Throughout my career I have seen how disconnection from one’s family sentences many queer and trans youth to lives of poverty. I know the toll that takes on our communities’ social support networks. I’ve seen how racism and other forms of discrimination pervade the systems in those networks, leaving so many in our communities behind as a chosen few gain progress.
Today so much of the work I do is about research: figures and numbers on a page. It becomes too easy to stop seeing individual stories. A quick conversation with a pair of perfectly average parents who happen to be doing an extraordinary job raising their kid helps breathe life into those dry parts of my work that can sometimes feel divorced from the reality facing so many in our community.
It looks like we’ll be waiting a while for the next parade, and that’s tough for a lot of reasons. But Pride is not a place or an event, it’s a feeling. For me, it’s the feeling I get when I learn about the experiences of other queer and trans people. This year, we have an enormous opportunity to take advantage of countless online engagements where we can learn and connect with people we would never otherwise have met. Our communities are filled with regular queer and trans folks who fought for our rights, found allies in unlikely places and are working to make a brighter future not just for their kids, but all kids.
It’s also filled with people who should know better, but who see others in our communities struggle and say, “That’s not my problem” or “What are they so angry for?” We have an opportunity to meet them where they are and share something I learned on a subway platform almost 20 years ago: when one of us sees another being hassled, bullied or beaten, it’s not just their problem, it’s our whole community’s problem. When Black Lives Matter protests because there is no action on the torrent of Black deaths at the hands of the police, it’s not a Black Lives Matter problem, it’s our whole community’s problem. When millions of people know who Matthew Shepard is, but cannot name even one of the dozens of trans women who were murdered just last year, it’s not a trans problem, it’s our whole community’s problem.
We can’t have parades this year, but we can have conversation. We can have a more focused dialogue away from the packed streets and busy beer gardens. We can learn from each other. We can diversify our networks by connecting with each other in new ways, outside of our regular circles. We can find refuge from a world that many of us feel we were born into, but not welcome in. It will be amazing what we will accomplish together, just waiting for something to happen.
COLIN DRUHAN is the executive director of Pride at Work Canada/Fierté au travail Canada, a not-for-profit organization that empowers employees to foster workplace cultures that recognize all employees, regardless of gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation. For more information, visit prideatwork.ca.
Sometimes the most important moments happen before the event begins…