Friday • 2015.07.17
My Open Letter of Resignation from Pride Toronto
To Whom it May Concern,
With heavy heart, I find it necessary to publicly submit my resignation from Pride Toronto, in my capacity as the unpaid volunteer Team Lead of the Trans Pride Team.
When I was asked to join this team in March of 2014 in the lead-up to WorldPride, following years of enmity between Pride and elements of the Trans community, my role was ostensibly to support the goal of achieving legitimate Trans inclusion by implementing positive changes at the Pride Festival.
Unofficially, my role was to smooth over the extremely poor relationship with Toronto’s Trans community that had arisen from Pride Toronto’s years of mistreatment and disrespect.
I pursued these goals by redressing legitimate grievances, and by communicating more transparently with communities to improve participation opportunities for grassroots Trans organizers in decisions relating to Trans Pride and the Trans Pride March.
Many positive strides were made under my leadership of this team, however I also discovered limitations.
After struggling to achieve these goals through two festival years, and forming a deeper understanding of the inner workings of Pride Toronto, I have concluded that Pride Toronto cannot and will not truly become safe and accessible to the Trans Community as a whole unless a significant organizational transformation takes place— One that would require changes that are well beyond my authority to implement, if I stay in the limited capacity of Volunteer Team Lead.
I reached my decision to resign as the result of my concern over several key areas, where I firmly believe Pride’s current structure has led to harm in our queer communities.
In its present form, the poisonous threat of Pride continues: We all, marginalized queers and allies, must work together to reclaim our identities from the avaricious clutches of the selfish rainbow party corporation.
Failure to Uphold Queer Liberation Mandate
Pride Toronto presently bills itself as supporting all of the “LGBTTIQQ2SA*” communities. Over the years, that acronym has grown as Pride Toronto has collected letters, subsuming new sexual and gender minorities into its supposed mandate like a video game character collects coins and fruit.
Pride Toronto started as a queer liberation riot, born of the 1981 Toronto Bathhouse Raids. It was supported through the early years not just by white cis gays and lesbians, but also by Trans people and other marginalized queer identities. Owing to its grassroots origins, it is morally and ethically incumbent on Pride Toronto to preserve and maintain the political fight for queer liberation until that goal is met, not just for the “LGB,” but also for the “TTIQQ2SA*” (and for all other queer identities that may follow in the future).
The biggest danger for us is to try to do the same thing we were doing in 1981.
As an organization, as a movement, every year it’s important for us to reinvent ourselves, to see how we’re going to stay relevant.
— Mathieu Chantelois, Executive Director Pride Toronto (CBC June 24, 2015)
By presently failing to address and prioritize the needs of these groups, Pride Toronto is essentially just fraudulently pretending to represent them, while taking credit as if they actually do. Moreover, by behaving in this manner, Pride Toronto is falsely transmitting the impression to mainstream society that queer liberation for these marginalized groups is already achieved. In short, Pride Toronto’s actions are erasing marginalized queer people, in favour of a giant celebration for cis gay and lesbian people who have already achieved a legal state of equality in Canada.
In the wake of the forces of marriage equality, mainstreaming, and gentrification that have all taken root in the cis gay and lesbian communities, Pride Toronto has lost its way. Pride Toronto has prioritized for itself its operation as a celebratory party festival, to attract money for Pride’s partners and sponsors by packaging the festival’s queer attendees into a commodity.
Cis gays and lesbians are more valuable consumers than poor marginalized queers, and so that’s where Pride Toronto and its sponsors place their focus. This is unacceptable.
In its present form, Pride Toronto is throwing an awesome beer and condoms party (sponsored by beer and condoms), while utterly failing to fulfil its moral and ethical responsibility to liberate marginalized queers… But is meanwhile absorbing a colossal amount of space and resources in our communities, by appropriating those same marginalized queer identities into an alphabet soup of “inclusion theatre.”
Failing the immediate appearance of dramatic reforms at Pride Toronto, of profound re-politicization and a clear return to more grassroots-style organizing, then in my personal opinion the organization should be disbanded and/or heavily protested by grassroots elements of marginalized communities and their allies, in recognition that Pride Toronto (should it continue along its present path) is indeed a harmful and damaging force against queer liberation.
Failure to Centre Trans and Other Marginalized Voices
There are some important demographics not even properly represented in the aforementioned acronym: Black queer people, queer people of colour, queer people with disabilities, poor queers, and any other intersectional identity along which oppression occurs as a consequence of societal discrimination. These identities are erased by the acronym of sexual and gender minority labels, in any white-dominated space such as Pride Toronto is.
You cannot claim to have elevated queers as a whole, when you have failed to address the needs of those queers who have suffered disproportionately because they are poor, disabled, or racialized.
Major decision-making roles in Pride Toronto are occupied by cis white men. There is zero involvement of Trans women of colour, across virtually every department and team including on Pride Toronto’s Board of Directors.
Moreover, Pride’s “members only” voting system for their Board is a classist affair, and alienates members of marginalized communities from being able to participate: Voting is open only to volunteers of Pride Toronto, and to non-volunteers who were economically-privileged members of the community— Because votes (“memberships”) are openly sold to non-volunteers in exchange for money.
Once again Pride Toronto demonstrates clear priorities: Money is more important than the needs of marginalized queers. In fact, Pride’s annual so-called Human Rights Conference charges ticket prices for attendees that run into the hundreds of dollars. Any Human Rights Conference that prices itself out of accessibility to the vast majority of marginalized community members is a hypocritical farce— That was the reason I pulled out as a presenter at the HRC in 2014. (My topic, ironically enough, was to have been how Trans and other marginalized queers are alienated from mainstream LGBT organizations such as Pride Toronto.)
Anti-oppression organizations, like Pride Toronto is supposed to be, must set as their priority promoting and centering the marginalized— Not subjugating, suppressing and silencing them.
At this point in history, Trans women of colour should be running Pride Toronto… Instead, they are apparently unwilling even to approach the organization (judging by the demographics of the volunteer base at the Team Lead and Team Member levels). Pride Toronto leadership need to ask themselves “why,” organizationally, does it appear from all available evidence that Pride is not perceived as viable by members of marginalized groups? Could it be (I put it for consideration) that the organization operates oppressively?
Continued Support of Transmisogynist Primary Sponsor, TD Bank, who Actively Discriminate against Trans Women
In 2015, Pride Toronto again endorsed TD Bank, despite the fact that in 2014 TD Bank was revealed to be locking trans women out of their own bank accounts based on how feminine they sound on the phone. A 2014 article in Daily XTRA exposed TD Bank’s transphobic customer service and transmisogynist identification policy, by which Trans people are judged (and punished) based on the quality of their voice.
So far, TD Bank has refused to eliminate this policy of discrimination. TD Bank representative Ron Puccini, Senior Manager of Diversity at TD Bank, acknowledged the issue in a non-apology for the “inconvenience,” but explained that the policy would continue as a security measure despite the discrimination it causes against trans women.
Each summer, TD Bank publishes seasonally rainbow-themed ads showing happy gays and lesbians enjoying an equitable level of service as compared against heterosexual people. TD hands Pride Toronto the digital equivalent of a suitcase full of money, and in exchange Pride Toronto (on behalf of the entire “LGBTTIQQ2SA*” communities, let’s not forget) endorses TD Bank as a “queer friendly” business: Thus delivering new customers to them at the festival.
Pride Toronto uses that TD Bank money to throw a bigger and better party than they would otherwise be able.
As an organization that actively discriminates and harms Trans people, TD Bank should be banned from sponsoring Pride Toronto, until and unless they acknowledge and eliminate their transmisogynist policies. Instead, Pride Toronto continues to do business with TD Bank, because money is more important to Pride Toronto than trans equality.
I made Pride Leadership aware of this by sending them the article in 2014, and brought it up personally to the new Executive Director Mathieu Chantelois very early in 2015, at one of the Pride’s MTMs (Monthly Team Meetings). Nevertheless, to my knowledge no steps were ever taken by Pride Toronto to address this issue with TD Bank, and Pride Toronto hasn’t commented publicly on TD’s discrimination problem.
Once again, Pride Toronto’s priorities are clear: Money comes before the needs of Trans people.
Lack of Accountability Following Egregious Systematic Failures in Physical and Sensory Accessibility
I have noted the disturbing trend of Accessibility being treated as an afterthought at Pride Toronto.
For years, Accessibility has not been the responsibility of paid staff, but left up to a small team of unpaid volunteers to handle. This team has operated in relative organizational isolation from all the other teams, and from the staff who put together the festival. Only in 2015, for the first time ever, were Accessibility responsibilities shared by a paid consultant, who was hired only for the final three months leading up to the festival.
This has led to oversights in physical accessibility such as the accessible risers (allowing view of the Parade) being physically located too far away from accessible portable toilets to be practical for those persons relying on both. The explanation for this was that risers and portable toilets were handled by “separate teams.”
It is incumbent on Pride Toronto to recognize and find lasting, effective solutions to these problems. To put it plainly, Pride needs to spend real money on Accessibility, and systems need to be in place that prioritize Accessibility across all teams… Rather than isolating that responsibility to a smaller team who can’t possibly supervise the rest effectively.
I have also witnessed what I believe to be a disturbing cumulative phenomenon affecting ASL accessibility at Pride Toronto, for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing people.
Rumours abound that local queer ASL interpreters have been mistreated by Pride Toronto from time to time, or have not received the required information they need to do their jobs. While I am not in a position to confirm those rumours as true or false, I will describe what I have personally witnessed, and explain what I believe is happening.
The most important lesson I’ve learned from organizing events with ASL interpretation concerns professional interactions between the organizers and the interpreters.
When hired ASL interpreters reach out and request speakers’ notes, or musical set-lists, or seek to be put into contact directly with the guests of an upcoming event, the interpreters are not trying to be annoying or cause problems: They are simply endeavouring to access the materials that are necessary for them to do their jobs properly. They must be met, in all cases, with acceptance, support and cooperation. With grace.
They should never be ignored, or met with passive aggression (which is a form of interrogative violence).
I am a hearing-privileged person with only a very rudimentary skill level at communicating in ASL, but I’ve formed a deep appreciation for Toronto’s Deaf queer community and the unique challenges they face in accessing events and spaces which I get to take for granted as a hearing person.
Year after year I have seen incomplete coverage, and inadequate availability of ASL interpreters at Pride Toronto, for which the explanation given has been that there is a shortage, or “not enough” ASL interpreters available in Toronto, or some variation of the explanation “ASL interpreters are not responding to our calls for work.”
I am admittedly an outsider to this community, however based on my internal interactions at Pride, and my own experience hiring interpreters for my events, I strongly suspect that Pride Toronto has somehow alienated or offended a significant number of Toronto’s local queer English ASL interpreters, to the degree that these people no longer wish to work at Pride events.
This “shortage” has led to Pride Toronto hiring interpreters from out-of-town agencies, who have supplied interpreters who are (most often) heterosexual cis people, with minimal-or-zero background in social justice perspectives.
For example, a sex worker could describe their experience proudly, in empowered terms and tone of voice (in English) to a crowd of mostly hearing people… But if the interpreter has a strong cultural bias against sex work, and doesn’t really understand the politics, they might unintentionally interpret for the Deaf in the crowd using ASL signs which would convey a sense of victimization in the speakers’ own statements, when the speaker had not intended this meaning.
To be very clear, these interpreters are 100% professional, totally fluent… They are not “bad” interpreters, they are “good” interpreters. However, because of the problem of different cultural backgrounds, I am afraid that these “good” interpreters might not be the “appropriate” interpreters for a queer event. Pride Toronto may be unwittingly introducing an unconscious straight cis class-based cultural bias into the ASL interpretation, arising from Pride’s new practice of hiring interpreters who are neither queer nor social justice aware.
As I said before, this is just my theory. The actual cause of Pride’s difficulties in hiring local queer interpreters remains unclear— And I do look forward to further discussion on this issue from persons more competent to comment than I am, such as members of the Deaf community, and perhaps local queer interpreters who may wish to share their thoughts on the subject.
However, if my theory is correct, if Pride Toronto has difficulty hiring local queer ASL interpreters because the interpreters have been mistreated in the past and don’t wish to return, then I would offer the following observation: For Pride Toronto to now defend itself by pointing the finger at local queer interpreters, for their “failure” to answer the call for work at Pride events, that is very much like telling the same lie over and over and blaming the victim when they stop believing it.
I believe that the most appropriate interpreters for community events will be persons who are themselves members of the community they are serving.
Pride Toronto should be fostering and nurturing productive working relationships with all local queer ASL interpreters in Toronto. They should rebuild those relationships by treating the interpreters with more professional respect, and Pride should be approaching those local queer ASL interpreters first, early, before opening up public announcements hiring for Pride gigs. I suspect that further investigation would reveal that Pride Toronto has failed to handle its relationships with interpreters properly.
Tokenization of People of Colour
Since joining the Trans Pride Team, I have essentially enjoyed unilateral control over all aspects of Trans Pride at Pride Toronto.
It is my duty as a social justice activist who is white to be mindful of my privilege: I have personally benefited all my life from my people’s heritage of genocide and colonial oppression, and from the systematic racialization of indigenous, Black, and other non-white persons, which not only continues to this day in society but is worsening as time goes on.
I have watched at least one volunteer at Pride Toronto be kept on by the organization despite having no active role, only because there were no suitable non-white replacement volunteers for the team they were on. This seemed to be for the express purpose of having them show up at meetings to demonstrate diversity— Or in many cases, just so that their team could be described as not exclusively white.
As committed as I am to providing space for marginalized voices, to supporting Black people and people of colour and decrying their oppression, and of creating safer spaces for such persons inside Trans Pride and throughout Pride Toronto, I can no longer abide the lack of presence of Trans Women of Colour on the leadership of Pride Toronto and the Trans Pride Team, and indeed the chronic absence of any intersectionally marginalized perspectives at all, which has characterized Trans Pride since I was handed responsibility.
I would invite Pride Toronto to consider why Trans people of colour, especially Trans women of colour, don’t seem to want to be involved in Pride Toronto.
Repeated Censure and Apparent Purge of Dyke March Team
Dyke March team has long been, in my opinion, the most politically oriented part of Pride Toronto. Trans Pride was comparatively much less “troublesome,” at least before I came on board. Despite some notorious ancient history in which Toronto’s Dyke and Trans communities failed to find common ground, it has been my experience in my two years leading Trans Pride that the Dyke March team have been fantastic allies. Working together with them, I’ve found opportunities to join them in their meetings, and see how Dyke March is run.
In that capacity, I’ve born witness to a series of interactions between Dyke March and Pride Toronto which I find disturbing. In particular, the degree to which the Dyke March’s political autonomy has apparently been compromised by Pride Toronto and its sponsors.
In very recent Dyke March history, I met a previous set of Team Leads who collectively espoused a very anti-corporate politic. They were very much against having their official T-shirts carrying corporate sponsor logos (such as transmisogynist TD Bank). In some cases they and their volunteers had cut off, or covered up, the corporate logos from their shirts in previous years.
I watched as they were chastised and criticized heavily for these acts, and as an independent T-shirt design they had planned was intercepted by Pride leadership, and adulterated with corporate logo. Recall Dyke March history: It started independently of Pride, but was later subsumed. Last year I witnessed Pride Toronto suppress the politic which the Dyke March team would have preferred to express in their march. An enforced compromise, bending Dyke March to the will of corporate interests, those same corporate interests that favour men over women, and cis over trans (not to mention straight over gay, though maybe not-so-much anymore).
Guess what else? Those troublesome team leads are all gone now. Some quit; At least one was fired. The bottom line is, this year’s Dyke March team was essentially a complete replacement of last year’s. Now let me go on record and say, the new batch are great people, with good values, if a little less confrontational with Pride leadership. And they are not complicit in the actions of Pride Toronto. Nevertheless, the fact remains that as a consequence of that logo disagreement and some other failures of political alignment, a group of strong activist queer political women were alienated from Pride Toronto in favour of corporate interests.
Take note of this, and appreciate the cognitive dissonance arising here— That Pride Toronto and their sponsors feel justified in bullying women about what they wear on their own bodies, as they’re in the midst of leading a politicized march whose primary theme is supposed to be anti-misogyny and the empowerment of queer women. It boggles my mind, and infuriates me.
Queer activists are at a crossroads. Pride doesn’t own Dyke March or Trans March, and I don’t believe they belong under Pride Toronto control any longer.
Indeed, it is time to ask whether the Pride festival as we know it should even be allowed to continue.
(Former) Team Lead, Trans Pride, Pride Toronto
This version has been edited since the print copy was delivered to Pride Toronto Executive Director Mathieu Chantelois. The changes are as follows:
1. Minor grammatical and syntactic improvements
2. Some additional sentences have been added, for clarity
3. A metaphor was adjusted to remove language that might have been upsetting to survivors of domestic violence (Thank you, draft readers)
4. A section was partially re-written to remove personal identifying details, at the request of the individual
5. The CBC Quote from Mathieu Chantelois was added to the section on Queer Liberation Mandate