A response to the hatred from the TDSB: Pride should be offensive

Pride is a political protest, not just a big party

Whatever else Pride is, it’s a political protest highlighting the ongoing plight of sexual and gender minorities. Sure, it’s also a parade, a big party, a chance for gay guys to put on their most revealing clothes and hook up with other gay guys, but at its core, Pride is about the dignity and rights of sexual and gender minorities, which are still a hated and vulnerable group in Canada.

Events like Pride are important because Canada is a country where people who live outside the sexual / gender mainstream are regularly the object of abuse ranging from actual physical life-threatening violence to institutional and systemic discrimination and all the way down to daily micro-aggressions. Straight people often don’t realise that this still happens (“But we have gay marriage in Canada!”), or even worse, they sometimes try to paint themselves as the ones being oppressed. Being able to deny that this hatred exists is just one more privilege of being straight. Don’t forget: less than a month ago, the mayor of Toronto himself was doing his darnedest to keep the rainbow flag off city hall while the Olympics were being held in a country where non-straights are persecuted openly and explicitly.

This is why Pride is not just an exercise in frivolity and licentiousness. It is an important political movement. We haven’t “made it” yet.

The true meaning of Christmas Pride

Pride, figure 1
Pride, figure 1

The point of Pride is emphatically not that non-straight people are just like straight people, and therefore they deserve to have equal rights and be treated with equal dignity. That is the opposite of what Pride is for. If that were the goal, it would be called the “Gay Integration Festival” or something like that. Instead, it is called “Pride,” as in “I’m proud of the fact that I’m different from the sexual / gender mainstream, and I don’t need to deny who I am or assimilate to the mainstream in order to be valuable.”

The point of Pride is to emphasize the fact that there are sexual and gender minorities that are different in a lot of ways, and even though you may be offended by the fact that there are people who are different from you, non-straight people are still human beings with rights and you still have to treat them like human beings—with a certain amount of respect and dignity.

Thus, prominently featuring drag queens, sexual fetishes, strippers, and people in various states of undress is a political statement. The fact that it is offensive to the mainstream is a part of that statement.

This means that the (semi) nudity at Pride is not gratuitous in the slightest. If you want gratuitous (semi) nudity, watch the newest Star Trek film. (That’s right. I said it. The varying degrees of undress in most mainstream films is less defensible than the varying degrees of undress at Pride. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, conservatives.)

“The gays would get their message across better if they cleaned themselves up a bit”

CBC comments
CBC comments

You hear this from ostensibly well-meaning “allies” or even from gay people themselves—the argument that straight people would be more likely to accept non-straight people if they were less flamboyant, or if they were less in-your-face about it.

What’s scary about hearing this sort of thing from straight people is that they don’t even see how utterly dehumanising it is to make their acceptance of us as humans conditional on us “cleaning ourselves up.” As if our benevolent straight overlords get to choose who is treated with dignity and endowed with human rights and who isn’t on the basis of how they perceive us. And of course, if we don’t act the part, they get to revoke those privileges. That is exactly the opposite of what Pride is about, and suggesting that Pride be “cleaned up” and made “family friendly” totally misses the point of the whole political movement.

To ask for a Pride that’s had all the offensive, lewd and sexual parts removed would be like asking a labour union that’s on strike not to mention the terrible wages or the unsafe working conditions.

To ask for a Pride parade that’s just a bunch of cute monogamous gay and lesbians couples holding their adopted children is to even further marginalise all the other sexual and gender minorities. What could be more cruel than telling someone who’s a minority within a minority that the festival that’s supposed to be celebrating his/her differences is embarrassed by him/her?

It’s even more disheartening to hear the “Pride should be cleaned up” line from gay people.

Maybe you would be okay if it were a “gay integration festival” rather than Pride. Maybe you want to find your masc-for-masc gay guy (no fems!), get married, buy a house in the suburbs, wear sweater-vests, adopt a kid and enjoy all the straight privilege that you can. (“You’re gay, but you’re just like one of the guys, you know?”) If you want that, go and do that. I sincerely hope the life you choose is fulfilling and happy.

But don’t you dare try to co-opt a political movement for your own narrow ends when its goals are broader than just extending straight privilege to those who “clean up well.”

“Won’t someone please think of the children”

The bigots on the TDSB have framed their objection to Pride in terms of upholding the laws regarding nudity and protecting children. How pious of them. (Have you ever noticed that in debates touching on sexual morality, there’s always someone who cries out, “Won’t someone please think of the children!” By the way, the answer to that style of argument is almost always: “We are thinking of the children, and some of those children happen to grow up to be the people that you’re demonizing.”)

Their argument is that if a person were to be naked in public in any other context, she would be breaking the law regarding public nudity. This may of course be true, but the fact remains, we’re not talking about any other context. We’re talking about Pride. I would presume there’s also a law against driving a truck down the middle of a street at 5 km/h carrying an extra-wide load with dancers on it, but we make an exception in the case of the Pride parade, because we all agree that allowing this kind of political expression is more important than always slavishly enforcing this (otherwise valid) traffic law.

The reason for a law against public nudity is presumably to protect vulnerable people from aggressors who might use nudity to threaten them. Nobody wants to live in a place where some creeper can make you feel unsafe by following you around and then flashing you from underneath his trench-coat on the métro. I’m not suggesting that the public nudity law needs changing.

That said, we should realise that the reason for the law against public nudity is not to stifle valid political expression. (Sorry, TDSB!) The lewd and offensive nature of Pride is not gratuitous and incidental. It is an essential part of the core message, and frankly, anyone who comes to Pride should know beforehand to expect to see some skin.

The right of non-straights to protest ongoing hatred, discrimination, intimidation, bullying and violence against sexual and gender minorities is more important than the right of a few prudes not to get offended by seeing the human anatomy while attending the Pride parade.

And if by chance there’s a certain someone from the TDSB reading this, say a homophobic trustee who thinks that he can hide his hatred and bigotry under the holier-than-thou camouflage of respect for the law, I want you to know—from the bottom of my heart—that you can go suck a bag of dicks.

Don’t make life harder for sex workers—make it illegal to discriminate against them for employment and education

The Supreme Court of Canada has recently struck down the laws regarding prostitution, saying that they were putting sex workers in danger. The reasoning behind the court’s judgement was to make life easier and safer for a group that is often hated and is definitely vulnerable. Rather than heeding the clear spirit of the decision, some have taken this as an opportunity to find other ways to be cruel, judgemental and to try to bring about harm or make sex workers unwelcome in their communities.

The most repugnant part of all this is that many of those who most vehemently argue for tougher restrictions—laws to make life even harder for sex workers—these people do it out of a misguided sense of moral superiority. As if it weren’t hard enough to do sex work. As if there were something admirable about stacking the deck against them.

Due to the judgement, the government has one year to pass new legislation on the subject. In an uncharacteristically democratic move on the part of the Harper government, Ottawa has asked for public input on the subject.

Some (terrible) options that have been proposed

The Ministry of Justice website lists a few options for new legislation (see Table 1), one of which is prohibition. The government may decide to pass a law banning sex work in Canada. This will make it illegal to buy sex and to sell it. Under such a law, sex workers would become criminals.

I would like to point out the obvious. A law like this cannot make prostitution go away. This will only push sex workers further out to the margins of our society and reinforce a cycle of violence and exploitation against them. If you advocate for a position like this, you are not advocating for the non-existence of prostitution. You are just advocating for the destruction of the lives of a hated and vulnerable group of people. If you care about the well-being of others at all, you can’t endorse such a position.

Another option is “abolition,” or the so-called “Nordic model.” This would make the purchasing of sex illegal, but keep the selling of sex legal. Under this kind of a law, anyone who buys sex would be a criminal, but it would be perfectly legal for the sex workers to provide it.

Again, let’s not kid ourselves. A law cannot make prostitution go away. While this option will mercifully keep sex workers out of jail, it’s not exactly a huge step toward making life easier and safer for them, and it will keep them and their work at the margins of our society, away from the benefits and privileges of the mainstream, which the rest of us enjoy. If you can’t see how this kind of law can only continue to marginalise and generally perpetuate violence against sex workers, I don’t think I can explain it to you.

Here’s a better idea

Let’s imagine for a moment that we, as a society, were actually serious about helping sex workers. This is clearly the spirit of the Supreme Court decision, at least. If we wanted to help sex workers, and not just in the paternalistic “I’m helping them by giving them a good incentive to stop being a whore” sense of the word, we could use this opportunity to refine the law in such a way that it gives them some options. For example, we could make it really easy for people to get out of sex work.

Here’s my idea: Pass a law making it illegal in the context of education or employment to discriminate against a person on the basis of a past work history that includes sex work, stripping, porn acting, etc.

I’m not so naïve to think that this will suddenly end all the subtle ways in which a history of sex work can make it difficult for someone to get or keep a job, or to enrol in school or stay in school. But at the very least, we can eliminate the obvious ones. It’s kind of like how we have laws to say that you can’t reject job applications from gays, women or people of colour because they are gay, women or people of colour. It doesn’t eliminate homophobia, sexism, or racism, but I wouldn’t want to live in a country that didn’t have such laws.

Most of the people reading my blog are pretty privileged, so you may not understand this, but not everyone can afford not to be a sex worker (or a stripper or a porn actor). Why on earth should anyone have to worry about being expelled from her school or not being able to get a job later in life for doing what she has to do to make ends meet?

Not only that, but some people choose to do sex work, and not out of dire financial need, and it’s not the place of the government of Canada to enforce Christian sexual values on everyone who lives here. So if your major hang-up regarding the endorsement of something that isn’t a total ban on prostitution is religiously motivated, that is not a reason to make it into a law for everyone else. It may be a fine motivation for your own decisions and actions, but the enforcement of your private religious beliefs would be an abuse of the power of the state.

In the end, it comes down to what we think this law is supposed to do. Is our highest priority that we use the machinery of the state to punish those who deviate from Christian sexual norms, or is our highest priority that every single person in Canada (whether they share the same sexual morality or not) is safe, and has a fair shot at a good life?

The obvious objection—”won’t somebody please think of the children”

I can hear the obvious objection coming from the conservatives out there—why should we want to make like easier for prostitutes? If being a prostitute or a stripper or a porn actor isn’t something that will follow my daughter around for the rest of her life, what can I tell her to dissuade her from becoming a sex worker?

I have two answers to that.

First, that line isn’t what’s keeping people from going into sex work.

Second, if it is your daughter who ends up in sex work, you will want the government to help her get out of it, and a law against discriminating against her on the basis of her sex work history will help.

If you want us to “think about the children,” then let’s also spare some time to think about the children who end up as prostitutes too.

Table 1: The options for new prostitution legislation, according to the Ministry of Justice

Selling sex legal Selling sex illegal
Buying sex legal What we had in Canada up until the Supreme Court decision* Even the Tories knew better than to suggest this
Buying sex illegal The “Nordic model” or “abolition” “Prohibition” or the “American model”

* With some restrictions. E.g. “living off the avails” of prostitution was illegal.