Pride and the politics of public space

The day after Pride Toronto this year, I scrolled through pictures of people smiling, laughing, and walking hand in hand in the streets. I saw politicians of different political stripes marching down the street and corporations sporting rainbow versions of their logos. And then I scrolled through a different set of pride photos. People screaming, waving posters, being thrown onto the ground by cops. The first set of photos were from Toronto’s pride and the second from Turkey’s pride.

It was an important reminder that our celebrations this past weekend in Toronto were made possible by the protests of yesterday, and that elsewhere in the world, and even in our own community, those struggles continue.

And they continue in public space—in the streets and parks of our cities. Because public space is where we go to celebrate, but it’s also where we go to protest.

This line between celebration and protest can be blurry, because the politics of public space can be at once joyful and painful. A protest doesn’t have to be morose and negative; it can be an affirming expression of taking up space—or stepping back to give space to others. It can be angry and colourful, frustrating and fabulous. It can be a burst of confetti amid shouts.

At the core of Pride is this assertion of the right to the city, a right to public space. To make the often invisible visible, the marginalized centred. My favourite part of Pride is wandering the streets—not just the ones that have been closed for official Pride events, but all over downtown—and seeing people out in full view. As a closeted teen uncertain and often ashamed of himself, this was incredibly powerful.

Straight people who don’t understand Pride, or why it’s needed anymore when we have the right to marry, don’t understand this core. They don’t understand that they take up space every day in this city on its streets and in its parks in a way that LGBTQ people don’t and sometimes can’t.

They don’t understand there is still a risk, even in Toronto, that the word faggot will be hurled out of a moving car or out of the mouth of a man across the street because you chose to hold your partner’s hand in public. That hate crimes towards LGBTQ people have, since 2006 in Toronto, been in the top three of hate crimes reported each year. That there is truth in the fact that many people still don’t want us to be able to express ourselves in a public space, the way they are able to do without even thinking.

But, even still, as an able-bodied white gay man, my experience in public space, in how I’m received and treated, in the spaces that are open to me, is different than others–and this is critical for us to recognize. I have written about this before, but it’s worth saying again: public space is not equally enjoyed.

As Black Lives Matter Toronto made clear at last year’s parade and again with a powerful reminder this year, there is much more to be done here for Black, Indigenous, racialized, trans people, and people with different abilities. Sometimes the most powerful protest is to show up, as BLMTO has done, to take up and reclaim space. As Rodney Diverlus of BLMTO said at the parade this year: “We’re out here for Pride to take up space and remind you that Black queer and trans people exist.”

This was, after all, the impetus for those first Pride parades in Toronto more than 30 years ago. To take up space and shout that we are queer and here.

It’s good that these conversations play out in full public view. Public space has always been, and continues to be, a process of negotiation, of give and take. That process is not always comfortable, but it is necessary. We gather in the street, in the square, in the park, to shout or to hug—sometimes at the same time—and we push forward.

Photo by Neal Jennings from Wiki Creative Commons