Orlando tragedy brings renewed meaning to Pride Week

Province by Evan Radford

photo by Alan Hall

The June 12 attack on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando which saw 49 people shot to death and another 53 wounded happened mere hours after Saskatoon finished its annual nine-day pride festival, and six days before Regina started its yearly Queen City Pride festival.

Despite the distance separating Saskatchewan from Orlando, the impact the massacre had on the province’s LGBTQ community was profound. Vigils and memorials were promptly organized as community members and allies struggled to come to grips with the attack.

When asked to sum up their feelings on the horrific crime, here’s how three members of the LGBTQ community responded:

Leo Keiser, executive director of University of Regina’s UR Pride Centre for Sexuality and Gender Diversity

“I think, like a lot of people, my reaction was absolute sadness to what happened. While significant violence still happens in LGBTQ communities, something of this scale isn’t something that we’re used to seeing.

“Beyond that, as my reaction has kind of rounded out a bit, I think it’s brought up really intricate conversations about intersections of class and race. Yeah, the shooting occurred at a gay nightclub in Orlando. But it was on a Latin night, and everyone who got targeted there was Latino or Latina. That is something I noticed has been glossed over in a lot of media reports.”

Locally, Keiser said, community members are having new, revitalized conversations about LGBTQ safety and equality. “A lot of what I’ve seen has really been focused on that support narrative. ‘How can we hold each other up? How can we hold the community and Orlando up? How do we make sure this doesn’t happen again?’ It’s been a lot of that really positive, healing conversation.”

Keiser also noted how the shootings have partially reframed pride week. “I know that a lot of folks who work in LGBTQ communities see pieces of struggle and pieces of that continued fight for equity, instead of just focussing on keeping pride as a celebration. I heard ‘pride is political’ at the flag-raising [at Regina City Hall on June 20].

“That really struck me as maybe an impact of what happened.”

On the topic of increasing security, Keiser pointed out that it’s complicated. “I’ve been aware of conversations in other cities that suggest that an increased security presence at events will not make [people] feel safer, because they feel targeted by security. I think that’s part of the conversation.

“And I think another part is how you balance that with people saying, ‘Well, this would help me feel safer.’”

Rachel Loewen Walker, executive director of OUTSaskatoon

“In Saskatoon, the most recent pride festival was probably the biggest we’ve ever seen. It closed on Saturday, and we woke up Sunday to the news of the shootings in Orlando. It was a really hard juxtaposition of celebration and absolute sadness.

“My sense of the tone [since then] has been hope,” she said, noting there was a Sunday night vigil at Saskatoon City Hall where 200-plus attendees lit candles to honour those killed.

There’s anger out there too, however.

“There’s a lot of feelings of betrayal that something this awful is still happening to queer communities,” said Loewen Walker. “We know that in Canada the social, economic and political context is very different, but LGBTQ people still do get beat up and murdered.”

She cautioned against surrendering to anger and outrage, though. “If we [do that], we fail to continue to fight for equal rights. This is a reminder that there still isn’t equality for queer people. This is an awful, awful reminder. But it doesn’t take away from all the successes we’ve had in the last 10 years, and we don’t want it to.”

Loewen Walker was also clear on the topic of religion. “Some people at the vigil spoke very profoundly about how the shootings in Orlando should never be used as any form of legitimacy for Islamophobia or other forms of racism, which is powerful and good.

“We see all the time how institutions of racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia work together. That’s what happened in Orlando, and that’s what happens in many other cases with queer people of colour, trans people living in poverty. We see that these institutions of hatred work together [to] pit marginalized groups against one and other.”

Cory Oxelgren, general manager of Regina’s Q Nightclub and Lounge

“There are a number of people who are concerned and have raised the attention that all is still not perfect and well. And we still have a lot of work to do with the overall society. I think that’s where most people are,” said Oxelgren.

“Hence for pride: it made pride more relevant, that we have to work more on the public awareness and issues that members of the gay, lesbian and transgender community are facing.”

Despite Oxelgren’s ongoing worry about safety at Regina’s highest profile gay nightclub, he thinks an equal, if not more important task, is finding and stopping hatred and homophobia locally.

“Why is it a hate crime, why is it a problem? You don’t go and attack other groups. When this attack is against the gay and lesbian and transgender community, clearly there’s something going on. And what is that?

“It goes deeper to the overall societal views with homophobia, with religion, with politicians who have certain views and it just builds in the community.”

To stop those views from building, Oxelgren added, we need to end hate propaganda from politicians, religious leaders, schools and other sources. “The sooner we do that the better off we’ll be, because then there isn’t someone driving the hate agenda that other people can latch onto.”

People can do that in their personal lives by challenging those who express hateful views toward LGBTQ people. And people can do it as a community, too, by having a fabulous pride week.

“Go out and be loud,” Oxelgren said. “Tell everyone that we’re here, and we’re going to be treated as equals. And that’s it.”