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Making connections: Bridging racial divisions in the GLBT* community

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http://outwords.ca/2014/issue-september-2014/making-connections/

GLBT* rights have come a long way, and we know there’s still a long way to go. Yet some things are continually overlooked, like the glaring gap in conversation and action around race.

“It’s a major problem,” says Uzoma, a Winnipeg woman who identifies as black, and prefers to go by first name only for safety reasons.

212-12b-making-connectionsShe’s the initiating force behind a new queer people of colour (QPOC) group that held its first dance party for QPOC and allies during Pride this year. Although Winnipeg has many strong GLBT* groups, most are white-dominated. “There’s a danger with the queer community just because the experience of being queer in itself is an experience of existing on the margins,” says a local queer woman of colour who is using the pseudonym Jill for fear of backlash.

“There can be a tendency to think that because we exist in this space, we don’t have to deal with the issues like racism, or we’ve figured that stuff out. We haven’t.”

Ray Hogg’s experience as a local black gay man and artistic director of Rainbow Stage, is one of finding himself in a homogenous Winnipeg culture, where the environments he works in every day are mainly made up of white people. He attributes this partly to Winnipeg being a small city. “I haven’t directly been on the receiving end of any overt racism in the queer community or any other community in Winnipeg. But I am on the receiving end constantly of systemic racism…. Those who have straight privilege or white privilege or cis privilege… naturally and without thinking, discriminate against me and fail to recognize that they’re doing that.”

Asagwara says the QPOC group is necessary because, “(It) triggers a conversation that people (who are not directly facing the issues) have not been having.”

Hogg would like to see people take the responsibility of actively empathizing. “As a community, the queer community is an oppressed community; it’s a misunderstood community and it’s being discriminated against. And so it behooves us as gay people, or whatever you want to call us all, to think about other marginalized members, and care for them.”

Albert McLeod has seen some of the ways marginalization plays out on the front lines with the most vulnerable, in his work with two-spirit youth.

“For aboriginal youth coming into the (queer) scene, a lot of places they get exploited,” he says.

In his work as a co-director with Two-Spirited People of Manitoba, and the AIDS movement, McLeod has seen a lot. “There’s been a history of many aboriginal youth—they come to the city, they’re HIV-positive within a couple of years, then get discarded and then they move away to other cities, and that’s where they die. It’s life on the very fringes of society.”

Winnipeg is home to the largest urban aboriginal population in Canada, and Manitoba as a whole encompasses the territory of at least 63 First Nations.

Part of Two-Spirited People of Manitoba’s advocacy work is bridge- building between the aboriginal community and broader GLBT* community. The organization also offers workshops to schools and does research on two-spirit people’s experiences.

The intersection of gender and race is a dangerous place to be.

212-12a-making-connectionsTwo Spirit People of Manitoba at Pride Winnipeg 2014. Photo by Albert McLeod.

One academic project published from the research, titled Aboriginal Two-Spirit and LGBTQ Migration, Mobility and Health, draws a parallel: “Colonization is sometimes presented in public policy discourse as a thing of the past.” The result, according to the report, is that indigenous people are rendered invisible and current colonization is ignored and enabled. “Similarly, some people may underestimate the effects of homophobia given the advances that have been made in Canada regarding same-sex rights. Yet the results from this study clearly show the continuing impact of colonization, racism and homophobia on many people’s lives,” reads an excerpt from the study.

“The intersection of gender and race is a dangerous place to be,” says McLeod, quoting a friend.

Denying that racism is a problem in Winnipeg’s queer community can only perpetuate it, says Uzoma, but being willing to feel uncomfortable means being willing to grow.

The QPOC group in Winnipeg will be working hard to bring more events to the community as the year moves ahead. Dance parties, Sunday pickup basketball, open-mic nights and more are in the works.

Uzoma says from there, “We’d like to formally put together a presentation for other LGBTQ organizations… on the unique issues of queer people of colour.”

recognizing racism

Racism isn’t always obvious, but it is always wrong. Here are seven tips to recognizing racism and battling it.

Recognize the difference between centering people of colour and indigenous people’s concerns versus tagging them on. Being truly inclusive means opening up and being willing to transform. It also means taking leadership from queer people of colour and indigenous people.

Show solidarity—don’t date/sleep with people who write things like “no Asians” on their Grindr/ online dating profiles. That’s not a preference, it’s racism.

Recognize that experiences of homophobia and racism compound to make life harder and more limited for the people who experience them. Know that being queer does not make you immune to experiencing white privilege. It is easy for GLBT* people to see homophobia and transphobia, how social systems favour heterosexuals and cis people, and the suffering that causes. Understand how whiteness gives or denies privileges as well.

Do not make statements to the effect that gays are the last oppressed minority. That’s not true. Don’t pit racial and cultural struggles against struggles for GLBT* liberation. The movements are intersected and can make each other stronger.

Recognize that people of colour and indigenous people are not responsible for educating white people about the suffering they experience due to racism. Do your own research and reading and don’t ask invasive questions.

Start conversations about race with your white friends with a focus on creating a supportive space where you can ask questions and make mistakes.

If someone tells you you’ve been racist, don’t take it personally or get defensive. Instead apologize and commit to doing better next time. Take the time to reflect following the incident and learn why it was racist.

fighting racism

Our interview subjects offered the following advice to being more inclusive:

Think about where your organization is located and whether people of colour and indigenous people live there, too. Are you inaccessible, or white-dominated, because of your location?

Know that people of colour and indigenous people are the experts on their own experience. Listen.

Recognize that two-spirit is not necessarily the same as being lesbian, gay or queer. It’s a culturally-specific term from another context. Also, some indigenous people identify primarily as lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual, etc. Just because someone is aboriginal doesn’t mean they identify as two-spirit.

Know that most racism is subtle and systemic. Overt discrimination does not need to occur for something to be racist.

Expose yourself to diversity.

Ask people of colour and aboriginal people what their needs are and how you can meet those. Take their answers to heart and take action to reflect that.

Hire aboriginal outreach workers in your service organizations, and make sure they are not tokenized. Reflect on what makes or does not make your organization a place people of colour and aboriginal people want to work.

Work on incorporating Elders and elders (seniors) into the GLBT* movement.

Do your homework on language: terms like berdache are colonial terms used by Europeans (and subsequently academics) to refer to gay men and two-spirit people at the time of contact. The term two-spirit is a word used to reframe colonial history, since two-spirit people predate settler society.

Be willing to be nervous and uncomfortable. Crossing the social lines that divide communities and uphold racism takes courage, commitment and time. Forge genuine relationships with people of colour and indigenous people.

Published in OutWords Magazine, Sept. 2014

– Larkin Schmiedl is a writer of German, Scottish and English descent who is committed to social justice and believes privilege at the expense of others hurts everyone.

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