Wednesday January 5, 2011. Written by Siobhan McGuirk (UK) Research and collaboration by Michel F. Paré (Toronto)
10 years was a landmark for the Toronto Queer Arts Festival in August 2010. The first Pride event in Toronto took place 30 years ago. It shows how much the visibility and public acceptance of LGBTQ has grown, and how quickly, that Pride Toronto and to a lesser degree Toronto Queer Arts Festival are each as popular as they are now.
Of course, there was always a gay scene in Toronto long before then, with bars and cafes situated between drag shows, fetish clubs, alternative nights and cabarets – the type of event now more likely termed queer than synonymous with ‘gay culture’. These still attract audiences year-round, but have shifted further out of the spotlight. They have become niche. The scene, it seems, has been sanitized.
It follows a common trend in which liberation rallies commemorating the Stonewall Riots have become Pride parades with organizers able to erect fences and charge entry fees. Pride movements have emerged to bite back, with radical politics and declarations of inclusivity. For its part, Queer West Arts Festival proudly proclaims that only 50% of its audience is defined as lesbian or gay. It is a celebration of diversity.
Toronto Queer Arts Festival celebrates and supports artists who create work on their own terms; in their own way… here they can make the work they’re burning to make. They can risk and they can play.
Of course, queer movements in general have faced backlash: some see the term “Queer” as offensive rather than reclaimed. Others assert that their sexuality should not be presumed to dictate their politics.
Yet queer arts festivals such as Toronto Queer Arts Festival, Performatorium in Regina and the Vancouver Queer Arts Festival among others, at the very least, make space for important questions to be raised. They also offer a platform to unpopular or extraordinary responses. They demonstrate that to be L,G,B, T and/or Q is still seen subversive, even if you don’t want it to be. No matter how “pink” mainstream political parties have become, or acceptable gay marriage or civil partnerships are, society still insists on its norms.
The arts can explore the boundaries of equality debates and reveal the tension within them, highlighting the prejudices that persist, both on and off “the scene”: sexism, transphobia, body fascism, ageism, and racism only scratch the surface. When a polyamorous, asexual, mixed race, gender queer artist announces that they will vote Conservative because they, too, believe in “family values”, the audience laughs, recognizing that the joke is on us
Many are self-defining queers who feel “the scene” does not cater to their needs or outlooks and see Toronto Queer Arts Festival as an annual highlight. Paradoxically, another chunk of friends have no idea the festival even exists.
Pride Toronto, too, splits opinion. Overly commercial and frustratingly political for many, it is the high point of the year for some. There are overlaps between the two camps, of course, but there is still a discernible divide between the “Gay” and “Queer” festival scenes, and the gulf between them is widening.
It will be interesting to see the results, and by the close of these festivals, how far the gay / queer divide has been addressed and whether new ideas will emerge over what it is to be L, G, B, T, I, Q in Toronto.
Siobhan McGuirk, is a Freelance Filmmaker / Journalist with lesbilicious.co.uk and Commissioning Editor, for Red Pepper Magazine. firstname.lastname@example.org Michel F. Paré is President of the Toronto Queer West Arts & Culture Centre / email@example.com