Among the most challenging tasks of activism (for me, at least) is persistence: having the energy to keep on keeping on. This is especially true in relation to battles that I thought were done (at least in relative terms). The anti-gay legislation in Russia -and, importantly, its violent effects- clearly illustrate that incomplete civil rights gains can be retracted and taken-for-granted social norms (navigating more or less thinly veiled homophobia) can shift dramatically. If you haven’t read Masha Gessen’s piece on this point, you should.
The situation is frightening, and the best thing I can say about the upcoming winter Olympics is that at least it is providing opportunities to draw attention to these laws and their effects.
Persisting in the face of hate speech is exhausting–it takes a physical, mental, and emotional toll. This is why there is, in my opinion, a place for equalities legislation and inclusivity policy. Yes, it will always be an incomplete project, and yes, it should be understood as a process rather than a product; still, these strategies have value. They are not enough, but they help to identify the kind of civil society we want to live in and help to hold people and governments accountable for their (in)ability to enact that vision.
So, in another part of the world (and one with which I am more intimately acquainted), in a very different context than the situation in Russia, I am watching with great interest the municipal response to a hate speech incident which targeted my colleagues-friends. The situation was widely broadcast in the local media and beyond: a Lethbridge, Alberta-based theatre received complaints from some neighbouring business owners that qualified as homophobic vitriol: “homosexual lifestyles, transsexual endorsement, child molestation, rape, indecent exposure and acquiring STDs from the building’s toilets”. The “concerns” were taken to City Hall, and the administrative response was a swift modification to the permitting process (the theatre company had moved and was in the midst of dealing with licensing). The result: the theatre could not re-open without City Council approval, and it was being re-framed by the City as an “adult theatre”.
Over the course of the past two days, the situation seems to have been resolved in a relatively neat fashion. The theatre company posted the following on their website today:
I am heartened by the response that Theatre Outre received from supporters, their landlord, and some City Councillors. However, I think that the situation Theatre Outre faced indicates that there is much work to be done to confront homophobia within City government and among Lethbridge’s diverse communities. I addressed these concerns in my letter, pasted below and sent earlier today, to the mayor and City administrators.
30 January 2014
Dear Mayor Spearman and members of the City of Lethbridge administration,
I am writing in response to the issues surrounding Theatre Outré’s Bordello, and the City’s response to this controversy. Bordello is both an important theatre venue and an essential community resource in Lethbridge. Theatre Outré, which operates Bordello, is a theatre company that has been celebrated locally, nationally and internationally. It is strongly supported by local citizens and financially supported by the City of Lethbridge and the Alberta Foundation for the Arts. It is not an “adult space” and should not be treated as such by City administrative policy.
Bordello welcomes audiences from across the gender spectrum and tackles important social issues like social difference (whether in terms of gender, race, sexuality or other type of diversity) through an arts-based practice. This kind of resource is essential to any community, and it should be especially valued in a community like Lethbridge, which has made a commitment to developing a “healthy and diverse city” and a “culturally vibrant city” through its ICSP/MDP Corporate Strategic Plan and by signing onto the CMARD policy initiative. Supporting Bordello and making sure that this theatre can thrive in Lethbridge fit neatly within these strategies, which makes facilitating the re-opening of Bordello in the best interest of the City.
It appears that homophobic hate speech from some of the community’s business owners was able to trigger an administrative response by the City, to re-route Bordello from one type of licensing process to another (unwarranted) licensing process. This demonstrates a disconnect between the City’s social policy initiatives, which aim to support building a welcoming and inclusive community, and its business practices, which did the opposite in this case.
As a former member of the Lethbridge community, and as a person who conducts research on the life stories and experiences of exclusion (and being made to feel different) of Lethbridge’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans*, and queer (LGBTQ) communities, I am well-placed to comment on the effect that homophobia and uneducated hate speech has on those who call Lethbridge home. The type of defamation directed at Bordello feeds intolerant and violent attitudes and behaviours, which profoundly affect people’s understanding and experience of the place they call home. Thus, the City’s response matters tremendously: it can either facilitate further intolerance or shut such divisive behaviours down. I hope that the City chooses the latter route and shows leadership in educating the diverse population of Lethbridge that bullying one community has a immense negative impact on the community as a whole.
I look forward to learning how City leaders and administrators will respond to this issue. Please contact me if I can be of assistance by, for example, sharing the data that I have collected from the Lethbridge LGBTQ oral history project. I would be happy to do so for City leaders and for the community at large.
Tiffany Muller Myrdahl, PhD
Ruth Wynn Woodward Junior Chair
Simon Fraser University
Principle Investigator: The Lives of (Sexual) Others: Social difference and urban change in Lethbridge, Alberta
This is an ongoing SSHRC and University of Lethbridge funded research project
Garth Sherwin, City Manager, City of Lethbridge
Bary Beck, Director of Community Services, City of Lethbridge
Diane Randell, Community & Social Development Manager, City of Lethbridge