Calgary's Gay and Lesbian Community
Reprinted with permission from Chris Hooymans, last owner and publisher of Clue! Magazine.
Clue! Magazine, September, 1993
Feature Story (pp. 22-23)
Division, Diversity and Racism
by Leland Hall
[Header:] Racism within Calgary's gay and lesbian community is an issue which many of us may be unfamiliar with. On the surface the idea that racism even exists in our community seems absurd; the premise that some gays and lesbians discriminate against each other on the basis of ethnic origin is contrary to the whole concept of Gay Liberation. But according to members of Of Color, a local group striving to eliminate this discrimination within the gay and lesbian community, racism does exist. The following series of interviews express the many frustrations faced by gays and lesbians of color within our community.
Paul Fernandez: "Exclusion takes place all the time."
A gay students' organization provided Paul Fernandez, 28, with his first experience as a gay person of color. A white-dominated group, this organization proved to be an unpleasant situation for Fernandez. "It was the most painful experience I've had as a gay person." he recalls.
Fernandez, from South-East Asia, is keenly aware of the discrimination that surrounds him, "When in the company of white gay people, the conversations take place only amongst themselves," he explains. "Their voices are heard, their opinions are valued.
"I have to fight to get my voice heard - that is racism."
Fernandez says Of Color was formed to fight this racism. Currently composed of 15-20 gays and lesbians, the group strives to give dignity back to its members. "Whites don't have to struggle with internalized racism," he says. "Whites are experts on racism, shouldn't they know it better themselves?"
"Why don't they form their own group and examine their racism?"
Comparing his experience to that of gay men restricted to meeting men in bars on Electric Avenue [an area dominated by clubs frequented by heterosexual individuals], Fernandez says that gays of color eventually become involved with straight men. [False statement, see Letter to Editor, and Clue! Apology] Except for the rare occasion when a straight man "explores," gays of color would be ignored - and perhaps on that occasion the straight man may tell them he really wants to be with a woman. "This is what I experience in the gay community." Fernandez says, Though I meet others, what they really want is 'white'.
"So really I am here to serve the white man's lust [and] sexual fantasies."
To reinforce this argument, Fernandez uses the example of Stellar Men by photographer Stanley Stellar. A collection of homoerotic photos, Stellar Men's message is simple. "What's touted as 'desirable' is white males," Fernandez explains. "I, as a person of color, am expected to identify with one black male - that's tokenizing."
"The truth is I cannot identify with him."
Fernandez declines to explain in depth the racism he's experienced. "Explaining it for the article will trivialize my experience," he explains. "The space in Clue Magazine restricts me to one or two incidents.
"Exclusion takes place all the time - not just in two or three incidents."
Akash D'Silva [a pseudonym]: "I kept blaming myself and calling myself ugly."
For Akash D'Silva, a 28-year-old systems analyst from Pakistan, being gay takes precedence over being Indian." My work has to be done in the gay community, because there are lots of people in the Indian community who are fighting racism," he explains.
Like Fernandez, D'Silva observed his white friends meeting other men with more ease and frequency - while at the same time, white people talked to him differently than they did to each other. "I noticed I was not being heard, not given a voice, nor the place to speak," he recalls. "They were not valuing my opinion."
After internalizing it all, Akash began to berate himself. "I kept blaming myself and calling myself ugly," he explains.
This continued until D'Silva met other people of colour and realized their experiences were all similar.
D'Silva feels the ultimate responsibility for change is possessed by whites, but "I'm not racist," is the comment he hears from most people. "They totally remove themselves from the responsibility of dealing with the issues," he explains. "It's like they are saying 'Tell me when I'm being racist', rather than monitoring themselves."
Conversely, D'Silva feels it's just as bad to be liked solely because of his Indian background. He says he often referred to as 'exotic'. I think [the word 'exotic'] reduces me to a function of my racial identity," he explains. "It almost makes my culture and my being Indian a playground for them."
Sometimes, even a relationship isn't immune from cultural bias. "It is hard when you're in a relationship with a white person when he starts objectifying other white people," D'Silva says. "I just want him [my partner] to recognize me as an equal."
Judy Grant: "If you look at things world-wide, people of color are the majority."
For Judy Grant, a 31-year-old black lesbian, growing up in Montreal and travelling though Europe made coming out easy at 17. It wasn't until she moved to Calgary three years ago that she felt something different'.
Grant's observation of Calgary's gay and lesbian community includes the feeling that the difficulty gays and lesbians have accepting diversity is transmitted to them from the straight community. "Our lives, in general, tell us to be a diverse culture, but yet again it teached conformity," she explains. "We demand conformity,"
"Lots of times in our community, we are not as diverse as we would like to think."
Grant says it is easier for her to be a lesbian that it is a black woman. "With the type of society that we live in, it is not as dangerous for me to live as a lesbian," she explains. "The reason why I don't get a job is usually because I am a woman or because I am black."
"If I walk home late at night, there is a chance that I could be raped because I am a woman."
For Grant, meeting other people with similar experiences though Of color is empowering. She recognizes that she is in a minority in Calgary, but on a larger scale she is a member of a majority. "If you look at things world wide, people of color are the majority," Grant explains.
This empowerment helps grant realize that she alone cannot bring about change. "I think that they [white people] should educate themselves about racism," she says. "They have to realize that they have to share in their wealth, privileges and space."
"The bottom line is only a few and the brave are willing to do that."
Relationships are also important to Grant although she found it difficult to find a partner. "I find it disheartening when you get into a relationship, and on the surface they are not racist, but underneath you discover that it is there."
Wee Yin: "You get hurt and disappointed inside."
Edmonton-born Wee Yin [a pseudonym], came out three years ago. Yin, 28, grew up feeling different and wanting to fit in. He surrounded himself with a circle of white friends to prove that he was as good as them. "I would always try not to have close relationships with colored people," Yin explains. "I didn't want to be identified as the other."
This provided him with a false sense of security - and the resulting personal conflict was inevitable. "You get hurt and disappointed inside," Yin explains. "You can't deal with it.."
Yin finds the issue of race dealt with differently in the straight and gay communities. "Women at work view you as heterosexual - but they view you as attractive," he says. "It's OK to be Oriental but not gay."
In the gay community, Yin's ethnic background comes to the forefront - especially in relationships. "Once you are in the gay scene, being Oriental becomes an issue," Yin explains. "All your relationships are based on how others view you on being Asian.
"We deal with me being Asian."
Despite the reversal between his personal and professional life, Yin finds it easier being gay than being Asian: being gay is less visible. "That's why I came out as gay first, and then as 'a person of color'."
Clue! Magazine, October, 1993, p. 5.
Re: Division, Diversity and Racism (September, 1993)
I find it necessary to express my dismay at the following statements attributed to me which appeared in the above-mentioned article - that "many gays of color eventually become involved with straight men." I uttered no such rubbish.
All I meant to do during that portion of my interview was to draw an analogy between the relationship that gay men of colour have with the white gay men's community on [one] hand, and [the] hypothetical situation in which (white) gay men were restricted to meeting straight men in the bars on Electric Avenue. I know not one gay man of colour who, having despaired of the rampant racism in Calgary's white gay community, "eventually became involved" with a straight man. That a gay man of colour would move from one oppressive situation only to land himself in another is somewhat melodramatic. It also paints a picture of these gay men of colour as being desperate and hopeless.
Allow me to add that there is indeed hope for lesbian and gay men of colour in Calgary. Opinions may vary as to what these sources of hope are, but it is my conviction that our immediate source of hope is in the creation of queers of colour community. It has already begun with the formation of Of Colour.
The instance of misrepresentation that I have mentioned is by no means the only one evident in the article. I was present when all four interviews were conducted and I believe I understood what was being said by the other interviewees. The article that was eventually published didn't quite compare in substance.
This experience has [re]affirmed my initial apprehension in doing the interview - that I shouldn't allow myself to be represented by anyone else. To my understanding, the final article must have gone through two filtering processes; the first by the journalist attempting to report my story and the second by the editor trying to make sense of the journalist's report [...] Perhaps, all I am saying is that Clue! Magazine might reevaluate its editorial policy.
The editorial staff of Clue! Magazine strives to present articles which accurately reflect the statements and positions of those we interview. Therefore, when it is brought to our attention that errors have occurred in a particular article, the editorial staff wishes to deal promptly with the situation.
As regards to Paul Fernandez's allegations about our September, 1993 feature story entitled "Diversity, Division, and Racism," we have reviewed the original interview tapes and the reporter's notes, his first draft, and the final edited story. The editorial staff has subsequently discovered that the persons interviewed have been misquoted, and some quotations were taken out of context.
The editorial staff of Clue! Magazine would like to apologize to these members of Of Colour who were incorrectly represented in this story, and regrets any misunderstandings which have occurred.