As a queer man, the recent burning of the gay rainbow flag at the University of British Columbia has not caused me any lost sleep. I can assure you, however, that I’m not impervious to homophobic threats or attacks, nor am I apathetic to the struggles of the several marginalized communities that I navigate and am allied with. My reaction is not at root what you may at first interpret to be a radical internalization of homophobia or an act of self-deprecation; I can assure you that I have more love now for my community and self than I have had in years. My reason for not flinching, not shedding a tear, requires a closer look and interpretation of the current rainbow flag and the other patterned sheets we fly above our campuses and city streets.
That being said, I want to begin by recognizing the work and emotional labour put into OUTweek by the Pride Collective, and acknowledge that the rainbow flag continues to represent pride for many queer individuals. My intention is not to shame those who do find pride in the coloured stripes, but rather to critically examine the complexities of the flag.
The rainbow flag, which was designed in the late 1970s after a decade of queer resistance against police raids that started with the trans women of colour led uprising at the Stonewall Inn in 1969, has strayed far from its origins. A flag whose colour scheme may have once represented a myriad of queer identities1, now arguably only serves an elite few, those bodies and sexualities deemed worthy of inclusion into the political agendas of neoliberal governments.
Over the years, the priorities of the LGBTQ community have shifted from liberation to assimilation, and the need for normative acceptance has led to demands for recognition and inclusion in brutal institutions such as the military-industrial complex and the police force, as well as for marriage equality and the demand for stronger hate crime legislation. As a result, human rights are being traded for civil rights.
When a flag, which now for many queers embodies the conquests of homonationalism (the tolerance of homosexuality and integration of gay rights into a nationalist ideology to further state power) and all its neoliberal sentimentalities, is raised, to some it declares, “We are normal. We were once oppressed but now we are recognised. We want to be like you, to emulate the heteropatriarchal structures of oppression that once oppressed us in the first place. We want to fight in your imperial wars. We want to rule over the lands we walk on.”
For many queers and anti-statists, flags, especially those raised by settler colonial governments such as so-called “Canada,” are a constant reminder of ongoing imperialism and state violence. They are a reminder that the politics and actions of the state do not always reflect the opinions of the people residing within its borders, and those who are legally-designated Canadians may not choose to identify as such. They are a reminder that this land is colonized and we are uninvited guests on stolen territories, several of which are unceded. However, the flags that we choose have the ability to represent resistance and not oppression. I am thinking back, of course, to the origins of the rainbow liberation flag, but also to flags such as the Indigenous Flag of Unity and Resistance, the current edition of which emerged out of the 1990 Oka crisis.
A “Vision” of progressive poverty…
In the wake of this act of hatred, some have pondered how anyone could, in a so-called “progressive” city like Vancouver, even think of setting fire to a gay flag. First, let me start by asking people to reconsider the use of what I would refer to as a relatively ambiguous, loaded term, particularly in their generalized description of cities. The notion of “progressiveness” is entrenched in liberalism and as a result is a canker sore of real social revolution; it is a half-baked and usually politically equivocal term injected into liberal discourse to further agendas of corporate greed and nationalism. It is peppered into conversation to indicate that an individual has an agenda of human rights for all, when in fact their politics are no better from their centre-left and right-winged counterparts. It demands that we position ourselves in relation to other cities and nations (and ways of governance) that we may view as less developed, both economically and socially. In reality, social progress all too often tends to commodify and exploit racialized and non-normalized bodies, as well as undermine Indigenous law and ways of land use, as is the case with occupied Turtle Island.2
Social progress is another consequence of neocolonialism, which is built upon these structures of racial violence and perpetuates the rising homelessness in Vancouver. This problematic fallacy that Vancouver is a “progressive” paradise relies heavily on a neoliberal narrative that everything is fine and dandy in rich multicultural Vancouver and so-called “socialist Canada” at large, and that the majority of folks residing on these lands lie mostly to the political left and are part of the upper middle class. In a society where personal success is valued above all else, poverty is viewed as a shortcoming of the individual and not a product of the structures of the state. The bodies unable to fit the desires and demands of capitalism are then discarded and many folks are as a result dispossessed of their homes and livelihood. This narrative erases not only views and positions that lie outside the cultural hegemony but also tries to bury the fact that Vancouver exists in a colonial present, rife with poverty, gentrification and displacement.
Through my involvement with the SRO Collaborative and the Carnegie Community Action Project in the Downtown Eastside, I have witnessed the very real effects of class struggle on our streets. I have attended community forums and marches where Chinese seniors have spoken up about what they perceive to be the quickening grip of gentrification that slowly squeezes both culture and affordability out of Vancouver’s Chinatown by increasing the number of condos and yuppie coffee shops, which amplify the value and attractiveness of surrounding properties. When Mayor Gregor Robertson is complacent in his promise to end homelessness and provide adequate social housing amidst rapid gentrification, yet is more than happy to take an afternoon to hoist up the rainbow flag, it is clear that his allegiances lie with a privileged class. A common occurrence at Vancouver’s City Hall is the nearly vaudevillian performance by council members such as Andrea Reimer and Tim Stevenson. They will listen attentively to the experiences of low-income individuals living in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and nod at the concerns of activists over the lack of affordability and proper social housing and perhaps even shed a crocodile tear before voting in favor of wealthy developers. But be sure to catch your favorite municipal politicians at the next corporate pride parade for their photo op!
In Amber Dean’s book Remembering Vancouver’s Disappeared Women: Settler Colonialism and the Difficulty of Inheritance, the author draws attention to the 1984 banning and expulsion of sex workers from Vancouver’s West End neighbourhood as an example of, “white gay men championing a homonormativity that attempted (and it appears largely succeeded) to drive a wedge between ‘respectable queers’ and those engaged in the more overt, more public sexuality of sex work”3. From this we can glean the very real effects the neoliberal agendas of upper-middle class white gay men have had and continue to have in the regulation of non-normative citizens and fast-track gentrification in Vancouver.
In the wake of this outpour of sympathy and support suddenly injected into the gay student body, another flag has been raised outside the Hillel building not far from where the rainbow flag burned. To some this flag hurts more than the rainbow flag burning. This flag is an uncomfortable clash of the gay rainbow stripes and Israel’s national flag. When the Israeli government marries the flag of their settlement on Palestinian lands with the rainbow flag, many scholars and activists call this an attempt at implementing a pinkwashing campaign. Pinkwashing is one of the many strategies employed by the state of Israel to re-brand their image on a global level and erase war crimes enacted on Palestinians, by assimilating and dividing bodies with its biopolitical modernist logic. This is done by promoting Tel Aviv and other Palestinian territories as attractive and safe liberal paradises for gay and lesbian people, a smokescreen that relies on the irrelevant and racist narrative of Arabs as homophobic. This diverts attention from Israel’s apartheid regime. Interestingly enough, as Jasbir Puar notes in a talk she gave at the American University of Beirut, “LGBT liberation also works to distract attention from intense forms of heterosexual regulation, regulation that seeks to constrict the sexual and familial activities of all bodies not deemed suitable for the Israeli body politic.” By this reasoning, queer liberation is being appropriated and co-opted by the Israeli government to promote their nationalism. The result in many cases is that the targeted individuals who may know relatively nothing of the complex and longstanding conflicts in the region end up being implicated in an ongoing occupation and apartheid regime as political tourists.
Some claim that to reject and criticize Israel is to be anti-Semitic, and that Israel has more “progressive” gay rights than the United States. In fact, as I am writing this, our settler government has passed a motion to condemn support of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement4, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau claiming last year via Twitter that there is no room for a critique of Israeli apartheid on university campuses. Trudeau’s vehement opposition of the BDS movement is frightening in its Orwellian antagonism towards freedom of speech. These rebuttals are misconstructions backed by strawman arguments and are quick to dismiss that many Jewish folks, including UBC’s own Progressive Jewish Alliance, stand in solidarity with Palestinians.
Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land is an important issue to me not only as a settler on Indigenous lands but also as an anarchist who rejects any state control and occupation, and as a queer who questions and fears the normalizing and assimilative politics of homonationalism. While this may seem contradictory, as many Palestinians want their own nation state, anarchists can stand in solidarity by denouncing the violence and supporting Palestinian self-determination as a people.
Activists across the globe are drawing parallels between the oppression faced by Palestinians in Israel and other queer struggles. Recently at the Creating Change conference in Chicago, where the attendance of A Wider Bridge (an Israeli advocacy organization whose goals are to paint Israel as a sexy safe destination for rich homosexuals) led to several queer groups calling for a boycott. Trans activist and filmmaker Reina Gossett shared with the crowd that “from June Jordan to James Baldwin, the struggle for Palestinian liberation has always been a black feminist issue.”
While the Jewish students raising this flag may look like they are standing in solidarity with the Pride Collective, rest assured that they, like the city of Vancouver, have their own agenda. Last year a referendum question asking students whether or not they supported their “student union (AMS) in boycotting products and divesting from companies that support Israeli war crimes, illegal occupation and the oppression of Palestinians” failed to reach its necessary quorum of 4,130 votes, even though the majority of the voting student body selected yes. UBC’s Hillel society actively lobbied against passing the boycott and divestment principles. The flag and other attempts at pinkwashing are not only a gut-wrenching appropriation of queer and trans liberation but represents a normalization of the relation between an oppressor and oppressed people in occupied land, much of which is being mirrored in the ongoing settler colonial occupation of the Indigenous territories in so-called liberal “Canada.” As such, it is important that a critique of pinkwashing emerges in the aftermath of this incident as part of a larger conversation over the safety of our campus and the unceded Musqueam territories on which we conduct our education.
Should we burn flags? It depends on which day you ask me. As an anarchist I have no allegiance to the great maple that drips the red of so-called “Canada’s” violent colonization and current occupation of Indigenous lands and bodies. To some comrades engaged in daily resistance, setting fire to a flag is a strategy to make known their dissent and to repudiate abusive ruling forces. But burning a flag raised by a queer collective made up of mostly twenty-something year old individuals? No, I don’t think so. To do so is to instigate war with those who find comfort in this symbol, and the comfort is not a danger in and of itself. There are more important structures, both literally and figuratively, to burn and dismantle.
When we as queers and our allies should be focusing our efforts on abolishing oppressive institutions such as prisons, critiquing violent policing, and the racist heteropatriarchal systems that perpetuate these hateful acts, our reactionary anger from these incidents usually leads to demanding more hate crime legislation, instead of less. Yesterday I cringed at someone’s call-to-arms to march for stronger hate crime legislation, attempting to draw a comparison between marches for gay liberation and a misguided retaliation. Hate crimes will not cease to exist with the capture and sentencing of the perpetrator nor with the increasing severity with which we dole out punishment. This change occurs when we liberate ourselves from the control of the state, which acts not as our protector but our warden, and address the disparities and structural and racial inequalities that exist amongst us. If we are marching in anger it should be fueled by love. With that same love we should be healing our wounded community and building dialogue around actual change, and the many ways in which that will look different for many of us. Today I am dreaming of real resistance and real liberation.
- The author recognizes that the rainbow flag was designed by a cis white gay man in San Francisco. It was adopted at a time when trans women were still being ostracized from gay & lesbian pride marches. Though this has been played down over the years, to some it has never represented a diversity of queer folks.
- Name used by several Indigenous nations to describe North America.
- Dean, Amber. Remembering Vancouver’s Disappeared Women: Settler Colonialism and the Difficulty of Inheritance. University of Toronto Press, 2015.
- On February 22nd 2016 the motion passed by 229 to 51. Canada will now condemn any attempts by groups or individuals to promote the BDS movement. The author is awaiting such nonsense.