In Defense of Love

The Montreal Pulse Vigil, Queer Kin, and Dreaming Our Way Home (Featured Image: Karen Campos public installation, Toronto)


yôski-pikîskwawak: speak softly (nehiyaw)

to be
to be

-rupi kaur

This past Saturday I attended the party of nîtisân (my sibling) who was bidding farewell to Montreal, on her way back to home territories to start her own family. She is doing so with another sibling, nîmis, who I call “older sibling” because of the dynamic of our relationship. nîmis was the first person to teach me the nehiyaw language and, admittedly, very much about the unapologetic and persevering, yet gentle, spirit of our people. They are going back to the land to start what I have heard some term a “postmodern family.” A family that questions and teases apart the limitations of Europatriarchal cis and hetero normative family structures, reforming itself strongly guided in nehiyaw / michif kinship ways. A family that asks, why can’t two spirit sisters and their kin have a home and a family together?

I’ve had similar affect amongst my “queer family.” I remember reading some of my earliest queer ancestors around 12 or 13 years of age in the “Gay and Lesbian” section of Regina’s downtown public library – a budding prairie queer. Maybe the unabashed love affairs I read about in these books, between friends, family, lovers, and other kin, is what was so enticing about the queer community to begin with. At the party on Saturday, I drank, ate, and laughed at a table with my closest siblings, my lover who is the future co-parent to my children, and the future sperm donor to my children who is a close friend of almost a decade to my partner. We schemed, joked, and cackled my future family into being at that table. We talked about every step of my future conceptions, from inception to rearing, and contemplated who among these relations would be best equipped to assist in the different stages of leading these lives through the world. These lives that were also going to be a part of this motley crew, this queer family I have built in this place I call home. Built on endless stretches of highway roads, sweaty dance floors, and a cheeky substance fuelled kiss or two. At BBQs, at rallies, around kitchen tables, at meetings, and in gutters. We literally created our families into being with, well, nothing. We brought with us to the city our broken bones, our tired blood, our own secret traumas, and we were met with love. Queer love. Is there anything more pure? No, not in terms of its political power as a subversive counterculture – a claim  which has been heavily critiqued, indigenized, and teased apart by BIPOC gender non-conforming, queer, and/or trans folks. Rather, queer love is revolutionary love. Queer love revolutionizes love.

I was recently listening to Chai Chats, a podcast based in Montreal. The hosts were talking about the idea that “love is traumatic” (Episode 12). Parneet Chohan suggested that when you’ve had a life defined by scarcity, unsafeness, violence, and depressive affect, this  becomes your new truth. Trauma, a disruption in your belief in reality, can become associated to love precisely because love is a disruption to your known reality. Moments of joy are embodied as trauma, like symptoms of PTSD. Chohan cites Brené Brown’s definition of love: the feeling of being seen, heard, recognized, and understood. Then, to heal ourselves from embodied trauma is to learn how to love. I wondered, could queer love even heal colonial trauma? As a non-binary, two-spirit person I have felt my traditional gender, sexuality, and ways of loving were so seen, so heard, so recognized, and so understood in queer and trans communities. In ways Indigenous community often seems incapable of. Queer communities actually have healed these parts of me. Truly, I survive this settlement on my body, that has made a home of my bones, a trauma I feel daily, with the support and love of my queer fam. In the words of Leah Lakshimi, in dreaming our way home.

Back to the party: Later in the evening as I moved through the space I was privy to a conversation between a few white folks. One of the first things my ears unwittingly picked up was somehow not surprising to me as someone who has navigated a palpably white queer community for the last 4 years, “Do you think it would have been the same if Esteban hadn’t thrown the paper.” Still, the words cut into me. What they were referring to, of course, is the now infamous incident at the June 17 Montreal vigil for the Pulse shootings wherein Esteban Torres, a local Latino trans activist, was violently confronted by police and taken into custody. Torres had been speaking alongside premiere Philippe Couillard at the vigil. Of course, this event mirrors exactly what BIPOC queer and trans communities have said heavier policing of the village would bring with it. Namely, an increase in racialized police violence against queer and trans BIPOC folks at the hands of a police force who has been proven violent and unchecked.

Since the event, media outlets like the Montreal Gazette have been actively criminalizing and arguably racializing Torres, portraying him as having violently attacked the premiere during the vigil. What did occur, however, was much less sinister then the media portrayed. Toward the end of the vigil, Torres turned to the premier and shouted, “Revolution” and, “We will take back the street.” He then threw a paper ball at the premiere. Immediately secret police rushed Esteban putting him in a choke hold and dragging him out of the vigil. Torres was charged with assault against the premiere with an unidentified object and disturbing the peace. He was released on a promise to comply with a list of conditions including not being allowed to organize with Pink Bloc anymore, having to see a psychiatrist within five days of being released, and following any recommendations he receives from the psychiatrist including prescribed medication.

This is the other side of “queer fam.” Moments like these consistently make me question the legitimacy of such a homogenizing identifier, make me critical of white queers all too ready to co-opt the narrative of the Pulse shootings proclaiming, “WE ARE ALL ORLANDO.” Just as their kin proclaimed, “all lives matter.” These are the interactions that point to difference, calling us to be gentle and concise in addressing said difference. Because BIPOC queer and trans folks know that these distinctions matter. Because, no, we are not all Orlando.

Recently artist Karen Campos tweeted, “Just when I was sort of enjoying Queen west, I read ‘we are all orlando’ [in] the gay cafe washroom,” in the days following the completion of her recent work. The Salvadoreña artist’s work is now on display outside of The Beaver in Toronto. Campos cites El Salvadorian textiles as one of her inspirations. While Campos has grappled with the difficulty of “having to draw out 49 people” on her Twitter, the work speaks an important context to the Pulse shootings: That it was the Latin community who was actually targeted for these shootings. This is a reflection of similar racisms felt in Southern regions of the US and, let’s be honest, beyond. Even within local communities, it’s no coincidence that the individual to experience police violence resulting from heavier policing of the village was a trans Latino individual. A call to identify the Pulse shootings as simply evocative of LGBTQ bigotry also fails to address the fact that queer and trans Muslim folks had their identities dissected, criminalized, and attacked by the mainstream media, as well as amongst neoliberal gay and trans communities, immediately following the shootings. Calls for an end to Islamophobia within queer and trans communities prolifically spread across social media platforms, ironically at the expense of an actual centring Muslim queer and trans folks within this narrative. As my friend Sam Unger so poignantly put it, “Sometimes I feel like you all forget queer Muslims exist. Sometimes I feel like lots of y’all are dicks.”

What also curiously seems lost within local narrative is the role that white supremacy, colonialism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia within Quebec nationalist rhetoric played in the events that occurred at the Montreal vigil. When talking about homonationalism in Quebec, we are talking about a very particular breed of imperial colonizer and settler. French colonizers have truly adopted a sovereigntist political and social rhetoric, one in which they imagine themselves to be a colonized people and even at times Indigenous. I mean, truly believe themselves to be Indigenous. This fiction allows them to both a) adopt an identity of a colonized peoples and b) negate their own identities as colonizers. Maybe this is why the standoff at Kanesatake, often called the Oka Crisis in settler media, was so explosive: Because the assertion that the Kanien’kehá:ka are the rightful people of this land completely dismantles such a myth.

What does this look like in real time? Heavy appropriation of Indigenous cultures and iconographies as “Quebec culture,” even within Quebecois cultural celebrations and mythologies. Literal blood myths wherein they claim a long lost Indigenous relative. I’ve been in a business meeting where a French settler told me, “Look at the curve of my nose. I must have Indian blood.” I’ve sat at dinner with the family of my partner who told me, “I don’t care what you say, I know I’m Indigenous. It’s true because of intermarrying. Look at the way I tan.” Ah yes, and this. The most popular mythology of all, that the French Canadian people are in fact an Indigenous people. Of course, it’s always some long lost grandmother. As nîtisân Amanda Lickers has said, “terra nullius is rape culture.” This is why claims to indigeneity that have created strong waves amongst Indigenous community by individuals like Seb Malette aren’t surprising to me, and perhaps why they feel so violent – they mirror so perfectly the narratives that already pre-exist amongst French nationalists in the way they envision their own subjectivities as that of a colonized “race.”

Quebec’s racist, white supremacist, xenophobic, anti-Black racist, and Islamophobic social culture is no secret. There is no end to the list of evidence I could cite. Montreal Nord’s tireless fight to deal with the criminalization of, police violence towards, and police killings of Black community members. The continued articulation of anti-Black sentiment amongst residents of the predominantly French Canadian NE side community of Rosemont, where I currently reside. The ongoing violence against Muslim women who choose to wear head covers, recently with the Quebec Charter of Values (ironic considering the role Catholicism plays in Quebec social, cultural, and political identity) but there’s also been a long history of this within the French Canadian community. One famous instance being the debates for reasonable accommodation or even within rhetoric amongst French feminist institutes like that at UQAM. Entire communities of “news” commentators have made their careers off of hateful racist and xenophobic fear mongering because, well, there’s a market for it. Recently this article somehow ended up in my Facebook page proclaiming, Quebec separatists see new hope after the Brexit vote. Well, ya. Of course Quebec sees itself in a successful sovereignty campaign based in fear mongering and nationalist colonial rhetoric that targets the Muslim and Black communities in violent and disturbing ways. Sovereignty for white settlers on stolen lands isn’t actually a thing – that’s just colonialism. It’s a “sovereignty” asserted standing over the bodies and bones of the Black slaves you kept, the Indigenous peoples you decimated.

As my friend Sanford Kome-Pond recently found in reading through the heavily redacted FBI transcripts of what went happened at Pulse nightclub, there are still so many questions left to be answered. Namely, why there were no reported fatalities until after SWAT had entered Pulse? How was this so well buried by the media and by the police force? Is what the police chief of Orlando hinted towards true; were most of the fatalities the result of police gunfire? Why were the FBI transcripts so conveniently released as “pride month” is coming to a close? Were authorities afraid that we would find our way back to the roots of pride – the stonewall riots, destroying the state that seeks to destroy our bodies, life, and love. Says Kome-Pond, “No matter who perpetuated the violence, we know why these people were chosen. We know why the police responded the way they did.”

The idea of being accountable for the ways multiple queer and trans subjectivities interact in public space has been on my mind as of late. Sometimes I wonder, for a community that self-proclaims itself as so subversive, why are we so scared to talk about difference? If social justice communities accept the complicity of, oh say, white cis folks in social structures that result in the embodied trauma of BIPOC folks within macro society, why then are we afraid to address the same dynamics at play within queer and trans communities. Maybe it’s time to view this fear of addressing racial and colonial difference in queer community as complicity, an inability to acknowledge how you can simultaneously experience oppression-related traumas yet still hold and wield power within queer and trans communities.

I know I might be accused of veering into that taboo realm of the “call out” but I want to be clear that is not my intention here. I want to reify my introduction wherein I laid out my long withstanding stakes, claims, affinity, and love for queer and trans communities that have held me, called me their own. That said, it’s hard for me to stomach the participation of queer and trans communities in criminalizing narratives around Torres’ violent arrest. Especially when it is framed as a necessity to rationalize the humanity of BIPOC queer and trans folks when our bodies are put in harms way because of state violence. Rather than perpetuating the continued criminalization of Torres within the narrative of what happened that day, maybe we should instead ask, would this have happened if Esteban had been a white man?  White folks in queer community, despite who they fuck, despite if they are critical of the state, despite their gender, are complicit in embodied colonial and racial violence. Sharing a beer with me at NDQ does not make you any less the beneficiary of settler colonialism and white supremacy.

I’m still reeling from Kai Cheng Thom’s piece 7 Ways Social Justice Language Can Become Abusive in Intimate Relationships wherein she recalled her own experience navigating the murky waters of social justice communities and its language:

And how many times had I, in moments of fear, terrified of being abandoned yet again by a white, cisgender male partner, resorted to using the only power I had – the language of feminism and social justice, words that had given me strength and saved my life when no one would – to try and seize control of my relationships? 

“If you leave me, then you’re just as racist as all the other white gay boys. You don’t want have sex with me anymore because you’re transphobic. I’ll scream at you and call you whatever I want – don’t tone police me.”

The thing is, I believed those things when I said them, believed them with all my traumatized, terrified trans girl of color heart. A part of me still does. 

Because it’s true that social oppression plays itself out in romantic and sexual relationships. Too often, privileged people hurt and exploit their marginalized partners and are never held accountable for their actions.

But there is a difference between expressing oppressive relationship dynamics in order to expose privilege and incite self-reflection, and manipulating the language of social justice to win a fight with your partner. 

There is a big difference between pointing out that your partner is more privileged than you and using that fact as an excuse for hitting them.

This conversation is so, so complicated and scary to open up, because it forces us, as feminists and activists, to question the foundations of our beliefs about identity, power, and violence. It forces us to question ourselves and what we are doing, in the world and in our bedrooms.

But I think we need to go there.

We need to look at abuse through a more complicated lens.

This inquiry into the ways we relate to one another in community space, and similar conversations, have stayed with me. While I know the term “community” in this context is contentious, I am hesitant to frame it as otherwise. As an Indigenous person, I often wonder if feminist or social justice spaces are truly emancipatory for me when they manifest within continued occupation and are not necessarily led with Indigenous resurgence in mind. I question the limits of Eurocentric, white-dominated spaces and knowledges to accurately describe all of my experiences. Maybe I’ve lived in Montreal for too long but I also want to be clear that my engagement with community here shouldn’t be equated with a brocialist conceptualization of “the common” either.

All that aside, I’ve been thinking a lot about love and, yes, the power of love in teasing apart these differences with generosity, empathy, and kindness. Don’t confuse my use of love here for a capitalist conflation. Because Creator knows we don’t have a lot, but at least we got love. Much like my queer kin, my kinship with Indigenous fam has allowed me to create mutually supportive communities that help me survive with nothing but a little love. It was Tracey Lindberg who said,

“Don’t mistake
this gentleness
for softness.

It’s a steel love.”

Some have called it “being through love” (Hardt and Negri). Others have described it as love for community (bell hooks). I just call it responsibilities and responsiveness to kinship. My kin keep me humble. My kin keep me street. My kin always remind me that, no matter what, we take care of each other first.

My path to love happened through my family. nîmis was the first to teach me (but wouldn’t be the last) about the nehiyaw peoples’ robust kinship networks within all creation. Centering restoration, love, and kinship within my interactions has truly changed every part of me. I’ve become less interested in binaristic ways of describing how our identities collide and misalign, and more concerned with the multiple ways our subjectivities interact, hopefully mitigating the harm that results from these interactions. I’ve had countless conversations with those I hold close attempting to define that line where my trauma ends and theirs may begin, how our embodied traumas interact, and also how this is all at once completely impossible. Can traumas that are spiritual, physical, and emotional really be expressed in this way? Or, must they be felt? It was nîtisan Amanda Lickers who taught me about the land trauma that I carry, a history of genocide flowing through my veins.

During my pursuance of an undergraduate degree in feminist thought at the Simone de Beauvoir Institute, I also came into contact with the feminist ethics of care and love. Truthfully, these felt like cheap rip-offs of a love I found much better described within the pages of Leanne Simpson’s Islands of Decolonial Love. Such critiques shouldn’t feel too far off, considering that Indigenous feminisms are the original feminisms of these territories and, arguably, the inspiration for all white feminism.

I’ve never been a fan of deconstructionist arguments that are presented void of self-reflexivity. In my community such approaches have denied material and felt subjectivities, like race, purporting that “identity categories” aren’t constructive within social justice. I also see the downfall of its categorical opposite however: That there is one true “winner” in oppressive interactions and it’s easily identifiable by boundaries like race or gender. In fact, reconstructing my relationship to kinship has reconfigured the ways I feel about binaristic identity categorizations, like feminine and masculine spirit for instance. I truly don’t understand what is restorative about a call out and discard model. There is a lot of things about restorative justice movements right now that seem pretty fucking carceral to me. All this to say, I choose love as a starting place for my politic. I choose restorative processes. I choose community. It’s a hard market but I’m going to keep peddling.

I want us to not be afraid to interact with the uniqueness of our subjectivities and the ways we perpetuate or experience harm. It was Audre Lorde who told us all those years ago, “difference must not be merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic.” Can we use love as a starting point to interact with such difference, to recognize that we are all interconnected and responsible to one another – that we are kin. That, to love each other means to be responsive to these differences. Also, how cool would that be, to centre Indigenous kinship ways within the restoration of our queer kinships?

The other day I was having one last dinner with my aforementioned friend, the one who is moving. We had been talking about unlearning capitalism and, specifically, humility and careerism. She asked me, “What has been the most important part of unlearning capitalism for you?”

I replied, “Learning to recenter love in all my relationships.”

We don’t have to be the same to have love for each other, to fulfill the dreams of our queer and trans ancestors. I’m not here to say that we are so different we can’t still find solace together in such a fucked up time. What I am asking is that you consider the Pulse shootings as a call to action. A call to lift up those in our community who need it most right now. To listen. To learn. To show up with love.

Tomorrow night CRZN will host a Queer Latinx dance party for the families of the victims of the Pulse shootings, here in Montreal. I hope to see you on the dance floor so we may tempt the spirits, honour our queer kin, both with us and fallen, and put some of that queer love into action.

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