Ten days of Pride: Lighting candles for Pride High Holy Week

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Roy Mitchell leads the Embarrassing Mayor tour. Photo: Elizabeth Littlejohn

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For Pride High Holy Week 2013, I lit a candle each day and contemplated being Queer and Pride. The following are those contemplations.

Day one

Today, I light my first candle of High Holy Pride Week (extended to 10 days with city permit). It's a tradition. The candles are from IKEA and are rainbow-coloured. This year I went with simple solid colours, while last year they had faces -- Divine, Harvey Milk, Desmond Tutu and other heroes. As I light them I think of the queers I love and and why I love being queer. Respect out to everyone who fights the good fight to make it a better and inspired queer world.

Day two

Tonight, on the second day of High Holy Pride Week, when I lit my candle, I thought of all the divas that have touched and continue to touch so many -- the drama of their lives that helped us through the turmoil in ours and helped us reach emotions that men weren't supposed to have -- the heartache, the disappointment, the longing, the love. Maria Callas, Nina Simone, Barbara Bassey, Adele, Madonna, Beyoncé, Gaga, and I think of Judy Garland whose birthday is today and whose tragedy did not diminish her amazing talent and lasting impact for gay men, even now. Happy Pride, lovers.

 

Day three

On the third day of the High Holy Pride Week, I got up early to light the candle because it's Sunday and it used to be a church day for me when I was a boy. I remember my mother stopped taking us to church after she saw some documentary on the Vatican Museum. She was angry and decided there would be no more Sunday school, no more church. "All they have to do is sell a pair of those diamond earrings and they could feed one of those African countries." I was impressed by her sense of justice and happy not to have to go to church. Religion has played such a negative force in the lives of LGBTQ folk. Today, as I light the candle, I meditate on the suffering brought to the LGBTQ world because of religion. I see the changes that happen in the world because more and more people are standing up to religions that have caused us all such pain and death. Fuck religion. Happy Pride, everyone.

Day four

Today I lit my Pride candle early -- it's a work day for me. I think about how I am lucky to have a job that affirms queerness. I think about how it wasn't long ago that people were fired for being queer and I think how many nonconforming LGBT folk still have barriers to finding and sustaining work. A job; a livelihood. And I think about the progress we have made toward equality in the workforce. Take this job and shove it full of rainbows. Happy Pride to the queer working stiffs! And the non-working stiffs too!

Day five

Yesterday I lit the Pride High Holy Day candle late. The weekly Internet show I host, ROYNATION was about the relevancy of Pride; the show was titled Be It Resolved: Pride is Past Its Expiry Date. People from across North America were being asked whether Pride was still important or not.  There is that part of me that believes in the community that Pride ignites, that Pride engages... and there is part of me that is troubled by the largeness of it, the way that you can get lost in it, surrounded by corporations that care more that gay pride is for product placement; straight people that have no history of supporting queers showing up and taking up queer space; or LGBT folk whose indifference and inaction continue, yet they benefit from the activism of the LGBT folk before them.

But last night's show taught me something invaluable -- DON'T BE SUCH A CURMUDGEON! Pride will constantly re-invent itself and find community in places where the "official" Pride might be too big to fit. And as testified by Kim K. who sent in a piece to be read on the show, the official pride is often the first step toward connecting to queer events, communities and issues. The Night March on Monday which was not an official Pride event, was wonderful and there will be moments over this week that will inspire me. Queers are too smart to all fall for the SUV lifestyle. Some will embrace it, but whatever. When a dyke tells me how amazing it was to march down main street Whitehorse, or another queer tells me about a queer activist from Kurdistan coming to Toronto for World Pride in 2014, my heart melts a bit. Last night, I lit Pride High Holy Day Candle No. 5 for the Spirit of Pride because there is no corporation yet that can sponsor that. And there will never be one. We're too fast for them. Happy Pride, lovers.

Day six

Tonight, I was preparing for the big EMBARRASSING MAYOR TOUR. This would have been the third time I've taken a group of people through Toronto City Hall, talking about the remarkable building, the public art and weaving stories into the tour about our current very embarrassing mayor. All of a sudden I thought, What am I doing this for? All the stories, the scandals, the anger, and then I remembered "humour" and how important it is to me. You just have to laugh. And so I lit the Wednesday Pride High Holy Candle and contemplated humour -- specifically queers and humour. I remember my friend Jason St-Laurent who was the Programmer at the Inside Out LGBTQ Film Festival, recommending to a straight journalist what to see at the festival and he said, "go see a comedy." He said there is nothing like being in a room full of gays who are laughing at the same movie and it seemed to me so true. I have always loved watching queer films with queers, any films, but a good gay comedy or a comic moment in a gay film in a theatre full of gays is life affirming.

Gays love and need to laugh and gays make people laugh -- the power of Paul Lynde, Charles Nelson Reilly, real queens who could make my mother laugh and back then I was too young to know and understand why I found them both funny and powerful at the same time. I laugh the hardest and the deepest with my dear queer friends. I admire people who can make the darkest moments a bit lighter with humour. I understand how the AIDS crisis despite there being very little to celebrate created some innovative activism and celebrations of the lives of the people who had departed. Queers can make the best lemonade out of the bitterest lemons. Camp, Irony, Sarcasm, Wit -- so many gays can slay the biggest homophobe with a snap, a quip, a look, a retort. So as I lit the candle tonight I contemplated humour and I answered my own question -- I'm doing the Embarrassing Mayor Tour because I need to laugh, I'm doing it during Pride because I want to laugh with queers and I'm doing it because I want to make people laugh and get angry about this lemon of a mayor we have. Happy Pride to all the queers that have made me and will continue to make me laugh. You warm my heart.

Day seven

Catching Up! Thursday was so busy that it was hard to find a moment to light the Pride High Holy Day Candle for Day 7. When I did find the time, I contemplated time away, time that we have to actually reflect on our lives. In a world where we are expected to be so busy on a weekend when there is so much to do, I could spend every moment doing something, going somewhere. It wasn't always that way and it isn't that way for many. So many people live isolated lives and would love to be able to do just one thing over Pride with a bunch of queers. This isolation might be geographic -- they could be born in a place that is hostile to queers and trans folk and open, public expressions of queerness would invite violence on them. This isolation might be the result of pressures from family, work, religion -- and even though they live in a city like Toronto, they can't bring themselves to participate.

I never felt that there was no one else like me when I was a gay kid growing up, I just thought I was the only gay in the village and I knew I would eventually escape. So I contemplated those first moments of witnessing my life and its connection to a queer community: going down the basement stairs into a party full of queers, going to my first gay bar, first time dancing with a man, first time at a demo, first time seeing a gay/lesbian section at the library, first time seeing a gay film, first time seeing a gay porno, first time at Pride. Contemplating each of these firsts and so many others help to keep me from being jaded and realize we share this -- these ways of entering and becoming part of each other's lives. And sometimes I'm too busy to even realize it. I hope that everyone can take some time to contemplate those first times over this weekend and give props to the people that made them possible and the people that are making them possible where they are not possible now. I wish you all the love, excitement and goodness of your first Pride and first Pride to be. Happy Pride.

Day eight

Yesterday, I lit Candle 8 for High Holy Pride Week... and I thought about another Pride going by and another year older. Toronto's Pride is over 30 years old and while I can't claim to have gone to the first one, I was somewhere near the beginning, before No. 10 for sure. I remember the crowds being smaller, no barricades and always wanting to do "something" for Pride -- one year, Ken, Simon and I pretended to be part of a gay folk dancing troupe; another year, Ken and I held placards claiming that Woody's, the most popular and longstanding gay bar, had lost our coats in a coat-check mishap that was their fault; one year, I volunteered at the south stage and was sneaking beer out to my friends in the audience only to be told by security that "as a band member" I couldn't do that; my lovely departed friend Dan and I put flowers in our hair and made signs that said we were the Children of Loneliness. We were asked by many how to join the group, where our booth was and we were even asked to come onstage and say something about the Children of Loneliness -- we had no idea what to do, but thinking on our feet, we led the audience in a chant to make the guilt go away. A year later at the pool someone came up and thanked me for that. I met two boyfriends at Pride and broke up with one at Pride. I rode up a pre-parade empty Yonge Street in an all-terrain vehicle with a drag queen standing up in the back getting cheers from the crowd lining the streets. Last year I walked down Yonge St. with five parade judges from Bloor St. to the judges' podium, revving up the crowd and from the podium, I yelled, "Remember the G20!" to the cops when they went by.

So the candle that was made to make me reflect on getting older, made me think about Pride, and how in fact it has kept me young because Pride will never be a place to just go to. It'll be somewhere where I want to do "something". There are still problems with aging -- my problems and the LGBTQ communities' problems -- where being young is important. But the generations before me never had a Pride Day to go to when they were young. So I've entered middle age having been 10 when Stonewall happened, 32 at the time of the bath raids. I saw my friends fight and die in the AIDS crisis and now I'm 54 years old -- I'm part of a generation that grew from liberation, tragedy and now there's marriage and the Premier's a dyke! So even though my gay world in many ways is better, it's certainly uncharted. How will gays of my generation age, how will this generation, this history? It's scary and it's amazing. As I light my candle, I think about the future and the moments and markers that got me here, friends that are here and are no longer here. Happy Pride, everyone -- tomorrow is Pride Day, a day we can all yell at the cops!

Day nine

Pride High Holy Week Candle 9 was lit last night and I thought about LESBIANS. It was the Dyke March yesterday, and I couldn't go but had a pre-march tea with my friend and neighbour before she went off with her girlfriend to take to the streets.

I was on some committee at Pride years ago. I remember it was whenever the first Dyke March was being considered and two women were presenting the idea to the committee, an all-male committee, about the idea of having a Dyke March. They'd been to New York's Dyke March and it was a blast. It wasn't accepted with open arms. One dissenter's suggestion was instead of a Dyke March, couldn't we just have a Salute to Women that year? We still laugh about that, "Hey instead of reproductive rights, what about a salute to women?" If I had any reservations about the Dyke March, it would have been about the politics that women brought to Pride and that were part of Sunday's event which was fast moving from being a march to being a parade. Women had played a major part in teaching me about politics and feminism. As a young queer, I tried to get my head around what lesbian separatism was, why so many lesbians were fighting for reproductive rights as well as job equity, eco-feminism and so on. And through talking about and considering these things I am able to make connections to other struggles and issues and challenge my assumptions about my place in the world as a man. It also helped that a dyke poured a beer on my head because I called someone a cunt. The best teaching moment a gay boy fresh from Northern Ontario ever had. This was the big city. Things are different here. I'm happy to say she and I later became friends. She was a right-on dyke.

When I was 16, my best friend was a 44-year-old Australian butch dyke. We watched Funny Girl in my basement rec room in Sault Ste. Marie while my parents were upstairs. She kept going on about Barbra Streisand's breasts while I loved Barbra for my own gay boy reasons. She helped me come out and talked to me about the gay world I had no idea about. I didn't have the Internet; I had a dyke. Dykes have always been supportive of my work. Jane F. and Allyson M. were there when I made my first Super 8 from an idea that came out of a slide show party. They have been there along the way since then too.

It is no secret that gay men can be misogynist; it's a misogynist world. Women's roles in fighting for LGBTQ rights, their place in the struggle during the AIDS crisis... I can never forget this. I sometimes wonder about their processing, their serial monogamy, their love of bad music... not all, but some... but I'm not a lesbian. I'm a gay man whose life is richer and better because of lesbians. So this is my salute to Lesbians -- and I thought of you all as I lit my candle. Happy Dyke Day and Happy Pride.

Day ten

Yesterday, I lit the final Pride High Holy Week Candle. It's been an incredible process to post them in social media, knowing people can read them and comment on them and even discuss them when we run into each other. There was no specific set of candles, there were no rules, just light any candle, think about Pride and being queer. Contemplate.

When I lit the last candle, I thought of something I saw that day. We watched the parade at the very beginning of it in the Rosedale Valley Ravine. You can sit on a blanket, under the trees and watch most of the parade pass by while sipping mimosas. And what you miss in 110% crazy "we're on Yonge St." enthusiasm, you get in freshness and an ability to actually engage with the people on the street in the parade. No barricades. Under the trees, sitting there, in the shade with friends was perfect. Everything along the parade route after Bloor seemed all direct sun, concrete, and I could only imagine the screaming at everything that went by. "Really, you have to yell Happy Pride at that? It's just a police cruiser for chrissakes." The ravine is a contemplative place even with pulsating music, lots to look at both off the street and in the Parade. I love sitting anywhere with grass and trees and watching people at Pride because of the open sexiness that Pride can be and because it takes a village and there is a rich assortment of villagers at Pride. There are people who really put their freak on for Pride and there are some who've never taken their freak off.

We made our way from the ravine to Buddies for the Alternative Pride stage. We took a shortcut through the alleys because walking down Church St., the heart of the gay village, is depressing. That sexiness that I expect so much from Pride is being withered away by an influx of children and heterosexuals. I have nothing against either of them and have spent many a wonderful time with them at Taste of the Danforth.

So I was sitting back in the park beside Buddies in Bad Time Theatre, looking for some people getting all sexy. A few were, but not really. It was wonderful seeing great people, surrounded by friends. It was nice, a clean nice.

I saw two geeky boys right out of high school, one had big teeth, thick glasses and his afro was higher up on top than anywhere else and it wasn't styling. His friend had a ponytail. Total hippie. They were both looking around, and it seemed they'd be more comfortable in their parents' basements playing and talking video games than at Pride. As they were standing there side by side, I imagined them thinking as they looked around..."WTF, man...yeah, cool, whatever... no judgment." That they were just more straight people taking up queer space. The hippie guy was smoking a joint and then reached around, pulled the afro guy to him to stroke the skin on his boyfriend's arm. Then they turned in and kissed. It was a tender moment for them and a sweet moment of me being surprised by gay love. It wasn't sexy -- it was the geekiest boys in high school kissing. It wasn't the Pride I was thinking about, the messy hot days of cruising -- sex in the air and on the streets. I didn't see it. But this is enough. It was gay boy love. I imagined me being that geeky boy at Pride. I had no Pride to go to when I was a geeky boy. I had no hippie boyfriend when I was a teenager. And I had no love like that when I was in high school. I'm hopelessly romantic, and have always been, so now I'll imagine and give myself that geeky hippie boyfriend at my northern Ontario high school.

Once at a University of Toronto Homo Hop when I was an undergraduate, I saw two guys making out, big time. And I remember seeing one put his fingers in the other's mouth and getting them sucked. "How gauche in the open and all," I thought. At first, I was all judgment -- how uncool, how showy. But then I changed my mind. "Let them do it. Why should I be concerned. It's nice, they like it, they feel sexy and they probably don't have too many places to get messy in. Not too many places where they'd feel comfortable enough being openly queer.."

So I lit my final candle thinking about love and the places we feel comfortable enough to get all sexy and be in love in. Public sexiness and public love. And maybe a bit of that sexiness is gone from Pride. Some people were a little concerned that there were children at the Alterna-Pride stage and the appropriateness of the drag queen saying 'fuck' a lot and talking about her asshole. I just think about those two geeky boys kissing and how in love they looked. I wish Pride were sexier, maybe in the same way I wish I were younger. And sometimes, most times, I don't really care. I saw two boys in love and it was magical. Thanks for all the love I got posting these contemplations over the lighting of the Pride Candles for Pride High Holy Week. There were no rules, no things that had to be said, just an opportunity to contemplate Pride and being queer and sharing it with you. Love out all. They say it was the best Pride ever. What if it was?  It doesn't matter and I don't care because I had a wonderful time.

Roy Mitchell is the Executive Director at Trinity Square Video, an artist-run centre dedicated to the creation and exhibition of video art. He also is the host of ROYNATION, a weekly Internet radio show about art and politics with a focus on LGBTQ communities.

Photo: Elizabeth Littlejohn

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