Friday, September 3, 2010

What a Difference a Generation Makes?

I wrote this and forgot to post it... so its like a week old. Apologies, but hey... new content is new content and content is king.
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I’m pretty sure we’ll never really know if the Highfield Road Gospel Hall was specifically targeting a gay couple’s house on Highfield Ave last Sunday as they went about their merry business preaching the Gospel of Jesus or whether they were just spreading the general love of Jesus to an entire street. In many ways it doesn’t matter. The ensuing cluster-fuck and viral sensation that their preaching has become has turned into a he-preached, he-said type of ordeal. At first the story heroicized the residents of Highfield Street for protecting their gay neighbours from an act of supposed homophobia; however, the story would soon morph into one of those freedom of speech nuggets people like to argue about: the Church goers were denied their god-given [sic] right to gather and sing. After all in Canada we have the right to assemble freely.

The video of the incident is available here for those who haven’t seen it. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yHpiXmPWPwk

I generally don’t like getting involved in tit-for-tat debates, or making blanket statements about how proselytisers of church doctrine are probably less down with the gay-gay than your average hip-hop rapper. In fact the actual event doesn’t interest me as much as everyone’s reaction to it. Divergent reactions to the posting of the video, I believe, have exposed enormous generational cleavages in Toronto’s gay community.

The video of the incident was filmed by a 29 year-old man by the name of Geoffrey Skelding. Skelding is gay. He posted his video on YouTube with the heading of: neighbourhood kicks out religious haters. From the outset the story was framed with this clich├ęd bias of religious people preaching against homosexuality. Frankly this was a fairly easy narrative to buy considering most religious group’s historical opposition to homosexuality and gay marriage.

Interestingly enough, the supposed targets of the attack, Blair Chiasson and his partner, Paul Collins, have eschewed the party line. They have refused to be victimized. In an interview with the Toronto Star, Chiasson declared, ““I don’t like how the whole issue is being distorted. Nothing happened. Nothing happened.” As Blair further noted about Skilding’s video: “They took a non-issue and turned it into an issue.” The Star article pointed out that Chiasson was 45 and for some reason his age (versus Skilling’s age) struck me as inherently connected to his distaste with the event.

To me the difference between Skilding and Chiasson’s reaction seems generational; and not just in its viral nature… which is very Gen Y in and of itself. Rather, Chiasson’s desire not to talk about what happened was, in my mind, and maybe I’m reading too much into the situation, a desire not to bring attention to his own homosexuality. Now it won’t be the first time that I’ve grossly misinterpreted something, but my honest interpretation of Chiasson’s remarks to the Star was: nothing to see here folks, we’re just two normal people living our lives. Thinking back to the Star article, which clearly states Chiasson’s age, I realized that Chiasson and his partner would have come of age in the eighties, a decade when queer bathhouses were frequently raided by Toronto’s police force, queer marriage was decades away and when the concept of a Pride Parade would have been fairly foreign to anyone. Sure there we’re gay people, but sadly 1985 Toronto was a very different place for gay men.

Chiasson’s interpretation of the incident seems to me as representative of his generation’s own struggle for queer rights. Most gay men I know in their forties or fifties fall into two categories: dudes who made the struggle for queer rights an integral part of their lives or men and women who tried to quietly go about their business, climb whatever ladder they were on, all the while hoping that no one would notice that they were gay.

Skelding, who is basically my age and who is only 16 years younger than Chiasson, would have come of age up in a very different Toronto. The Toronto of the late 1990’s and early 00’s was light years ahead in terms of its acceptance of homosexual citizens. And while Toronto’s queer community may have its struggles (as the most recent Pride debacle has shown), Toronto today is probably one of the most welcoming cities for LGBTQ people on the planet. I don’t even think I’m being hyperbolic about that. We have an out gay man, George Smitherman, running to be mayor and I can’t think of reading one snarky comment about his sexual preference. Over a million people attend our Pride Parade which features TD Bank as its lead sponsor. Almost every major company that I know of has a queer affinity group in order to make sure they’re diverse enough. In 2010 Toronto Police wouldn’t be caught dead raiding bath-houses; they’re too busy planning their Pride float.

This is not meant to be a damnation of Chiasson. Rather, I think it is interesting to see how far the queer community has come in Canada in a short period of time. Certainly the fact that an entire neighbourhood was so quick to react to perceived homophobia speaks quite impressively about how Torontonians are willing to accept gay men and women; although it may speak less of our city’s appreciation of the church and church groups.

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