That’s so Gay
‘That’s so Gay!’ read the pink poster advertising a queer art show on the wooden stairway of the Gladstone Hotel. “Oh my God, I want that,” I told my friends as we stumbled up the steps (I’d already finished a pint). “I’d put it above my bed!”
We had ventured down to Queen West to hear Arsham Parsi take part in a panel discussion on (take a breath) “Bridging Queer International Human Rights at Home and Around the World” (exhale). Arsham is an Iranian queer activist (essentially the Iranian queer activist) who fled his home five years ago after creating an internet message board for Iranian queers. In Canada, he founded the Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees, which provides legal and financial support for gay, lesbian and trans-refugees in Turkey, the United Kingdom and North America.
Most interesting was his insight that the language to talk about gay rights in Iran barely exists. There is no non-offensive word for homosexuality in Farsi. So Arsham made one up. He took the insulting name for a sissy man, equivalent to ‘faggot’, changed the ending and began telling people it meant homosexual. Already, he has noticed reporters picking it up. Arsham has seen first-hand how little information is available for people in Iran and is now posting videos of himself on youtube explaining in Farsi what gay, lesbian and trans mean. He takes his responsibility to the families of Iranian queers just as seriously as that of the refugees themselves and hopes they will watch the videos too.
We were informed that after the break there would be a question and answer session, so I snuck up to Arsham and, after telling him he was doing a good job, whispered, “Just don’t answer any questions about the G20 protests.”
“I am here to talk about queer rights in Iran,” he said. “Don’t worry, I won’t.”
The very first person who went up to the mike, whose broad A’s suggested Australian and skater boy clothes suggested trans, asked about the protestors. Actually, he didn’t so much ask as ramble on about interviewing those who had been arrested and their claims of homophobic slurs from police. Arsham looked at me and smiled. He allowed the other two panellists to give their thoughts, and only when asked directly by the moderator did he weigh in.
“My focus is on the rights of Iranian queers,” he said. “But I should say that I think people should feel safe and secure, and coming from a place where I was in constant fear of the police, in Toronto I always feel safe when police are around.”
Afterwards he told me how much the G20 protestors rattled him. “I left a country of violent protests for one of peace. I don’t want this again.”
One of the other speakers was Marilyn Byer, one of the founders of PFLAG in York Region. She goes into schools and gives talks about homophobia, although that word makes some principals uncomfortable, so she’ll tell them the talk is about ‘diversity’. She pointed out the irony of the ‘That’s so Gay!’ poster on display beside her anti-discrimination banners. “I’m trying to get teenagers to stop saying that, and here it is on our own posters!”
I thought about the new GQ magazine, a magazine my friends and I mock as being one for men who don’t know their gay yet. Besides the interview with Jason Seigel and the photos of Taylor Lautner (and I must say, being aware that he was born in 1992 and that I would still totally ball him makes me feel a tad old and gross) it has an article defining old-fashioned words for gay guys. The writer explains words like ‘fairy’, ‘queen’ and ‘nancy boy’ in a tongue-in-cheek, ‘isn’t it funny that people used to actually say things like this’ way, taking the (presumably straight) reader’s comfort with homosexuality as a given.
In one place, an activist has to make up words in order to create dialogue, the very first step towards social change. In another, we laugh at hollowed-out slurs as harmless camp relics from another time.
(Although, of course, Canada isn’t homogenous, as activist Kim Vance, the third panellist, reminded the moderator when he claimed that ‘queer’ was universally acknowledged as an acceptable term by the community. “Um, I’m from Nova Scotia,” she said. “And while I’d never live anywhere else, there, it’s still a pretty bad thing to say.”)
“What is in a name?” famous heterosexual heroine Juliet asked on her balcony.
It turns out, quite a lot.