Max's Blog

How Pop Culture Leads and Misleads

Tag: Iran


“It is Pride, not Halloween!” the Gentleman said to me, not completely under his breath, when he saw a flamboyantly-costumed revellers on Church Street last night. He didn’t seem to mind drag queens (where would Pride be without drag queens?) but people dressed in unrelated guises, vampires or Star Wars characters, irked him. What he doesn’t realize is that everyone’s clothes are costumes, and on the crowded, sweaty streets of the village last night, discernable subcultures of the gay community were on abundant display.

Having not seen the parade, I went downtown to join the Gentleman and his friends for some crowd watching. He has two refugees staying with him at the moment, a couple who had to leave England but cannot return to Iran. They were both tall, handsome and dressed in jean shorts and trendy t-shirts. They strutted in front of us, braceleted hand holding braceleted hand. They looked like a mirror image of each other.

They were a little shy at first, but when we settled in at Starbucks (the Gentleman: “I don’t know what to get! Max, what is that?” “An iced-venti-latte.” The Gentleman: “An Iced. Vente. Latte. Please.”) one of them began entertaining me with animated stories, such as how he met his boyfriend at an underground gay party which he was invited to by a guy who had a crush on him (“He stared so angry at me!”), and how, the time he caught his ex cheating on him with his boss he almost ran over him in his car (“Yeah, I don’t know what I was thinking; it was a new car!”)

They weren’t the only ones who were dressed like each other. All over the strip, and we walked between Wellesley and College about four times, were fashion archetypes, often times grouped together for easy recognition. There were, of course, the Abercrombie/Hollister crowd, with their tight boldly-labelled t-shirts. (The Gentleman was in this category). I have noticed that, while I associate this style with a faux-upperclass-Connecticut-young-Republican-Caucasian-ness, many ethnic minority gay men dress this way. Those clothes are sold all over the world and it’s possible, especially for new Canadians, that they associate those clothes with the North American gay way of life.

 There was a group of stylish black men I wish I had had the confidence to take a picture of. They were all tall, half wore thick horn-rimmed glasses, half were in black and white striped shirts, and they stood there, clustered together, talking. Another subset that I had been aware of, but never seen in such numbers, were the guys dressed like, and I mean this in the best way possible, a 1920’s archaeologist’s butt-boy: mid-century parted hair, brow-line glasses, white button-up shirts and formal grey, black or khaki shorts. Although I am aware that this is the look my current style is closest to, I would never attempt the shorts, and they are the key to the whole thing. There was even a quartet all in the same glasses, all with shorts and suspenders, who had made custom t-shirts with their four names printed in Helvetica.

I will remember this year as the year that Pride began to be threatened by deep political divisions. For better or worse (and by that, I mean ‘for worse’) the Israel-Palestine issue has been brought into Pride and, like an oil spill, will be sticky and dirty and incredibly difficult to clean up. It will be a test of the Pride committee as well as the queer community (queer communities, we should say) to see if we can have find unity through our diversity the same way we can with fashion.

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.

The Satanic Verses

My book club might hate me.

The one thing I miss about being a student (besides library access and student card discounts) is reading books as a group and discussing them. My Dad has a book club (middle-aged academics who often get distracted by arguing about Israel) but the idea to start my own only took shape when my best friend’s boyfriend Dan expressed interest in joining one. “Why join one when we can do it ourselves?” I asked, almost slipping into the sing-song-MGM-Mickey-and-Judy-‘Let’s put the show on right here in the barn’-voice I am want to do. So we cobbled together a merry band of twenty-something (mostly) former-English students and began meeting at an Annex bar at which we’re already legendary with the bar’s staff. So far, we’ve read Czechoslovakian outcast and sex addict Milan Kundera and witty effete Anti-American Evelyn Waugh. In a short time we had developed a system for choosing books (everyone would have a month) and a friendly, open discussion style. The third pick was my choice and I may have ruined everything.

I have been intrigued by Salman Rushdie and his owlish little eyes since falling in love with the first chapter of Midnight’s Children in high school. Since then, I read his book about The Wizard of Oz and my favourite part of Bridget Jones’s Diary is when she asks him where the toilets are. It was reading Sandra Mackey’s book about Iranian history (titled The Iranians) and learning about the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Rushdie in 1989 for his novel The Satanic Verses decided my choice for me. I wanted to have an opinion about the book that was so controversial that Rushdie had to have secret service protection for a decade (and a few international translators were killed over), and I thought my book club should too.

The Satanic Verses is not a short book. Okay, so it’s 561 pages, a fact I may have neglected to tell the club. The title refers a controversial story in the Koran in which the Prophet, in order to convert the people of Mecca, appeared to call on three pagan goddesses and thus corrupt his monotheism. The novel deals with this incident through dream sequences of characters living in the present. Another subplot concerns a wealthy Indian man who becomes enraged and turned on by a possibly-psychotic young woman who claims to be a prophet and eats butterflies. She convinces a large group of villagers, including the man’s wife who is dying of cancer, to go on a suicidal mission to Mecca on foot, claiming that the ocean will part ala Moses. The man follows after them in is Mercedes Benes, preaching rational scepticism to the supposed-prophetess’s faith, and picking up villages as they become disillusioned. This was the most memorable allegory of the perpetual symbiotic relationship between believers and non-believers I have ever read.

But the main plot concerns two Indian actors who, in the first couple pages, get blown up in a plane. Rushdie describes the two of them suspended in mid-air, and then their plummet towards earth, so vividly in multiple places that you feel like you know what it’s like to be surrounded by blue sky with air rushing past your falling body. Inexplicably, neither men dies, but rather have been chosen by some unknown force (of good or evil) to perform some kind of task. One of the men notices an orb of light emanating from his head, while the other grows horn-like bumps on his forehead.

As though this wasn’t enough, the novel is also about Indian-ness and British-ness (and the characters’ devotion or disgust towards the contrasted cultures), the immigrant experience in Thatcherite Britain (a description of a Bangladeshi woman’s disappointing marriage, exodus to England and management of a restaurant was at once so universal and individual that I read it three times), and Anglo-Indian men dating white women (presumably, drawn from Rushdie’s life). Salman is a writer’s writer, with passages that could be described as indulgent and overwrought, but other times I wanted to highlight phrases with a pen and scrawl in the margin “I WANT TO WRITE LIKE THIS!”

I knew it was a dense book and so I suggested we take another two weeks when book club members said they weren’t finished yet. I grew nervous as a few of them appeared stuck in the page 150-range, and felt personally responsible for complaints that it was “too long” or that the story didn’t “suck them in”. I told people to come anyways, even if they had read just part of it, as there were more than enough ideas in there to talk about. As I walked in to bar, wearing a vest with a white flower pin to celebrate my surprise at not hating Sex and the City 2, I prepare myself for a barrage of criticism and glares.

Turned out, I was worried about nothing because only Dan showed up. And, although he had also gotten bogged down around page 150, we discussed the book’s themes, the Ayatollah and Salman Rushdie in Bridget Jones and then just hung out and bonded over bad dating stories and the potentials and frustrations of writing in the era of Twitter.

And don’t worry, I’m being facetious: I know my book club doesn’t hate me. Next time, perhaps I’ll pick War and Peace.

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