Defending Uncritical Art has Consequences by Rahim Thawer

Part of Special Issue #2 – Bodies as Archives: QTBIPOC Art and Performance in Toronto

Author: Rahim Thawer

Club 120, Toronto, 2012. Photo courtesy of the author.
Club 120, Toronto, 2012. Photo courtesy of the author

I grew up in Etobicoke and went to a racialized-majority middle school and then a white-majority high school. My undergraduate education spanned a few institutions, and in each one, I found enclaves of people of colour with whom I felt as if I was safe and at home. All of my social circles while schooling were less white than the gay communities of Kitchener-Waterloo and Toronto, which I encountered when I first came out in 2007. There was clearly a white hegemony in these circles. Nevertheless, I was immediately drawn to drag as a form of performance art. I’ve even performed a handful of times between 2008 and 2014 in Kitchener-Waterloo and Toronto. Drag, both as transformation and performance, always felt like a beautiful form of resistance to me, even before I was ready to accept my own sexuality.

Let’s get one thing clear and out of the way: The racialized communities that raised me were not perfect. Community members were not void of homophobia, and they weren’t in a rush to celebrate me when I came out as gay over the course of the seven years between high school and the end of my undergraduate studies in psychology at the University of Waterloo. In addition, my own self-hatred around brown-ness, Muslim-ness, and gay-ness demanded a break from familiar communities and a voyage into the sea of new possibilities after 2007, when I finally came out to my parents. I was ready to meet more people “like me.”

Having done a lot of identity exploration in a university town and as a teaching assistant in a sexuality studies department, I was constantly playing into the divide of race and sexuality. Being gay meant being among mostly white folks, with whom I felt defensive about both my culture and my religious background. Being brown meant feeling vulnerable and defensive about my sexuality in the presence of family members as well as my racialized straight friends.

I finally returned to Toronto in 2009, a mini-migration from a university town into an urban centre that was imbued with a longing for an existence with multiple identities. I found the intersectionality I sought in a number of places: working for a South Asian AIDS organization and through co-founding Ismaili Queers (IQ), a queer Muslim organization. It seemed that once I met a few queer people of colour, I could set myself up to meet more. It was a relief. I finally let my defenses down. I felt ready to be with my people and to live at the intersections of my many identities.

In March 2010, I hosted an IQ Navroz Brunch at my apartment at Yonge and St. Clair. As the afternoon event wound down and I surveyed all the potluck leftovers, I was in awe of this very special experience that had just occurred: In here was a room full of Ismaili Muslims who were all LGBTQ-identified, and I had hosted them. My new friends Zahra and Salimah stayed behind to help me clean. They asked a critical question that still rings in my ear: “Rahim, you did a great job pulling this together. But what are your needs? What do you need from us?” I didn’t have an answer but speaking to queer Ismailis at least a decade older than me, I felt held and taken care of. I had tapped into my own intergenerational history as a queer Muslim in Toronto and the kinship that it came with.

Queer experiences seemed to come with possibilities. Between (finally) finding racialized queer friends, employment in the HIV-sector that allowed me to be both Brown and gay, and many Village bar nights, I came to see Toronto’s gay village as a very special place. The Village was where I attended my first Salaam gathering (2008), facilitated Dosti meetings (2009), worked as a Bathhouse Counsellor (2010-2013) and HIV Tester (2011-2013), and helped organize the first Ismaili Queers conference (2012). It sincerely felt like home and it was the space that first provided a context for me to talk about identity and the impact of painful silences in my life. I also talked about racism in the queer community through my outreach and anti-homophobia work with the Alliance for South Asian AIDS Prevention and my message was usually well received in public schools and other community outreach venues. I would later realize, however, that my short sightedness lay in how I had constructed the queer community in my own mind—likely because of my work contexts and subsequent friendships. I had applied the brush strokes of “welcoming” too broadly and the paint, too thick.

Based on those initial liberating experiences in the gay community, I never imagined the kind of targeted racism I would face after calling out a white drag queen for her Islamophobic performance at Woody’s, an iconic gay bar in Toronto, in December 2012. She was known to be a very creative performance artist. That night, however, she chose to give a rendition of a Pussycat Dolls’ song in a hijab and terror-signaling explosives belt that was upsetting and traumatic to sit through. In those moments, I felt shocked, confused, angry, sad, and isolated. I wondered how the audience understood the concept of satire and I was bewildered at the actual lack of creativity in this performance. Afterwards, I spoke out against this caricature of Muslims on social media and in a Huffington Post article. I identified this performance as racist and Islamophobic, and called for a boycott of the venues where this queen frequently performed.

The backlash came up like a storm. There were over 150 shares of my Facebook note, with a mix of views in each comment thread. The Huffington Post and Xtra! kept their comments sections open, enabling more racism to brew. While there were some very positive shows of support from mostly QTPOC and some white queer folks, the community I had placed on a pedestal came crashing down on me.

Here is a sampling of what people said:

  • “Drag is meant to be outrageous, campy, satirical. This performance was all of those.”
  • “Drag performers are artists and creative expression should not be censored or stifled.”
  • “You must not understand what drag is.”
  • “Islam is not a race so making fun of a religion cannot be racist.”
  • “There are white Muslims in the world so assuming Muslims are racialized is racist.”
  • “Religion is all homophobic and so making fun of religion is important.”
  • “You can’t be gay in whatever backward Muslim country you’re from so you should either be thankful to be in Canada or go back home.”
  • “What are you doing about homophobia in Muslim communities and countries?”
  • “I know this queen and she can’t be racist.”

I was left deflated and dislocated. How could I make sense of this experience? I had gone to drag shows probably weekly in my early 20s and even performed a handful of times. I knew very well that drag could be fun and campy without relying on lazy racism or misogyny to get a laugh. People seemed to have difficulty admitting that while Islam is obviously not a race, Muslims are, in fact, racialized (i.e. experienced as mostly belonging to a racial minority group) in the North American imagination.

I initially wondered if people would have responded differently if the performance in question was blackface, falsely assuming that this form of anti-Black racism was more clearly understood by people than Islamophobia (or anti-Muslim racism). Less than a year later, when a Toronto drag queen did perform in blackface, through the responses I realized that some people indiscriminately defend artistic expression without any room for considering how power and privilege operate in our world. And when corporations take a stand by firing a drag queen, their motivations are inextricably tied to their profits or “bottom line” which makes big corporations poor referees in conflict around social injustice. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised by the response to the racist performance. That moment, however, my mind and body went into a mode of shallow breathing and numbness that lasted for a couple of months into early 2013. I continued to receive hateful messages on Facebook from complete strangers, and was trolled in a slew of comments in unrelated Xtra! articles that other people wrote for another year, repeatedly being called names or defamed in some way. Thankfully, many people of colour and a few allies held me and reminded me that they stood with me.

The range of comments I received continued to haunt me. To be clear, there was no country to “go back home to.” I was born at St. Joseph’s Health Centre in Toronto and grew up in a suburb a few kilometers away. And I was already doing anti-homophobia work in the communities to which I belonged—though that shouldn’t be a prerequisite to call out racism. It was hard to process the ways in which “my (queer) community” deflected their complicity in racism and attempted to strip me of my citizenship for naming it. Couldn’t the gay men at Woody’s see that I was upset in the same ways they might be if they’d gone to Second City and seen a comedy show in a mostly-straight audience that attacked or mocked people living with HIV as degenerate homosexuals? It is a seemingly fair comparison of majority-minority relations—including the nuance of power dynamics. But the defense of white supremacy in the guise of artistic expression wouldn’t allow it.

I also learned that calling for a boycott is risky if you belong to a racial minority because it highlights mainstream gay apathy and leaves people who want to support you in an awkward position. I mean, it shouldn’t be that awkward, but in my experience, even close friends tiptoed around me because they couldn’t face telling me where they wanted to go party the following weekend (with or without me). I’m not angry about that reaction, though. I get that it’s complicated; queers already have limited spaces to call their own. Their diffidence just added salt to the wound.

For a long time I wrapped my head around the fallible theoretical arguments being thrown my way and absorbed myself in processing my retorts. It took me a year to fully realize the impact of what had transpired. I was sitting in my friend Nedal’s apartment, smoking sheesha. He described what first drew him to me: my ability to be serious about social issues, but also to be playful, engage with people, and use humour as an entry point to connect with others. Apparently, I managed a fine balance of operating well in a messed up world, and it was a revered skill according to my friend, which he was now missing from our interactions. I suddenly realized that I had lost that survival skill after the vehement reaction to my article about the drag queen, almost without being aware of it.

Angst, anxiety, frustration, and a non-negotiable line of identity politics had consumed me that year. I had spent copious amounts of time reacting, but my responses had done little to bring me closer to people and community. My abandoned-combative frame of mind kept me from being mentally present and in community. I had also grown exhausted by the number of conversations that started with, “I’m not racist but…”

I thought I had found a sanctuary in the queer community. I thought there was a shared understanding. But then the rug was pulled out from under me and I felt silly, ashamed and lost. Even after I thought I had recovered from the experience of the racist drag show, the aftermath still shifted something inside me.

It took a full year to pass, and for someone in my life to say, “You’ve changed, something’s going on, and you need to deal with it,” before I connected the symptoms of my own interpersonal misalignment to the event that set it all in motion. And when I finally made that connection in a conversation with my friend, it turned the fragments of my life into a more cohesive story. I could begin to take back space in my community and restore that fine balance I once automatically entered a room with.

Five years have passed since I saw that Islamophobic drag performance. Most of my love for drag as an art has sadly dissolved. Mainstream queer communities continue to entrench a false divide between race and sexuality. This was last demonstrated in the racist responses to Black Lives Matter for their legitimate demands to eject uniformed police officers from the Pride Parade. Little seems to have changed and the social media platforms that discuss issues of racism and Islamophobia in queer communities have only given more space for anti-Black and anti-Muslim sentiments.

I think back to the time when I needed a break from my family and POC communities. I recognize now that I judged them too harshly for not being everything I needed them to be. They may have been partially responsible for why I self-loathed my queer self, but it was a larger Canadian society that inspired resentment for the colour of my own skin. As I have shown in this essay, gay communities are committed to teaching me to dislike myself much the same. For queer people of colour, creating safe spaces has to be intentional and our safety at large will always remain tentative. The production of uncritical “art” reminds me of this. And to many of us, it is never “just a joke” – creating and defending uncritical art has very real consequences that impact the lives of individuals and the wellbeing of communities.