On October 4th I attended the fourth annual Disability Pride March in Toronto. If you haven’t heard of it, I’m not surprised. It’s not a big deal. According to the event’s Facebook page, 700 people were invited, and 137 attended.
But I can tell you that there weren’t actually 137 people at the event. There were maybe fifty of us. We huddled around in a group in Queen’s Park in the freezing cold, listened to a couple of speeches, and then marched to the disability studies building at Ryerson University. They didn’t close any streets for us- they didn’t have to, given our numbers- just a lane of traffic. When we crossed major intersections, cars patiently waited for us to pass, as if it was a slightly longer than usual red light.
We reached the disability studies building, crowded on the sidewalk in front of it, listened to another speech, and then dissipated.
I also attended the march last year. There were a few more people then, and a reception inside the building at the end of the march. Cookies and drinks were served. Only about a dozen people attended the reception- which is why, I suppose, it wasn’t repeated this year.
Listen: we can do better than this. We have to do better than this. Our community depends on it.
The easiest retort to this, of course, is that it’s only the fourth annual march. For God’s sake, what do I expect? At this point, there’s no chance of a multi-day blowout like the Queer Pride revelries.
That’s a good point. What was Pride Toronto up to in its fourth year?
According to their official website, “Under the theme ‘Coming Together,’ Pride Day is held June 30th… 8,000 attend the festivities in Cawthra Park.”
Even the first year that Pride Day was incorporated, apparently over a thousand people attended. What’s the difference between queer pride and disability pride? How can we explain the different rates of growth?
To start with, queer people have- in recent history- been shit on a whole lot more than disabled folks. They have experienced an extraordinary amount of violence, from police harassment to bathhouse raids to militant attacks on queer community spaces to AIDS and the associated stigma to the fact that it wasn’t even legal to be gay in this country until 1969.
Yeah, disabled people have to endure a lot of nonsense, and the value of our presence in society is frequently questioned, but the legality of our existence isn’t up for debate.
Toronto’s first Gay Pride Day happened as a direct result of bathhouse raids in the city in 1981- at the time, they were the largest mass arrests in Canadian history. Toronto’s first Disability Pride March happened because our mayor was mean to us and canceled Disability Pride Week.
That is a big difference.
It seems that the more violence a community is exposed to, the more receptive and interested they are in activism.
Police brutality led to the assembling of a thousand people. The canceling of a municipal event led to the assembling of about fifty people. That sounds proportionate to me. Of course, it doesn’t take into account the daily grind and wear and tear and casual injustices and lack of dignity that disabled people have to put up with every day. But all that low-key oppression doesn’t seem to resonate with people as much as noisier civil injustices- even among people who are being directly affected.
Here’s the other difference.
Gay Pride is fun. From the very start, it was designed to be a party. The official website describes the first year as “an afternoon of fun and frolic.”
At this year’s Disability Pride March, one of the speakers angrily clarified that “this is not a parade. This is a march.”
The only activities at Disability Pride were listening to political speeches. The only food available was mini chocolate bars and coffee. We assembled in a park to start with, yes, but on a blustery October day. Apparently the march is in the autumn in order to gain organizational assistance from Ryerson University (and presumably extra credibility from being associated with an institute of higher learning). Having the event affiliated with a university isn’t relevant to many people in the disabled community- especially cognitively disabled people, many of whom will never attend university. I was once again surprised at how the disabled community seems to overvalue intellectual achievement.
Disabled people aren’t taken seriously by society. We’re desperately afraid of people thinking we’re stupid, because so many people treat us that way. We’re consistently infantilized and marginalized, and as a result I think we’re overcompensating with an overly severe, overly academic, overly dry event which has limited appeal to the vast majority of disabled people and- here’s the kicker- no appeal to people outside our community who could potentially be allies.
Pride Toronto has turned into an enormous attraction. In 2011, over a million people attended. All those people are, on some level, absorbing the values of inclusivity, diversity and normalization of queerness. And they’re doing it without being lectured to. They can do it just by showing up and having a hot dog. They’re practically doing it by osmosis. Queerness may not be contagious, but inclusivity is.
So let’s invite everyone to Disability Pride. Let’s make the event as welcoming and sexy and vibrant as possible. Let’s make it a parade instead of a march. Let’s make Disability Pride about huge ideas. Gay Pride started off as being about love versus hate, and hope versus fear. We can do that too, because we’re facing those same dynamics.
Once you reel people in with ideas of togetherness and unity and optimism you can fold in important issues like how a lot of disabled people are being fucked by ODSP (Ontario Disability Support Pension). But even stuff like that has to feel Stonewall huge. Because to a lot of people, it is! If people lose their pension due to duplicitous maneuvers, or government benefits get slashed, people will die. Mothers and fathers are murdering disabled children. Scientists are working on ending disability as we know it. Ain’t nothing dry or academic about any of that. We have to make this feel real.
Next year will be the fifth annual Disability Pride March in Toronto. On Toronto’s fifth Gay Pride Day, the theme was Forward Together. Their logo that year depicted an “electrocardogram recording the last heartbeats of people dying of AIDS.”
But there’s life and death matters going on for disabled people too, every single day. So let’s do it. Let’s move forward together.
And let’s have a fucking parade.