Embracing queer culture in Winnipeg


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Now that another Folklorama festival has come and gone, Winnipeggers would do well to reflect on the relationships between place, politics and culture.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/09/2017 (2023 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Now that another Folklorama festival has come and gone, Winnipeggers would do well to reflect on the relationships between place, politics and culture.

Wearing bright pink T-shirts and calling themselves the “Ghana Pavilion,” a group of African men attracted media attention this year for their LGBTTQ* rights petition. Exactly 25 years ago, a “Multi-Culti-Queer Pavilion” generated controversy for using the platform of Folklorama to raise questions and poke fun at mainstream definitions of culture.

What has changed over the past quarter-century? The two demonstrations have many parallels, but also some important differences.

In August 1992, artists and activists associated with the Plug In Gallery organized an unofficial Folklorama pavilion to showcase “queer” culture. Serving up dishes such as Cheezies, quiche and Fruit Loops with homo milk, the pavilion also featured performances (including one by Lesbian Rangers Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millan) and exhibited crafts (such as totally queer hairdos).

The tongue-in-cheek display occupied public space during Folklorama festivities in a “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it” fashion that was typical of this subcultural style of politics.

Festival officials, however, were not amused.

The Folk Arts Council, which governs Folklorama, took legal action in response. They argued that the Multi-Culti-Queer Pavilion infringed copyright through its use of the Folklorama brand.

A deal was reached with the pavilion’s sponsor, the Plug In Institute of Contemporary Art, that barred the queer group from using the Folklorama name on printed material, attire or in events such as a Miss/Mr. Queer Folklorama. The queers remained steadfast in their politics, however, releasing the following statement to the press: “We would like to repeat that the Multi-Culti-Queer Pavilion will be open to the public come hell or high water. No passports are necessary, only a sense of dismay and wonder.”

Local lawyer Lawrie Cherniack, who acted for the artist-activists, recalls cutting holes in the queer pavilion’s T-shirts in his office in order to remove the Folkorama name. More recently, these shirts have been sold as “art-ifacts” at the Plug In’s gallery shop.

During the 2017 festival, T-shirts were again at the centre of political activity by a LGBTTQ* group. I spotted the bright pink attire worn by the mobile “Ghana Pavilion” as they collected signatures on the sidewalk one evening outside the Caribbean Pavilion on Provencher Boulevard.

Sulemana Abdulai, one of the group’s organizers and designer of the eye-catching T-shirts, shook my hand and smiled warmly. As the Free Press reported earlier, he fled his home country of Ghana in 2015 after his shop was burned because he is bisexual. He and several others from Africa have made claims for asylum in Canada after the United States government denied them refuge.

As they wait for their refugee claims to be adjudicated, the members of the Ghana pavilion decided to get active, raise awareness and build support for their cause. For many of them, the ultimate desire is to be able to return home and live among family and friends. The reality of homophobic violence, however, makes this impossible. “People get killed over their sexual activities,” Abdulai said.

In a letter to the Free Press editor titled “Pavilion not the place for politics,” Don Palmer respectfully disagreed with the tactics of the Ghanaians. However, the action was not a “protest,” as he characterized it. The men of the Ghana Pavilion were collecting signatures on the sidewalk and raising public awareness of their situation to build support.

A spokesperson for Folklorama called the Ghanaian presence “disappointing.” From their point of view, the festival is a “celebration of culture and diversity, one that has maintained a long-standing apolitical policy.” Given that the LGBTTQ* Ghanaians remained outside the official pavilions, however, it is difficult to see how their actions violated the apolitical space of Folklorama.

The official Folklorama pavilions continue to be places for celebration.

I visited the Africa pavilion in St. Boniface for the final set of performances on a Saturday evening. Inside the Holy Cross school gym, the stage featured incredible expressions of Indigenous African cultures. Dancers dazzled the crowd with their movements. Drummers beat a rhythm as their faces shone with the joy of being alive. Women in beautiful bright prints of every colour strode around, and young hipsters bounced to the beat of the music.

Over the course of the festival, the Ghana Pavilion collected more than 5,000 signatures for their petition addressed to the prime minister of Canada, asking that this country take a stronger stand advocating for LGBTTQ* rights abroad. Although the group has received a lot of support, Abdulai and others have also faced verbal harassment and intimidation, in particular from other Ghanaians, both in Winnipeg and online.

In conjunction with Queer People of Colour Winnipeg, the LGBTTQ* Ghanaians plan to continue their activism and advocacy. The size of our city’s population of African origin has grown enormously over the past quarter-century, and the work of educating people on the rights of LGBTTQ* persons remains a key challenge.

Much has changed since the Multi-Culti-Queer Pavilion controversy of 1992. It’s time we as a city recognized how far we’ve come, and where we still have work to do.

Robert Lidstone researched LGBTTQ* rights and refugee protection for a degree in human geography.

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