Content Note: Hate crime, homophobia, transphobia, sexualized violence, victim blaming
Violence scares me.
The way we talk and think about violence scares me even more.
In early February 2016, the rainbow flag raised by the Pride Collective at UBC for their annual OUTWeek celebration was burned down. The flag was raised on Friday 5th February with the permission of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam people) and by the following Tuesday it was gone. The Pride Collective has already bravely named the hurt caused by the burning of the flag in a statement released that week. Though what I’ve been thinking a lot about lately are the ways in which that hurt and the feelings of unsafety that came along with it were invalidated by the conversations that followed.
I think it’s important to start by saying that it was nothing short of heartening to see the outpouring of support from the UBC and broader Vancouver community following the events. As Rachel Garret of the Pride Collective shared, it was a week where we were able to witness all the ways that allyship can be done right. But as she so importantly continued, it was also a week where we witnessed the ways that allyship could be done wrong. It was really hard seeing some of the ways that well intended support caused more hurt than healing. Much of the buzz around the incident framed the act as ‘isolated’. Even the university’s official response on the burning mentions they believe it is an isolated incident. And from the university’s perspective – it might very well be, but from the perspective of a queer person on campus – it certainly didn’t feel like it. OUTWeek is the one 8-day period a year where queer & trans communities and organizers on campus get to visibly name our experiences, celebrate our existence and connect in ways the rest of the year just does not allow. That particular flag represented more than just visibility for a marginalized community – it was a public symbol of student-led resistance on campus and held with it stories of indigenous solidarity and battles with bureaucracy. To have such a public symbol of the Pride Collective’s resistance on campus be reduced to ash was a devaluation of their important organizing work and of the time, energy and emotional labour they put into holding space for our community on campus.
For queer & trans folks it is difficult to see this devaluation of resistance as separate from all the other violence we experience in our lives. In response to the burning, I’ve heard everything from “don’t worry, it was probably just a joke” to “don’t worry, it was probably someone from off-campus”. Neither has been able to console me and both are all too familiar invalidations of violence against queer & trans folks.
The idea that it is okay for one’s hurt to be fodder for another’s humour has always troubled me. Humor has been a site of violence against marginalized people for centuries. For queer & trans folks, our very existence has been made to feel like a big joke being told at a party that we’ve never been invited to. The ways in which we dress, talk, love, look, live, resist have always been a walking punch-line for a cisheteronormative world. Reducing our bodies and experiences to ‘entertainment’ is no coincidence, it is a tool that makes it all too easy to enact violence against us – our hurt becomes an extension of the script, something meant to be funny and something not to be taken seriously. The burning of the flag hurts not despite the possibility it might have been a joke, it hurts precisely because of that possibility.
While I’m sure the intentions that come with saying “it was probably someone off-campus” are good, the likelihood that the perpetrator(s) might be outside of the UBC community completely misses the point. It makes it easy to paint this as an isolated incident disconnected from all the other violence that happens on campus and it makes it easy for the UBC administration to escape the accountability of making this campus safer for the queer & trans community.
How can a university hold perpetrator(s) accountable for anti-queer & trans violence when it is so implicated in this violence itself? In its official statement, UBC says it “condemns this incident as an act of hate and in contravention of the values of equity, inclusion and respect deeply held by the university community”. But I wonder, how much easier it is to commit anti-queer & trans violence in a university community that continues to impose a cisnormative and dangerous gender binary on its students through housing, recreation, education and access to washrooms. And I wonder how much easier it is to do this in a community built on the stolen land of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam people) and funded through exploitation of indigenous lands in the Global South, when we know gendered violence is inextricable from colonial violence.
The conversation surrounding the burning of the Pride flag certainly isn’t the first or the only conversation to ignore systemic connections of violence. We hear conversations like this every day in the ways we talk about sexualized violence and in the ways these conversations invisibilize rape culture and gendered violence.
“Don’t walk alone at night”
“You shouldn’t do/wear/say that if you don’t want to get assaulted”
“Not all men!”
These statements, much like “don’t worry, it was probably just a joke” or “don’t worry, it was probably someone from off-campus” reduce gendered and sexualized violence to individual choices made by individual people that occur as isolated and unrelated incidents. By doing this, we erase the ways that institutions are complicit in the violence we experience; we ignore their role in the accountability process and move further away from ending violence against marginalized communities.
I wonder what it would look like if we changed the script. If whenever violence happened, instead of talking about it as an isolated incident, we explored the possibility that it might just be part of a larger system at UBC.
I wonder how much closer we would be to ending violence then.
Written by Ivan Leonce, SASC Outreach Worker