It was thanks to Pride celebrations in Toronto that Victor Keita, a model and drag queen whose stage name is Naomi Leone, found his chosen family.
Keita, 30, immigrated from Sierra Leone to Edmonton with his family when he was 12. When he was 18, he moved to Toronto — home of one of the largest LGBTQ2 communities in the country.
Since attending his first Pride, Keita has been grateful for the annual event for celebrating his identity.
“It’s not like being in Africa, we don’t (really) have LGBTQ2+ rights there… and even in small town Edmonton, (Pride) isn’t mainstream,” he said.
“(Pride) in Toronto has connected me with my art, with people in my industry … not having family here, the community has become a family to me.”
Keita is disappointed that pride is cancelled this year, but he’s glad to see it’s happening during a time of increased discourse around anti-Black racism — something he’s experienced first-hand in the LGBTQ2 community.
“My voice is very important, and I feel like that’s what I’m going to do this Pride — just keep talking to people (about anti-Black racism) as much as I can,” Keita said.
“This year is my opportunity to talk, so I’m going to talk as much as I can.”
Since he can’t perform in person right now, Keita has moved his drag shows online in what he calls ‘Women Crush Wednesday.’
Each Wednesday, Keita goes live on Instagram with special guests “who inspire him,” many of whom are also Black drag queens. He hopes the program will help to elevate minority voices within the community.
“I want to bring Black people (on the show) so they can have that platform,” Keita said.
For years, Toronto resident Andrew Stewart saw Pride as a “huge party.” However, he admits that was before he truly understood his privilege as a white gay man.
Stewart, 37, came out when he was 13 to “accepting, supportive and understanding parents,” and he attended his first Pride when he was 18.
“I travelled the world going to Pride parties and events in the U.S., Europe and even Israel with my friends,” Stewart said.
“It was an event to plan around and look forward to.”
He realizes now that he was extremely privileged to feel so confident to march in the streets and celebrate his identity.
“I was privileged and it was going unchecked,” Stewart said. “I had seen myself reflected in society … since I was 13 years old. I didn’t know any different.”
Since then, he has worked with local advocacy groups to learn more about his privilege and anti-Black racism within the LGBTQ2 community.
Even though Pride is cancelled this year, Stewart says he will use that time to stand with his Black peers. He hopes this time can allow for more prominent discussions about racism and equality in Canada.
“This year I will stand with my (Black) LGBTQ community and use my privilege to amplify their stories so more people can be educated to the massive issues of racism within our community and in law enforcement,” he said.
“I don’t feel disconnected from the community as (it) isn’t just a safe physical space anymore — it’s a collective voice found everywhere that can be amplified through less conventional forms,” Stewart said.
“There may not be a parade, but I very much hope there’s a protest. And you can count on me to be there.”
That this broader conversation about anti-Black racism is ongoing during the month when Pride typically occurs is quite fitting, said Jen Gilbert, an education professor at York University who specializes in LGBTQ2 issues.
“Pride actually began as a protest against police violence, led by Black and racialized trans women,” Gilbert said.
“While we might be missing the parade and the parties, there is a way in which the current protests around the world against police violence have a lot to do with what Pride stands for.”
“It began as a protest and continues to be a protest.”
Of course, Gilbert anticipates that the cancellation of Pride will be upsetting — particularly for young people new to the community.
“There’s something really affirming about coming out to a big parade with hundreds of thousands of people, all of whom either identify as LGBTQ2+ or are very supportive,” Gilbert.
“Especially if you’re living in a context where you don’t have access to other LGBTQ2+ people, I’m sure that feels amazing.”
However, Gilbert is excited to see that organizations and events are finding new ways to connect online.
“It is disappointing, (but) we are living through a public health crisis that requires us to change our behaviors temporarily, and we want to keep ourselves and each other safe,” Gilbert said.
“There are several ways in which arts organizations, especially, have been really creative in responding and doing things that they wouldn’t have been pushed to do (without the pandemic). We will miss the party, but I think the other (events) that are being offered are compensation.”
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— With files from Global News’ Laura Hensley and Jessica PattonView link »