I’m a base-brat. I spent my youth traveling from military base to military base every few years when my father was posted. It was a sheltered life made up of white people, white friends, all white schools, and almost exclusively, all white bases. I never saw the ugliness of racism as a boy and I knew nothing of the harm it causes. My hero as a teenager was Mohammed Ali, and if it wasn’t for his powerful words, I won’t have even known racism even existed.
In 1980 our family moved to St. Louis, Missouri, after Canada purchased the F-18 and we needed to be closer to the McDonnell-Douglas plant where the jets were being assembled. That was my high school senior year and moving from Trenton, Ontario, to a such a big city was exciting and scary. In my new school, football was king, the USA was number 1, and the confederate flag was everywhere. St. Louis was the place I saw racism for the first time in my life.
Along with my brother, I worked nights and weekends washing dishes and busing tables at a restaurant close to home. The hours were good and the money was great for a teenager hoping to save enough for a date, a Led Zeppelin record, or a movie. I had it together pretty well, but I can’t say the same for a young black man who worked with us. My brother saw it first, a waitress shoving him into a wall and yelled for him to get his “n**ger ass out there” and clean her table. She did this in the break room, in front of everyone, and not one person said a word.
Weeks later I was washing pots in a one side of a big double sink and carelessly let the soapy water overflow into the sink next to it. That sink held lobsters, lots of expensive lobsters. I ruined them, but didn’t know it so I said nothing. I just drained the sink and got on with my shift. The next day I heard they fired someone for spoiling hundreds of dollars worth of seafood. They fired the black guy. Having a conscience I had to speak up and asked the manager for a few minutes to explain. I was nervous as hell, but knew I really didn’t have a choice. It would suck being fired, but there were lots of jobs around for teenagers. I just couldn’t let it pass.
So I told him I did it, he chuckled and smiled, and said he didn’t care. Don’t do it again kind of thing. No one called the black man and offered him his job back. No one fired the guilty white kid.
I recall one night when two gay men were in the restaurant enjoying meal as the cooks and wait-staff planned for them to leave so they could run out into the parking lot and “kick the shit out of them.” And they did.
That was the world in 1981, the year I left home to join the Canadian Navy. 1981 was also the year the Metropolitan Toronto Police raided four gay bathhouses and arrested 289 men for violating “bawdy house” laws and charged them with prostitution and indecency. It was February 5, 1981, and the gay rights movement in Canada was born.
A small group of people marched through downtown Toronto, faced a hostile police force and an angry crowd lining the sidewalks. There were no floats, no dancing and music, no coloured flags lining the way, and no applause. Toronto gay rights activist Ken Popert was there that night and he later said, “What got into me was my own anger over living in a society which finds my existence inconvenient. What got into me was my own anger over harassment on streets that are never safe for me.”
The first gay pride parade I witnessed was in Halifax in 1986. Men wore paper bags over their heads and walked along Spring Garden Road holds signs about acceptance and right as taunts of “FAGGOT” rang from the sidewalks. At the time being gay while serving your country in the Navy was the worst offense. If anyone knew you were a homosexual, it was their duty to report you, and you’d be removed from the ship “for your safety” and discharged; most likely dishonorably.
On Sunday, the Toronto Black Lives Matter movement held up the Pride Parade in Toronto for thirty minutes. For thirty minutes they let us know they are angry and tired of living in a society that finds their existence inconvenient. For thirty minutes they expressed anger over the harassment they experience on Toronto streets, that they feel are never safe for them.
For thirty minutes they held up a parade born from the outrage over the ignorance, intolerance, bigotry, abuse, and the hate LGBTQ people have experienced for being who they were born to be. If we learned anything at all, it should be that we remain silent as they speak, compassionate as they cry, and outraged as they share.
It took the Toronto police thirty years to apologize to the gay community and some of us are angry over the thirty minutes the Black Lives Matter movement took to voice their feelings and anger. They did exactly what they should have done, what their movement is supposed to do, and they told us exactly what we needed to hear. We have a long way to go before ALL of us feel heard, accepted, and safe. That’s called courage and it doesn’t matter how inconvenient we found it. I don’t walk in the shoes of a black person any more than I sat in a Toronto courtroom thirty years ago for being gay.\
Given the reaction there are still as many people willing to stand on sidewalks shouting hate as there were in 1981. All of those hateful, racist, intolerant comments validate everything about the Black Lives Matter protest and it should remind the rest of us why their voices are so needed and so important. It’s inexcusable to know there are people living in Toronto that feel their lives don’t matter as much as someone else’s solely for being born a different race. We’re better than that. If you don’t believe that you had no business being at the parade in the first place.
In the late 1990s, a dive team I was a part of conducted a mine clearance operation with the United States Navy. We were posted to the USS Inchon and sailed across the Atlantic to Europe. The ship was departing from Corpus Christi, Texas, and we had a lot of gear to load before we left. A young American sailor was giving us a hand and he was having a hard time with a forklift. We didn’t care, we were just glad for the help. His supervisor saw this, told him to get off, and said out loud, “The next time I need something done right I won’t get a n**ger to do it.”
We were shocked, not only at the comment, but at the ease with which those words came out of his mouth. The Canadian officer with us quickly said it wasn’t our place to say anything, and to let it go. He was wrong.
It’s always the time and the place to speak out against racism; whether it’s an office, a school, the street, online, on-board a ship, or in a gay pride parade.