On Sunday August 5th, 2018 the 40th annual Vancouver Pride march took place. At the same time, the fascist organization Soldiers of Odin and ad hoc hate group called Action Against Discontent City marched on the nearly 3-month old tent city in Nanaimo. As a working-class queer trans woman, I knew we needed to defend Discontent City because we were defending it against fascism, a political project that advocates the murder of queer and trans people. For years I have felt alienated from Pride because the “LGBTQ+ Community” on display at Pride has been commodified as an advertising platform, and because trans women are routinely silenced and alienated in queer spaces. I decided to travel to Nanaimo because I feel safer and closer to emancipation alongside homeless activists and anti-capitalist and anti-colonial organizers standing up against neo-Nazis than I do around the queers who align themselves with the Prime Minister, business owners, and the pigs who protect both.
370 trans people were killed by bigots and police worldwide in 2017. Although we do not have the statistics for 2018 yet, Marxist professor at University of Texas Holly Lewis states in her book The Politics of Everybody that levels of violence against trans people have increased in proportion to campaigns that work to increase trans visibility. Pride week draws attention to trans people but this attention can backfire for trans women, particularly trans women of colour, Indigenous trans people and two spirit folks, and trans women who are sex workers, because although attention to trans experience is raised, once the parade is finished we are left with very little protection from trans antagonistic bigots.
The reality is that Pride week is not for working class trans women. At the Dyke March held in East Vancouver the day before Pride this year, a group of Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs) showed up and started antagonizing trans people. An attendee made a post on a Facebook thread stating “despite nearly an hour of being pushed, kicked, shoved, yelled at, elbowed and even punched once. I managed to stand in the middle of all that shit with friends [and] not get nasty with the evil TERFs infesting the Dyke March.” Pride acts as a way for cis gendered queers to celebrate their increased access to housing, employment, doctors and psychiatrists, owning property and businesses. Meanwhile, Alyson Escalate – a trans scholar and activist living in Oregon – states on her blog that in the United States 75% of trans women are unemployed. Trans women’s lack of access to regular income causes us to lose or be unable to attain secure housing. On top of this, in B.C. waiting lists for hormones or trans-friendly doctors can be months to years long, and virtually no social services exist for trans women. Pride politics fail to address the structural problems trans women face.
Homes Not Hate! We Will Not Negotiate!
I arrived at Discontent City right after 1pm Sunday, August 5th to convene with Discontent City residents, supporters and hundreds of people who had turned up to oppose white supremacy. On the Discontent City side of the street were about 300 people, many with signs reading “Homes Not Hate!,” “Discontent City Resists White Supremacy,” “No Soldiers of Odin in Nanaimo,” and “Smash Hate!” On the other side of the street were around 25 people, some spectators and some who were admittedly supporters of the Soldiers of Odin. The event was introduced by AAD organizers Amber McGrath and Ivan Drury who have been working with Discontent City residents since before the tent city started. The established protocols to defend the camp were to stay united and “do not break the line” behind the banners that surrounded the rally, and “do not engage” one-on-one with bigots.
Snuneymuxw and Sliammon Elder Rose Henry, Nuu-Chah-Nulth and Irish AAD organizer Sadie Morris, and Nuu-Chah-Nulth, Gitxsan, and Irish AAD organizer Pauline Morris acknowledged the territories. Rose Henry led residents, supporters, and organizers into a circle that took up a full city block and shut down two intersections. As we held hands, a group of Indigenous singers gathered in the middle and sang the Lillooet Nation’s Women’s Warrior song. Rose Henry told us we learned how to teach, listen, and be respectful through this action. I was honored to be a part of the circle and believe it was the most powerful experience I’ve witnessed as an organizer and activist.
After the circle, the rally moved back to the sidewalk to guard the front gates of the camp. The first speaker was Melissa, a tent city resident who spoke about how homelessness is not an individual problem. Melissa was recently hit in the head with a bottle thrown off the roof of the mall by a bigot. It is a common pastime in Nanaimo for anti-homeless bigots to stand on top of the mall roof across the street and taunt and film the camp, sometimes winding themselves up into hurling rocks and bottles into the camp. Michelle said “I’ve been homeless in Winnipeg and I’ve been homeless in Nanaimo, but this is not my fault.” Michelle connected anti-homeless hatred to a hatred of women and argued that racism and sexism cause homelessness, not individual choices and decisions.
Building on the connection between racism and homelessness, Val Sampson and her son Elmer, members of the Snuneymuxw Nation and homeless on their own territory, spoke about how anti-Indigenous racism has led them into homelessness and increased the danger they face as Indigenous homeless people in Nanaimo. Elmer said they were evicted from their house and were not given enough time to vacate the premises in order to grab their stuff. Elmer said they had to leave everything they owned behind. Elmer said he had to jump in front of a car and pull his mother off the street recently because someone tried to run her over. Standing beside him at the microphone, Val said, “it’s because I’m Native.” Luckily neither of them were hit. Val said the prevalence of anti-Indigenous racism in Nanaimo means they are not allowed to go into some businesses. She said that Discontent City is the safest place they have ever lived.
As Val and Elmer ended their speech, we got a tip that the Soldiers of Odin were approaching. We stopped the speeches and started chanting “Homes not Hate, Smash the Hate, We Will Not Negotiate!,” “Hey Hey, Ho Ho! White Supremacy Has Got to Go!,” and “Sexist, Racist, Anti-Gay! Soldiers of Odin Go Away!” As the Soldiers of Odin arrived it was immediately obvious we outnumbered them at least ten to one. Our chants drowned out their chants completely and not one “Soldier” got a chance to engage our side one-on-one. Our line encroached on the fascist side of the street, demonstrating we were in total control of the situation. Despite the police positioning themselves with their back to the fascists, the counter-rally marshalls held the line and de-escalated high tension between the two groups. There were homeless, racialized, Indigenous, queer, trans people and women who have been targeted in our group but as an organized group we were not afraid or intimidated. It was a monumental feeling for the most vulnerable people in attendance to stand face to face with their enemy and embody the confidence of the group.
When the Soldiers of Odin and Action Against Discontent City finally retreated, the Discontent City rally erupted in cheers. We chanted “Homes not Hate!” as they retreated down the street and our whole rally poured off the sidewalk into a circle like the one that Rose Henry had organized at the beginning of the rally. While we sang, every single white supremacist supporter and spectator left. Discontent City shut down the fascists, and when I asked residents of Nanaimo how they felt about the counter-rally, the resounding sentiment was that we made history in their town.
Sexist, Racist, Anti-Gay! Soldiers of Odin Go Away!
This is the climate in which trans liberation becomes possible. The Nazi regime carried out the largest purge of queer and gender-variant people in history. Even before persecuting Jewish people, the Nazis led a terror campaign against homosexuals in Germany where you could be sent to a concentration camp for looking at another man for too long or the wrong way. The persecution of gays and what we now call transsexuals/transgender people was an attempt to reverse the victories queer and trans people won in the German Emancipation Movement of the Weimar Republic as well as to destroy the burgeoning working class women’s movement.
Fascism’s white supremacy includes rigid gender roles that they call traditional, where men serve their country as tools for the mother nation’s imperialist war machine and women are servants that reproduce the capability for men to become obedient death dealers. We are seeing a return of this ideology in current anti-homeless hate groups that particularly target women and queer people who take on political roles in the public realm of society. Trans women who take on political roles in the public are at increased risk because we experience violence as women and as trans people at all times.
The coalition of people in attendance was a remarkable aspect of the action. Feminists, unionists, young anti-capitalist radicals, Indigenous land defenders, and a strong and noticeable contingent of queer and trans youth showed up to defend the tent city. Darcy, a camp resident and leader told AAD organizers that the mobilization against white supremacists brought together the support movement that the tent city needs. Darcy said: “I felt like with this group behind us no one can move us.” The Nanaimo counter-rally was an example of what a unified left looks like and gives us a reference point for what our movement building practices should work towards. Although the counter-rally did not win immediate solutions to the housing crisis, there was a larger political victory. Queer and trans people stood alongside Indigenous warriors and the homeless activists who shared the same political goal – smashing fascist, anti-homeless hate.
Trans women have just as much of a stake in fighting fascism as homeless activists in tent cities do. In Maple Ridge, Saanich, and Nanaimo, City and Provincial governments have tried and failed to destroy homeless people’s power through legal avenues. Their failed attempts to break-up tent cities has left a vacuum that has emboldened and delegated non-state fascist groups to “get the job done their way.” In their protest in Nanaimo, Soldiers of Odin cloaked their threats of direct violence in “community safety” rhetoric. Their rhetoric is defensive, only employed until fascists have the power to start killing in public.
Queer and trans activists too often have a puritanical relationship to liberation struggle, waiting around for working class people to be as educated as us on our particular issues. It is utopian to expect people outside of queer spaces to have familiarity with trans struggle and it is naive to think trans women experience less violence within queer communities. Anti-poverty organizing should be seen as a location for political intervention and support for trans people because most of us are poor and working class. The Nanaimo rally in defence of Discontent City was experienced by some straight and cis homeless residents of Discontent City as proof that unity with trans and queer activists can make both groups stronger. Homeless people who are unfamiliar with trans politics and trans people who have not experienced homelessness saw each others struggle overlap, yet respected each others differences.
It is in these moments that solidarity is forged. Even though I am not always immediately seen as a queer trans woman when I am organizing, I find political space alongside straight and cis comrades because we are fighting for the same things – the end of capitalist exploitation and colonial violence. This is a struggle I share with the residents of Discontent City, not with the supporters and organizers of Pride.