Afro pride Caribbean community Montreal carifiesta

Afro Pride faces smear campaign from members of Montreal Caribbean community

“This is our 11th year being part of the Pride Parade and our goal has always been to create a safe space for all individuals to express themselves during Pride in Montreal. There was already an increase in queerphobia and transphobia this year, but the catalyst was the cancellation of Carifiesta.”

After last year’s cancellation of Montreal’s Pride Parade only hours before it was supposed to start, Afro Pride, an advocacy group for the Caribbean LGBTQ+ community — with a float on site for the parade — stepped in at the 11th hour. The community group held an impromptu march from Dorchester Square all the way to the Olympic Stadium, providing a joyful and much-needed outlet for thousands of revellers left with no parade to walk in at the last minute. 

This year, with the unfortunate cancellation of the 2023 edition of Carifiesta by the City of Montreal, Afro Pride decided it would honour Carifiesta, and its 47 years of existence, by presenting a tribute to it at the Pride Parade, on Aug. 13. A decision taken out of love and solidarity has, instead, created a targeted backlash, with Afro Pride organizers receiving an onslaught of negative messages with homophobic and transphobic sentiments.

Unwarranted fallout

“We’ve had a lot of backlash,” says Sonja Matschuck Afro Pride’s vice president. “This is our 11th year being part of the Pride Parade and our main goal has always been to create a safe space for all individuals to be able to express themselves during Pride in Montreal. There was already an increase in queerphobia and transphobia this year, but the catalyst was the cancellation of Carifiesta.” 

Matschuck says when they started promoting their event, they immediately saw proof of a coordinated smear campaign, with some people claiming Afro Pride wanted to replace Carifiesta and Pride wanted to “take over their culture.”

“People started telling me that they were being urged not to attend or promote the event and to sabotage attendance. Some of those messages saying Pride Parade is not part of the Caribbean culture were coming from Carifiesta organizers,” Matschuck says. “We’re just trying to express that both can live simultaneously together; our love of the culture and our need to have a queer space. We’re not harming or disturbing them.”

She says they’ve received threats and abusive online comments. “Even people from the U.S. involved in the Caribbean scene posted negatively about us, saying how the ‘gay agenda’ is not part of the Caribbean culture,” she says. 

Matschuck says these individuals don’t want Afro Pride to be associated with any Caribbean festivities. Despite the backlash, she and her fellow organizers are moving forward with the goal of providing a safe space for Black, Indigenous and people of colour in the city’s annual pride parade. 

“Our very reason for being is to fight against discrimination,” she says. “Many people come to us and say they aren’t out to their families yet and this event is an opportunity to celebrate both their culture and their place in the LGBTQ+ community, a place where they aren’t forced to choose between the two.” 

To be Black and queer

“The realities of Black LGBTQ+ communities are concretely about intersectionality,” says Jade Almeida, co-founder of Harambec, a Quebec-based Black feminist advocacy organization and coordinator at Conseil Québécois LGBT. 

“These are multiple systems of power, complex and fluid, which create unprecedented situations of violence,” says Almeida. “What’s happening with Afro Pride is yet another example.”

Almeida says Afro Pride is now finding itself suffering the fallout of a huge amount of violence played out against the Black community. “On the one hand,” she says, “there’s the cancellation of Carifiesta, which is extremely insulting and politically fraught for Black, immigrant and Caribbean communities, among others. But also, the fact that, for decades, we’ve been hammered with the idea that the LGBTQ+ community has an ‘agenda’, and that Afro Pride is proof of this agenda, but this time towards Black communities. The fact is, unfortunately, that this ideology — that being Black is incompatible with being queer — still circulates.”

While the Black community isn’t necessarily “more homophobic or more exclusive than others,” explains Almeida, homophobia and transphobia also exist within the community, and in many complex ways, the rejection of queer identities is a by-product of European colonization. “The notion of homosexuality as a ‘white man’s practice’ is still widespread,” she says. “Sexual and/or gender non-normativity becomes symbolic of non-membership of the Black community.”

“Queerphobia in the Black community absolutely needs to be discussed in an educated and compassionate way,” says Matschuck. “I come from a very religious Haitian family so it’s already very tense at home. But I still aim to just exist in both my culture and the LGBTQ+ community. Both can exist simultaneously.”

Matschuck says she was happy to recently see well-respected online platform Know Your Caribbean tackle the issue and says the need for representation is needed now more than ever. “Especially within the Caribbean and Afro communities that struggle to feel seen.”

She says she alerted Montreal Pride organizers, who assured her there’s increased security for the parade this year. They, in turn, forwarded the violent threats to provincial police. Matschuck says she reached out to the City of Montreal and received a response. 

“Since they were the ones who defunded Carifiesta,” says Marlihan Lopez, a Black feminist community organizer and co-founder of Harambec, “the city has a moral obligation to address these attacks and to put a stop to the false narrative that Afro Pride replaced Carifiesta.” 

Black LGBTQ+ people face particular challenges

The smear campaign and the threats are occurring during what has already been a trying year for the LGBTQ+ community. In Canada and the U.S., summer Pride celebrations have been unfolding amid a rising tide of hate and increasing hostility against queer and trans folks. Far-right religious groups have held protests against drag queens, and in the U.S., there have been numerous bills targeting transgender people, access to gender-affirming care and even legislation and backlash targeting school curriculums around gender and sexuality.

Within this hostile climate, Black LGBTQ+ individuals often find themselves at the intersection of multiple forms of discrimination. “I started participating in Pride in 2015,” says Matschuck, who’s half Haitian and half German, “and fell in love with the concept. For me, Carnival and Pride sort of represent the same idea of minority groups fighting against oppression and celebrating their resilience.” 

It’s why, according to Almeida, Afro Pride and other organizations in racialized communities are so important.

“If you look at the fabric formed by LGBTQ+ community advocacy organizations in Quebec, it’s still racially very homogeneous,” she says. “There’s very little representation of Black people, and therefore very little consideration of our experiences and the specificities of our struggles. It’s important to understand that racial discrimination also exists within the LGBTQ+ community, and it’s very difficult to address it, let alone denounce it — especially in a region where we’re still arguing that systemic racism exists.”

While Almeida agrees there’s been a resurgence of hatred towards the LGBTQ+ community with the rise to power of extremist groups, incumbent politicians surfing on the crassness of populism to keep themselves in power and a current period of backlash following advances in social justice, she says it’s important to remember that Black LGBTQ+ people have always faced particular challenges. 

“I’d like to temper the idea that we’re leaving behind a golden era for LGBTQ+ communities,” she says. “It’s true that over the last few decades we’ve seen several legal gains for these communities, as well as improvements in terms of public acceptance and mainstream representation. But these rights have above all benefited the most privileged members of the community; privileged by their gender, their conformity to social norms in terms of how they make couples, privileged by their racial affiliation, their social status, their cis-identity and so on. 

“To put it another way,” she says, “these rights and advances have not benefited so globally Black LGBTQ+ people, immigrants, poor people, sex workers, trans people. The current backlash is visible because it now also affects those who had won rights and now see themselves once again in danger. Within the LGBTQ+ milieu, there are also power relationships to be considered.”

More determined than ever

The first wave of threatening and violent messages may have scared Afro Pride organizers, but it hasn’t dampened their enthusiasm.

“It motivated us,” says Matschuck. “I thought, ‘Let’s not back down. We need to do this.’ It’s even more important to do this now and continue to provide these important and free events to the community and allies.” 

She says the group has always supported all Caribbean events in the community and does not understand why they’ve been targeted. “Our parade is not just for the queer community, but for allies and anybody who loves Carnival,” she says. “We just want to exist in the space and don’t wish harm on anybody.”

Carifiesta organizers did not respond to a request for comment. 

Almeida says that attacks on Afro Pride’s participation in the Pride Parade as “not part of Caribbean culture” is “tragically ridiculous” when we think of the carnival itself. “Literally, if there’s ever a time,” she says, “if there’s ever an event, when Black queer communities have the most opportunity to be visible and celebrated, it’s Carnival! Traditionally, it’s a time when codes and genders are overturned. It’s a time to make a mockery of convention. So, these attacks on Afro Pride are complete nonsense in terms of our traditions and culture.”

What’s happening with Afro Pride, according to Almeida, is a micro-level manifestation of a macro-level power system. That’s why, she says, when they created Harambec, as three Black and queer people, they hammered home the fact that they work by and for Black communities, including queer people. Because they are part of that community.

“What’s more,” she says, “historically, queer Black people have been at the forefront of multiple struggles against systems of discrimination because we were suffering all kinds of violence at the same time and weren’t getting the right support from anyone. We want to show our solidarity with Afro Pride and denounce the violence they suffer, including intra-community violence. And as long as this type of behaviour surfaces, this type of belief and this type of violence, we must be able to mobilize as a community to confront it.”

“We continue forward with love for the community,” Matschuck recently wrote on Afro Pride’s Facebook page, “striving for unity, for representation and that we can all co-exist, learn from each other, support each other and celebrate our wonderful talents.” ■

The 17th edition of Fierté Montreal Pride begins Thursday, Aug. 3, culminating with the Pride Parade and an afterparty on Sunday, Aug. 13. The Afro Pride float will be displaying Carnival culture with traditional and colourful costumes, featuring DJs, steel pan and flags representing their countries. All are welcome.

Read more weekly editorial columns by Toula Drimonis.