At SFU’s Burnaby campus, a small group of Asian students gathered to gawk at a poster at a bus stop showing two Chinese guys holding hands.
“What is this?” one asked.
“Oh, it’s a gay poster!” another exclaimed. “They’re gay! They’re gay!”
“No way!” others gasped. “What? Really?”
Unbeknownst to the students, the brains behind the poster, Darren Ho, happened to be standing silently nearby, watching the reactions with interest.
Ho, an SFU linguistics student, initiated the multilingual, multicultural Our City of Colours project last year to shatter the visibility barrier that prevents queer people from being seen in some cultural and linguistic communities.
As a result of attending Totally Outright, a gay-youth leadership workshop presented by the Health Initiative for Men and the Community-Based Research Centre, Ho created the project by assembling an eight-person team of volunteers, including photographers and translators, to produce the first set of six posters last year.
The vibrant, bilingual series depicts queer individuals or couples from local Chinese, Punjabi, and Farsi communities. Each poster lists some of their characteristics, such as their interests, astrological signs, or hobbies, in addition to their sexual orientation. The first wave of OCC posters was released in November and put up in offices, cafés, schools, and other public spaces throughout the Lower Mainland.
In a city with a prominent queer community and a country in which gay marriage is legal, you might not expect youths to express incredulity at seeing gay people depicted. Such reactions, however, underscore the fact that queer people remain almost nonexistent to many locals.
“[For] the Chinese students that see those posters, there is that element of shock for them,” Ho tells the Georgia Straight over iced tea at a downtown coffee shop. “Even on campus, there’s not a lot of exposure to gay things…so it’s showing them something they don’t see every day.”
Ho, a Vancouver-born Chinese Canadian, told the Straight in an interview last year that images of queer people need to be culturally or linguistically specific. Otherwise, members of minority groups tend to disregard those people as not being a part of their own community.
In that respect, the word and is important. Although it’s not stated, it’s one that’s implicit in the OCC campaign.
In the Farsi poster, for example, Farhad is an engineering student. And he’s a soccer player. And he loves Iranian superstar Googoosh. And he loves his boyfriend. The OCC posters recognize that individuals have multifaceted identities. Being queer is just one—but an equally important—part of that mix.
And also reflects the bridge between identities that many, unfortunately, feel they have to burn if they come out of the closet.
“Having participated in a few discussion groups and conferences,” Ho says, “a common thing that I hear is that people from these different backgrounds have to first dissociate themselves with their cultural backgrounds and then they accept their gay identity, and then later in life, when they establish their gay identity, they go back to their cultural background and start being a part of that.”
For Ho, this division—and the need for a campaign—was hammered home when he saw news coverage last year of parents, the majority of them Chinese, opposing the Burnaby school board’s antihomophobia policy. Ho wanted his posters to show people like them that, yes, people of colour are in fact queer and here, and it’s long overdue for people to get used to it.
A second wave of nine different posters, which will add Spanish, French, Filipino, and Russian communities to their target audiences, will be released during Pride Week. Series 2.0, based on feedback from the inaugural run, will be more image-focused than text-based, with an emphasis on couples. And this time around, after repeated inquiries as to whether the campaign was youth-oriented (due to the perceived ages of the models), they’re including a retired gay male couple who have been together for 30 years.
Although a trans model, Ambre, was included on one of the Chinese posters in the first series, her trans identity was not addressed because Ho says they were uncertain how to convey that in a trans-sensitive way. They’ve since been working closely with Chinese trans individuals to create a trans-positive poster for the second series.
But as inclusive as OCC wants to be, they do run into limitations.
Ho says they’ve received numerous requests from groups that want to be included, but they’ve experienced challenges in addressing communities the organizers lack experience with. A Korean poster slated for the first set, for example, was cancelled after organizers were unable to find volunteers from the Korean community.
Ho says they didn’t have many resources when they started out as a grassroots project with no budget. Since acquiring nonprofit status in April and officially launching as an organization in May, though, they can dream bigger. A website is in the works. (For now, they only have a Facebook page: www.facebook.com/ourcityofcolours.) And in the future, the organization hopes to increase visibility beyond the poster campaign.
Ho says support has also come from beyond queer communities.
“From online, we’ve had quite a number of people who emailed us to say, ‘I’m not gay. I’m not really that involved in the gay community, but I saw your posters and they were interesting. I wanna volunteer.’ ”
One such individual was Vita Shimanskaya, a UBC environmental-design graduate from Almaty, Kazakhstan, who has lived in Canada for the past five years. Before coming here, she had a negative view of queer people based on common misperceptions.
“Being gay in Kazakhstan, people are saying that it has to be treated, and you’re bad, and you’re wrong,” she said by phone. “So people hide and don’t want to talk about it out loud.…That’s for sure bad emotionally for them, and sometimes even physically when they are trying to tell people they are gay.”
But her perceptions shifted after she got to know queer people in Canada.
“When I was back in Kazakhstan, I had no experience talking to or meeting gay people at all,” she said. “When I went to Vancouver and I started to meet these people and talk to them, I realized that they’re not different at all and they actually need support.”
When a friend posted OCC’s call for volunteers on Facebook, she decided to participate. Then she went beyond the call of duty: she was so inspired by the campaign that she volunteered to model, becoming the campaign’s first straight poster girl.
For Shimanskaya, there’s a universal theme behind OCC that goes beyond sexual, gender, ethnic, or linguistic identities: it’s about showing the world who you really are.
“It’s not about being gay.…It’s about being different, right? And I want people [to] not be afraid to talk about their difference.…For myself, it is about being different and not being afraid to tell who you are, even if other people don’t like it.”
This message appears to be in good hands as Our City of Colours continues to illuminate the full spectrum of the queer rainbow throughout Metro Vancouver.