When Darren Ho saw some news coverage in May about concerned parents opposing the Burnaby School Board's attempt to approve an anti-homophobia policy, he knew he was on the right track.
Ho, a 22-year-old SFU linguistics student, had recently started up Our City of Colours, a project designed to address the lack of visible LGBT presence in Vancouver's ethnic communities.
"We started our project before the Burnaby School Board policy thing came out, and once it came out, it really hit home about why we had to do this," he tells the Straight at a Davie Street coffee shop. "Because I felt like watching the news about the people who were against the gay-friendly policy, I realized a lot of people who were against it were only against it because they didn't know enough about it. Or they didn't know enough about same-sex relationships, about gay bullying, about gay issues, about how being gay would affect a young student…because in their culture, they just don't get a lot of information about it."
Many of the members of the group opposing the BSB's Sexual Orientation/Gender Identity policy were part of demographics, such as the Chinese Canadian community, that Ho, himself a Vancouver-born Chinese Canadian, thinks are neglected when it comes to education about LGBT issues.
"Our objective is to reach not so much the LGBTQ members but moreso the people in these communities who would otherwise not get information on LGBTQ people or who otherwise think that LGBTQ people don't exist," he says. "We want to raise awareness and inform people that same-sex relationships exist within ethnic communities and same-sex relationships are positive within these ethnic communities."
Ho came up with the idea while working on an assignment for Totally Outright, a leadership workshop for gay youth run by the Health Initiative for Men and the Community-Based Research Centre. After recruiting his friends, he formed an eight-person core team who meet every weekend and work with a number of photographers, translators, and others, all of whom are volunteering their time and effort.
"What this project aims to do is to promote the visibility of LGBTQ people in ethnic communities," he said. "We feel that even though in Vancouver there are a lot of gay-positive images, gay-positive information, gay-positive media, a lot of ethnic communities see these images and information through a very narrow, Westernized context, and so we created this to sort of challenge that."
Creating new images that speak to specific groups meant identifying some communication gaps.
"A lot of gay-positive posters that people see are, say, in English or it features people who are Caucasian, and so when immigrants or people from ethnic communities see that, they'll just pass by it because it doesn't relate to them," he points out. "Or because a lot of immigrants who are maybe ESL or can't read English, they just won't bother to get this information because of the language barrier. So that's why we started this project, kind of to bridge the gap with all the linguistic variables and language barriers that exist."
Ho says that since they are a grassroots project with zero funding (fundraising efforts will begin in a few weeks), they're starting by focusing on reaching four of Vancouver's largest ethnic minority groups: Chinese, Korean, South Asian (Punjabi), and Persian. (They're still looking for a Korean representative for their team.) But they hope to eventually expand to cover the Filipino and Japanese communities as well.
The group is currently busy creating posters that will depict same-sex LGBT couples, accompanied by explanations about their relationship, written in English and the target audience's language. (By mid-October, you should see them in local businesses and community centres, and on street lamp posts, in Coquitlam, Surrey, Burnaby, and North Vancouver.)
Spanning cultural chasms
What is interesting is that the word gay won't actually appear on these posters. Is this a sign of internalized homophobia? No, it's sensitivity to cultural and linguistic differences.
"We want to keep in mind how to speak to these communities that are otherwise not so familiar with same-sex relationships," Ho explains. "So a big thing is that we have to be careful about the wording in languages that are not English. In all the posters that we're making, we're not using the word 'gay' just because the word 'gay' linguistically has a lot of negative connotations in languages that are not English. So we have to reframe 'gay' without using the word 'gay'. With images, we're showing a gay couple and in the written part of it, the text, instead of saying, 'These people are gay', we're saying, 'This is so-and-so person, he is a student, he is working to be a doctor, and he is interested in Bob.' And then we have a picture of Bob beside him."
Keep in mind that this is a way of introducing a subject to an audience that is simply, well, foreign to them. "We want to start a dialogue or provoke a discussion about same-sex relationships and gay and lesbian people. So even if these posters that we make don't convince people that gay people exist, at least what it will do is provoke discussion about homosexuality within their culture and in a language that they understand."
Breaking the cultural sound barrier of sexual taboos is part of Ho's goal. "I know a lot of people coming from these ethnic backgrounds and ethnic families who have never talked about sex in general with their parents so much as homosexuality. And I want this project to challenge that."
Showing LGBT people in a cultural context is something Ho feels most mainstream images ignore. "I feel like it's not just ethnic minorities, it's also culture that's being left out, and also language that's being left out. You can have an Asian-looking person in a poster but that still doesn't say much to people in the Chinese community because they just look at that poster and [they'd] be like, 'Oh this person is immersed in white culture and this poster still is not relevant to me.' "
Ho echoes observations made by members of the now-defunct Asian Society for the Intervention of AIDS who previously told the Straight that many Asian LGBT individuals feel they have to abandon their culture in order to become part of Vancouver's LGBT community.
He wants to emphasize that it's not an either/or situation. "We want to get across that even though gay people exist in the ethnic community, they are also still a part of that community," he says. "So, for example, we want to really show that this Chinese couple that is featured on the poster, they still celebrate Mid-Autumn Festival or they do Chinese cultural things. Whereas the South Asian posters that we're making will have more to do with that culture."
Aware that this project could raise controversy, Ho is preparing for negative responses. "We know that these images and information is likely to offend people," he acknowledges. "But we really just have to deal with it on a case-by-case basis." Even so, he adds that he doesn't plan to apologize for anything that he is doing.
Anyone who is interested in supporting or finding out more about the project can visit the Our City of Colours Facebook page.
Follow the Straight's LGBT coverage on Twitter at twitter.com/StraightLGBT.