By Brandon Yan
If you’ve heard me speak about my work at Out in Schools, you’ve probably heard me say that I have the best job in the world. It’s my job to embody Out on Screen’s mission statement to illuminate, celebrate, and advance queer lives through film, education and dialogue; to stand in front of youth to not only speak to them about sexual orientation and gender identity but to show them stories that reflect who they are; stories that spark conversation and empathy—stories that inspire hope. I show them stories that can change the world.
In my short time with Out in Schools, I’ve come “out” to nearly 20,000 youth as a proud queer person of colour. I tell them why I think queer is a magnificent word that embodies my own identity as well as the remarkable diversity of our communities. I also acknowledge that, like any reclaimed word, it has a dark history full of trauma. Queer history is often a juxtaposition of magnificence and trauma. I tell youth that no matter how they identify or express themselves that they deserve to be safe, respected, and loved. I tell them that their stories can change the world. My work brings me joy and gives me strength.
This past Sunday [June 12], I went to march in Nanaimo’s first Pride Parade with School District No. 68 (Nanaimo-Ladysmith). It was an honour to be invited to such an important and history-making event. And, at the age of 30, it would be my first time marching in a Pride Parade. On my way to the ferry that morning, I heard that a man shot and murdered 49 people and wounded 53 more at a gay bar on Latinx [a gender-neutral term for people of Latin descent] night in Orlando. In a moment I was robbed of my joy and my strength. I felt empty and weak.
But Nanaimo Pride was surreal. I was surrounded by love, laughter, and people living so freely. Pride is always the day that I get to feel invincible. I felt a little less invincible that day, even though I marched alongside queer youth looking so radiant and confident. Funnily enough, screaming “Happy Pride!” to the throngs of cheering onlookers didn’t feel wrong or dishonouring the victims in Orlando. If anything, it felt so right, so just, and a fitting tribute. We were joyful and strong.
Pride exists because the pressure to conform every day to a heteronormative standard feels so crushing. Existing as we are is an act of resistance. Pride exists because to love oneself and each other is revolutionary when we are told we are wrong, broken, and deserving of hate.
Later at home, I watched Christine Leinonen speaking about her missing son, Drew. She spoke about the young man she raised, proud about his accomplishments. Drew started the GSA in his high school. He recently won the Anne Frank Humanitarian Award for his work in the gay community. Her son, Drew Leinonen, and his boyfriend, Juan Ramon Guerrero, were murdered that night. There are 47 other victims, the youngest not even in their 20s. These young people had left school, found their community, and were able to be in a space that accepted them for who they were, a space that was supposed to be ours.
I refuse to put on a brave face. Every day, LGBT2Q+ people have to be brave because we must to survive. I once heard a mother of a trans* youth speak through tears about her child, “It’s not that my child is any more special than anyone else’s, it’s just they need to be tougher.”
You cannot separate this massacre from the inherent homophobia that precipitated it and other homophobic acts and other forms of discrimination that happen daily. You cannot separate the person who intentionally misgenders someone, from the person who screams “faggot” out of a car window, to the parent who tells their sissy kid to “man up”, to the person who tells me, “all lives matter,” to person who pulls the trigger on a gun at a gay bar. I speak to all of us, we can all be just as complicit.
Over the coming days, people will say nice things about how love will conquer hate. They may mean it but platitudes do not create justice nor do they liberate our queer and trans* family from the daily oppression we face.
Kind words must come with action. Yes, we must be kind and compassionate to each other. We must also unite to create change. We need to give each other hope. We need to remember their names and stand in solidarity with black and Latinx people. So, how will you use your story to change the world?