On Feb. 9, McMaster’s Office of Human Rights and Equity services hosted an evening panel discussion in Gilmour Hall council chambers entitled “Educate, Agitate, Resist.” Six local activists, many of them with strong ties to the University, made up the Queer Activism Panel. Vilma Rossi, program coordinator for the Office of Human Rights, and Riaz Sayani-Mulji, a fourth-year McMaster student and SRA representative for the Bachelor of Health Sciences Program, facilitated the talk.
Each of the panelists offered an opening speech to kick off the evening. Although the experiences they recounted were diverse, their life stories shared a common theme of years of activism and dedication to fighting for LGBTQ rights.
Ruth Cameron, a native Hamiltonian and Mac grad, spoke about the relationship between health and activism. “For me, activism is integral to health,” she explained during her telling of how she came out.
Before pursuing a career in health research, she spent years as part of the army, where she found a measure of “personal freedom” because “everyone was treated equally badly.” Although much of her current work is in the academic world, she concluded that activism “can’t just be front line, and it can’t just be academic.”
Next, Cole Gately, organizer of HammerPride, who identifies as a transgender man, explained the history of activism and his own personal history in the area. He spoke fondly of the LGBTQ community in Hamilton, but reminded the audience with a chuckle that, “there’s nothing homogeneous about [the queer community] – aside from the ‘homo’ part, I guess.”
The panelist with perhaps the strongest ties to McMaster was Rui Pires, a McMaster graduate who founded the first LGBTQ association on campus and who, in his fourth year, ran for the presidency of the McMaster Students Union.
Although he was not elected, Pires continued in his activist work, later becoming involved in AIDS support and awareness work, a queer prisoner pen pal program, and even placing second as a candidate in the Davenport riding in a recent federal election. He admitted that this wasn’t always easy: “Critical thinking can really get you down,” he said. But he encouraged everyone to keep “gratitude, optimism and hope.”
The other three panelists also had a lot to say. Shar Reimer, a PhD candidate in queer theory at McMaster, spoke on the academic side to the LGBTQ community.
A keen activist, she unabashedly admitted to the room that she tries “to disturb as much shit as possible in the classroom.” Ian Jarvis, a prominent artist in Hamilton, talked about the need for a distinct queer community with its own values. “Straight people are terrified,” he claimed. “But we…can teach them lots.”
And finally, Will Rowe, who holds a Masters in social work from McMaster, shared his stories of being transgender and being “perceived as the enemy,” a white heterosexual male.
After the initial remarks, the floor was opened up for discussion. The audience, which was made up of McMaster students and a number of people from the greater Hamilton community, raised issues ranging from transgender and transsexual people going “stealth” to the role of McMaster’s Queer Students Community Centre.
Through all of the talk, the panelists’ main message was clear: the queer community has a lot of progress to be made in becoming established, and activism is what will make progress possible.