Last May, while on his way to meet friends, Alvaro Orozco, a 25 year old undocumented queer artist was arrested and detained in Toronto, where he faced imminent deportation to Nicaragua. Alvaro had been living in Canada illegally since 2007, after his request for residency on the basis of humanitarian and compassionate grounds was denied when an adjudicator ruled that he did not look “gay enough.”
Owing to the efforts of community groups and Alvaro’s own resistance, his deportation order was revoked and he was granted residency status in June. In Montreal this weekend, he will exhibit his art at Ethnoculture, a yearly conference and cultural event that focuses on the issues and challenges of LGTBQ ethnic minorities, queers of colour, and two-spirited people.
In Canada, gay communities are increasingly being criticized and shunned for their irrelevance by those who believe that urban gays today, as Paul Aguirre-Livingston argued in The Grid, “have the freedom to live exactly the way [they] want.”
Alvaro’s story – and those of many others that Ethnoculture will showcase this Sunday – reveals that Aguirre-Livingston’s claim that “to be a twentysomething gay man in Toronto in 2011 is to be free from persecution and social pressures to conform,” is simply not true. The challenges and struggles faced by young LGBTQ ethnic minorities, queers of colour, and two-spirited people are far from over, even in gay urban meccas like Montreal and Toronto.
Ethnoculture offers much needed opportunities for community building within the LGBTQ population by addressing concerns that the mainstream gay community too often ignores or minimizes, such as the racism, discrimination, and isolation that many LGBTQ ethnic minorities, queers of colour, and two-spirited people routinely encounter both within and without the gay community. Ethnoculture’s conference this year includes workshops, presentations, and art, including documentary short films presented by Lali Mohamed and photography by Alvaro Orozco.
Having grown up in a Somali family that valued stories and storytelling, Lali Mohamed now films and documents the narratives of “ordinary queer and trans youth of colour doing extraordinary things.” Lali is the Communications Director and Staff Reporter at Deviant Productions, an alternative youth media collective based in Toronto that documents and archives the stories and narratives of marginalized people.
Lali’s documentary shorts follow “the premise that amongst racism, classism and queerphobia and transphobia, young people are doing transformative work.” One of the short films that Lali will present documents “Queering Black History Month,” a panel and art exhibition that he organized to address black queer experience in Canada. Lali, who is fourth year Sociology student at Ryerson University and a tireless activist for queer and trans people of colour, says that as in all communities, racism is pervasive within LGBTQ community in Toronto. The discrimination he and other queer people of colour face undermines the sense of belonging and togetherness that the gay community supposedly offers to all LGBTQ people: “It was and still is challenging to navigate a community that I want to call my own but [with which I] am met with tokenism at every other corner.”
As a Muslim, Lali faces not only queerphobia but xenophobia and Islamophobia as well. Lali relates that queer and trans Muslims’ “identities are routinely understood to be at worst impossible and at best incompatible, fostering an environment of isolation, self-hatred, and social and religious exclusion.” Being Muslim and queer or trans involves negotiating a complex set of affiliations and identities. Lali explains that “Some of our Muslim families refuse to recognize our queerness, some of our LGBTQ communities refuse to recognize our Muslimness and some others who share our two identities are not out. Where does this leave young queer and trans Muslims? Lost. Isolated. Desperate.” Lali points to the fact that safe, positive and “culturally-relevant resources for queer and trans Muslims are almost non-existent. Where do these young people go when they need support?”
Alvaro Orozco will showcase his photography exhibition, “Struggle,” which he completed in September after being released from the Toronto Immigration Holding Centre in June. Alvaro relates that his photographs “reflect the pain and struggle that refugees face, not just [by] living illegally for many years,” but also the lasting traumatic effects they experience even after being granted residency. Alvaro seems cautiously optimistic about life in Canada: he wants to finish his GED and pursue a career as a photojournalist and study architecture. He speaks of desiring to overcome the discrimination he faces as an ethnic minority and a former undocumented person so that he can realize his potential as an artist.
Alvaro also volunteers as a prop-maker and photographer for a non-profit theatre and arts company in Toronto, where he works with seniors and young children, teaching them how to paint and draw. There is no doubt, however, that as a queer man and a migrant, Alvaro continues to face difficulties and challenges that accompany the potential promise of his life in Canada.
His series of stark photographs include those of several naked men with their faces hidden from view. One sits in a crouched position, as if in pain. Another has his arms lifted toward a grey sky, perhaps towards the promise of an unknown future.
Ethnoculture is this Sunday, September 25th from 12 noon to 7 pm at Centre St-Pierre in the Village. The opening party is on Saturday, September 24th at Le Drugstore. For more information visit www.ethnoculture.org