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Headshot of me with long hair, pink lip stick, light makeup Kara Babcock

Pride before the fall

Thunder Bay’s leading Pride organizations provide an object lesson in how not to practise solidarity.

About a month ago, someone posted on Facebook about an incident in a changing room at a local gym. This post was transphobic, and its author has gone on to repeat many common transphobic talking points that amplify the climate of discrimination, suspicion, and marginalization that queer people are facing here in Canada. I weighed in with my two cents about the original post in a rare post on my Facebook profile, but I didn’t blog about it. By and large, when I post here about my experience as a trans person and my transition, I try to emphasize my trans joy. There is enough negative stuff floating around the internet without me adding to it.

Yet last night’s incident, in which the two leading Pride organizations in this city dropped a bombshell of a post on us, has spurred me to write, for I want to make sure that I document my reaction. I want to be able to look back through this blog and see what I thought and said about what happened. I also want to summarize events so that people, especially those outside of Thunder Bay, might have a more complete picture.

To that end, I’m going to begin by laying out a timeline of events to the best of my knowledge (please feel free to message me if you think I missed anything) without excess commentary. Following that, I’m going to share my opinion, which to be clear is entirely my personal opinion and not the opinion of my employer or any other groups with which I am affiliated. Feel free just to read the timeline if you aren’t interested in my commentary.

Hold On Tight

N.B. I tried to archive most of the Facebook posts in question using the Wayback Machine, but Facebook gated some of them behind a login screen. Some of the posts have subsequently been removed. Here’s an Imgur album with screenshots of many of the referenced posts.

April 28: Stephanie Danylko writes a Facebook post (archived version) in which she expresses her disappointment with Movati’s change room policies. Specifically, she was unhappy about encountering someone she described as “a non transitioning man” in the women’s changing room.

April 29: Thunder Pride shares Danylko’s April 28 post with the commentary “CW transphobia” (this will be important later) along with a message of support for the staff of Movati.

May 2: Danylko subsequently updates this original post and makes a new post (archived version) to include a letter from the manager of Movati, who informed her that it was upholding the Ontario Human Rights Code and therefore terminating Danylko’s membership to the gym.

May 19: Danylko posts about organizing a “community gathering” ([archived version]) in front of Movati on Friday, May 26, and Saturday, May 27, to protest the changing room policy.

May 26: Thunder Pride posts a video from its chair, Scotia Kauppi, describing what to expect from the gathering and asking people to remain peaceful/nonviolent.

Danylko’s supporters gather in front of Movati as planned. There is a small, organic gathering of counter-protesters (archived version), and Rainbow Collective attended.

May 27: There is a larger protest/counter-protest. According to TBNewswatch, there were about 15 people gathered in support of Danylko (who, in the article, says she isn’t protesting but “raising awareness” but I’m going to call it a protest because words have meaning) and about 200 counter-protesters. Here is the Rainbow Collective post about the event. Here is a Thunder Pride post that says, “Getting set up in front of Movati to spend an afternoon peacefully saying that ‘TRANSPHOBIA HAS NO PLACE IN THUNDER BAY’!”

May 29: Rainbow Collective shares a screenshot from the Thunder Bay Freedom Community Facebook group, of which Danylko is an admin. In the screenshot, Danylko has posted that she intends to gather outside of Movati at 5 pm every day that week. Rainbow Collective in its post says that “bigots don’t understand that we will always show up” and calls on its supporters to rally as well “until she backs down.”

Later that day, Rainbow Collective posts that “Stephanie Danylko is a Transphobic person who only believes that two genders exist and that Transgender people don’t have rights!” In a follow-up comment on the post, Rainbow Collective says, “Sue us!” and doubles down on calling Danylko transphobic.

Later, later that day, Rainbow Collective shares screenshots of several local posts that are against raising the Pride Flag and comments, “We said we would name those making hideous and disgusting comments.”

May 31: Rainbow Collective posts a screenshot of what appears to be a post from Danylko in her Facebook group with the commentary that “Hey Stephanie, YOU’RE A HOMOPHOBIC, TRANSPHOBIC PERSON” (all caps original).

June 3: Danylko mentions in a Facebook post “hate language posts and comments in the fb pages Rainbow Collective and Thunder Pride” and also asks how Caitlyn Jenner could be called a transphobe when she is in fact a trans woman.

June 6: Danylko posts on Facebook about the “war on women” and links to a video from Megyn Kelly, with whom she agrees, about “trans ideology.”

June 9: Danylko, Rainbow Collective, and Thunder Pride all post essentially the same message on their pages. Note that from the wording, particularly in the first paragraph of Thunder Pride’s post, the message appears to originate from Danylko and the other groups simply copied it and changed a few references. Danylko’s post has garnered mostly positive comments from her supporters. Meanwhile, the posts from Rainbow Collective and Thunder Pride have garnered mostly negative comments from queer people and allies. Updated: Thunder Pride and Rainbow Collective have since deleted their versions of this post (see my update at 10:45 pm below), but you can read screenshots, with alt text, on my tweet here.

The substance of the post is that these groups met together, along with Thunder Bay Police, and agreed to stop the gatherings in front of Movati; additionally, Thunder Pride and Rainbow Collective agreed to retract any posts where they personally called Danylko a homophobe, transphobe, bigot, etc.

Do Somethin’

As I tweeted last night when this all went down, to say that I am disappointed is an understatement.

This is a betrayal of the 2SLGBTQIA+ communities of Thunder Bay, certainly of the trans and nonbinary communities.

Here are my issues with Rainbow Collective and Thunder Pride:

  1. Both organizations make poor media comms decisions that result in backlash or backpedalling.
  2. Both organizations lack transparency.
  3. Both organizations’ handling of this specific matter has actually harmed 2SLGBTQIA+ people in Thunder Bay.
  4. Neither organization is radical enough, in my opinion.

I understand that many people might disagree with me on the last point, which is fine, and it’s why I’ve separated it out from the other three. Let’s talk about how we got here, why it’s terrible, and what we can do now.

Oops, They Did It Again

Something I want to make clear in this post for those coming late to this party: this is not an isolated incident, not a one-off misstep from Rainbow Collective or Thunder Pride. There is a history here of poor media comms and a lack of transparency, and many people have been critical of one or both of these organizations for years now. There is a whole internecine history here around the origins of Rainbow Collective as well—I don’t want to digress, and I don’t know the full story myself.

In any event, Rainbow Collective, on its website, says, “We emphasize transparency in everything we do.” (Also, the term “collective” hearkens back to cooperative, even anarchist political organizations led from the bottom up—which is not an accurate description of Rainbow Collective’s structure at all.)

Despite the promise of transparency, last year they removed a couple of social media posts related to the death of Queen Elizabeth II following criticism and did not acknowledge the removal of those posts in any way.

Now Thunder Pride and Rainbow Collective had a closed-door meeting with Danylko and the Thunder Bay Police. This meeting was not announced ahead of time. No one outside of these organizations’ boards was consulted about how to move forward on the Movati issue specifically. These two organizations took it upon themselves to represent the queer communities of Thunder Bay and then make commitments that it did not have the authorization to make. This is the opposite of transparency in decision-making.

One of those commitments includes removing posts from the Rainbow Collective and Thunder Pride pages. Look, I have to be honest: I don’t think those posts should have been made in the first place. Their tone was snarky and didn’t meet the standards I would expect from a community organization. So I’m not sad to see the posts go, but I am sad about how Rainbow Collective reached the decision to take them down (let alone deciding it was a good idea to post them at all). The posts were not a good look.

Basically, Thunder Pride and Rainbow Collective have shown incredibly poor judgment and mishandled the situation, and it has done more harm to us now than Stephanie Danylko’s gatherings did.

(You Drive Me) Crazy

By caving in this specific way, Thunder Pride and Rainbow Collective have emboldened Danylko and her supporters far more than any gatherings ever could. Prior to this post, we had won in every sense: Movati never supported Danylko’s position, and supporters of trans rights outnumbered Danylko’s supporters at every gathering. The community clearly and decisively demonstrated that hate has no home here. Danylko herself was not a credible threat; her presence was always on the fringe, her posts a soup of conspiracy theories and bad takes with little rhetorical skill to them.

Now look at the comments on Danylko’s version of the post versus the versions posted by Thunder Pride and Rainbow Collective. The backpedalling these organizations agreed to do has validated her supporters, who are cheering her on as the David who took on the Goliath of these big, bad alphabet soup organizations. Meanwhile, queer people and allies find themselves in disarray, taken entirely by surprise by the organizations that were supposed to be supporting us.

Make no mistake: this is not just a media comms misstep now. This is a full-blown abdication of the duty to protect queer people in this community. Thunder Pride and Rainbow Collective threw trans people under a bus to achieve a hollow peace.

So where do we go from here?

Gimme More

Pride started as a protest. Over the decades it has morphed into an annual celebration, and that’s great—I don’t begrudge anyone a festival, drag show, glitter ball, or any other event where queer people and allies can come together and enjoy themselves. We need it now more than ever. Yet at its core, Pride is protest. Pride is radical. So what happens when the two leading organizations in your small city refuse to be radical?

Thunder Pride and Rainbow Collective talked a big talk, but when push came to shove, they backed down in a way that will prove profoundly harmful.

I have no doubt that in the days to come, justifications and rationalizations and hand-wringing aplenty will be forthcoming. But I honestly don’t see how you can justify how this got handled. The June 7 post is absolute sophistry that appears to have been authored by Danylko and minimally altered by Thunder Pride and Rainbow Collective. It speaks to a desire “for no one to get hurt.” This vague statement implies that violence is the only form of hurt that could occur at these gatherings, that Danylko’s speech and actions themselves are somehow not hurtful, harmful, and hateful.

Maybe what Thunder Pride and Rainbow Collective mean is that they didn’t want to see their organizations get hurt. They realized that firebrand exhortations to “sue us” are all fun and games in a flame war on a 2000s-era message board but not so fun in local politics. Rather than acknowledge that they as organizations are responsible for that escalation, however, they decided to misrepresent the situation as one in which the entire queer community must somehow take responsibility.

Perhaps Thunder Pride and Rainbow Collective also think this move is best for their organizations if they want to continue to interact with businesses and City Council. For “the greater good,” these organizations need to walk a line that makes sure that other parties don’t view them as too radical.

That’s called respectability politics, and it sucks. Pride organizations must be radical because Pride has never been about making white, middle-class queers comfortable. Honestly I couldn’t care less if Rainbow Collective convinces councillors to put their pronouns in their bios or whatever. We are fighting for our lives.

Before I conclude, I want to be clear that I truly believe the board members of both of these organizations want to do what is best for 2SLGBTQIA+ people in Thunder Bay. They put a lot of hard work, every year, into organizing Pride events. They did show up to the counter-protest, putting in time, providing signs, etc. Thunder Pride and Rainbow Collective have done a lot of good for queer people and communities. I don’t want to deny or erase that.

But I am having a hard time seeing how these organizations can move forward in their current form with the backing of a significant portion of the queer communities after what has transpired.

Maybe resignations and mea culpas are enough? Or maybe we need a third Pride organization, one actually dedicated to radical advocacy? Part of the problem, of course, is that Thunder Bay is simply small. There is not much overlap between people who want to be advocates and people who have the time and confidence to set up dedicated organizations. (Certainly I don’t belong to those camps, hence why I am an armchair blogger yelling into her laptop.) These issues of disorganization, distrust, and opacity are far from unique to Thunder Bay, but the smaller size of our city magnifies their enormity.

At the minimum, Thunder Pride and Rainbow Collective need to acknowledge that they have mishandled things. They probably need to hire some people who actually know how to do media comms. Above all, they need to hold open town halls or equivalent meetings where they can solicit input from us in actual transparency, and there needs to be a clear and binding understanding reached about how these groups move forward in their actions so that this doesn’t happen again. If that can’t happen … well, maybe these organizations are not the ones we need right now.

From the start, this was never about Movati or changing rooms. This wasn’t about Stephanie Danylko. This was about pushing back against the larger rising tide of anti-2SLGBTQIA+ discrimination and hatred sweeping over Canada. We can win this fight, but only if we remain united. That didn’t happen here. By yielding in the specific, Thunder Pride and Rainbow Collective have weakened us in general. And that is not something to be proud of this month.

This post has been updated to clarify that Rainbow Collective did not organize either counter-protest but participated in and contributed to the events.

Updated June 10, 10:44 pm: Thunder Pride and Rainbow Collective have released a new joint statement disavowing the earlier statement, which they have deleted.

Cover image from the May 27 rally, used with permission of the photographer.