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The International Day of Pink started in 2007 when two Nova Scotian high schoolers bought 50 pink shirts and decided to wear and distribute them amongst their school in solidarity with a gay classmate who was bullied for wearing a pink polo shirt.
The event has since become an annual anti-bullying event across Canada and abroad. Every second week of April, students are asked to wear pink shirts and take a stand against anti-LGBTQIA+ bullying by challenging social norms and asking more from educators.
We’ve decided to profile three queer educators (and one student!) in the Greater Toronto Area who, through their activism and practice, have taken on this call to action.
“I feel like putting the onus on educators is kind of like treating the symptom and not the disease, and the disease is the fact that we have a problem with allowing us to feel vulnerability.”
For Youtuber, musician, and education advocate Khadija Mbowe (they/them), their life’s journeys have often begun with an openness to challenge norms and traditions—or what they refer to as “peer pressure from dead people.”
“I don’t think anything is set in stone,” Khadija explained. They had originally planned on getting a doctorate in sociology in order to become a professor, until they started to have their doubts. “Academia is very elitist, so I started to have a bad taste in my mouth about teaching in this way.”
They decided instead to pursue an education in music, co-founding The Marigold Music Program along the way—an organization that aims to close the accessibility gap for underprivileged students who want to pursue a passion for music.
However, once the pandemic hit, they decided to start a youtube channel. Initially, the intention for doing it wasn’t too clear. “My channel was going to be talking all like—cause I’m a hippy—talking all spiritual and being super chill,” they said.
But Khadija wanted to stay open-minded. “There’s so many limits we place on ourselves by what we think people expect from us, or what we think is going to be successful,” they explained. “For me, I was never even thinking about that when I was making videos.” So they began gravitating towards topics they wanted to explore more deeply: “I stayed open to the possibilities, and the result was me wanting to go back to sociology.”
One year on, Khadija is now dubbed Youtube’s “cool, fun, *young* millennial aunty," with over a quarter million subscribers and 5 million views. TA’s and professors from across North America are showing their videos in sociology classrooms. While this may not make them fit the traditional definition of an “educator,” labels never really held much significance for Khadija anyways. “I'm not so concerned with how people choose to label me so long as they get what they can out of the videos. Does that make sense?”
Advice for other educators
“I feel like putting the onus on educators is kind of like treating the symptom and not the disease, and the disease is the fact that we have a problem with allowing us to feel vulnerability,” said Khadija, who is a strong proponent of social emotional learning, a concept popularized by researcher Marc Brackett. As a victim of childhood bullying themselves, Khadjia believes giving students the tools to connect with their emotions and learn how to manage them is itself the key to solving the issue.
“If I'm thinking of someone who is bullying others, especially queer kids, I think about what is going on in their life that they feel like they have to attack others. What's going on in their minds that they feel like this type of person deserves to be the object of their torment?” they explained. “I feel that doing that kind of self work isn't just about you, it's learning enough about yourself that you're able to relate to others.”
“There are actually so many more intersections and so many more layers that you need to learn about if you’re actually going to be a member of the queer community.”
Thom and Elliott
Four years ago, Thom (he/him), a Montessori middle school teacher, and Elliott (they/them), a PHD Candidate and photographer, decided to start Do You Queer What I Queer (DYQ WIQ for short), an interview podcast with members of the GTA queer community. Their initial goal was to have a mix of frank and fun conversations that broke queer listeners out of their specific “echo-chambers.”
“As white gays in the community, we’re let into a lot of spaces with other white gays where the conversation takes on...an insular kind of thing,” explained Elliott, who said that they felt a need to create a bridge to other experiences within the queer community.
Thom, a cis-white gay man, similarly felt there was a tendency for those similar to him to dismiss other types of queer experiences, “there are actually so many more intersections and so many more layers that you need to learn about if you’re actually going to be a member of the queer community,” explained Thom. “As someone with a large amount of privilege within that community, it becomes my responsibility, in a way, to uplift the other voices that may not have a platform.”
90 episodes later, DYQ WIQ has now featured guests ranging from anti-incarceration advocate Moka Dawkins, Black Lives Matter member Ravyn Wingz, and Michelle Wheeler, the sister of the late Alloura Wells – a trans woman whose death sparked criticism over the Toronto Police Services’ mismanagement of information. Their work recently earned them the 2020 Reader’s Choice Award for Best Local Podcast from Now Toronto.
As Thom and Elliott prepare to move into their fifth season, they’ve set their sights on reaching an even wider audience. “We're always looking for hate mail, because that means that people who don't agree with us are listening,” explained Elliott. They hope that for listeners who aren’t queer themselves, the podcast gives them an intimate type of exposure to stories and struggles they don’t usually hear.
Advice For Other Educators
Having recently experienced backlash from parents over bringing queer learning materials into the classroom, Thom thinks it’s time for non-queer educators to take a stand in solidarity with people like him. “It shouldn't rely on the queer teachers… I’m the only queer teacher at the school, and I need to be sure that other people can stand up for this issue too.”
Thom often speaks to his classes about what it means to be a bystander. “Maybe the most important person isn't the bully, and it's not the person being bullied. It's everyone else around them, and what they are doing. They are the ones who are dictating the environment...that includes teachers, parents, and other students. It's what gives us our fire to do our podcast. I don't want to be a bystander."
You can find episodes and more information about Do You Queer What I Queer on their official website.
“I feel there's a lot of pressure on trans people to be activists, when they just want to exist.”
For Robbie Ahmed (he/him), an adult ESL teacher and artist, one of the most challenging parts of being an activist was having to speak for everyone else.
As a trans person of colour who grew up between Russia, Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, and Canada, it’s been understandably hard to generalize his life experience. This has led him to distance himself from the label of activist, having exited his roles in organizations that promote health services for queer and racialized groups.
“I feel there's a lot of pressure on trans people to be activists, when they just want to exist,” said Robbie, who found himself previously deeply entrenched in queer activism. “You don't really have a choice but to be an activist.” He explained that the constant struggle to fight for your healthcare, or wait four or five years for gender confirmation surgery leads one to speak about these issues constantly, because they are just part of your everyday life. “It just becomes activism by proxy,” he explained.
Robbie began to realize this wasn’t the way he wanted to have an impact. While working on a research project about trans inclusion in HIV treatments, an illustrator on the team found a way to illustrate the issue using a cartoon of a chihuahua trying to access healthcare in a place full of dogs. “It was more effective than an hour of lecturing people on trans healthcare access,” he explained, discovering how humour and storytelling can get a message across in more accessible ways.
With his current work, he shares stories in hopes of creating a series of “blueprints to exist” for others to follow. He’s done this by publishing work covering topics ranging from finding self worth as a Queer South Asian to navigating trans healthcare as a newcomer in Canada, while highlighting the work of other trans artists as a writer for the Toronto based queer culture publication, Yohomo.
Most importantly for Robbie, he’s embarked on a new path with a goal to create music, comics, and performances filled with glimpses into his everyday life. “I think that itself is activism. Trans Joy is activism—just to be humorous and living your life.”
Advice for other educators
Being “out” with his students has made an important difference for a number of his students. He’s often been a student’s first point of contact with a trans person, forcing them to confront their own biases by simply being there.
As a part of “Unpacking Queer Racism,” a panel group that discusses issues of supporting racialized queer folks, he says that their audiences are rarely diverse. “A lot of times we wish there were more educators who showed up to events like these, who were not racialized or queer, to listen to these topics, and to learn how to better support.”