The city I live in now, Lethbridge, is very well known for its wind. It’s not a rarity for winds to gust between 70 to 80 kilometers per hour on any given day (that’s 44 to 50 miles per hour, for our American readers). March 5th, 2016 happened to be particularly windy: research tells me that it got up to 34 km/h that day (21 m/h).
Although I’d already been living with the Lethbian wind (yes, we’re really called Lethbians) for about six months, I’d somehow managed to forget that factor while my friend and I were getting ready to go see DarkMatter perform. When we arrived, our carefully coiffed and sprayed hair was utterly destroyed by the wind. This wasn’t lost on the local hosts of the evening, who made more than one joke about the windy state of affairs. All of us guffawed merrily, and I, for one, felt slightly less bad about looking like I’d just arrived in Oz via tornado.
However, that night was a bit like arriving in Oz. When I’d told people up north that I was moving way down to Lethbridge, I’d had a lot of warnings about how conservative (and windy) the city was. I figured that since I would be attending a pretty liberal University, I’d probably be sheltered from the conservative ideologies of my fellow Lethbians. While this ended up being true, I also learned that night that the greater community wasn’t entirely conservative, either.
DarkMatter’s performance was held in the Galt Museum & Archives. Upon entering, we were immediately greeted by sandwich board signs stating that it was a Safe Place. The crowd gathering inside was beautiful: colourful, jittery, excited people of all ages were huddled together in an effort to get the best seats. In hindsight, the biting wind outside may have played a part in that jittery huddle…
There were a variety of pride-related pins offered to guests as we received our free tickets. At the far end of the space, microphone stands were wrapped with twinkling lights. As the sun set over the coulees, and the seats filled up, I was struck by the sheer number of people who had come out. For a supposedly conservative southern Albertan city, Lethbridge was proving to have a high number of LGBTQA+ constituents and allies.
Before DarkMatter took the stage, a number of locals spoke. Of course, there were the usual introductions and well-deserved thanks to contributors on behalf of the event organizers. They also let us know that the bathrooms had been “liberated from the gender binary,” to which everyone cheered. Importantly, the organizers acknowledged the fact that the event was being held on traditional Blackfoot territory, on Treaty Seven land.
One of our local government officials, Shannon Phillips, spoke after the event organizers. She’s the Member of the Legislative Assembly for Lethbridge West, as well as the current Environment Minister of Alberta. Phillips talked about her pride in the community of Lethbridge, and how honoured she was to serve it. She also discussed how the New Democratic Party she’s a member of, which had recently won a landslide majority in provincial elections, was going to be passing a bill regarding gender diversity and LGBTQA+ issues.
In this supposedly hyper-conservative city, it was inspiring to hear a strong woman in a position of power talk about the basic human rights which should be awarded to all people. She didn’t say that the government was hoping to pass the bill: she made it clear that they were going to pass the bill, regardless of dissent from ignorant members of the legislative assembly. The positive energy in the crowd was palpable, and I was almost moved to tears as I thought about the support and genuine goodness that was being demonstrated by the people of this city that I now called Home.
After Shannon Phillips left the stage to echoing applause, the opening act performed. Abby Morning Bull, an influential member of the local Piikani Nation, read her poetry for the packed house. Although she confessed that it was the first time that she’d shared her work in public, Morning Bull performed like a seasoned professional. Her words were breathtaking, and painful. In a few short minutes, she addressed the deep scars of imperialism and racism which have wracked Canada historically, and which continue to plague it today. I was especially hard hit by Morning Bull’s poem which addressed the common micro-aggression of referring to women of colour as “exotic.” The piece highlighted how easy it is, as a white woman, to be ignorant of the infinite number of ways in which racism impacts women of colour.
And then, the featured performers took to the makeshift stage. DarkMatter describe themselves on their website as “a trans south asian [sic] performance art duo comprised of Alok Vaid-Menon and Janani Balasubramanian” who are “[k]nown for their quirky aesthetic and political panache.” That night, Vaid-Menon and Balasubramanian addressed an impressive variety of topics, not limited to but including: violence against gender diverse people of colour, the lack of diversity represented in the Harry Potter franchise, pain from their own childhoods, American politics, and cultural appropriation. Their words were life-changing for me in a personal sense, but also in a local sense: the event allowed me to gain a new understanding of the city that I had so recently moved to.
After DarkMatter performed, a stereotypical-looking white man stood up to speak during the question period. He asked something about how he, a straight, cisgender, white male could help gender diverse people of colour without trying to become their saviour. The response from DarkMatter was swift and clear: don’t develop new initiatives meant to save people, but instead support those people in the development of their own initiatives. Let them speak with their own voices. Organize within your own communities, rather than trying to organize for others.
In an episode of a local podcast featuring the work of Lauren Crazybull called “This is Blackfoot Territory,” numerous event organizers and participants addressed the low number of people of colour who attended DarkMatter’s performance. One of the podcast’s producers counted only 15 people of colour in the audience, that night. Because of this, Crazybull asked questions of organizers and participants regarding the atmosphere of tokenism and exhibitionism which her and her team witnessed. I highly recommend that you listen to the podcast episode, called “Organizing DarkMatter,” to hear the responses (necessarily uncomfortable and jarring, at times) of the largely white team behind the event.
I believe that being present to hear a selection of Morning Bull, Vaid-Menon, and Balasubramanian’s stories was a crucial moment in the queer community of Lethbridge. As “This is Blackfoot Territory” addressed, an important moment of self-reflection and cognitive dissonance was experienced by the largely white audience. As Abby Morning Bull mentioned when Lauren Crazybull interviewed her, someone described the experience as feeling like “being slapped in the face and then hugged.” That’s exactly how I felt, and how I hope the rest of the white activist audience felt too. I hope to see the results of that slap in the face within Lethbridge’s queer community, as we move forward.
When the performance was over, and the venue had been cleaned up, attendees were invited to head over to a local establishment, The Owl Acoustic Lounge, to listen to live music and celebrate the successful event. I sat down with my friends, staring in wonder at the eclectic decorations lining the walls of the lounge. I was in Oz, and damn, there was no place like home.
Special thanks to Jaisie Walker for reviewing this article before publication.
All photos taken by Courtney Creator.