When I read playwright Sky Gilbert’s poem I’m Afraid of “Woke People” on his blog last week, I rolled my eyes at the disingenuousness of his latest provocation.
Gilbert, who co-founded the Toronto-based queer theatre Buddies in Bad Times in 1979, is not afraid of anyone, let alone “woke people” – a slang term for the social-justice crowd, which he tends to use disdainfully to refer to transgender activists and their allies.
The 65-year-old self-described gender-non-conforming gay man and drag queen has made a career out of voicing taboo thoughts, even when they are taboo for good reason.
Over the years, Gilbert has questioned whether the HIV virus causes AIDS, opposed same-sex marriage as heteronormative assimilation, asked whether #MeToo was an attack on artistic freedom, and (this one drives me particularly nuts) used his professorial position at the University of Guelph to promote the conspiracy theory that Edward de Vere wrote William Shakespeare’s plays.
What happened after I’m Afraid of “Woke People” started being shared widely on Twitter, however, made many people wonder if Gilbert had a point this time around.
On Friday, Buddies – which Gilbert ran as artistic director until 1997 – cancelled a reading of his 1986 play Drag Queens in Outer Space that was to be part of the company’s 40th-anniversary celebrations. In a Facebook post, the theatre said this was due to a “highly problematic poem on his website, directed at author Vivek Shraya.” (I’m Afraid of “Woke People” was written in response to a book called I’m Afraid of Men by Shraya, a transgender author, University of Calgary professor and Polaris Prize-nominated musician.)
Instead, on Monday night, Buddies hosted a “long table” discussion where the topic of discussion was: “In these increasingly polarized times, how can we, as an intergenerational queer community ‘cherish all that makes us different and conquer all that makes us afraid’? (quote by Vivek Shraya).”
Was Gilbert’s poem “highly problematic”? Well, it was clear in context that he had transgender and non-binary people in his sights as a drag queen who feels swept under the rug in the current gender landscape. He writes: “I’m afraid of ‘Woke People’ because if I mistakenly use the wrong pronoun to describe them, they may become furious and never forgive me.” And also: “When I dress in drag, I fear I will be ‘dressed down’ by a 'Woke Person,’ screamed at for enjoying appropriated music, for making fun of trans people and for my camp sense of humour.”
Buddies’s current artistic director, Evalyn Parry, explained to me what was offensive about the poem in an e-mail: “Sky’s ‘poem’ targets and attacks a trans woman of colour, blaming her for his sense of persecution and levelling accusations of being discriminatory and hateful. This is a work that has caused many of the most vulnerable in our community harm and gives ammunition to those who seek to harm them.”
I understand why Parry and her staff decided to change their plans for Monday; the reading was scheduled, after all, the night before the Transgender Day of Remembrance.
At the long table that replaced the reading on Monday, a number of young transgender, non-binary and two-spirited youth – who had been told they were “unscientific” by a non-binding resolution passed at the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party’s policy convention over the weekend – got up and spoke frankly of their fears that they will be murdered. Listening to them, you couldn’t help but feel that Gilbert’s poem was petty in the extreme.
At the same time, Parry’s replacement of the reading of Gilbert’s 30-year-old play – which she said no one asked her to do but was her own decision as leader – is a polarizing act in itself. To cancel any piece of art at Buddies, where artistic expression has come under attack many times in its history, will never be viewed as benignly shuffling the schedule.
There were other tools at Parry’s disposal: rescheduling; expanding the scope of the reading; simply distancing the institution from Gilbert but going ahead with it; even directing the reading in such a way that it would function as a protest and rebuke to its author’s current thoughts.
Instead, cancellation has split the artistic community, roughly along those generational lines that Buddies has been working in other ways to bridge. Social media is aflame, with some (including playwrights Carmen Aguirre, Brad Fraser, Greg MacArthur and R.M. Vaughan) outraged that Buddies would throw its founder under the bus, and others arguing that Gilbert’s rhetoric was unacceptably transphobic and “punched down” from a white cis man to a trans woman of colour.
While Gilbert wasn’t at the long table on Monday, I spoke to him on the phone earlier that day. He is clear that the cancelling of the reading isn’t censorship. “Evalyn has the right to run the theatre and program whatever she wants,” he told me. “She’s not the government; you can go to another theatre.”
Parry, meanwhile, describes Gilbert’s decision to publish I’m Afraid of “Woke People” a week before what was to be a fun and celebratory reading of his play at Buddies as “open sabotage.”
But the fact is that Buddies’s founder has written many similar things on his blog (now ironically titled Another Blog That Nobody Reads).
Ahead of Gay Pride in 2017, Gilbert wrote a post called “Is trans killing gay?” In another that summer called “Vaginas are important!” he wrote: “The only way that trans activists have been able to get away with pretending that genitals don’t matter, is that they are taking advantage of the anti-sex times we live in.”
The only thing that changed last week is that Twitter (which Gilbert isn’t even on) paid attention – and Parry, belatedly, did too. I hate these social-media-sparked culture wars and wish Buddies had found a creative solution around this tedious algorithm.