Undaunted by the pandemic, Halifax Pride doubles down on the fight against hate, fear, and discriminationC
hris Cochrane has never known life without systemic racism, homophobia, and transphobia.
As a Black transgender woman, the 2019 Halifax Pride Ambassador had a tough childhood. For the last 15 years, many have cheered for her as the drag queen Elle Noir. It’s a long ways from her childhood in Glace Bay, where she was one of only two Black children in school, picked on for being feminine, and taunted as “shim.” The memories linger.
“One day, the kids attacked me so badly on the way downstairs to the gym,” she says. “They ripped off my clothes. I ran to the vice-principal’s office and was told to start fighting my battles and man up.”
Not having a role model, friends, and support made Cochrane’s life more challenging. It also gave her the courage to share her own experiences, paving the way for marginalized groups to have a voice.
“I wouldn’t consider them as challenges,” she says. “I just consider them systemic and deep-rooted issues with everybody else. I am very proud to be who I am; not everybody else is proud to be themselves. Therefore, they are not proud of everybody else being themselves.”
As the Black Lives Matters movement highlights, Canadians have nothing to be smug about when it comes to racism. “It’s not like a fairy tale or anything,” she says. “It still exists. It is categorically proven that the police target Black people. We get paid less money, and we are seen as criminals before we’re seen as lawyers. We don’t even get a chance to be the victim because we are already put in that place as the criminal or person making the problem.”
Last year, Cochrane felt powerful as the first Black transgender woman acting as Halifax Pride Ambassador. It gave her a platform to advocate for her community by ensuring they had spaces to amplify their voices. “We need newer generations to come in an step into those places,” she says. “I have to make sure those places are still held and make sure there is a torch to grab.”
Halifax Pride works to give marginalized groups that opportunity as the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbates challenges. Mental health issues, under-employment, and tough family situations are among those issues. The theme of the 2020 Festival, “Pride—Amplified,” reflects the mission.
“The Festival is a platform for our community: an opportunity for voices who might have been underrepresented, or may have been lost and not heard are given priority during the festival,” says executive director Adam Reid. “Despite the challenges, we won’t be silent. We will find a way to protest and create opportunities for advocacy and celebration.”
This year’s festival will be much different than previous ones. Knowing a parade or outdoor dance party would not be feasible due to public health protocols, Reid says organizers reimagined how their festival events would take shape.
“We turned our attention to the meaningful ways we could still gather as a reflection of the community’s need to advocate for ongoing challenges,” he says. “Also, to celebrate what we have accomplished and also an outlet for the need for social libation, mental health support, and other things.”
This year’s festival offers a combination of virtual and in-person events, including hangouts, two online panel series, and a social site on Garrison Grounds, both weekends of the festival.
Organizers are also excited to work with the North American Indigenous Games group on their event. “We had an opportunity to ensure that we are confident in the diversity of events and ways that we are supporting communities of colour and the LGBTQ2S+ community,” Reid says.
For her part, Cochrane will host an event called Our Artists Matter: a QTBIPOC Pride show alongside Black activist and former Halifax Pride Ambassador Kate Macdonald. Cochrane is also a consultant for Halifax Pride.
Making sure opportunities exist that she didn’t have growing up, Cochrane is a visible transgender role model who has gone to schools and universities to share her experiences. “I always say to the youth, ‘you need to be you because no one else is going to be you and you be the best that you can be because you need to be yourself,’” she says.
Cochrane also works with companies on diversity training and sees how many people are oblivious to race, sex, and even equality issues. But she also sees growing understanding.
“Now people are starting to realize there are many things out there they can identify with,” she says. “Think of the cereal aisle; when I was a kid in the ‘90s, there were like five kinds of cereal. Now, there’s a whole aisle. Does that diminish the other ones that are there? No, what it’s showing is the options. Sex is a spectrum; things change and people change.”
Activism and visibility go hand in hand but Cochrane believes Halifax has taken a step sideways in diversity and inclusion. While the city has made some strides, systemic biases continue. “It’s one thing to say something, but another thing to do something,” she says. “You can have a platform, you can be the pretty face, but it’s one thing to take that pretty face, open it up and start using the platform for what you will be using it for.”
Reid agrees. “As a cis white male, I think it calls on us to listen to communities of colour,” he says. “I think there is a lot more can be done; I think we need to turn on the news, look at the protests, look to folks that are protesting at City Hall in front of our police stations calling for an end to violence and discrimination they face daily.”
Reid believes Halifax is lucky to have someone like Cochrane leading the charge. “[Cochrane is] willing to take on the personal sacrifice that regrettably comes with speaking or being a voice calling for change, verbalizing the oppression she faces,” he says. “The struggles of her life are probably compounded in being such a vocal advocate and speaking up for others who might not have the ability or means to speak up in the ways that she does.”
Ultimately, Cochrane hopes Halifax Pride continues to champion societal and systemic change, by amplifying those marginalized voices in Halifax, so the future is brighter and more tolerant.
“We are getting to the point that people are fed up,” she says. “It doesn’t make sense to be a racist, homophobic, or any phobic towards a person. We exist; we are here. I want everybody to ask themselves, ‘if I am in my 80s and I am talking to my grandchildren, what side of history am I going to be on, the right side or the wrong side?’”