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The Quiet Pride of Queer and Trans Inuit in Canada’s Far North

We spoke to one of the filmmakers behind 'Two Soft Things, Two Hard Things' about Iqaluit's LGBT community and its struggle to define itself.

Still via Two Soft Things, Two Hard Things

Turns out all the sequins and balloons in the world can't cover up the fact that Pride parades are inherently contested political spaces. I like to hope that's the lesson many of us took away from the Black Lives Matter protest in Toronto this week, despite what a certain demographic of Canadian pundit seems to think. (You know who you are, jerks).

That's also a lesson learned at a much newer Pride party more than 2,000 kilometres north of Toronto. Now in its third year, Iqaluit's LGBT community is still figuring out what its own version of Pride should look like, with a whole different set of taboos and political circumstances making things complicated.

A documentary coming to Vancouver's Queer Film Festival next month self-consciously treads into this territory, tracing how church and state have pushed non-binary gender/sexuality/family structure out of traditional Inuit culture. At the same time, Two Soft Things, Two Hard Things also shows how queer culture is perceived as the stuff of non-Inuit outsiders in the far north.

For filmmakers Mark Kenneth Woods and Michael Yerxa, who came in to Iqaluit Pride as those "southern" white, gay outsiders, it was important not to arrive with expectations. "We knew that it would probably be small, we knew there had never been a parade or anything," Woods told VICE. "Knowing ahead of time about the colonial past, we thought, 'Oh, it looks like Pride would actually be quite difficult locally—let's see how that plays out.'"

Woods and Yerxa pay a lot of attention to the reasons why queerness is embraced by young Inuit and some elders, while the generation in the middle shows the most hesitation. "There's such a heavy Christian presence today it's tough to be LGBT and out," Woods said. "The generation between the elders and the youth are the ones that were Christianized, and have learned from their parents how to be Christians. That's where it's a bit uncomfortable."

Obviously the stakes are high for queer and trans people choosing to come out or move to the city, in part because it's so difficult to leave. "As Canadians we're not well versed in what it's like in the northern part of our country. There are no roads between communities, everything is fly-in and fly-out. It's insanely expensive."

The name of the film, Two Soft Things, Two Hard Things, comes from the Inuktitut words for lesbian and gay, passed on from the elders of a purple-haired Inuit youth leader. Roughly translated to English as "two soft things rubbing together" and "two hard things rubbing together," it hints at pre-colonial queerness in a traditional culture where plural marriages could take a lot of different shapes and structures.

In some ways the colonization of the north doesn't even qualify as history yet—it's only in the last 60 years that Canada forced relocation and assimilation, ending nomadic life for thousands of Inuit. The filmmakers pick up on quiet tensions playing out between the Pride event's white organizers and the Inuit community—but nothing loud, nothing heated.

In a town of 6,500 people, there were just enough Pride attendees to fill one local bar. There are all the rainbow balloons and dancefloor lights you'd expect, but no over-the-top performances, no protest. Although Inuit represent more than half of the local population, Woods found they were "by no means the majority" taking part in Pride publicly.

Woods acknowledges how problematic it is for the event to come from outside the Inuit community. "You have to be careful about not going in there as a white saviour and saying 'I'm going to help everybody' without actually listening," Woods said. "You're just re-colonizing if you're going in and saying 'Oh you should think of LGBT in this way.'"

In one of the film's more interesting moments, filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril suggests traditional Inuit culture is at odds with the concept of "pride" itself. She explains how Inuit from a young age are conditioned to be humble, not boastful.

For Woods, this cultural difference presents an interesting challenge for the future of Pride in the far north. "They really have to tailor-make their own LGBT celebration that works locally," he told VICE. "It's not going to be shouting at the top of your lungs and dancing down the streets saying 'We're here, we're queer, get used to it.'"

Woods says a conversation about how Pride can redefine itself in Iqaluit is already ongoing. But like the pace of anything in the north, that back-and-forth requires some patience.

It's interesting to think about—a slower, quieter Pride movement—after a week where courage and noise have been so effective at capturing the public imagination. But it's also tempting to see a fire just below the surface: I find it telling that Arnaquq-Baril's latest film is called Angry Inuk. Maybe next year will be Iqaluit's loud and proud moment.

Follow Sarah Berman on Twitter.