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Talking Policy: Mark Kenneth Woods on the Inuit LGBTQ2 Movement

Colonization and religious mission in the Canadian Arctic shamed and erased traditional Inuit beliefs about sexuality, gender, and family structure, but now a younger generation of Inuit are “unshaming” their past and reasserting their LGBTQ identities. The film Two Soft Things, Two Hard Things explores the complexities of the growing Inuit LGBTQ2 community amid the establishment of a pride celebration in Nunavut’s capital, Iqaluit. World Policy Journal spoke with filmmaker, actor, and LGBTQ activist Mark Kenneth Woods to discuss the influence of colonization, Christianity, and culture on the contemporary Inuit LGBTQ2 rights movement. 

WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: What inspired you to make this film, and what conversations did you hope it would generate?

MARK KENNETH WOODS: We initially had read an article in a local paper about the previous year’s pride celebration up in Iqaluit, Nunavut. Putting together a pride celebration in any small town is really interesting. We had heard over the years of a lot of local politicians in the North trying to create anti-LGBTQ policies, and they always argued that homosexuality was some sort of colonial import. So we thought it was great that they were celebrating pride but figured that there had to be a bigger story given the history of colonization. We started doing some research and in the process were overwhelmed with embarrassment because we really didn’t know anything about the North and its history—we didn’t understand the colonial history or how recent it was. It got us thinking: If we’ve gone through years of school and don’t know this, then obviously it's far from common knowledge, and we felt this story needed to be told. So we started getting in touch with the people in Iqaluit organizing pride.

WPJ: Did you find any people that were unreceptive to the conversation or topic? Did you try to interview any people who opposed LGBTQ rights?

MKW: For a lot of people we reached out to, while they might have been out in their private life, being out in their public life was a different story. So there were a lot of people who turned us down for interviews. As far as those who are anti-LGBTQ rights, their voices are already very loud, and that was not the point of the documentary. Everyone knows their opinion and we didn't need to reiterate it. It was really about letting those whose voices aren’t very loud speak for once. Our idea was to stand back and be a platform for those who haven't been interviewed in the media or haven't had their voices heard.

WPJ: One of the things I found most compelling in your film was the two perspectives presented on outsiders coming in to start these conversations about LGBTQ rights. Some talked about the important role of outsiders in starting this conversation, while others brought up concerns about white saviorism. Can you speak a little more about your process and your position as white filmmakers working on this topic? 

MKW: It was a tough decision, and we hesitated at first. Were we really the right people to go up there and do this? We are two southerners, who are not from the territory, telling the story. Given the history of southerners going up to the North and telling people what to do, we knew people would assume that of us, too. It was about doing it in the best, most respectful way possible, and being quite clear this was about allyship, not about trying to exploit people. We tried to make ourselves as invisible as possible. In the documentary there's no narration and you don’t see us. We turned the camera on and let people speak. We didn’t want to say, “this is what you need to do,” but wanted to ask, “how do you feel? What do you feel needs to happen?” A lot of people were receptive to that kind of questioning, but it was tough because, on the one hand, we’re not indigenous and we’re not from the territory, but on the other hand, we do identify as LGBTQ. In a way, those are our people—not in terms of borders or countries, but we call ourselves the rainbow nation. The reason we ultimately decided to do this project was there was no one else. We looked and r  eached out to people, but there are no openly LGBTQ filmmakers in the North, so even collaborations weren’t an option. We ultimately hoped to construct one piece in what will be a much larger conversation. And we certainly didn’t start anything ourselves; people were talking about this, and we just wanted to give it a bit of a push and inspire others to take on what needs to happen next. 

WPJ: What did you learn about the impact of colonialism and Christianization on traditional Inuit gender roles and attitudes toward sexual orientation?

MKW: It’s an interesting story because in a way it’s universal. I’ve heard time and time again, “this is a colonial import, homosexuality didn’t exist here before that,” and in virtually all cases that's not true. In reality, it’s the colonial influence that pushed aside these identities that existed before. What's unique to the North is that there's no written history—it's all oral storytelling—so there is little you can do to prove one thing over another. But the big eye opener for us, and hopefully what other Canadians and other people watching see, is that colonialism is not a thing in the past—it’s continuing and systematic. And that's something most of us don't really think about. There is a generation of people over 65 that remembers what life was like prior to colonization, a middle generation that grew up with these colonial ideas, and the youth on the internet who look at things quite differently. Young people are considering how present-day ideas can exist with some of the older traditions. You can really see what colonization has done and how that gets passed on from generation to generation, because it’s not 400 years of colonization—it’s 60 or 70. 

WPJ: Do you think that pride celebrations and embracing Inuit LGBTQ identity can be a part of the healing process of colonial trauma? 

MKW: Yes, absolutely. But we also didn’t want to go up there and say, “hey, have a pride party and everything’s gonna be alright.” If you were going with some sort of white savior complex, you might be making a lot of mistakes and even making things worse. There is definitely a way to celebrate pride, start talking about pre-colonial concepts of sexuality and gender, and celebrate those identities. There hasn’t actually been a celebration since we filmed about two years ago, so they’re still working this out. I think the next step is for budding filmmakers, writers, or artists in the North to speak to their elders and ask these questions, which is not an easy thing to do. That's why it was pressing for us to do the film—the elders who remember the pre-colonial days won’t be around much longer, so if it’s not done now, then it might never be done. Visibility is important and there aren’t many Inuit who are out. The reaction we’ve gotten from a lot of small communities in the North is ‘Wow, I thought I was alone,” which is not unusual for LGBTQ people.

WPJ: Could you talk about how the connotations around being “prideful” in Inuktitut makes celebrations in the North look different from pride celebrations in the south? 

MKW: The celebration we went to was basically a southern-style pride, which was great and certainly works for some people. But the word “pride” doesn't translate into something positive like it does in English or in other languages. In Inuktitut it has a connotation of being boastful and arrogant. So to say, “come out to this pride celebration,” for a lot of Inuit would be confusing and not very appealing because it sounds like an arrogant party. The celebration we filmed and attended was largely non-indigenous. That's one reason why you can’t import the southern idea of a pride celebration. You need to work with locals to make it appealing and comfortable for them, otherwise they won’t show up.

WPJ: What are the next steps for the Inuit LGBTQ community?

MKW: I think it’s multilayered because of the varying generational ideas surrounding sexuality. The youth are certainly doing things already. There was another queer prom this year, which the kids organized in consultation with some of their teachers at the high school in Iqaluit. Kieran [B. Drachenberg], who is the trans boy in the film, lobbied the government to add gender identity to the Nunavut Human Rights Code and they did so last year. 

It would be great for locals to ask their elders about sexuality and gender. There are stories that are missing and haven’t been recorded. And, again, that’s why we felt making the film was pressing, because those people won’t be around forever. I think that would be the next step: to look back. Among indigenous communities throughout the rest of North America there has certainly been a push to do that to the point where we now include two-spirit identity in the acronym: LGBTQ2. We don’t know if that sort of identity existed in Inuit culture specifically, but certainly that research needs to be done. Either way, it wasn’t the way it was during colonial times. Christian missionaries and the government suppressed all ways of being in terms of sexuality and gender. That research in itself creates a sense of pride, just knowing that these identities and ways of being were suppressed and changed because of colonialism. 

WPJ: What do you think that southern Canadians and the rest of the world can do to help support the Inuit LGBTQ community? 

MKW: Open up and listen more. It’s great to go up there and be helpful and create a pride celebration, but you may just be adding to or continuing colonization, so the better thing to do is listen and then try to work locally on what can happen next. For those of us who aren’t in the community, and especially other Canadians, when dealing with indigenous rights in general, it’s really just about shutting up and listening. It seems so simple but we don’t do it often.

WPJ: Your film has screened all over the world. Have you had any feedback from other LGBTQ communities in colonized countries finding parallels to the messages in the film?

MKW: Yes, I think that’s actually why it’s been screened in some territories. People absolutely see these parallels to so many other cultures. From screenings in India to the Caribbean, people say, “wow, that’s just like here,” and, “I’ve never really thought about how these anti-LGBTQ sentiments really stem from colonization and may have not existed before.” It is amazing that this town in Iqaluit in the Arctic has inspired some people to do more work in their own countries and to look at their own culture and colonial history and how it affects current sentiments regarding LGBTQ identity. Our film is a story unique to the North, but a similar story exists all over the world.

*****

*****

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Visit the Talking Policy archive page for more World Policy interviews. 

[Interview conducted by Hannah Buehler]

[Photos courtesy of Mark Kenneth Woods] 

 

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