Gay in Nunavut: discovering a new language
How politics, culture, religion and the English language shape sexuality in the North
Years from now, when the children of homosexual Inuit are old enough to understand, they’ll learn how Nunavut joined the global gay rights movement on a bitter cold, blue-sky morning, Feb. 10, 2014, when a man in a hoodie hoisted a rainbow flag on a pole outside Iqaluit city hall.
As is often the case with memorable things in retrospect, it was just a small, spontaneous event, organized by a handful of people with modest intentions — a show of support for gay athletes at the Sochi Olympics.
And even as the lesbian, gay, transgendered and queer community of Iqaluit gears up for its big Pride event Sept. 27 at the Francophone Centre, they could never have predicted what would come from that simple act.
It’s the first Iqaluit Pride event in several years, following a series of annual Pride picnics held at Sylvia Grinnell Park from 2000 to 2006.
The February flag-raising spawned a public debate over city protocol and due process, which quickly transformed into a series of broader questions over homosexuality in the North which had perhaps been brewing for a while.
Was homosexuality part of traditional Inuit society? Does it matter? Why do gay people have to be so loud and in your face? What does God think? What do the elders say? Are gay people born that way or is it a choice? Aren’t there more important things to talk about? Are gay kids killing themselves? What should leaders be doing?
The answers to those questions will vary, depending on who you ask, and will be influenced by bravado, wisdom, Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, bigotry, self-righteousness, Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit, vocabulary, experience, ignorance, fear, courage, and love.
When Dwayne Nowdlak talked about growing up gay in Pangnirtung, he mentioned a lot of those things.
He also talked about being raised by his grandparents and going out on the land and how he loved hunting and camping but how he knew he was different from other boys and how he got bullied so much at school he just quit going.
He eventually left Pangnirtung for Iqaluit, and then Ottawa, and he enjoyed the nightlife, and shopping for clothes, but he drank too much and missed home so he came back and got a job at Nunavut Tunngavik Inc.
He was different when he returned. He stopped drinking and hiding. He didn’t care what other people thought of him. He ignored their taunts.
“I don’t let other people see my reaction,” Nowdlak said in a recent interview. “I decided to be strong and to be happy, and not let little things, like being bullied, don’t let it pull you down.”
And then in February, the rainbow flag went up and things got complicated again.
At the time, Iqaluit city councillor Simon Nattaq said council should have been consulted first, and many agreed — even some gay Iqalungmiut.
Then Nattaq made a statement at a council meeting that got quoted a lot: “People tell me it is not an Inuit custom to be gay.”
Supporters and opponents struggled to drown the other out. National media picked up the story. The debate swelled, lost momentum to other news and would have petered out were it not for NTI President Cathy Towtongie who, weeks later, publicly praised Nattaq’s stance at a meeting of Baffin mayors.
Duly stoked, the embers reignited and burned even brighter with public denouncements, letters to the editor, a petition for Towtongie’s removal, pro-gay statements from MLAs in the Nunavut legislature — and rainbow sealskin ties — gay Inuit pride Facebook pages and disputes over leadership and minority rights.
Nunatsiaq News was not present to record Towtongie’s comments at the mayors meeting and she declined to be interviewed on the subject, both then and now.
We published her letter to the editor, in which she says she was merely commending an Inuk elder for speaking out about a sensitive topic.
And NTI issued a news release soon afterward saying the organization’s code of conduct requires board members to:
• “promote the rights and opportunities of the Inuit of Nunavut, as a whole, and fair treatment of disadvantaged groups within the Inuit population, while respecting the dignity of every person and avoiding discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, sexual orientation, age or mental or physical disability.”
But if you ask Nowdlak and others, it wasn’t what Towtongie said, but what was implied. Rather than making a statement to make all Inuit feel represented by the land claims organization, she praised a man who had questioned the legitimacy of homosexuality in Inuit culture.
“I wanted to cry. I couldn’t believe what she said in public,” said Nowdlak. “Right after I heard her comments in the media, I just went home for the day. I didn’t feel welcome anymore.”
Jesse Mike, who had left an NTI job just before the flag flap, was equally disappointed.
Mike, an educated, bilingual gay Inuk who, with her partner, is raising an adopted daughter in Iqaluit, told Nunatsiaq News she lives a fairly mundane domestic life of work and childcare and most of her friends are straight.
But the controversy made her think about her place in the community and whether she was welcome. She needn’t have.
“It was really shitty but at the same time, the amount of support, it brought that out. People who were totally fine with us, it hurt them too,” Mike said.
“In that way, I’m kind of thankful because it was raw emotions from all sides. It was shitty but also great. And not just friends, people I’m not really close with coming to hug me because they knew it hurt me.”
Nalulirama: I’m confused
Mike translates the word lesbian into qaigajuariit: two soft things rubbing together. Nowdlak uses the word angutauqatigiik for gay: two men who are a couple.
“We always lived in a tent or shared an igloo. It was never out in the open in my time, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t exist,” says Naujaat elder Piita Irniq, who now lives in Ottawa where he works with Inuit men in prison.
And if there’s no word in Inuktitut to describe homosexuality, then it’s time to come up with one, Irniq said.
In the meantime, “isumasuqputit” is the best advice he can give to all Inuit, gay and straight: follow your thoughts, it’s your life.
Chris Trott, an associate professor at the University of Manitoba, who has extensively studied Inuit kinship, social organization, myth, oral traditions and missionaries in the eastern Arctic, says decades of research have yielded no references to homosexual relationships in Inuit history.
There was likely homoerotic activity among men when they were away hunting or between the women who stayed behind, Trott said.
It was probably considered no big deal. But as far as he knows, there were no Inuktitut words to describe homosexual people.
So in that sense, Trott says, the elders are probably correct to say formal gay relationships are an example of southern influence. Practically speaking, liberation for Inuit homosexuals came in the form of the English language.
“In the encounter with the west, and in speaking English, they have a way of talking about that now,” Trott said.
“Once people find the vocabulary to articulate what they’re feeling, then they say it. And I think that’s what’s going on now. Young people now have a way of speaking about it.”
Such statements might give fodder to religious leaders, some of whom say sexuality is a choice, and that God’s choice is heterosexuality.
Wayne Moore, Iqaluit’s long-time Pentecostal reverend who says he was a “drinker and a womanizer” until he became born again in Jesus Christ, and whose Iqaluit flock numbers 50 to 70 people, exemplifies the “love the sinner, hate the sin” philosophy of many Christian faith leaders.
“My personal position is that homosexuals are people like anybody else. God loves them. We’re supposed to love them too. But I believe that, according to the Bible, that’s not an acceptable lifestyle to God,” Moore said.
David Parsons, the Anglican bishop of the Arctic, the denomination with the largest congregation in the North — an estimated 45,000 — declined to be interviewed for this story claiming it was “creating news for news’ sake” and therefore “not the best way to meet the mission of the Diocese of the Arctic.”
When pressed, he offered this emailed statement:
“There are many positions held within the Anglican Church of Canada on homosexuality. The Diocese of the Arctic does not promote or condone a homosexual lifestyle choice. However we welcome all people as parishioners and this includes those who are homosexual. We seek to care for all, their physical, emotional and spiritual needs.”
Father Daniel Perreault who presides over the Roman Catholic congregation of 100 or so in Iqaluit, and also travels monthly to Pond Inlet, seemed to hold the most liberal views.
He said he was surprised to hear about the gay pride event tomorrow night. When asked if he would attend, he laughed and said in a small town, one has to be careful what one does lest rumours be told about you.
He said to his knowledge, homosexual relations were taboo in Inuit society and that most Inuit elders don’t seem to understand the concept.
But he disagrees with his colleagues on a crucial point: he doesn’t think gay people choose to be so. That’s just the way they are, and they often suffer for it.
“These people have suffered so much because they are a minority,” said Perreault, who is originally from Québec.
“In the North, for example, an Inuk who is homosexual, it’s a source of pain because he cannot live freely his sexual identity, especially in the communities.
“There is no way to express yourself. It’s a source of depression, they have problems with alcohol and drugs and yes, I am sure some commit suicide because of this. But even that, we cannot talk about it.”
Nalligivagit: I love you
Mike said it’s interesting to see religious leaders offering opinions on how Inuit should behave when Christianity itself is a southern import. But in this case, she would agree with Perreault: Inuit youth don’t need another reason to feel ostracized and unloved.
Robbie Watt, a Nunavik Inuk now living in Montreal, says ultimately it doesn’t matter whether homosexuality is traditional or why it exists at all. There are gay people in all countries, from all cultures, and they deserve the same rights and freedoms as everyone else, he says.
Watt launched the Lesbian Gay Bisexsual Transgender and Queer Community in the Arctic Facebook page March 6, the day Towtongie’s comments were made public.
Though his father, Senator Charlie Watt, knew he was gay, Robbie said he’d never made his sexual orientation public out of respect for his father’s political position.
When Robbie agreed to speak to media about his views, he took a deep breath and called his dad to warn him.
The senator told him he loved him and that he respected him for standing up for what he believed.
“I hung up the phone and I started to cry,” Robbie said. “For my dad to say that, it meant so much to me. I’m 46 years old and I feel like a little kid all over again.”
And so it seems the ground continues to shift beneath this issue, sometimes with a crack, and sometimes a whisper.
A few weeks after the media storm died down, Towtongie, Nowdlak’s boss, approached him at the NTI offices to say she was sorry, that she did not want to hurt him and that she wanted him to feel welcome at work.
“I just said, it’s okay, Cathy. Nobody’s perfect. Life goes on and it’s in the past. She gave me a looooong hug after that,” he said, with a laugh. “And then we became friends on Facebook.”