In which the Nerd reflects on the importance of WorldPride, the Clam Slam’s role within it, and how for a few days in September 2012, he was convinced that Peaches was the most important woman in the world.
As the giddiness of another Toronto Pride celebration begins to fade, the thrill of the event wears off, and it’s hard not to become reflective: on how inclusive and open a city we live, about how wonderful it is to celebrate diversity and difference and live in a place where those things are met with celebration instead if fear.
This year, the world came to our city to celebrate the first ever WorldPride held on North American soil. It meant an increased focus, increased participation, but it also meant an increased awareness of what life is like for members of the LGBTQITSLFA (LGBT) community outside of Canada. In turning our eyes to the struggles of those in places like Uganda, for example, we are able to see how lucky we are here.
Not, of course, to imply that the situation in Canada is perfect. It most certainly is not. We need only look to the thinly veiled homophobic actions and comments by the mayor of the largest city in our country to know that there are still battles to be fought on our own home soil. What we are lucky about here in Canada is that the battle has (mostly) moved away from the systemic and legal arenas and onto the front lines: it’s become a battle of hand-to-hand combat against the last stragglers in the army of the close-minded. But because of the numerous victories, the battle has also shifted to become both more expansive and more specific, shifting focus toward trans rights or the rights of those members in the LGBT community who are also visible minorities.
In Canada, while these individual battles still rage, we have the support of the system. Most members of the LGBT community in Canada are afforded equal rights by the law. That is a powerful weapon with which to fight the individual ground battles that are still occurring. It is a weapon that many people in the world do not have at their disposal.
Arguably, the most moving event at WorldPride was the mass wedding performed at Casa Loma on Thursday, June 26. Featuring nearly 120 couples from around the world, many were from countries where same-sex marriage is still not allowed. What was most shocking was that many participants were from wealthy, developed countries like Australia and South Korea. A grim reminder of how far we are from living on a globally free planet.
Across the city in Ted Reeve Arena, at the same time that this remarkable wedding was happening, representatives from 16 North American roller derby leagues were taking part in the 6th annual Clam Slam: a Pride-affiliate all-star roller derby bout run through a collaboration between Toronto Roller Derby and the Great Toronto Area Rollergirls. This year, however, there was a very special guest on hand to blow the opening whistle of the second and final game of the evening: Peaches. The singer would return the favour a few days later when a group of ToRD skaters appeared on stage during her concert.
Now an international phenomenon, Peaches has been a growing icon in the LGBT community (and well beyond!) since her first album, The Teaches of Peaches, was released in 2000. It has never seemed strange to me that the rise of Peaches’ career has coincided with the rise of flat track roller derby. Both, to me, are absolutely essential aspects of North American life in the 21st century, and both are intricately intertwined with the LGBT community as well.
2003 was an astonishing year—perhaps the first true year of the 21st century (in the same way that some people refer to 1963 as being the first year of what we think of as “The ’60s”). 2003 would be the year of SARS, the year the first deer was cloned, and the Hubble telescope would see so deep into space, it could see galaxies that existed in the few millennia after the Big Bang.
In 2003, Belgium would follow the Netherlands in legalizing same-sex marriage at a national level, while closer to home, the province of Ontario would become the first jurisdiction in the Americas to allow it.
Fans of flat track roller derby also know that in the Austin, Texas, in April, the Texas Rollergirls would host the first official game of flat track roller derby, playing under a rule set that would eventually lead to the WFTDA rule set played so widely today.
Peaches would release her second, break-through album, Fatherfucker in September of that year; its very title an affront to any sort of attempt at wide mainstream acceptance. Through two albums, she’d created a gender-defying persona with a heightened sexuality. And, as evidenced by the album title, she didn’t give a fuck what you thought of her. At all. She was going to be herself and she was going to shove that self in your face: you could either look away or you could do your best to take it all in and be awed by it.
My partner was enthralled by Peaches from the first time she heard Peaches’ voice slip in over top of the raw, low-fi beats that begin “Fuck the Pain Away,” the opening track of Teaches of Peaches. Her growing passion for Peaches just got bigger after she discovered and started playing roller derby, a community that as a whole seemed to share my partner’s love for the singer.
One of the first things I noticed about the roller derby community was how big the LGBT community was within it. The revival of the sport had been very much wrapped up in third-wave feminism and was fueled by a punk rock sensibility; especially in Montreal, where I was first seeing the game, roller derby and the LGBT community were fused to the point where I didn’t much think about one without the other. But I also noticed right away that the sport itself—and how inclusive, empowering and all encompassing it could be—led to a certain transcendence of politics. I once wrote about how struck I was that skaters weren’t traditionally feminist in that they didn’t seem to be caught up in a fight for acceptance or inclusion; they simply expected it.
For me, Peaches has always represented a similar attitude. A similar transcendence. For the most part, the persona of Peaches takes the point of view of a woman in her song writing, but she isn’t interested in adhering to any sort of traditional notions of what being a woman is, and as her career has gone on, her persona has become more ambiguous. She just is. There is an overt sexual “baseness” to her writing that is grounded in an extremely physical experience. She is living through her body, experiencing life through her body, and that body happens to be a female one.
Along with her recording career, Peaches has also made some movies, most notably the “electro rock opera” Peaches Does Herself. A sort of psychedelic memoir, it begins as a kind of portrait of the artist as a young women, in which the audience is introduced to a mythologized version of Peaches’ creation. It is, throughout, a celebration of the female body and a carnivalized romp through a woman’s sexual awakening and then experience. Through this process, the film also lays bare the constructed nature of human gender and sexuality, then defies those constraints as the film becomes more surreal and the desires and gender of the characters become more fluid.
I was at the world premiere of Peaches Does Herself, and I remember leaving the Bloor Hot Docs cinema that night convinced that Peaches was the most important woman in the world. She represented the avant garde of female identity in the 21st century: a super-empowered, hyper-sexual being who celebrated her body—all bodies!—with a wild glee. She was, to put it simply, free to explore how she wanted to be a woman.
Of course, I know it is naïve to think of any performer as the most important anything in the world, yet I am still convinced that the very existence of someone like Peaches makes our world a better place to live.
And I could—and have—said the same about women’s flat track roller derby. Here’s a competitive game built and shaped by women in the midst of a sporting environment absolutely dominated by men. Here’s a game that has not only welcomed the LGBT community but celebrates it, has put it at the core of its growth and has allowed it to shape the nature and attitude of the game. Here’s a sport that has eschewed all traditional notions of what a sport is and how it should be, taken a punk-rock DIY approach and made it work on a national, then cross-border, and now global scale. Roller derby, like Peaches, has become a force of nature. And I think our world is a better place for it.
***For the record, the Clam Slam was once again a great success that produced two really, really entertaining games of roller derby. In the first, the Plaid Mafia used a late-game comeback to defeat Team Uhaul 194-178. In the second, the Eager Beavers held off a late charge by the Clam Diggers to record the 193-154 victory. Both games were boutcast live; watch the archives here.
***Portions of this article were excerpted from a book-length work in progress***