Gay movements in Canada must confront the history of the Canadian state or risk folding into the nation-building project of dispossession
As Canada 150 draws nearer, those committed to supporting Indigenous sovereignty and dislodging the power of colonialism are faced with the task of dispelling the myth of Canada as a benevolent nation. While the expanding grip of neoliberalism has given rise to a reactionary global right-wing populism, the violence of supposedly “progressive” liberal settler-colonial states has fallen through the cracks of popular analysis and comprehension.
One of the more recent assets to the liberal nation-state has been Gay Pride™. Today the event is perhaps entering its most contentious year in Vancouver. Breaking the silence that generally surrounds Gay Pride™, queer and trans activists, led by Black Lives Matter Vancouver, are calling for the removal of any inclusion of the police/carceral state from the annual march (Vancouver Police Department, RCMP, Corrections Canada etc). But for nearly the past three decades, Pride and associated queer festivals have repeatedly shown their allegiances to the rich (through corporate partnership) and to projects of settler-colonialism, for example by accepting and promoting the occupation of Palestinian land through “Brand Israel” Pinkwashing propaganda among festival floats and sponsors globally. The truth is that Canadian homosexuals have long been in bed with the state apparatus and its colonial interests.
While commie fags and trans dissidents have always existed, a new wave of resistance is emerging in response to a growing neoliberalization and corporatization within the mainstream LGBT community. In particular the past decade of radical queer leftist organizing in North America and abroad has attempted to reposition and re-emphasize the political origins of gay liberation as being founded in disruption and riot. Groups such as Black Lives Matter Toronto and anti-capitalist queer groups such as Gay Shame and the Against Equality archive have worked tirelessly to bring to the forefront of our collective zeitgeist the idea that state violence cannot be reformed or diversified. While the state and its police attempt to apologize for the crimes they have committed historically against queer and trans people, activists have shown up to confront them and the mainstream gay populace with the selectively forgotten histories of co-optation and current state practices of pinkwashing and assimilation.
Today it is important to examine the shift in thinking and priorities that caused the more radical tenets of gay liberation to be forgotten. How did gay liberation in North America transform into a movement whose only concern was gay rights and equal opportunity under neoliberal capitalism? Were these movements ever liberatory to begin with? If we trace the beginnings of the Gay Rights Movement in Canada back to the state’s decriminalization of homosexuality in 1968, we must also recall the White Paper of the following year, which attempted to further assimilate Indigenous peoples into the nation-state by eradicating treaty rights and title. The historical proximity of the White Paper and the Criminal Law Amendment Act reveals the instrumentalization of queer settlers against Indigenous people in order to strengthen the nation-building project of dispossession in Canada.
Interrogating the radicality of gay liberation
At the end of the 1960s in North America as well as in many western European countries, a new gay liberation movement was gaining momentum as a response to the violence of an inherently heteropatriarchal and increasingly neoliberal society. Bound by similar lived experiences of oppression, queers who had been subjected to state violence based on their gender presentation and sexual orientation began organizing together. Like similar left struggles emerging at the time, most notably women’s liberation, many factions of the gay liberation movement (most commonly known as the Gay Liberation Front) viewed the collective liberation of all struggles as being inextricably linked by systemic marginalization. It was the street hustlers and trans sex workers of color that catapulted a movement now embraced as “gay pride,” while the upper echelon of closeted gay white men were sitting in boardrooms and working on moving capital across borders.
In recounting his days in the Chicago chapter of the Gay Liberation Front, Ferd Eggan recalls a conviction amongst his comrades that, “the global capitalist system function[ed] through conquest and exploitation and [could] only maintain itself through oppression.” From this, many reasoned that in order to eliminate the root of oppression they would have to work towards dismantling the United States of America. When speaking about the nature of early gay liberation, SFU Professor Elise Chenier reaffirms that the movement was one of radicalization, not reform. It also recognized class struggle as being intimately tangled up with sexual liberation. An analysis of class oppression could have led early activists towards an intersectional understanding that the root of their common subjugation was to be found not only in the structures of capitalist domination but also in colonial power.
Liberation, however, was effectively de-radicalized by forces that shifted their politics towards a rights-based movement. What had begun as a retaliation against police brutality at Stonewall in New York and the Compton Cafeteria in San Francisco, and a broader resistance to heteropatriarchal society, would eventually dissolve into a relatively homogeneous and obedient liberal political body seeking recognition and rights from the state. To understand why and how the history of a queer rebellion eventually collided and colluded with capitalism and colonialism in a Canadian context, gradually woven into a national narrative of tolerance, it is helpful to analyze the very social fabric of Canada itself.
The Canadian progress narrative
The modern myth of progress in Canada, or the Canadian dream, is predicated on the fallacy that all individuals are given equal opportunity to prosper in a multicultural and egalitarian society. Yet the uncomfortable truth is that Canada, like the United States of America, is a settler-colonial occupation on lands that either remain unceded or were stolen away from Indigenous nations through treaties written primarily by English speaking colonizers. Inequality not only lies in the disparaging difference between settler populations (white and immigrant) populations and Indigenous people, but also the uneven distribution of wealth along class lines. In order to rationalize the concentration of wealth amongst an elite class in our societies, a “productive citizen” narrative has been constructed in order to make poverty into an individual issue. One simply has to work hard to achieve comfort. What goes constantly ignored in this narrative is that the privilege of settlerhood and Canadian citizenship, as well as class mobility, comes at the expense of dispossession. Canada relies on the cooperation of its citizens to enact this violence by turning Indigenous economies into capitalist ones open to resource exploitation and the forces of the free market. In recent decades, Gay cooperation has played an important but under-examined role in creating, legitimizing and sustaining the occupation of Canada.
In 1967, one hundred years after confederation, Pierre Trudeau and his Liberal government invited homosexuals into the ever-expanding folds of the nation by declaring that, “there’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.” Trudeau specified that he believed that the introduction of the Criminal Law Amendment Act, which decriminalized sexual acts between consenting men, would bring Canada up to speed with “civilized society.” Up until this point, the homosexual in many parts of the western colonial heteropatriarchal society had been criminalized and was seen as a threat to the reproduction of labor under capitalism. Suddenly he was being reconceived as a “citizen,” and therefore someone who could at least potentially be neoliberalized and used in favor of imperial expansion.
This shift in policy would be the first benevolent gesture – an olive branch extended towards gays – helping to memorialize the Trudeau dynasty as allies and to begin the process of queer assimilation. Perhaps less common knowledge among gay Canadians is that not long after the Trudeau administration had decriminalized homosexual acts, the White Paper was introduced in 1969. As mentioned, the White Paper was an effort to assimilate Indigenous peoples into the nation state of Canada by eradicating Aboriginal title and treaty rights. This Trudeau/Chrétien initiative was eventually withdrawn due to the resistance and activism it was met with by Indigenous leaders like George Manuel. Yet then minister of Indian Affairs Jean Chrétien saw this only as a temporary setback, shelving it in his words “for the generation of leaders who [would] accept it.”
This shift in the multicultural state’s concern for gay citizens in a “civilized society” can be interpreted as an early incarnation of what would later be articulated by activists and scholars as Pinkwashing. While queer people were among some of the last populations to be employed in nation-building techniques by Canada, LGBT settlers are now some of the most patriotic citizens when boasting of Canada’s progressive policies and the rights they have acquired. While Indigenous peoples continue to fight against the expropriation of Indigenous lands and economies for resource extraction, settler queer populations have been much more susceptible to cooptation, trading in Molotov cocktails for rights and the relative boredom offered by assimilation into this society.
Under the present-day Trudeau administration, efforts to further assimilate and eradicate Indigenous sovereignty and land title continue through attempted treaty re-negotiations. This imperial expansion of the state goes unnoticed as Justin Trudeau continues to march in pride parades, raises the rainbow flag on Parliament Hill, and is constructed as a sex symbol in the eyes of those privileged enough to be able to overlook his ugly policies.
No Pride in Policing or Settler-Colonial Occupation
Besides welcoming their gay-loving prime minister into the family, many middle-class gays and lesbians in Vancouver and across the nation are also eager to embrace police representation in pride celebrations, brushing aside class struggle and the fight against anti-black racism. In response to Black Lives Matter-Vancouver’s call to remove uniformed police officers from marching in the city’s pride parade, reactions and opinions amongst a supposedly homogenous LGBTQ community have unsurprisingly been split along the fault lines of class and racial privilege. While many activists of color and queer radicals of all generations have labored strenuously to remind the assimilated majority of the violence and racism inherent in the military and police force, the predominantly white middle-class gay and trans liberal body has jumped to the defense of the police. The police are heralded as saviors who will protect queer and trans people from the homophobic and transphobic reactionary violence of a constructed, pervasive homophobe or terrorist, always assumed to be planning an attack on queer gatherings. We are also informed that inclusion and representation within the police is a good indicator of how far we’ve come, and that young children will look on in wonderment as a cop cradles his rainbow-painted gun. One thing dutifully left out of these narratives is that most attacks on queer people are racially driven, and that these violent phobias and structural reactions are a product of the same society and state that those terror-stricken gays wish to protect and reproduce.
In an attempt to defend and preserve the Canadian legal system, some Gay Citizens are able to identify supposedly corrupt or “bad cops” while simultaneously praising so-called “progressive cops.” Their line of reasoning does not take issue with structural violence, and is not dissimilar to the position that decolonization is possible exclusively by reforming the nation-state in an effort to repair damage done by colonial histories of residential school and cultural genocide. Of course because Canada continues to exert colonial control, decolonization is inseparable from the dismantling of state power and redistribution of occupied land. Believing that the actions of police can be changed by inclusionary representation (black and gay cops) and educational reform (trans and sex worker competency training) is dismissive of the concerns raised by black queer activists and others who will never feel safe due to the degree of their marginalization and criminalization of their modes of economy. These concerns highlight the underbelly of anti-black racism, class privilege and colonial violence that exist within queer communities. They also demonstrate that until the system premised on criminalization is radically transformed and overcome, there can be no simple inclusionary reforms.
In Vancouver, cop-sympathetic gay and trans people attempt to provide a logic of localism, which posits that the problems of police violence happen elsewhere, most notably down south in the US or out east in Toronto, but not in our own backyard. Such claims erase and minimize police violence on Coast Salish territories, including the recent murder of Phuong Na (Tony) Du and brutalization of Solomon Akintoye, and the ongoing violence and incarceration of Indigenous people and other low-income residents of the Downtown Eastside. They also posit an insular and unidimensional queer identity politic, where issues that supposedly do not concern gays are irrelevant, allowing some to embrace violent institutions that have never harmed them or harmed them less often. This narrow lens fails to acknowledge that the nation-state, which protects their privilege and wealth, was built and continues to be expanded through slavery (both historic and current racist incarceration practices), indentured labor and the genocide of Indigenous peoples.
If a queer politics is truly to be anti-colonial, it must understand that the police and RCMP are agents of the state, whose jobs are to enforce laws in Canada, by policing poor and racialized people and furthering the process of settlement. The state is able to expand its control of these lands by prioritizing settler safety and welfare over that of Indigenous people, by renegotiating treaties to further assimilate and remove Indigenous sovereignty, and by sanctioning resource extraction. While the state may attempt to win over queer approval of its apparatus, it is in our best interest to reject this relationship.
Against Canada, towards collective liberation
As we approach a global zenith in the amalgamation of state power and gay liberal politics, homonationalism in Canada has visibly intensified. This is perhaps most pronounced in the recent merging of cultural narratives around the celebration of 150 years since Confederation with those of Pride™ celebrations, depicted as being complementary and congruous with one another. Roots Canada’s campaign “celebrating 150 years of being nice” cites the legalization of same-sex marriage through the Civil Marriage Act in 2005 as an example of Canada’s progressive and “brave” nature, while the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce raises a rainbow flag in advertisements to celebrate gay capitalism. Unsurprisingly absent from these corporate promotions is any counter-discourse challenging “Canada 150” and its ongoing history of displacement and genocide.
A renewed gay liberation should emphasize the need to no longer define queer and trans people in relation to whether or not it aligns with the colonial nation-state. In fact, it should recognize decolonization as critical to any liberation process. When the rights bestowed upon some queer citizens by the state protect the lives of the privileged and visibly white, we must not ignore that the very material violence of the neoliberal state as occupier and expanding imperial force extinguishes the lives of those who are racialized and marginalized.
Indigenous and Black people in Canada are some of the largest growing prison populations, and are also disproportionately living with and criminalized for HIV/AIDS, an illness that many privileged queers feel has all but been turned into a manageable condition. The misconstruction that we are living in a post-AIDS world fails to take into account the multiplicity of queer experiences under capitalism. It is ironic that while homosexuality is decriminalized by the Canadian state, the very vocation held by the youth who initiated the early queer riots – i.e. sex work – remains effectively criminalized. In addition to assisting Indigenous peoples on the urban frontlines of anti-gentrification struggles and rural sites of land defense, radical queers must recognize the criminalization of our bodies and economies as yet another form of state violence.
In our efforts to build relationships with Indigenous nations, settler queer populations (especially white settlers) must be cautious in our approach to Indigenous solidarity. In particular we must not co-opt Indigenous voices and narratives as a means to our own end of radicalism (the dismantling of capitalism and the state). This includes resisting the urge to impose western frameworks of understanding gender and queerness on Indigenous people, or using Two-spirit histories for our own narratives.
Whiteness as a supremacy, as well as anti-Indigenous racism, sex work antagonism and anti-Black racism within queer communities must be confronted and eradicated. In order to achieve this, the assumed homogeneity of the LGBT community must be challenged as no longer being composed of individuals with shared experiences, but rather an uncomfortable and antithetical combination of those benefiting from neoliberal forces and those suffering under them.
Liberation is both a psychological undertaking and a material project. Those of us who remain imprisoned and oppressed must fight to name and interrogate the forces that shape our world, and this includes the colonial foundations that surround us. A truly liberatory queer politic rejects the idea that gay matters are limited to the “LGBT” alphabet soup of identity politics, instead asserting that queer struggles should center and prioritize the liberation of all those incarcerated, displaced and dispossessed. Understanding this, queer liberation must then announce itself as separate from and incompatible with the nation-state project of settler-colonialism, which continues to expand and acquire wealth from resource extraction, aided and abetted by neoliberal gay complicity. Collective liberation, in short, means liberation from Canada.
Centering an anti-colonial approach in organizing our radical queer movements means understanding our complicated history with police forces and colonial governments, including the ways in which queer settler populations have been and continue to be used against Indigenous peoples. With this knowledge, we should be able to break with oppression and rejoin movements that are working towards the dismantling of the nation-state and its apparatus, and assist Indigenous peoples in their movements for sovereignty and land reclamation.