Celebrating Canada’s queer pioneers
By Matthew Hays
Peter Knegt’s new book about the history of the queer rights movement in Canada is so smart, succinct and reader-friendly, it’s kind of shocking no one thought of writing one like it earlier.
Part of Halifax-based Fernwood Publishing’s About Canada series, the simply titled Queer Rights explores how Canada became one of the most progressive countries in the world for queer rights, and how far we still have to go. Knegt, an Xtra contributor and editor for the online film magazine indieWire, manages to pack a great deal into his book. It’s a fantastic primer on one of our country’s key civil rights struggles.
Knegt spoke with Xtra about the process of putting together his first book.
Xtra: You’ve packed a great deal into what is essentially a small book. Tell me about the process of putting it all together.
Peter Knegt: I had never really done anything like this before, so I wasn’t really sure how to negotiate the process. So at first I just kind of did everything I could possibly think of: scouring every single issue of iconic gay liberation magazine The Body Politic at the Canadian Gay and Lesbian Archives in Toronto; reading or rereading everything already written on the topic (most notably the work of Gary Kinsman, Tom Warner, David Rayside, Miriam Smith, Becki L Ross and Brenda Cossman); contacting any kind of authority on the issues I could think of - whether academics, artists, politicians or leaders at queer organizations - and trying to set up interviews. I ended up interviewing upwards of 70 people from across Canada, some on the phone and some in person. And that was a more important part of the process than I ever could have imagined. Hearing the stories of these men and women who had seen and done so much was intensely inspiring. I remember sitting across the table from Tim McCaskell or Kristyn Wong-Tam or Gerald Hannon and just feeling so floored by what they had to say.
These people had devoted so much of their lives to advancing the rights of queer people at times when things clearly must have felt relatively quite hopeless. As someone who really began his official queerness at a time when so much groundwork had already been laid, it honestly made me feel lazy and apolitical by comparison. But it also really pushed me into the research. It became a lifestyle for me. The people who volunteered at the Gay and Lesbian Archives started feeling like my closest friends. And my actual closest friends started getting really annoyed because all I would talk about are various fun facts I discovered in my research. It was all a bit isolating, but I truly loved every minute of it.
Xtra: That’s research. Writing is a whole different experience though, right?
Peter Knegt: Nothing quite prepared me for when it came time to actually write the thing. Books and books filled with what I once thought were meticulously organized notes and interview transcriptions sort of just sat there taunting me for weeks before I finally just delved in. And like anything, with patience the structure of the book just started coming together, guided in large part by the many voices I’d come across in my interviews.
Xtra: What emerged as your main goals with the book?
Peter Knegt: My main goal - and honestly the greatest challenge - was to make this book as inclusive as possible. Sure, I also wanted to make it as accessible as possible. This is really just an introduction that intends to lead readers into other educational directions. But it was important to make it as comprehensive as 150 pages could possibly allow. And that’s a significant challenge. While it was hard to start writing, it was even harder to stop once things got going. Basically, I tried to organize it in a way that would at least give some consideration to every subset of queer issues in Canada: youth, health, the media, law reform, immigration, the religious right. These are all issues that have very important histories but still remain quite problematic today. I was also really concerned about representation, especially considering my own generalized identity: for one, I’m an Ontario boy, and I knew going in that a tendency in telling Canadian histories is to unjustifiably centre them in Ontario. So I also devoted an entire chapter to regional organizing, discussing (in brief, clearly) the narratives of communities across Canada, from Calgary to Quebec City to Halifax and even the Yukon and Northwest Territories. It was actually quite stunning to see how varied all these narratives are. Canada’s queer organizing did not begin as some great national movement and then filter down to the local level. It started with a few dozen movements in a few dozen communities, some more influential than others, but each crucial in its own right. Moreover, I’m not just an Ontarian. I’m a 20-something, white middle-class male. And I’m well aware I’m one of the - if not the - most privileged types of queer people out there. Intersecting identities of gender, race and class play serious roles in whether or not a queer person can enjoy the many gains this country had made with respect to rights for queer people. I wanted that to be clear.
Xtra: What struck you most when you were creating the book?
Peter Knegt: There was this Body Politic article from 1977 [“Divided We Stand,” The Body Politic, Feb 1, 1977] that really struck me. It was written by Andrew Hodges, and it made clear the serious issue of difference and privilege within queer organizing, and it disturbingly resonates just as loudly today, if not more so.
“In the conventional view, there are supposed to be ‘people’ who identify themselves as gay,” it read. “Some just happen to be women, others men, just as some are black and others white. All alike are oppressed as ‘gays’ in this picture; all oppose the imposition of heterosexual values, all suffer discrimination or the threat of it, all are denied openness and spontaneity, all are alienated from the family system. In this model of the movement, all ‘gay people’ would put aside their differences (gender, race, class, and so on) to fight back. But this model failed as soon as it was invented.”
Canada is a state built on differences of class, gender, race, language and nation and has this international image of tolerance of diversity, but racism, sexism and classism remain serious issues and play prominent roles in major issues surrounding the queer community. Major battles have been won, but largely those battles have been won to serve a privileged group of queer people, more often than not those who are male, white and earn a middle-class wage or more. These also tend to be the people discussed in histories of queer Canada, even if they represent only portions of some of the letters in the “LGBTT” acronym.
So while I tried to make the entire book as inclusive as possible, I also devoted one of the book’s six primary chapters to these ideas specifically, discussing the history and issues surrounding lesbians, queers of colour, two-spirited people and immigrants, refugees and migrants in greater detail. It was by far the most difficult chapter to write. I had the responsibility of telling the stories of people who I didn’t necessarily identify with. But I really appreciated the understanding writing that chapter gave me. In the end, I guess the greatest hope is that the book would inspire all its readers – no matter what sexual orientation, gender, race or class – to feel inspired to understand one another and work together to fight against the oppressions produced by the larger society that are clearly trickling down and creating a hierarchy within the queer community.
Xtra: People think of Canada as very queer-friendly. Did your research confirm this?
Peter Knegt: Yes and no. I mean, sure, Canada is indeed one of the most progressive countries in the world when it comes to the formal legal rights of queer people. Officially, we enjoy nearly all of the same legal rights as our heterosexual counterparts, from marriage and adoption to access to housing and employment. But some crucial factors need to be kept in mind when considering Canada’s reputation. First and foremost, same-sex marriage is not the final frontier of the queer rights movement. There remain the questions of whether same-sex marriage is a progressive idea in the first place and, if it is, of who exactly benefits from it. It wasn’t even an issue for most of the pioneers of the Canadian movement. In fact, many of them were against it. And even beyond the argument that marriage is an oppressive and state-sanctioned institution that should have never been a goal in the first place, there is the simpler question of whom exactly marriage serves. Like heterosexuals, not every queer person wants to get married, nor do they always end up in relationships that warrant marriages even if they wanted them to.
Xtra: Yes, I wrote about that when the laws were changing. A lot of Canadian queers were quite ambivalent about the fight for legal recognition of same-sex marriage. There were other issues queer liberationists were concerned with.
Peter Knegt: Precisely. Some issues early Canadian queer activists did very much believe in – like sexual censorship and the decriminalization of many consensual sex acts – remain unresolved. There are still several fires burning, and this book tries to explore them, at least as much as it can in 150 pages.
To expand on that in a greater context, look at homophobia and heterosexism. They remain dominant, both officially – such as in the Canadian education and health systems – and even more so unofficially. Canada is still very much an inherently homophobic and heterosexist society, as has been exemplified in everything from social conservative groups to violent queer bashers. And these opponents of making Canada a truly queer-positive place do not necessarily discriminate. Hate remains directed toward all queer people: urban and rural, black and white, rich and poor, young and old. It may be exponentially easier for the more privileged to avoid the situations and environments where this occurs, but that shouldn’t make them so complacent in coming together with all queer people to address the problems that should personally concern them.
Xtra: What do you hope people will walk away with from this book?
Peter Knegt: Canadian people – queer or otherwise – are more than likely unaware of so many stories in the history of queer Canada. Like how the 1965 arrest of a mechanic in the Northwest Territories triggered the partial decriminalization of homosexuality four years later. Or how, in 1981, police violently raided a series of gay establishments in Toronto, resulting both in one of the largest mass arrests in Canadian history and, shortly thereafter, the largest demonstration for lesbian and gay rights in that same history. Or how, in 1989, a group of AIDS activists stormed the International Conference on AIDS in Montreal, stealing the stage from Prime Minister Brian Mulroney to protest his government’s ignorance of how AIDS was affecting gay and bisexual men.
It was really important to me to give an approachable introduction to these stories so that people could feel inspired to take their education further. This book was never intended to be the end-all of anything. It was meant to be the beginning. A beginning that can be expanded by reading the books or watching the films noted in the book, by visiting the lesbian and gay archives in Toronto and Montreal, or by connecting with older generations of queer people who have important perspectives and stories to share. If there’s one thing I’ll take from writing this book, it’s the opportunity to speak with so many queer people and hear their stories and further my own perspective on how it is that we got here. If this book can inspire a handful of people to do the same, that will be enough for me.