Introduction by: Alexa DeGagne
(This introduction is edited from a conversation with Alexa DeGagne, facilitated by Ryan Catney)
What do we mean by 2SLGBTQ Politics? Why is it important to the study of Canadian Political Science?
Queer and trans politics considers and challenges the ways in which the state and governments are deeply involved in our private, bodily, and intimate lives.
Settler colonial governments imposed hierarchies of race, class, gender, and sexuality onto Indigenous peoples to both facilitate and justify their seizure of Indigenous land, labour, and resources. The colonial system of gender and sexuality, based on heterosexuality and patriarchal binary gender identities and roles, purposefully impeded Indigenous language and culture transmission, governance, systems of reproduction and care, and community health.
The imposition of heterosexuality and patriarchal binary gender identities and roles affects people differently based on their race, class and abilities. Queer and trans politics includes anyone who is deemed by society and the government, either historically or currently, as abnormal, unhealthy and/or dangerous based on their sexuality and gender identity/expression. The definitions and parameters of sexual and gender abnormality change over time and place according to political preoccupations and social morals. Defining queer and trans politics this way, as opposed to assembling a list of identity categories, allows for more dynamic interrogations of the power of sexuality and gender.
While sex is ostensibly the common denominator among queer folks, not all seek community primarily or solely for sex. For asexual and gray ace folks, connection, community, and kinship are paramount. Public sex is tolerated, not glamorized, among some. Others have tried to desexualize themselves and their political goals – focusing on love – to shake accusations that they are predators. Fighting for sexual freedom is a gendered, classed, and racialized battle. The unifier for queer communities and activists, then, rests not on a universal desire for sex, but on challenging persistent social judgements and state regulation of all these abnormal orientations to sex. It is the regulation of sex and sexuality that renders it political, and that pulls communities together, tied up in and beyond sex.
We often hear the feminist phrase “the private is political,” and studying queer and trans politics illuminates how deeply power and politics are part of our daily intimate and bodily lives. We are seeing this in our contemporary world with the protests and legislation of drag shows. These debates are not new, and people who dress in gender non-conforming clothes have been regulated since the founding of the Canadian settler state. This renewed moment of attacks on drag shows is a continuation of the project that regulates people’s lives according to colonial heteropatriarchal hierarchies, identities and roles. We are talking about what people wear, what makeup they put on, how they move, dance and talk, and in what spaces they are allowed to express their gender. The government intervening in these choices highlights how, why, where and when the state gets involved in our intimate lives.
In studying queer and trans politics, we are revealing and interrogating the different areas of our lives in which the state is intimately involved. Governments decide where we can have sex, when, with whom, whether it is for money, or whether contraceptives or sex toys or recording devices can be used. We know that sexual deviancy exists regardless of governments’ attempts to regulate sexuality, but the power to decide who is regulated rests with our governments. Why does the government interject itself in our intimate and private sexual lives? If sex is occurring between consenting adults, why does the government care what (or who) people are doing in their bedrooms, or kitchens, cars, or even public parks? The choices that we think should be ours to make are deeply regulated.
The state’s involvement in our gendered and sexual lives extends to healthcare, housing, poverty, education, policing and justice, family recognition, immigration, international relations, and arts and culture. The state has tremendous power in all these sites. The study of queer and trans politics, therefore, traces how and when sexuality and gender are implicated and regulated in these sites, how queer and trans people are affected, and how queer and trans people create community and mobilize in response.
Queer and trans people and their political interests have been targets for federal and provincial governments who have banned queer and trans people from: having sex (under policies outlawing “sodomy” or “homosexual sex”); having their history taught in public schools; freely sharing art and literature; working for the federal government; marrying; accessing their partners’ benefits; adopting children; or donating blood.
How have 2SLGBTQ Politics usually been taught?
Traditionally, queer and trans politics has been taught with emphasis on rights acquisition. The focus was on incremental gains such as adoption rights, same-sex marriage rights, and anti-discrimination rights in schools and the workplace. Scholars traced how various institutions blocked queer and trans people from certain rights and protections, how activists and advocates focused on gaining rights through the courts, and how these gains reverberated through different levels of government across the country. This scholarship is invaluable for those who want to understand how to make a claim to the state based on a marginalized identity.
There have been important legal victories and seminal academic analysis of their impacts. Yet there is a danger in teaching queer and trans politics solely as a story of rights acquisition for three main reasons.
First, in the Canadian human rights system it is difficult to make a case for intersectional discrimination because human rights commissions and courts prefer to focus on one identity at a time. Second, when focusing on human rights acquisition, we risk painting a picture of linear progress that glosses over the exclusions of certain groups from human rights movements (for example the exclusion of trans rights from same-sex marriage battles); government denials and violations of human rights; and right-wing backlashes and claw backs of gains by human rights advocates. Marginalized people know all too well that any political victory is hard fought and in need of diligent defense.
Third, formidable queer and trans activism and community building occurs beyond formal politics. At the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, queer and trans people living HIV/AIDS were neglected and their community spaces, organizations, and businesses were harassed or raided. As such, many queer and trans people felt distrust and hostility toward government, political parties, and formal politics in general. At the same time, it was difficult for political candidates and politicians to be openly queer and trans, much less to fight for issues affecting their communities. This created an antagonistic, demoralizing, and exclusionary relationship to formal politics.
As a result, queer and trans people formed their own political and social movements and communities outside of these heteropatriarchal political institutions and, ignoring mainstream politics, did not make particular efforts to elect queer and trans people where they felt they were not welcome.
When the study and teaching of political science is narrowly invested in the state – as opposed to engaging in the analysis of power in all forms, spaces and relations – it ignores those who have existed, created community and support systems, and engaged in political debates, organizing, and actions in our homes, streets, schools, bars and clubs, places of worship, community leagues, workplaces, social media, and beyond.
Queer and trans people have created their own public and political spaces, groups, communities and governance systems through community organizations, councils and advocacy groups, social support systems and communities of care and security. Queer and trans politics occur in community spaces like gay bars, bath houses, bookstores, coffee shops, pride parades and community centres. These systems and spaces are deeply political, as people negotiate power relations, share resources, create community, and protect and support each other.
How is this area changing?
Several questions can guide how queer and trans politics are taught today:
- How and why is the state involved in the gendered and sexual lives of people in Canada and beyond its borders?
- How does the state regulation of sexuality and gender affect the lives of queer and trans people differently based on race, class and ability?
- How have queer and trans people reacted to such government interference in their intimate and bodily lives?
- Where does queer and trans activism, organizing and politics occur? In what ways is it detached, complementary and/or beyond formal state politics?
- How and why are queer and trans activists and social movements working in coalition with Indigenous, racial justice, environmental, disability justice, abolition, and anti-capitalist social movements? What does this tell us about the changing goals, tactics, and alliances of political organizing?
Opportunities for further change
We can centre the knowledges, goals, strategies, and coalition building of Indigenous, racial justice, environmental, disability justice, abolition, anti-capitalist, queer, and trans social movements in our study of political science. Black Lives Matter, Idle No More, Land Back, Sins Invalid, and queer and trans justice groups are not separated into single-identity groups and are not fighting for isolated issues. They understand and expose the ways in which systems of heteropatriarchy, colonialism, racism and ableism are deeply intertwined and mutually reinforcing. Accordingly, the ways we understand and teach politics should not isolate systems of oppression, identity categories and issues into separate lessons, discussions, chapters, or assignments. Instead, the political issues and questions of our time should be approached from multiple perspectives, incorporating the knowledges of activists, community organizers, artists, and academics, and tracing the multitude of places and ways political debates, organizing and changes are happening.