The Queer Struggle for Equal Rights is Far from Over

As long as homophobia exists, LGBTQ artists deserve recognition and support

LGBT Flag fading into colourless shades
The Walrus

On November 28, 2017, Justin Trudeau rose in the House of Commons to apologize to members of the LGBTQ2S community. On behalf of the government, he expressed remorse that, because of their sexual orientation, thousands of queer people were forced out of the federal civil service, the RCMP, and the military after the Second World War until the early 1990s.

While the principal focus of the prime minister’s remarks did not apply to me—although gay, I was never stripped of a government job—I still felt addressed. During my seventeen years as a federal employee in Ottawa, from 1986 to 2003, I had known men who had been shown the door. Also, as Trudeau himself acknowledged, the policies and laws made by postwar governments embraced a socially sanctioned homophobia that had been ruining lives since before the beginning of the last century. Born in Alberta over a decade before New York’s Stonewall riots launched a global struggle for rights in June 1969, I’d enjoyed a degree of schoolyard harassment so corrosive and routine that, looking back, I recognize the consequential self-loathing and fear delayed my coming out by at least ten years.

I watched Trudeau’s speech with a friend, a millennial identifying as lesbian. Though she came of age long after the legal instruments protecting our community had become law, she did not feel, based on her own experiences, that homophobia had been wholly eliminated from society and agreed that the battle for equitable treatment was far from over. It’s a reality my nonqueer friends fail to see. I find they often speak of the struggle for same-sex equality rights as if it were a now closed historical period. “You guys can marry now.” “Can conceive, adopt, and raise children.” “We see you as just folks now.” Sometimes it sounds as if our victory is theirs, our peace in their time.

They forget rights may be withdrawn at speeds inverse to how long they took to enshrine. How many of them know that the legislation to include freedom from discrimination based on gender identity and/or expression in the Canadian Human Rights Act and to extend protection from hate propaganda to the trans community in the Criminal Code only attained royal assent a year ago, on June 19, 2017? Do they grasp that the amendment is merely a first step toward other necessary jurisprudence? Many of my nonqueer friends forget—many of my queer friends also appear to forget—that, though laws can be enacted, changes of heart aren’t as easily legislated. Individual agency is only as vital as our willingness to honour, enforce, and defend laws.

In April 2017, seven months before Trudeau’s apology, the Canada Council unveiled its revised approach to the administration and awarding of grants. As the council trumpeted the virtues of its new system, many privately expressed surprise that the council did not identify queer artists as meriting focused support, recognition, and visibility alongside our Indigenous, racialized, and deaf and/or disabled peers. The council’s targeted assistance is very discreetly acknowledged on their website as being compliant with the Employment Equity Act, which regulates hiring in federal-government departments and in federally regulated organizations. In the civil service, if two applicants for a job are determined to have exactly the same credentials after being assessed, it must be offered to the one who falls in one (or more) of four categories: women, people with disabilities, Indigenous peoples, and visible minorities.

I joined the civil service shortly after the Act came into force in the mid-1980s and, when browsing job postings in hopes of career advancement, I’d wonder why similar protections were not extended to me as a member of an “invisible minority.” As the product of an era when rights and who deserves them were differently conceived, the decades-old Act desperately requires revision. So it was especially disappointing to me as a writer and a gay man that, in adapting the Employment Equity Act to the awarding of grants, the Council opted not to expand its application of such outmoded legislation to include the LGBTQ2S community. I’d never felt invisible as a artist when seeking council support for my writing. Now I’ve never felt it more. This absurd irony is not lost on many in the present era of greater queer agency.

Does the council share the opinions of my nonqueer friends comfortably assuming that the queer community’s struggle for equal rights is now a fait accompli and that queer artists face no further difficulties in articulating and sharing the particulars of their stories? Or, in its desire not to stand out in all the wrong ways, has the queer community so utterly seduced the nonqueer community—which determines policies for all and controls the purse strings at many august institutions like the council—into believing that since we are now so like them, no surviving differences merit notice, investigation, or representation?

For the council and Canadians in general to take an “the kids are now all right” attitude toward the queer community is to negate two interrelated facts: that the struggle to attain rights was difficult and that the circumstances the struggle overcame have left lingering after-effects. Many of the queer members of the civil service who were let go in disgrace (suddenly, brutally) from careers that should have lasted them a lifetime bear psychic scars no amount of financial compensation will ever heal. Nor can anyone who lives with the chronic ravages of AIDS or merely copes with the legacy of long-term, routine prejudice truly recover without the public acknowledgement of the cost both have exacted. Who can put aside the stigma of a criminal record for having consensual sex with a member of the same sex? With conscious redress, all these scars will not necessarily fade with the passing of those who originally bore them but may instead surface insidiously in the experiences forming queer identities today and in the future. I have long believed that we will not be able to consider the oppression of same-sex and trans experience to be definitively a thing of the regrettable past until the suicide-attempt rate among LGBTQ2S youth falls to the rate among youth in general.

Policy makers at the Canada Council should perhaps read The Pink Agenda, a report prepared in July 2017 by the Canadian Centre for Gender and Sexual Diversity, whose offices of which are only a few minutes’ walk from their own in downtown Ottawa. The report outlines what the CCGSD considers to be the next steps for greater inclusion and recognition of the queer community in the Canadian polis. Alongside greater access to education, improvement in health care, and the rights of LGBTQ2S people to age with dignity, its authors advocate for the provision of material “support [to] artists, performers, and festivals” by “increas[ing] grants and funding for queer and trans artists, activists, and youth.” Emphasizing that the redress of colonization would be incomplete if it ignored Two-Spirit people, they give prominence to the urgent need to “rehabilitate and integrate Indigenous Two-Spirit culture in all policies impacting queer and trans people” (an obligation specifically mentioned by Trudeau in his apology). The CCGSD urges politicians and senior civil servants to foster trans and queer rights internationally, pointing out that 69 percent of Canada’s asylum claims involve issues of sexual orientation and gender expression.

The stories behind the CCGSD ’s call to action demand to be told and heard. Under what better auspices can that happen than with the Canada Council? Anyone at the council who listened to or read a transcript of Trudeau’s apology must recall that he affirmed his government “will work with the academic community and stakeholders to ensure that [our LGBTQ2S] history is known and publicly accessible.” I would argue that the prime minister’s commitment obliges council policy makers to establish distinct programs to promote queer artists’ creative responses to the specifics of our history and present experience.

Certainly, there are many well-established queer writers in Canada, including Shyam Selvadurai and Helen Humphreys, who enjoy large national and international followings, but anyone familiar with the history of queer publishing of the last quarter-century knows that many LGBTQ2S authors in North America were dropped by large publishers in late 1990s and early 2000s when the sale of their books did not realize the commercial hopes placed in them. If you subscribe, as I do, to Gay and Lesbian Review/Worldwide, you’d notice that many books discussed or advertised inside its pages are published by obscure or unfamiliar presses. Readers of queer writing should feel indebted to American academic presses like Minnesota and Wisconsin, which have taken up the slack by devoting a significant quotient of their lists to LGBTQ2S poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. If only their peers north of the border would do the same. Among English-language publishers in Canada, Arsenal Pulp Press deserves praise as our only truly queer-focused press, and its list is both prestigious and diverse. Otherwise, LGBTQ2S writers place their books helter-skelter with the small presses in this country, and happily so, but we still face the possibility of being misread by editors, our history misunderstood, and our candour pushing publishers outside their comfort zones, often to our own detriment.

Maybe thirty-five years of publishing progressively more open writing has made me weary. When Hidden Structure, my first candidly queer book of poems was published in 1984, Robin Skelton, with whom I’d studied poetry for three years, well-meaningly chose the neutral “dual sexuality” to describe the anguish the book plumbs. In 1994, the marketing department at House of Anansi, albeit during its Stoddart years, refused to use the word gay in the cover copy of Designs from the Interior, my sixth book of poetry, and instead chose to rely on Timothy Findley’s effusive blurb to get the message across in a voice other than their own, fearing gay would limit sales rather than reach out to a potentially enthusiastic (and underserved) community of readers. In 1998, a former associate editor of Prism International told me that “Homoeroticism,” a poem I’d submitted the year before, had inspired controversy among her peers on the board. The poem reconfigures Freud’s Oedipus complex theory in gay terms, with a young boy projecting his unconscious sexual feelings upon his father instead of upon his mother, yet many at Prism were shocked and assumed I was endorsing pederasty. In 2002, I chose to alter a poem that ultimately won a CBC Literary Award, downplaying the few obvious queer references because I’d feared they would overchallenge presumably coached contest screeners and judges because they would not fly in the pages of enRoute, where the CBC Literary Award winners still see print. How justified this fear really was then and may remain, I don’t know, but sixteen years ago, friends had encouraged me to second guess myself.

In 2007, Zachariah Wells dismissed the significance of the first historically oriented anthology of gay-male poetry published in Canada, Seminal: The Anthology of Canada’s Gay Male Poets, which I edited with Billeh Nickerson. Its contributors range in time from nineteenth-century Émile Nelligan to twenty-first-century Sean Horlor. “At an earlier date—even twenty years ago, say—this anthology might have made a bold, shockingly defiant, statement,” wrote Wells. “But now, with homosexuality not only being ‘tolerated’ (awful, hateful word) more by an increasingly large percentage of the population, but even enjoying a certain vogue in popular culture, it seems a bit late”—as if defining a tradition or locating a past for it for the first time can ever be a dated idea.

Many will chafe at these examples from the not-so-long-ago but long-ago-enough “bad-old” days. However, I am sad to say that queer students enrolled in the Department of Writing at the University of Victoria, where I edited The Malahat Review until January 2018, have told me often enough that they feel uncomfortable presenting identity-specific work in workshops. Either it’s met with silence or the instructors fail to pick up on the homophobia unconsciously articulated by nonqueer students.

There is a reason why the same kinds of queer stories keep getting told over and over. They’re unthreateningly familiar. Nonqueer people can still see themselves in plotlines like the coming-out story because they’re the ones being come out to. Thus, it becomes their story, entitling them to celebrate their triumph of being “accepting” and “without prejudice.” Importantly, the unity of the family, a much-valued and straight-colonized institution, has been preserved. Marriage is another familiar plotline. Being portrayed as grateful, nonthreatening family members who marry against a background of victory is what queer people have allegedly fought for. It allows them to fit in and enjoy their hard-won rights privately—except when everyone queer and nonqueer hits the streets to cheer the drag queens and muscle bears flitting by in a corporate-sponsored Pride parade.

Though Pride parades may have started in the 1970s as marches to advocate for rights in large cities in Western democracies, and though they dangerously continue to do so in countries like Turkey and Russia, they have more often than not become highly entertaining circuses that gilt towns large and small with a colourful, artificial, and safe sense of what difference is. The according of rights to excluded communities is one way for governments to exert control over and regulate behaviours once viewed as aberrant and to absorb former pariahs into the silent majority of voters whose apathy somehow keeps politicians in power. Awarding rights also allows government leaders to more easily apologize after the fact than initiate change at the time of crisis. No doubt, allowing for inflation, it has been cheaper to extend rights (and services) to us now than it was to convict and incarcerate us in the past.

But who and what is being left out? I often wonder if queer stories in popular culture today have become unchallenging because the bandwidth of the mainstream’s comfort zone is determining which get picked out of the static and heard. Has anyone recently written a play as provocative and groundbreaking as Michel Tremblay’s Hosanna, was in the 1970s? When it premiered, was it embraced more for its commentary on the status of Quebec within Canada than on the plight of non-conforming gay men like the cross-dressing Hosanna and her lover, the leather-clad Cuirette?

No queer artists working in a western country today should now feel it necessary to censor themselves to the extent that E.M. Forster chose to in his time. He decided that Maurice, his only candidly queer novel, should not be published until after his death. Almost sixty years after the first draft was completed in 1914, it was published in 1971. Forster suppressed the novel because of its content, which plumbs the illegalities for which Oscar Wilde had been imprisoned just over fifteen years before. He also felt certain that no one would endorse a story about two male lovers with a happy ending, albeit one off-grid like Robin Hood’s (another criminal) in a “greenwood” not too unlike Sherwood Forest.

By the time Forster wrote the initial draft of Maurice, four years had elapsed in the fourteen-year gap between the publication of his two great books, Howards Endin 1910 and A Passage to India, in 1924, the last novel he published in his life time. Over the intervening decade, he struggled with the realization he could not write and publish the kind of stories that now compelled him most. A Passage to India launched an almost-total, self-imposed literary/imaginative silence that lasted until his death, a silence he broke only with the radio addresses; reviews, essays, and lectures later collected and published in books; and volumes of travel writing—activities that allowed him to remain a public figure at the forefront of British letters. According to his biographer, P.N. Furbank, Forster cited a “practical reason for giving up on novel-writing: namely that, being a homosexual, he grew bored with writing about marriage and the relations of men and women.”

Ever since I first read Maurice in the late 1970s, I have wondered what Forster might have published under different conditions, and my sense of his unwritten output deepening with each decade as I have gotten older. Had he been alive during our time, and given he was an acute observer of the manners and ills of many classes of people, God knows what kind of comedy Forster might have made of gay marriage in Canada in 2005, when it was sanctioned nationwide without simultaneously amending the Divorce Act to include the dissolution of same-sex relationships (that came later). Few Western writers’ circumstances may be as dramatic as Forster’s, but Canada has its own examples of queer authors who may not have maximized their creative potential as fully as they might have (and to think that, like them, Forster may not have fully realized his gift is truly an astonishing prospect to entertain, considering his canonical centrality to twentieth-century writing in English). We should not risk having any of our present and future queer writers of substance join the compromised ranks of writers as seminal as Edward Lacey and Scott Symons because of their sexual orientation or gender expression or even come close to joining them. The Canada Council must guarantee that all queer literary fates will be otherwise.

Behaviour and partialities that are embraced as queer should be destigmatized—and left alone, among other opportunities, to inspire great art, art that deserves support not sanction, however potentially eyebrow raising. Eyebrows sometimes need the exercise. The Canada Council could argue that existing guidelines already advance the production of queer artistic creation, but I’d prefer to see unspoken protections affecting me and my queer peers written out in black and white. The council should not rely on the unguessed ethics of its jury members to make appropriate decisions about our grant applications but should have spelled-out policies in place to guide them in the nurturance of queer artistic expression

For it to remain the forward-thinking institution it purports to be, the Canada Council must reconceptualize its own guidelines and not rely upon an out-of-date statute to give it backbone, a statute it may take present and future governments years to amend, in order to assure queer artists that their applications for support will enjoy equal consideration stripped of bias, intentional or otherwise.

Excerpted with permission from the chapbook Visible but Not Seen: Queer Expression in the Age of Equity. Copyright © 2018 Anstruther Press.

John Barton
John Barton is the current Poet Laureate of Victoria. His new collection of poems, Lost Family: A Memoir, is forthcoming from Véhicule Press this fall.