Swimming Against the Current: Sexual Citizenship After Harper and Homonationalism

By Steven Maynard

This is the first in a series of posts originally presented as part of a roundtable entitled “What’s the Use of History? Citizenship and History in Canada’s Past and Present,” held in Toronto on October 16th 2012.  The event was organized by the People’s Citizenship Guide Project.

Mark Tewksbury Speaking at the Suncor Energy/COC Partnership Announcement Event in Calgary on February 22 2012. Source: iwilldreambig Flickr Photostream.

In Canada, “we let our gay people swim.” So quipped Justin Trudeau, would-be PM with the good hair, when asked for his reaction to the Conservative government’s revised citizenship guide, Discover Canada. He was referring to the photo of Mark Tewksbury, the 1992 Olympic gold medallist in the backstroke and the guide’s only visual representation of gay/lesbian life in Canada. In drafting the new guide, staff at Citizenship and Immigration Canada had proposed including historical highlights of the gay/lesbian movement, from the 1969 decriminalization of homosexuality to the 2005 legalization of same-sex marriage. But the public servants’ political masters were not nearly so historically minded. As we now know, Jason Kenney, Minister of Immigration and Citizenship, ordered his staff to remove the references to gay/lesbian history and same-sex marriage, something Kenney had opposed in 2005.

The outcry was swift in coming. NDP MP Bill Siksay said “Jason Kenney can’t edit gays and lesbians out of Canadian history.” But the truth is he could and he did. Even after public pressure to reinsert the gay material, the new edition does not include the historical reference to decriminalization (perhaps it too readily evoked that other Trudeau) and the proposed paragraph on gay rights was watered down to a single sentence about how gay and lesbian Canadians enjoy equal treatment under the law, including access to civil marriage. This episode brings into focus the contested connections among history, citizenship and sexuality.

Those connections have been in the making in Canada for many decades. To give just a couple examples, in the course I teach on “The History of Sexuality in Canada” we look at the 1952 amendment to the Immigration Act. In the context of Cold War hostility toward homosexuality, the Act explicitly banned homosexuals for the first time from entering the country. An early draft of the amendment lumped together “prostitutes, homosexuals, [and] lesbians” for exclusion. Lesbians were later dropped, but the provision against “homosexualism” and prostitution remained unchanged until 1977. The Canadian state has defined citizenship not only by barring sexual undesirables from the country, but also by purging sexual deviants within its borders. I’m thinking here of the purge of gay men and lesbians from the civil service during the 1950s and 60s. Constructed as national security risks, hundreds of gay men and lesbians were fired from the civil service. Employing a range of techniques, from police surveillance to RCMP interrogation and the infamous Fruit Machine, a list was created with the names of thousands of known or suspected homosexuals that extended well beyond the government into Ottawa’s gay/lesbian communities. There are many things one could say about these episodes, but I want to highlight just one here: both the 1952 Immigration Act and the federal government purges draw our attention to the role of the state in the identification of individuals’ sexual identities.

Now skip ahead to 2005, to the legalization of same-sex marriage in Canada. Five decades after Canada’s “war on queers,” gay and lesbian Canadians are now invited to partake in that ultimate marker of full citizenship: marriage. Just when the foundations of the venerable heterosexual institution of marriage are crumbling – Statistics Canada revealed last month that the overall marriage rate is in steady, long-term decline, while the number of single-parent households and people living alone are dramatically increasing, such that for the first time “the nuclear family is no longer the norm in Canada” – it’s gay people to the rescue. Stats Can also reported that between 2006 and 2011, the number of same-sex couples jumped 42% and same-sex marriage nearly tripled.

While gay people rush into what novelist Jane Rule called the “cage of coupledom” at precisely the same time straight people are fleeing it in droves, the state is busy constructing new categories of second-class sexual citizens. Looking at just the last couple months, we see this in the federal government’s persistent appeals of court decisions won by sex workers to make their trade safe and legal; we see it in the way Canada leads the world in the criminalization of people living with HIV, most recently with the Supreme Court decision that doubles the burden of proof demanded of an already stigmatized group in order to avoid the reach of the criminal law; we see it in the Conservative Party’s efforts to turn back women’s right to control their own bodies.

The point is that this reactionary sexual agenda is fully compatible with same-sex marriage. This is, after all, how sexual hegemony is constructed and maintained: as the hegemony of the heterosexual married couple is collapsing, a segment of a previously subordinate sexual group is offered marriage rights as a way to shore up and secure the dominance of the existing sexual order. It’s also the reason I’ve always found the liberal approach to gay marriage – you can simply choose to get married or not – to be a naïve and voluntaristic understanding of how the state and the law operate.

But I don’t suppose there’s any point crying over tossed confetti. More concerning are the other uses to which queer sexuality and history are being put by the Conservative government. Lesbian/gay rights are now a frequent part of Canada’s so-called “values-based foreign policy.” In a speech last month to the Montreal Council on Foreign Relations, John Baird related the case of the brutal murder of Ugandan gay rights activist David Kato and explained, “It is cases like his that drive me to raise this issue [“the decriminalization of homosexuality”].” He went on to wax eloquent on history and human rights: “Few people can change the course of history, but each of us … will be able to write the history of our generation … It is that conviction that drives us to stand up. To stand up for the rights of women … To stand up to the violent mobs that seek to criminalize homosexuality.” Earlier in the year, in an address to the Royal Commonwealth Society in London, Baird lectured his listeners on the history of homosexuality: “Throughout most of the Commonwealth Caribbean, colonial-era laws remain on the books that could impose draconian punishments on gay people simply for being gay.”

Baird’s colleague, Jason Kenney, has also been working the sexuality file, including voting for his party’s motion to reopen the abortion debate. Last month, in a move that had many wondering whether the federal government had dusted off and updated its Cold War queer surveillance list, Kenney sent an email to gay/lesbian Canadians trumpeting his government’s record on LGBT refugees: “We are proud of the emphasis our Conservative Government has placed on gay and lesbian refugee protection, which is without precedent in Canada’s immigration history …  In particular, we have taken the lead in helping gay refugees who have fled often violent persecution in Iran to begin new, safe lives in Canada.” The timing of Kenney’s missive is telling, coming as it does after his cuts to refugee healthcare and after several months of sustained criticism of his “Protecting Canada’s Immigration System Act.” As critics point out, the Act gives “unprecedented powers” to government ministers, a frequent criticism of the Harper government. And so we must ask, is the issue of gay refugees being used to deflect attention from, to pink wash, what is really just another move by the Harper government to centralize power?

Add to this the fact that in the same month Kenney sent his letter, an immigration official ordered the deportation of Augustas Dennie, a refugee from St Vincent in Baird’s “Commonwealth Caribbean,” on the grounds that Dennie is not really gay. In the words of the immigration official, Dennie is not “a credible historian of his own personal background.” Denying the claims of queer refugees on the basis that they are not telling the truth about being gay is an increasingly common tactic under the Conservative government’s immigration regime. Leatitia Nanziri is from Uganda, that country where Baird stands up for women and gay people. After years of abuse, Nanziri fled to Canada in 2004. Since then, gainfully employed and with two children, Nanziri has been struggling to remain in Canada while lawyers from Kenney’s ministry are doing all in their power to have her deported on the grounds she lied about being a lesbian.

With a longer historical perspective, we begin to see that whether we’re talking about same-sex marriage or an immigration official’s presumption to know a refugee’s sexuality better than she does herself, these are only recent moments in a much longer history of state sexual regulation and, in particular, of the state’s ongoing interest in defining gay/lesbian relationships and identities. Queer people are not unique in this respect. The Canadian state has an even longer history of using marriage and other means to define the identities and relationship status of First Nations people. The long struggle of Aboriginal peoples to take back from the state their right to self-definition should be a lesson to gay people now voluntarily lining up to register their relationships with the state.

One way of reading the history of sex and citizenship from the 1950s to the present is as a narrative that moves from exclusion to inclusion. It’s a comforting story of progressive change, and it’s not entirely untrue, at least for some. But I want to suggest a different interpretation. I think what we see over this period is not the nation’s ever-expanding embrace of its queer citizens, but rather a strategic reconfiguration of sexuality to serve historically changing political agendas, be it national security in the postwar period or the neocon agenda in our present.

The state’s invitation to, and some gay people’s eager acceptance of, a domesticated and depoliticized sexual citizenship is what scholars now refer to as homonationalism. Homonationalism helps to explain why gay marriage and Mark Tewksbury remain in the Conservatives’ citizenship guide; neither poses any challenge whatsoever to conservative politics. With his Crest-White-Strips smile, with his muscular nationalism as cheerleader for Team Canada, and with his corporate motivational speaking on the “fundamentals for achievers, leaders, and legacy leavers,” it’s hard to picture a more perfect poster boy for Canadian homonationalism. Homonationalism also makes sense of why even those who object to Discover Canada’s narrow representation of homosexuality as an individual right of citizenship rather than as an oppositional social-political movement fail to offer anything more inspiring. Reflecting the extent to which same-sex marriage has strangulated sexual politics and possibility, the most Justin Trudeau could come up with as an alternative image for the guide was “a picture of a couple men getting married in a church or something.”

In the critical work being done on the conservative rebranding of Canada, I think we need to pay much more attention to sexuality. The Conservatives, in their hypocritical stance as the  new “warriors for gay rights,” certainly are. As the ‘Warrior Nation’ contemplates its next military adventure in Iran, Jason Kenney whips up Canadians’ indignation by pointing to the persecution faced by queer people in that country. In Baird’s mind it makes perfect sense to discuss the decriminalization of homosexuality in a foreign relations speech about “opportunities for full economic advancement.” In this way, I think Baird’s deep, dark personal secret is highly revealing: he named his cat after Margaret Thatcher. This should be a reminder to the rest of us that the success of neoconservatism and neoliberalism has always depended on combining the political and economic with the moral and sexual. The critique of conservative Canada must do the same.

And what lessons do I personally take from this history of citizenship and sexuality? I know that my partner of 18 years and I don’t want to get married. I don’t want to cede to the state the power to define what it means to be queer and on that basis decide who gets the ‘privilege’ of Canadian citizenship and who doesn’t. So what do I want? I want queer refugees and all others to be the historians of their own lives. I want a radical sexual politics that embraces and draws strength from past and present affinities among “perverts” rather than purchasing citizenship at the expense of prostitutes or people with HIV. I want the state and its new homonational allies to let the rest of us – the non-married, the non-monogamous, and the otherwise non-conforming, both queer and straight – I want them to let us swim. And I don’t mean the backstroke, I’m talking freestyle.

Steven Maynard teaches Canadian history at Queen’s University. He’s been active in and writing about sexual politics for twenty-five years. Steven lives in Toronto.

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4 thoughts on “Swimming Against the Current: Sexual Citizenship After Harper and Homonationalism

  1. Sean Kheraj


    I know I got to see you give this talk live, but I just wanted to say again how much I appreciated your remarks on sexuality and citizenship. This article is very well written and thought-provoking.

  2. Adam Crymble

    Hi Steven, I found your idea that “I want queer refugees and all others to be the historians of their own lives” rather interesting. I certainly agree with you that the government should not be able to tell someone if they are gay or straight or whatever they choose to define themselves as.

    But I struggle to see an alternative to what could become a means of abusing the immigration system. There is no “gay litmus test” – nor would I propose we attempt to devise one. And as you point out it is incredibly insensitive to challenge someone’s self definition of their sexuality. So how then does the government and the civil servants who are the practical operators of this system on behalf of all Canadians ensure abuse does not take place? It seems to me that any questioning of someone who ticks the homosexual box on the form must be let in without further questioning lest the government (or regime as you call it) be accused of homophobia.

    Your principles, I do not challenge. But I await your proposed solution because ours is a practical world run by civil servants who must be given explicit instructions, and paid for by tax payers who are not yet willing to throw open the gates and do away entirely with immigration or refugee rules.


  3. Steven Maynard

    Adam, thank you for these thoughts. They are important because they go straight to the heart of a crucial issue: the role of the intellectual. For me, the task of the intellectual/historian is not to “propose solutions” or public policy, but to critique existing problems and offer new perspectives which may or may not be used by those in the business of formulating policy.

    That said, my understanding of one of the main problems with current refugee practice is precisely the lack of “explicit instructions” for refugee adjudicators vis à vis sexuality. It is in the absence of such policies and practices that the real abuse occurs, be it with adjudicators who are simply ill-informed or outright discriminatory. As it stands, we do have a “test” of sorts; applicants are required to provide sworn affidavits from community members attesting to the applicant’s sexuality and/or relationship status. (This is no different from other state/legal ways of making similar kinds of determinations. For instance, a common-law relationship is established in part on the basis of whether the community regards you as being in such a relationship.) The problem for queer refugees is that adjudicators can simply dismiss affidavits if they want to. There are some signs this may be changing. Earlier this year, a federal court judge ruled that the Refugee Protection Division had not given sufficient evidentiary weight to the affidavits in the case of Francis Ojo Ogunrinde, a gay man from Nigeria. The judge ordered the RPD to provide Ogunrinde with a new assessment before different staff. So practices may be evolving, but only in piecemeal fashion. Meanwhile, queer refugees’ lives hang in the balance.

    Lest my comments on the role of the intellectual be misunderstood as advocating armchair-ism, let me be clear. I personally believe intellectuals should both provide critique, which can be pitched beyond the immediate concerns of the “practical world,” and intervene in that world. We will all make different choices about how best to make those interventions. For me, I’m not interested in proposing public policy solutions. I prefer to join those in grassroots movements who are organizing for more fundamental change. And so this past Sunday, we greeted Jason Kenney, Minister of Immigration, upon his arrival in Toronto to remind him that “No One Is Illegal.”


  4. Adam Crymble


    Thanks for taking the time to compose such a thorough response. I appreciate your stance that academics need not offer the policy solution to every problem, and that there is tremendous value in a criticism. But I also believe that whenever possible, the best academics do both, taking advantage of their skills and expertise to improve the lives of those around them by working with civil servants to find answers, not just questions.


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