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Homonormativity, Homonationalism, and the other ‘Other’: the dangers of a liberal discourse in the fight for (gay marriage) ‘equality’

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by Christiaan Rapcewicz. Christiaan is a MA candidate in Gender, Feminist & Women’s Studies at York University. He is interested in exploring the various ways Grindr operates as a mechanism of sexual regulation. This article was originally posted on The Huffington Post.

There has been an incredible increase in the amount of media coverage of gay rights, specifically the pursuit of gay marriage equality in the United States, covered by both queer and non-queer media. Although a movement for equality in relation to ‘gay rights’ is worthy of mobilization, media coverage, and policy changes, it is the ways in which particular queer media outlets address the topics of gay marriage, gay rights, and the ‘fight for equality’ that must be called to attention.

In my observations of following multiple queer media outlets, the discourse of ‘gay marriage,’ and, thus, ‘gay rights,’ has been shaped by an extreme liberal discourse of (human) rights – in which there is a constant push and demand that lesbians and gays have the right to marry, as it is a right any human should have. This is dangerous. This insidious heteronormativity that is seeping into the gay and lesbian ‘community’ is what Lisa Duggan addresses in “The New Homonormativity: The Sexual Politics of Neoliberalism” as “homonormativity: a politics that does not contest dominant heteronormative assumptions and institutions – such as marriage, and its call for monogamy and reproduction – but upholds and sustains them while promising the possibility of a demobilized gay constituency and a privatized, depoliticized gay culture anchored in domesticity and consumption” (179). In the lesbian and gay ‘fight for equality’ for a right to marry, there is a reproduction of heteronormativity through the institution of marriage. The important questions that must be raised in the production of homonormativity include: What kind of gays and lesbians are to be included in this ‘fight for equality’ through marriage? By who are these ideal, respectable, homonationalist gay and lesbian subjects being sought by and for what purposes? These questions outline the significance of how, through the processes of inclusion, there are still gay and lesbian (or queer) subjects pushed to the margins for their differences. These others continue to be rendered invisible even within the gay and lesbian ‘fight for equality.’ These ‘other Others’ are often racialized, or non-normative: those who refuse or reject homonormativity, or those who are refused by it (for example, because of race). This ‘fight for equality’ outlines who, exactly, is allowed to participate in a (white) respectable, homonationalist project of ‘good gay’ subject-making and becoming.

It is clear how those who identify as gay or lesbian are considered ‘outsiders’ even within their own communities, so, how might we keep feminisms open to ‘other Others’ in its very commitment to collect forms of struggle? First, queer spaces, including online space(s), need to be continually interrogated and challenged – especially if these spaces reproduce homonormative ideals. Second, alliance building must occur within our own communities. However, in order for this to occur, we must determine who are allies are.

If we seek allies in our own community who refuse to include others (sometimes ourselves) in their politics, how are we to stand in solidarity with one another and resolve the very real issue of exclusion? Third, in order for change to occur it must be tangible, graspable; not (highly) abstract and theoretical: people need to hear it, see it, feel it. If you are as privileged as I am to study and learn such concepts as “homonationalism” and “homonormativity,” you will also realize theoretical concepts can lead you straight into a brick wall: their ability to create concrete change is lacking. If feminism(s) is(/are) to create any real change, it must start with the interrogation of and already-existing oppressive reality: the oppressive system of discourse of a liberal fight for gay marriage and equality. By no means am I arguing against equality and/or gay marriage, but ‘equality’ should not stop at gay marriage: there are many more inequalities to be addressed and (further) dealt with. Lastly, as Michael Warner states in The Trouble With Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life, “‘pursuing marriage means abandoning the historical principles of the queer movement as an antiquated ‘liberationism’” (Warner 91). Although the (queer) media landscape in the United States is operating on the continual struggle for gay marriage and ‘equality,’ it is important to realize that by simply refusing the structure and institution of marriage, one refuses the hetero-and homonormative. Refuse the system. Refuse what others cannot have, and will never have, because they will never be considered citizens; they will never be included in a homonationalist and homonormative project. By participating in ‘gay’ marriage, by participating in the regulatory structure and institution of marriage hetero (and, thus) homonormative desire is reproduced. Again, this is dangerous. An interrogation of and a resistance to a particular Western (U.S.-centric) liberal human rights discourse of gay marriage and equality must occur in an attempt to cease the reproduction of normative, heterosexual desire. As Sara Ahmed (2002) clams, (and I agree), “there is a violence of seeking to assimilate difference back into the category of the same.”

There are ‘non-normative’ (and the reality is there is a normative) individuals that continue to be pushed to the margins of an already-marginalizing reality in which particular queer media continue to disseminate messaging (or an agenda) of an ideal ‘good gay.’ Gay and lesbian media (continue to) contribute to the production of a homonormative and homonationalist subject, allowing for the reproduction and exclusion of ‘the other Other’, of the invisible, and, often, of the non-white: the bad queer subject that is not respected, nor is represented as a legitimate subject of the nation. In order for change to occur in the real world, a greater activism must occur: we need collective activism. We must also recognize the state of ambivalence that we will experience: How might we be able to continually challenge interlocking systems of oppression while simultaneously advocating for gay marriage, gay rights, equality, and, now, trans* rights and equality? We must also hold queer media accountable of reproducing a normative gayness: queer media need to take responsibility for pushing a dangerous liberal agenda that creates the ‘good gay’ homonationalist citizen, and, as a result, continues to exclude others: those who refuse and reject (homo)normativity, or are refused and rejected by it: those who are not, and will never be, the ‘good gay’ citizen. We must recognize that these are the limits of liberalism: pushing for an agenda of gay marriage, gay rights, and gay equality at the expense of those ‘other Others’ who are themselves excluded from this particular discourse. The solution is simply to refuse: f*ck normativity.

Please use the comment section to add anything you would like clarified or expanded upon – or to stress anything you would like to see happen in terms of action projects around this particular issue. How might we be able to f*ck normativity?


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Washroom Wars: Yay for Gender Neutral Bathrooms; Nay for Ignorant Buffoons

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by Ruwani Dadallage. Ruwani is a volunteer at Women Against Violence Against Women and an all-around kickass feminist. 

I never thought I would write about washrooms on a feminist blog. But an incident that happened at work made me realize how important feminist advocacy is no matter where we are.

My colleague, a smart, politically correct woman we shall call A, brought up the need for at least one gender neutral bathroom in the building we occupy. Since anyone outside the hetero-normative archetype has an increased risk of rejection, judgement, mistrust, bullying and assault, the idea was proposed in an effort to create a safe and comfortable environment in the building for anyone transgendered, gender non-conforming, gender queer, and anyone of all gender identities and expressions.

Seeing how we occupy a historic Vancouver building, and how we would probably need permission from the gods and a sacrifice to get approval to renovate, the easiest solution was to assign the existing men’s single stall restroom as our new gender neutral washroom. Open and shut case. So we only needed approval of our boss to take down the old sign and replace it with a cool gender neutral sign. We were so pleased with our resolution and pat ourselves on the back for being such great allies. However, in my feminist bliss I sometimes forget that not everyone thinks of inclusive solutions.

Enter colleague B. First he guffawed. Then added that this was one way we were attempting to increase the number of washrooms for women (okay, that wouldn’t be such a bad idea, women always have to wait in line), and no way was he going to share a restroom with everyone. He didn’t want to go into a washroom after a girl has taken a stinky dump!

I wished he stopped rambling there. He also believed that transgendered persons would have to learn to face the harsh realities of the world, and get used to there not being spaces like this for them. He went so far as to say that even in the more progressive public spaces the gender binary is still clear, with respective washroom stalls for men and women. Then concluded by saying picking which washroom to go to would be the least of worries for a transgendered person.

I had steam coming out of my ears. I couldn’t believe I was hearing this rubbish. This is a professional, adult male, spewing forth blatantly myopic, male privilege beliefs. By not taking the time to understand these concerns it is easy to overlook how much violence and discrimination someone would face because of their transgender identity or gender non-conformity. A transgendered person could be in danger of experiencing transphobic/homophobic slurs, harassment, violence in relationships, physical abuse, sexual assault or murder.

These experiences are particularly grave for trans women due to transmisogyny. Many cisgendered women have the misconception that they would be in danger if allowing transgendered women in a shared restroom. They are expected to prove that they are “real” women. The number of cases that are reported of a trans woman driven out or assaulted just for wanting to use a washroom are far too many, and these assaults are carried out by other women as well as men.

Colleague B apologized the next day for his behaviour and the way he held onto his beliefs. Nonetheless, he still stood by what he had said earlier and did not apologize for thinking that way.

In the midst of supportive colleagues it only takes one person like this to bring me back to reality to remind me of the palpable tyranny that exists, of the oppressive patriarchal dogmas and why feminist advocacy is so important. We may have won the battle this time with the newly installed washroom, but there is a long war ahead of us.

- Ruwani Dadallage xx 

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Stealthy Freedoms and the Colonial Gaze

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by Zishad Lak.

Zishad is a PhD student in Canadian Literature in University of Ottawa. Her thesis examines the relation between names and migration in contemporary Canadian novels.

A few months ago a Facebook page created by a London-based Iranian journalist caught a lot of attentions and was shared mainly by my non-Iranian friends on Facebook: Stealthy Freedoms. Stealthy Freedoms is a Facebook page where Iranian women post their pictures with headscarves removed in public to protest the compulsory head cover. Their hair is often romantically disheveled by the wind; smiles are in order for the camera: pictures worthy of Facebook profiles. In fact, if one did go through the Facebook profile pictures of Iranian residents I suspect they will find a large number of women among them are not wearing a scarf in these pictures and a number of these unveiled clichés are taken outdoors in public spaces. This is not in any way to justify the compulsion of certain attire on women, that is absolutely not defendable, but rather to maintain that the mere uncovering of hair in public is no longer shocking in Iran, if it ever were, nor does it break a taboo. It is in no way comparable to Amina Tyler’s denudation that risked her life. The difference between the method used by FEMEN and the pictures posted on Stealthy Freedoms Facebook page is worth pondering.

In the past decade or so we have been seeing an emergence of queer and feminist movements of colour criticising the white supremacy inscribed in what they call white feminism. This has been a place of contention and has often created a gap between feminists of colour that found themselves silent victims in the discourse of white feminism and white feminists who refuse to see and accept their privileges. The latest Twitter hashtag, #solidarityisforwhitewomen, attests to this divide; one that I believe invokes much needed debates and is an essential part of a dynamic feminism, or any decolonising movement for that matter. Those feminists who deny such divides choose to close their eyes on the omnipresence of white supremacist heteropatriarchy and reduce the movement to mere legal equalities in a justice system that is inherently sexist and racist.

Whoever claims to be a feminist is then a feminist, no question about it, far from me to police that. Feminism after all, is a political imperative, an affirmation that such a movement is required here and now. But this does not mean that every unthoughtful action in the name of resistance must be praised. Feminism comes with a commitment and a responsibility. It is costly; if it isn’t you are not doing it right. It is lonely; if you are praised by right and left you are not disturbing much. So sometimes lighthearted, non-radical actions don’t translate into small contributions or do not simply die in obscurity but impose set backs on the movement.

We saw that following her release from detention, Amina Tyler bared her body again, this time, inscribed on it were words that denounced FEMEN’s Islamophobia and in doing so she set an example of how a dynamic decolonisation must constantly interrogate itself and the repercussions of its actions. So it is not necessarily the group, FEMEN, whose leader in turn denounced Amina, that I evoke but rather the method of protest that is used by this group or similar manners of protest (such as this) The subject in these protests is not still, she interrupts a formed body and unsettles the naturalised norm before those most loyal to it.

In the opening picture of this article, for example, FEMEN protesters appear topless before the eyes of anti-abortion protesters and their children. The parents cover the eyes of their children to protect them from being exposed to desexualised breasts, breasts that unlike those of their mothers, are not maternal and do not serve any purpose in reproduction. What is more, the rage of heterosexual men in online forums and comment boards against these demonstrators illustrates the unsettling effect and affect of these bodies. I have read men use the most abominable terms to describe these women’s bodies, expressing their utter disgust over the exposed cellulites, criticising the women for being too thin, too fat, but most importantly and most often as sexually undesirable. These de-monstrating bodies are monstrous in that they deny these men the object of their desire. They move, are moving; for these women often march into an event to disrupt it. When captured in picture, the text inscribed on these bodies compels the eyes of the spectator to move, these bodies are not still, not even in the picture. I cannot however help but see in the picture of a woman, with wind in her hair and smile on her face the reproduction of the immobilised object before the gaze of the other. It is then not surprising that reaction to these pictures were often times positive. Many on social media hailed these women for exposing ‘the beauty of a woman’s hair’, the reason for which, expressed these users, it should not be covered. If breasts of topless FEMEN protesters are desexualised, hair in the case of these Facebook freedoms becomes the object of fetish, much like it originally was for those who imposed the compulsion in the first place.

 My second point, going back to my introduction about the feminist divide, is the gaze. Feminism has traditionally bemoaned, and continues to do so, rightfully might I add, the male gaze and its dictating dominance. Yes, that is still there. But – and this is why the uphill battle for racialised women is steep – what is often neglected in mainstream feminist discourse is the colonial gaze, including that of ‘white’ feminists. This gaze, much like the male gaze, objectifies the subject. The body becomes the picture, the picture represents the ‘affectable other’ aspiring to be human. As Andrea Smith justly points out, in her article, “Queer Theory and Native Studies”, ‘the very request for full subjecthood, implicit in the ethnographic project to tell our ‘truth’ is already premised on a logic that requires us to be objects to be discovered.’

There is of course a danger to criticisms like the one I presented in this post and it is a valid one at that: local resistance risks being thrust into obscurity to be protected from colonial interpretations. What we should be wary of is the audience or the interlocutor that is implicit in the message around which the actor organises her actions. I find it hard to believe that the Stealthy Freedoms’ page was set up merely as a local resistance, the fact that the organiser herself does not reside in Iran confirms to a great extent my suspicion. Iranian feminists inside of Iran, much like other feminists all around the world, are faced with and fight against the heteropatriarchal powers in micro and macro levels. As Western feminists we have a responsibility too: to be critical about the kind of struggle that is brought to our attention and reflect upon the reasons behind the publicity they receive. As coloured feminists, we should be alert about the colonial relations that appropriate our movements and not hesitate to denounce them, as Amina Taylor did so bravely and in doing so exposed the racism engraved in certain Occidental feminist movements. I strongly believe that despite all the good intentions behind it, Stealthy Freedom is deeply invested in a naïve heteropatriarchy that makes of immobilised women objects to be saved by the humanity of the universal subject. The struggle faced by women of colour cannot be assimilated into a universal and international feminism. For as long as the universal is defined by the Western subject, women of colour are, to use Andrea Smith’s words, a particular aspiring to humanity, to the universal humanity of the ‘self-determined’ Western subject.

(Image from a Toronto Sun report of the event (Tony Caldwell/QMI Agency))

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Who gets to talk about the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver?

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During the summer, I read an article in the Vancouver Sun entitled “260 agencies, housing sites crowd Downtown Eastside.”  The byline reads, “a new list compiled by the Sun includes 30 health care operators, services for families, and more than 100 linked to housing. Sun reporters… ask why they are all crammed into one tiny neighbourhood.” The article was published at the end of June but it’s been sitting in my desk drawer covered in highlighter and notes ever since. Despite its presence amongst the other materials I turn to when I write, I haven’t picked it up again for several reasons.

Firstly, I honestly didn’t know where to begin. Even as someone relatively new to recognizing classism, poor-phobia, and settler colonialism, reading the article was an excruciatingly frustrating endeavour. Starting just with the headline, the article is set up to frame the services available in the Downtown Eastside (DTES) as excessive and inefficient, fuelling neoliberal angst that social services are a “waste of my tax-dollars”. What the article fails to reference is the criticisms of the not-for-profit industrial complex that come from the DTES itself. These critiques ask different questions about services in areas like the DTES that centre on the lives of those who are actually receiving and in need of services.

Secondly, I didn’t want to erase the issue of voice. Here I was, reading the article, asking when the reporters might refer to the opinion of someone with actual lived knowledge of the DTES. The article does reference the Carnegie Project and quotes Scott Clark, a resident and worker within the DTES whos involved with ALIVE, the Aboriginal Live in Vancouver Enhancement Society. These are saving graces but it seems too convenient that they reside at the end of the article after the PhD bearing “experts” have weighed in. If I could feel myself so angered by the voyeuristic gaze of social scientists and the like, what right do I have, as someone who has neither lived nor worked in the DTES, to take up space with my own voice?

However, what I do have lived experience with is rich, degree holding white folks who write for an audience that looks a little too much like they do. And what I can say on that matter is that these are not universal experiences or opinions. Their “expertise” is not going to end poverty or foster robust social justice. And that’s why we need to silence our “how to fix the DTES narratives” in favour of a committed effort to standing back and letting the work being done in that community, by and for that community, really thrive.

So I’m going to take a break from the Vancouver Sun and seek out media that’s more responsible, honest, and representative of the incredible things being done in the DTES everyday. For a few examples check out “Megaphone Magazine” or the “DTES Power of Women” page at Vancouver Media Co-op. And, for more on the non-profit industrial complex, hit up the library and check out The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex by INCITE! Women Of Color Against Violence.


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Vegetarianism & feminist food autonomy: Why I don’t care what you ate for dinner.

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Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about food. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about my fairly recent decision to stop eating meat (I was pescetarian for about 2 years before also choosing not to eat seafood a couple of months ago). Because it’s recent change, a lot of people have asked me what motivated the decision. However, my answer always feels too complicated to adequately explain in casual conversation. Thankfully, that’s exactly when blogging comes so in handy! 

Firstly, here’s some reasons why being vegetarian works for me. I’m an animal person. I wholeheartedly believe that you can be an animal person and still eat meat but, lately, that just hasn’t worked for me. Not eating meat made sense for me philosophically and it didn’t disrupt my relationship to food or eating negatively so I thought, “why the hell not?” 

Secondly, in North America where so much meat is produced by factory farming, vegetarian diets* can be a way to build a more sustainable relationship with food and the environmentHowever, this is not to say that there aren’t plenty of ways to eat meat in a sustainable way and it’s important to consider that non-meat diets contain products which are the result of environmentally (and socially) harmful practice. (My decision to be vegetarian is similar to my decision to compost or take shorter showers. It’s just something I decided to incorporate in to my life as a way of reducing my negative impact on the planet.)

Being a vegetarian has also improved my relationship with food in general. Food shame is something we’re often taught to do to others and it’s definitely something women especially are taught to do to ourselves. Being a vegetarian hasn’t stopped me from food-shaming myself entirely (that kind of complicated unpacking of patriarchy is the sort of thing that requires a lifetime of work) but it has helped me to deflect some of my negative thinking. Instead of being concerned about calorie content, I can research what leafy greens have the most protein. Instead of searching a menu for the meal with the least amount of fat, I can ponder the many ways to replace meat with mushrooms. It’s not a perfect system. But, for the moment, it’s working and I’m having a lot more fun with food than I have in the past. 

Despite all of this, the most important pillar of my philosophy around vegetarianism is that I couldn’t care less whether or not you are.

This often confuses people and I can understand why because the vegetarians we’re used to seeing in the media are the kind of militant PETA-style anti-meat campaigners who tend to see discussions of diet through black and white lenses. Trust me, people who “diet preach” make me just as uncomfortable as the rest of you and most of the vegetarians I know are respectful folks who’ve just chosen to eat a certain way. Here’s three of the most significant reasons why my decision to eat or not eat meat has nothing to do with you and why your decision to eat or not eat meat is the least of my concerns.

1. Choosing a vegetarian or vegan diet is a privileged choice to make. Having the financial means to cut meat from a diet while still eating in a way that’s nutritious is challenging because fresh fruits and vegetables are often inaccessible and non-meat sources of protein like tofu and nuts are expensive. In 2012, Stats Canada determined that 13% of Canadian households are food insecure. On a collective level, ensuring people have enough to eat seems a hell of a lot more important than arguing about what we “should” or “shouldn’t” be eating. 

2. Food and eating are cultural phenomenon and, for a lot of people, meat is an important piece of cultural expression. Colonization, environmental degradation, and unsustainable practices of resource extraction have disrupted traditional ways of eating across the planet. In opposition to this, emphasizing culturally significant relationships to food can be essential components of decolonization. My friend Laura phrased this so well in her very poignant Facebook rant:

animal liberation activists screaming ‘it’s not food, it’s violence’ in front of my work on july first – a day which should be reserved for protests against the ongoing violent colonization of those indigenous to this land we call canada, who have sustained themselves by eating meat since time immemorial, who are only harmed by western animal rights movements, whose diets have been colonized and continue to be colonized, as with every aspect of their life and culture since contact. partake in vegetarianism/veganism if you want, stand up against animal abuse, fight against capitalist/corporate greed, eat ethical meat if you can afford it, do NOT lose sight of the privilege inherent in making any of those choices, and do not push your settler-colonial diet activism bullshit onto those whose land you stole.”

3. The way people (and especially women) are taught to relate to food is, to put it simply, fucked up and we really need to stop shaming each other about it. Food is a feminist issue. It’s a feminist issue in the ways that it intersects with class, culture, and colonization. But it’s also a feminist issue because judging you for eating meat is just as harmful as you judging me for eating dessert. From the very foundations of our relationships to food, eating, and each other, we need to see food-shame as any act that creates a hierarchy of diets. For many, feeling good about eating is hard enough – we don’t need to shame each other about what we’re eating too. 

To make a long story short, being a vegetarian makes me happy. However, what makes me even happier is emphasizing respect, compassion, and kindness when it comes to food and eating in general. So go ahead and order the ribs. I won’t judge you for eating them but I might make fun of the barbecue sauce on your nose… sorry.

*I use the word “diet” several times throughout this blog. To clarify, I’m using the word to just mean “the kind of food that someone eats” as opposed to it’s more colloquial reference to the restriction of food.

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