Journal of Canadian Studies

Sexualities and national identities: Re-imagining queer nationalism

by L Pauline Rankin

This article draws on the literature addressing citizenship, nationalism, feminism and queer politics in order to re-examine the relationship between national identities and sexual minorities in Canada today. In particular, the question of women's place within the constructs of mainstream nationalist discourses and queer nationalism is addressed. Using the concept of "relational positionality," the article advances a feminist analysis of the Queer Nation movement in order to reconsider the theoretical and political implications of a nationalism grounded in queer experience and to evaluate the extent to which queer nationalism can be "lesbian-friendly."

Cet article emprunte A la documentation traitant de la citoyennete, du nationalisme, du feminisme et des politiques homosexuelles afro de reexamines la relation actuelle entre les identites nationales et les minorites sexuelles au Canada. Plus particulierement, il est question de la place des femmes A l'interieur des structures des discours nationalistes courants et d'un nationalisme homosexuel. A l'aide du concept de la q positionalite relationnelle ,, l'article avance une analyse feministe du mouvement Queer Nation afire de reconsiderer les implications politiques et theoriques d'un nationalisme base sur l'experience homosexuelle et d'evaluer jusqu'A quel point le nationalisme homosexuel peut s'averer sympathique aux lesbiennes.


In 1967, the Supreme Court of Canada denied the appeal of Everett George Klippert, a mechanic's helper serving a life sentence whose admission of his homosexuality had led to his conviction as a dangerous sex offender. The controversy surrounding the decision initiated a public debate on homosexuality and prompted then Justice Minister Pierre Trudeau's now-famous comment that the "state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation."' Trudeau's statement signalled a relaxation of attitudes towards homosexuality on the part of the Canadian state, as well as the adoption of legal reforms, including the decriminalisation of homosexual activity. But his comments also reflected a social consensus that assigned matters of sexuality to the realm of the private sphere, effectively excluding such issues from the public domain. Despite the federal government's apparent liberalisation of policies around homosexuality, then, as now, the construction and maintenance of pan-Canadian nationalism demanded that the state remain keenly interested in what was happening in the bedrooms of its citizens. In fact, the project of defining national identities in Canada has always involved significant attention to the regulation of the sexual preferences and practices of Canadians.

This article reconsiders the relationship between national identities and sexual minorities in contemporary Canada in an exploration of the (pink?) triangle of nationalism, sexual diversity and feminism. In A Nation by Rights, Carl Stychin questions whether finding a place within nationalism for queer populations requires "naturalisation" and "homogenisation."[2] If we want to be part of the "universal" national community, must we surrender our politics, which are based on our difference? This essay asks that question twice: first with respect to the placement of queer Canadians within pan-Canadian nationalism; and then with respect to the place of lesbians within the queer nation. The article begins with an analysis of the relationship between nationalism and homophobia. It exposes the roots of homophobia and suggests why sexual minorities must theorise nationalism despite the continued exclusion of queer populations from full citizenship rights and membership in the Canadian nation. I survey the extent to which sexual minorities remain marginalised within expressions of pan-Canadian nationalism, and I analyse the role of national identities in current changes in queer equality.

The essay then explores the consequences of "naming nations."' At the beginning of the 1990s, sexual minorities internationally adopted the moniker of "queer" as an academic - and in some quarters political - tool, and embraced the language of nationalism through the controversial activism of Queer Nation. As a social movement in Canada, Queer Nation had a limited effect on the politics of sexual diversity. But this article reconsiders the theoretical and political implications of a nationalism grounded in queer experience. Finally, drawing from the insights of contemporary debates on feminist nationalism, I isolate the position of lesbians within queer nationalism and pan-Canadian nationalism to consider whether a reimagined queer nationalism could be lesbian-friendly.

Feminism, Nationalism and Homophobia

As escalating nationalist struggles have recaptured international attention in the past decade, feminists have turned their attention to the complex relationship between gender and nation. Many western feminists respond to nationalist campaigns with pessimistic pronouncements about the potentially devastating affect of unbridled nationalism on the lives of women and children. Political scientist Cynthia Enloe warns that nationalism is "sprung from masculinized memory, masculinized humiliation and masculinized hope."' Many majoritarian feminists doubt the possibility of a positive meshing of nationalist and feminist goals. Canadian scholars such as Patricia Smart insist that "[n]ations have without exception been the creations of fathers, wild spaces tamed and mapped and bordered by them in order that they be passed on to sons ... [n]ations ... have used women as reproducers and educators and nurturers, all the while excluding them from power and from public space."[5] Jill Vickers notes that even when feminist and nationalist objectives overlap, "a common feminist view is that relationships between women's movements and nationalist movements are always tense and produce only short-lived and conditional gains for women."

The essay in this volume show that some women are looking again at the encounters between feminism and nationalism. Accepted wisdom says that feminist agendas are "invariably sacrificed" to the cause of national liberation struggles because of an inherent incompatibility.' But recent feminist scholarship suggests that participation in specific nationalist movements and nation-building projects at particular historical moments may offer potential spaces for the expansion of gender equality. Ground-breaking collections such as Lois West's Feminist Nationalism seek to map the effect of feminist nationalist movements that are engaged in "seeking rights for women and rights for nationalists within a variety of social, economic and political contexts.""

In Canada, analysts have focussed primarily on the relationship between Quebec nationalist and feminist aspirations. Daiva Stasiulis's recent study of the relationships between nationalisms, racisms and feminisms in Quebec shows that deciphering the intersections between nationalism and feminism is a perplexing task: "Nationalism has both made possible forms of activism for women which were previously impossible and simultaneously limited in their horizons."' Stasiulis analyses nationalist projects that compete within a single geopolitical space. She argues that individuals and collectivities are differently located in relation to interconnected systems of power and domination. She uses the concept of "relational positionality," to explore "the multiple relations of power that intersect in complex ways to position individuals and collectivities in shifting and often contradictory locations within geopolitical spaces, historical narratives and movement politics."

When nationalist discourses, feminism and queer politics intersect, where are lesbians situated? Becki Ross recently traced the Lesbian Nation movement, which included primarily white, middle-class lesbian feminists in English Canada in the 1970s.[10] Following Ross I will look at the interplay of gender, sexual identities and nationalism. This interplay can yield valuable insights into Canadian nationalism, and into the place of lesbians within queer nationalist discourses.

I begin by naming the homophobia embedded in most nationalist discourses. Most nationalisms are intrinsically homophobic. (One exception is Aboriginal nationalism, which includes a tradition of "two-spirited peoples."") When we look at nationalisms and sexual identity, however, we see that homophobia functions as an integral element of most nationalisms. For example, nationalism is typically represented as a passionate brotherhood [in which] the nation finds itself compelled to distinguish its proper homosociality from more explicitly sexualized male-male relations, a compulsion that requires the identification, isolation and containment of male homosexuality." The nuclear family is the definitive metaphor for many nationalisms:

The family trope is important for nationalism in at least two ways. First, it offers a "natural" figure for sanctioning national hierarchy within a putative organic unity of interests. Second, it offers a "natural" trope for figuring national time."

Some nationalists equate preservation of patriarchal, heterosexualised, familial relationships with the survival of the nation. Often nationalists portray the nation as female. They use this powerful metaphor to encourage male citizens to protect the "mother country." In military propaganda, the metaphor has been used to rationalise rape as a weapon of war or nation-building.[14]

Many nationalist discourses are defined by the marginalisation and manipulation of women: their exclusion from positions of power within public spheres. As well, many states try to control women's reproductive capacities. Some feminists believe analysing women's role as teachers of language, ethnicity and culture is key to understanding the character of nationalism.

In Canada, the nation-building project produced a legacy of homophobic, racist and sexist public policy including criminal sanctions against homosexual activity. Citizenship and immigration laws are often sexist, as is family law. Employment rights, education rights, health care rights, civil rights and censorship are all designed to safeguard the sanctity of the "national family." Internationally, the lesbian community's attempts to belong to the nation have been complicated by gender and sexual identity.

Where the heterosexual family played such a central role in the nation's public imaginings that motherhood could be viewed as a national service, female nonreproductive sexuality and female-female eroticism [were] constrained, as a consequence, to operate within the domestic (or at least the private) domain." Scholars of sexual minorities in Canada have noted that historically, sexual minorities have existed on the periphery of the pan-Canadian nation. My goal is to illustrate the extent to which the relationship between nation and citizenship has relied on "hegemonic masculinity and naturalized heterosexuality.[11,16]

Queering the Canadian Nation

Recent work on the construction and deconstruction of the Canadian nation-state has unearthed the extent to which compulsory heterosexuality functioned as an integral element of Canada's nation-building strategies. Jan Penrose's historical overview of nation-building mechanisms, for example, concludes that the hegemonic vision of the Canadian citizen was explicitly male and implicitly - insofar as other alternatives were even considered - heterosexual .... Although the actual composition of hegemonic groups shifted slightly over time, and between internal factions, they shared a common commitment to a vision of Canada which acknowledged its colonial inheritance in language, custom and religion and which saw men as the rightful molders of a white heterosexual nation.[17]

Studies that chronicle the relationship between sexual minorities and the Canadian state confirm that homophobia was deeply rooted within early visions of the new nation.[18] Penrose, for example, notes the entrenchment in law from the time of Confederation of a taboo against homosexual acts. These acts were punishable by up to 14 years in prison. The law remained in existence until 1969.[19] Mariana Valverde's research confirms that the suppression of alternative sexualities was deemed crucial in tum-of-the-century Canada because of the state's interest in pronatalism, but also because "Sexual morality was an important component of what was known as 'character' [which was] in turn an important part of the project of building a nation that was moral as well as prosperous." Sociologist Gary Kinsman exposes the coercive regulation of sexual identities by the Canadian state, and documents the fragmented and partial nature of civil, political and social citizenship rights for queers in areas ranging from police protection, immigration rights and access to pension benefits. Kinsman's work on the actions of the Canadian security state during the 1940s vis-a-vis gays and lesbians, for example, attests to the profound stigma attached to homosexuality during the Cold War. His research on the "gay purges" conducted throughout the federal civil service and the extraordinary lengths to which the Canadian state went to protect itself against the alleged moral weakness of gay and lesbian employees makes explicit the rationalisation of homophobic action in the name of preserving and protecting the Canadian nation.[21] It is beyond the purview of this essay to reconstruct a history of queer oppression in Canada; however, the contributions of Penrose, Valverde, Kinsman and others illustrate how such discrimination was supported by a particular nation-building approach - entrenched in Canada and internationally which erected barriers to full citizenship rights for queer communities in order to perpetuate a narrow definition of who constituted "good citizens."

As pan-Canadian nationalism was being bolstered in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the marginalisation of queers from the national family continued. Clearly, the framing of Canadian nationalism altered significantly from the Confederation era until the debates over the constitutional future of Canada in the late 1970s. By the 1970s queer populations were seen as a legitimate social movement in the wake of post-Stonewall gay and lesbian activism. Yet, even amidst efforts to strengthen the articulation of Canadian nationalism in a more progressive period, the marginalisation of queer communities continued. A milestone in any account of pan-Canadian nationalism is the 1982 patriation of the Canadian Constitution. Guy Laforest argues that "[t]he fundamental objective of the authors of the 1982 constitution seems to have been to promote throughout Canada (including Quebec) a political culture capable of reinforcing in each citizen the feeling of belonging to a single Canadian nation. But the 1980 decision of the Special Joint Committee of the Senate and the House of Commons to exclude sexual orientation from Section 15 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms meant that the newly minted symbol of inclusive Canadian nationhood explicitly denied gays and lesbians the right to freedom from discrimination. By extension, it denied them a secure place within the Canadian nation. Queer Canadians wanted protection from discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. This was denied until gays and lesbians pressured the Boyer Committee, a House of Commons Justice Committee looking at equality rights. This pressure resulted in a recommendation in the Boyer Committee's 1985 report, Equality for All, that federal and provincial human rights codes be amended to include sexual orientation. While some provincial and territorial governments responded to this recommendation in a timely fashion, it would take the federal government almost 11 years to comply with the report. In 1996, passage of Bill C-33 finally amended the Canadian Human Rights Act to include sexual orientation.

Queer Canadians celebrated the passage ot Bill L-33 as the culminaton of years of intensive lobbying and hailed the decision as a breakthrough in queer equality. David Rayside's detailed account of the machinations that accompanied that legislation, however, exposes the limitations of the changes adopted and the resilience of resistance to tampering with definitions of "the family." Rayside recounts that in 1992, then Justice Minister Kim Campbell introduced an amendment to the Canadian Human Rights Act that included sexual orientation. This was accompanied by a provision "stipulating that marital status ... was to be defined in exclusively heterosexual terms."[23] Later, the Liberal Party found itself embroiled in internal divisions over the thorny question of amending the Human Rights Act. Indeed, at the moment of the Liberal government's introduction of Bill C-33, in April 1996, the Justice Department issued an information booklet that assured Canadians that "the bill would not have a negative impact on the traditional family; it would have no bearing on definitions of 'marriage,' 'family' or 'spouse' it would not lead to adoption by same-sex couples; [and that] the government planned no changes to other federal legislation."[24] Rayside reports the bill passed with "repeated government assurances of what it would not do ... particularly in the realm of relationship recognition. The bill came with an ambiguous preamble affirming the importance of the family and denying any wish to alter the family's role in society, a family that remained heterosexual by definition."[25] This delicate manoeuvering and hedging on the part of the federal Liberals around Bill C-33 was influenced by the experience of Ontario's Bill 167, a bid to recognise same-sex relationships. Rayside's analysis concludes that by the time Bill 167 was defeated in 1994, the provincial struggle had claimed the political life of Ontario Liberal leader Lyn McLeod, seriously eroded the credibility of the NDP as a defender of gay and lesbian rights, and levelled a significant setback to queer organising across the country.

More recent events have brought substantial successes for queer populations in the drive for equality in federal and provincial settings. Beginning in the early 1990s, the government of British Columbia initiated the redefinition of "spouse" in provincial legislation and in 1995 revised the Adoption Act to allow same-sex couples to adopt and foster children. The May 1999 landmark decision of M v H & Ontario, in which the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the opposite-sex definition of "spouse" in Ontario's Family Law Act was unconstitutional, was hailed as a breakthrough in the area of relationship recognition. Despite the steady and important march towards the legal equality of queer populations, contemporary Canadian politics still exhibits vestiges of the enduring resistance on the part of the state to dislodge the heterosexual family from its centrality within conceptualisations of the Canadian nation. The government of British Columbia introduced a "Definition of Spouse Amendment Act" in July 1999 in response to the M v H decision. The Ontario government chose to introduce omnibus legislation to comply with the Supreme Court ruling, but refused to extend the definition of "spouse."[26] Even in the wake of successive judicial decisions sympathetic to queer citizens, and despite legislative reforms designed to extend equality rights to gays and lesbians, governments hostile to gay and lesbian rights embrace the discourse of "family values" as justification for resistance to any redefinition of the family. Consider the case of Delwin Vriend, for example. Vriend was a gay man employed by Kings College in Red Deer, Alberta, who was dismissed on the grounds that his homosexuality violated the religious policy of the school. It took a unanimous decision by the Supreme Court of Canada in 1998 to force the Alberta government to amend its Individual Rights Protection Act to include finally gays and lesbians. The Alberta government reluctantly complied, but only after musing publicly about invoking Section 33 of the Charter (the notwithstanding clause) to avoid the Supreme Court's decision. The Alberta government subsequently announced that lesbians, gays and bisexuals in Alberta would no longer be eligible as foster parents.

On the national stage, Parliament has given contradictory messages about sexual diversity. There is a lingering reluctance to tamper with traditional definitions of marriage and the family. In the wake of the M v H decision, the House of Commons voted overwhelmingly in June 1999 to support a Reform Party motion opposing same-sex marriage. Introduced by Reform MP Eric Lowther, the motion affirmed the exclusion of gays and lesbians from legal marriage and committed Parliament to take all necessary steps to safeguard the institution. Less than a year later, the House of Commons passed the landmark Bill C-23, the Modernizing Benefits and Obligations Act that provides same-sex couples with rights and responsibilities equal to those of heterosexual married couples. But as John Fisher, Executive Director of EGALE, commented in wake of Bill C-23's passage: "There is no question that the Liberal Government's shameless last-minute introduction into the Bill of an exclusionary definition of 'marriage' taints the message of equality and acceptance which the Bill would otherwise have provided."[27]

As the framing and re-framing of Canadian nationalism continues to evolve, queer populations find themselves differently positioned within nationalist discourses. It is important to note that queer populations in Quebec have had a distinct experience within contemporary Quebec nationalism. While undoubtedly the nationalism of the eglise-nation was decidedly homophobic, the secular nationalism of the Quiet Revolution ushered in a relaxation around issues related to sexuality. Many of the key figures active in the Quebec nationalist movement in the 1960s were members of the cultural community; some of them, such as Michel Tremblay and Nicole Brossard, were openly gay. This heightened public profile among the cultural elite in Quebec helped to redefine the parameters of nationalism in relation to sexuality and sexual identity, and this redefinition was translated into early legislative gains. Following their election in 1976, the Parti quebecois amended Quebec's Charter of Rights in 1977 to include protection from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, the first jurisdiction in North America to do so. But even though a more lenient attitude towards sexual minorities marked the Quiet Revolution, the extension of rights for sexual minorities in Quebec largely stalled throughout the 1980s, perhaps because the original passage of human rights protection had involved limited organised activism on the part of Quebec's gay and lesbian movement.[29]

In June 1999, the PQ advanced the equality rights of same-sex partners with the passage of Bill 32. The bill changed the definition of "spouse" to include samesex spouses. Whether this initiative flowed from a more informed and progressive position on the issue of sexual minorities or was inspired by a desire for a more inclusive nationalism that embraced sexual diversity cannot easily be determined. It is noteworthy, however, that the 1999 legislation excluded those adoption rights that had been granted four years earlier in British Columbia.[30] Nevertheless, the example of Quebec illustrates that nationalist discourses are fluid and historically and spatially specific. They can therefore affect certain populations differently in particular contexts.

Scholars of sexual diversity politics in Canada, whether focussed on federal, provincial or territorial states, concur that the statutory gains achieved in Canada over the past decade have been vital in erasing the long history of legislated discrimination against the queer community. Considerable debate continues among academics and activists, however, in debating the merits of this "rights-based" strategy as the most effective means of achieving substantive equality for queer citizens and altering the discourses of Canadian nationalism." Kathleen Lahey's survey of the recent legal history of sexual minorities in Canada argues that "the presumption of heterosexual privileges continues to operate ... and continues to support provision and practices that impair their legal 'personhood' in myriad ways." She concludes rather pessimistically that "[d]espite the extension of the Charter to sexuality in growing numbers of cases, sexual minorities are now being overwhelmed by the continuing uncertainties of `incremental discrimination."[32] Whether legal guarantees can transform assumptions about belonging and identity within the Canadian nation clearly remains an open question. Carl Stychin cautions that in the current bid for inclusion in the national community, lesbians, gays and bisexuals attempt in various ways to construct themselves as "'good' citizens ... that is, 'normal' citizens," an approach that may do little to alter the dominant nationalist discourse.[33] His analysis is supported by Becki Ross, who rightly reminds us that, for example, legal reforms have not reversed the suppression of queer history from dominant Canadian narratives; nor have they addressed the absence of cultural representations of queer Canadians from mainstream media.[31]

These important debates over the implications of the strategic choices of the queer movement vis-a-vis the national community are occurring within an era in which the masculinist character of contemporary Canadian nationalism appears to be deepening. Jill Vickers describes current pan-Canadian nationalism as increasingly macho. In her reading of Canada's nationalist discourse, Canada is positioning itself as a dynamic global competitor aggressively seeking markets and grabbing them from racialised others in trade missions of (all male and white) first ministers. The economic rationalism at the core of the neo-liberal "new nationalism" marginalises both women's movements and traditional nationalisms, because each espouses goals and values not achievable within an analysis driven by the bottom line.

Throughout the last decade, many feminists expressed similar insights. They discuss the dramatic reshaping of economic and social policies by federal and provincial governments; they also discuss the long-term affects of the neo-liberal agenda on Canadian society." The character of this "new" nationalist vision found explicit articulation in the Reform Party of Canada. Tracey Raney argues that integral to the party's vision is a re-entrenchment of a strict divide between the public and private spheres. This divide enabled the party to orchestrate a nationalist discourse that sought to maintain and control the purportedly "natural" boundaries that distinguish private from public life and masculinity from femininity. The Reform Party's brand of nationalism focussed on the link between "national home and family" and argued for a return to "family values" to confront the "state of emergency" facing Canadian families in the name of Canadian nationalism. As Raney recounts, the party's opposition to Bill C-33 in 1996 rested on the argument that extension of workplace protection would spill over into an undermining of the traditional family:

The exclusion of gays and lesbians from receiving the "rights" given to traditional families illustrates the way in which social identities are implicated in the nationalist project of the Reform Party of Canada. Since the New Canada rests upon the shoulders of the traditional family, those who are excluded from the "privileges" of the family are necessarily excluded from the nation as well. Thus, the special role afforded to the private space in the nationalist project of the Reform Party of Canada enables the Reform Party to craft the New Canada as a heterosexist space without explicitly referring to gays and lesbians.[37]

The Reform Party's anti-gay rhetoric is similar to sentiments emanating from the leadership of the newly created Canadian Alliance Party. How can a panCanadian nationalism be re-imagined to accord full membership and belonging to sexual minorities in our current ideological climate? To respond to that question, it is instructive to review earlier expressions of queer nationalism in Canada.

Naming the Queer Nation

The origins of Queer Nation can be traced to the valiant attempt to stem the tide of homophobia that accompanied the ascendancy of the New Right in North American and western European politics in the 1985. The neo-conservative revolution associated with the governments of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and to a lesser extent, Brian Mulroney, privileged a "family values" platform that was accompanied, in some contexts, by a particularly virulent anti-gay rhetoric.[38] Queer populations were subjected to public condemnation by organisations such as the Moral Majority, in the United States, and REAL (Realistic, Equal, Active for Life) Women in Canada. As social conservatism gained currency throughout the 1980s, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered populations were targetted for increased discrimination on a number of fronts, including blame for the spread of the AIDS virus. This oppression had fatal consequences. In Canada, for example, delay of a federal AIDS strategy meant that queer communities witnessed the death of loved ones without state response to the growing epidemic.[19] The government's decision to stall a serious commitment to AIDS education, research and treatment underscored the extent to which gay and lesbian populations were denied full citizenship rights.

Queer activists realised the danger of disregarding issues related to national identity and belonging. One response to the urgent circumstances was the founding of Queer Nation. Organised in New York City in April 1990, the group emerged out of ACT-UP, a coalition mobilised three years earlier to address what it deemed the "criminal slowness of the American government's response to AIDS epidemic ... and a more general attack on the homophobia which had such mortal results in the first years of the AIDS crisis."[40] Jeffrey Escoffier argues that the devastating impact of AIDS on the gay male population forced the community to reshape its identity politics and expand its mobilisation to incorporate the "kinship of all sexual minorities and the range of possible gender roles, ethnic and racial identities."[41] In adopting the term queer, the newly constituted community sought to represent anyone who differed from the white heterosexual norm.

The Queer Nation movement gained international attention through its deliberately confrontational approach, which rejected the civil-rights strategy that had defined gay liberation. Queer Nation supporters dismissed the civil-rights strategy as incremental and assimilationist. Instead of defying powerful institutions directly or lobbying to bring about change, Queer Nation took to the streets. New York's Queer Nation staged a highly visible poster campaign to "transform the passive public space of New York into a zone of political pedagogy." As Lauren Berlant and Elizabeth Freeman explain:

In the retro-nostalgia impulse of post-modernism Queer Nation redeploy[ed] these tactics in a kind of guerrilla warfare that name[d] all concrete and abstract spaces of social communication and places where "the people" live and thus as national sites ripe both for transgression and legitimate visibility.[42]

The group's philosophy of naming as a strategic weapon translated into a tactical repertoire that included the controversial practice of "outing" gays or lesbians who were famous or politically conservative. Queer Nation's politics also involved an intriguing spatialisation of activism. For example, performance art and "kissins" in public spaces like shopping malls exposed the heterosexualisation of public space. This brand of counterpolitics effectively (although perhaps unintentionally) challenged the tenet of nationalism that dictates that a nation holds or has claim to a defined territory. In this case, the queering of public space validated alternative sexualities as already having a territorial presence coterminous with the existing nations and thus in a position to claim legitimately or reclaim terrain in the name of a queer identity." Queer Nation constituted an ironic response to the exclusionary character of the nation. The movement's nationalist rhetoric implied a desire to name another nation in order to solidify the identity of a legitimate "imagined community."'

The appeal to a nationalist discourse had other implications. By calling themselves a nation, queer activists appealed to the exclusionism inherent in nationalism. They sought to build a community founded on seemingly contradictory notions of difference and identity. But as Escoffier and Allan Berube point out, embedded in constructions of queer nationalism was the melding of perhaps irreconcilable tensions. Queer equals difference; nation equals sameness. The tension ultimately proved untenable for its architects.[41]

Intellectually, Queer Nation drew from queer theory that blended insights from French post-structuralism and Lacanian psychoanalysis to recast the plurality of sexual identities as multiple, relational and constantly open to reconstitution. Indeed, the markers of queer theory include a rejection of a unified homosexual identity and of the master categories of heterosexuality and homosexuality.[46] According to Arlene Stein and Ken Plummer, queer theory privileges a conceptualisation of sexuality that sees sexual power embodied in different levels of social life - the problematisation of sexual and gender categories and of identities in general; a rejection of civil-rights strategies in favour of a politics of carnival, transgression and parody; finally, a willingness to interrogate areas that normally would not be seen as the terrain of sexuality.[41]

In their summary of Queer Nation's emergence, Escoffier and Berube predicted: "If they manage not to blow up in contradiction or get bogged down in the process, [Queer Nation] may lead the way into new forms of activism for the 1990s."' In fact, their identification of the potential pitfalls of Queer Nation proved prophetic. Although Queer Nation groups appeared in several centres in Canada, by the decade's end, few survived in either Canada or the United States. Clearly, however, queer theory survived and became established in academia as a lens through which to critique the cultural impact of institutionalised heterosexuality.

The Queer Nation experiment generated minimal academic attention in Canada, where the group had a limited profile.[49] Although Queer Nation Canada stalled by the mid-1990s with little post-mortem, the strategy of pursuing a "pink nationalism" may merit reassessment, given the current global focus on nationalist struggles. Recent theoretical work on the impact of naming nations, for example, suggests interesting possibilities for a contemporary rethinking of the Queer Nation project. In her examination of the nationalist movements of Quebecois and Aboriginal peoples, Jane Jenson demonstrates that through the act of self-naming, social movements making claims to a collective identity and nationhood can affect both the universe of political discourse and the political opportunity structure in which they mobilise. She argues that through the embracing of a national identity, social movements can generate strategic resources. They can define some claims as meaningful and others as less relevant. They can locate their community in relationship to allies and opponents, and they can affect the routing of claims through state institutions."Jenson's analysis illustrates that movements with legitimate claims to nationhood may employ nationalist discourses strategically to achieve specific goals. Her insights, if applied to the queer community, suggest that the deployment of a nationalist strategy may yield interesting political opportunities for queer movements attempting to influence existing nationalist discourses.

Do sexual minorities constitute a legitimate nation? A recent analysis of gay nationalism by philosopher Brian Walker convincingly argues the case for acknowledging the nationhood of queer populations. Walker concludes that "[o]ur tendency to dismiss gay nationalism as a derivative and parodistic form relies on an implicit distinction between true and false nationalism which is harder to flesh out discursively than it seems at first."" His review of the contested criteria employed in traditional assessments of nationalist claims concludes that the queer community does fit within contemporary definitions of a non-contiguous cultural group to whom collective rights should be extended. The revival of pink nationalism suggests interesting possibilities for achieving symbolic and substantive change through challenging the dominant pan-Canadian nationalist discourse.

Neither Jenson nor Walker addresses issues of difference within the nations they consider. Here Stychin's observation is instructive, particularly for lesbian communities. Stychin described the "membership costs" involved in claiming access to the dominant nationalism through campaigns that sought to merge a panoply of alternative sexualities to create a pluralistic queer nationalism. Feminist scholarship offers insights into issues of internal differences. Micheline de Seve's work on women and nationalism, for example, encourages recognition that "the complexities of class, gender, ethnic and national identities of concrete political female subjects criss-cross to prevent any simplified version of a mythical women's unified position."[12] Her insights confirm the need to consider carefully the relational positionality of lesbians within any reconstituted queer nationalism.

Lesbians and Nationalism

In this final section, I explore the "relational positionality" of lesbians in an attempt to situate lesbians at the intersections of feminism, queer politics and pan-Canadian nationalism. In contemporary Canada, clashes over nationalist claims continue to surface on the public agenda; similar debates circulate on the international stage, where feminists grapple with the marginalisation of women, including lesbians, within national identity struggles. Jacqui Alexander and Chandra Mohanty caution that "[c]ertain women, prostitutes, and lesbians are now being disciplined and written out of the nation's script; they have been invested with the power to corrupt otherwise loyal heterosexual citizens, positioned as hostile to the procreative imperative of nation-building, and, therefore invested with the ability and desire to destroy it."

Questions of the relationship between lesbianism and nationalism are not confined to the past decade. Becki Ross charts the nascent growth of lesbian collective solidarity in Canada, which paralleled the rise in political activism characteristic of the late 1960s and early 1970s.[1] Ross's research vividly captures the multi-layered project of identity formation that preoccupied lesbians during this exciting time and presented both opportunities and constraints for alliance building with gay men, feminism, the New Left and in some instances Quebec sovereignty. Engagement with nationalist ideas, and in particular the project of creating a lesbian separatist culture, were spurred on by writings such of American Jill Johnston's Lesbian Nation: A Feminist Solution. Such literature addressed the chasm between feminism and lesbianism that marked the women's movement at that time and, in contrast to the queer nationalist campaigns of the early 1990s, constituted an "unironic choice of the nation as an image of an all-female erotic community."- The radical utopian perspective that appealed for a lesbian nation envisioned a community that "would exist not necessarily as a geographical entity but as a state of mind" capable of widespread social and political transformation.' Lesbians across Canada experimented with creating various cultural and political spaces designed to define the Lesbian Nation as distinct from other Canadians. As the separatist women's culture unfolded, however, the vision of the Lesbian Nation "proved to be neither durable nor elastic enough to last."[5]  Ross explains that the vision of the Lesbian Nation "flared and sputtered" within five years.[18] There were conflicts over the exclusion of women from racialised minorities. There were questions about sexual practice and lifestyle. There were ideological debates and additional political agendas.

As Miriam Smith recounts, the women's movement constituted "a powerful pole of attraction for lesbian activists during the 1970s and, despite the reluctance of mainstream feminism to deal with lesbian issues, many women chose to participate in the feminist movement rather than the gay liberation movement."[59] Yet substantial numbers of lesbians vehemently rejected the abstract and universalising feminist theories popular at the time. Those theories articulated the commonality of women's oppression. Lesbian feminism emerged in the 1970s as a philosophical derivative of radical feminism, offering a critique of heterosexuality as an institution that perpetuated women's oppression but anchoring its struggle within the larger feminist movement. Lesbians active in feminist organisations sought commitments regarding human rights code protection, access to services, child custody rights and non-discrimination in housing and employment within feminist agendas. They demanded an end to homophobia within women's movements. Lesbian feminists were shaping their praxis when a large gay liberation movement was emerging. The critical issue of the late 1960s and early 1970s was reconciling participation in the women's movement with involvement in gay politics, where lesbian issues were often swamped by a larger gay male constituency. Ross states that by the mid-1970s, gay activists committed themselves to a civil-rights political strategy, and many lesbians abandoned gay liberation projects in favour of lesbian-only or feminist political involvements. Many lesbians withdrew from gay liberation groups after experiencing sexism from some gay men. These lesbians rejected the materialism of a "rising gay capitalism" and accepted the points of divergence between gay men and lesbians over their respective agendas.[60]

Within feminism, lesbian issues frequently resulted in tension, confusion and ruptures. Heterosexual women feared the negative ramifications of a public commitment to lesbian issues." For example, the issue of lesbian rights was not addressed explicitly at the 1972 Strategy for Change founding conference of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC). A minority caucus at the meeting called for the protection of sexual orientation in the human rights code as part of their agenda.[62] Jeri Dawn Wine, a founder of the National Lesbian Forum, maintains that NAC avoided the split over lesbian participation that the National Organization of Women suffered in the United States only at the cost of a decade of silence on the part of Canadian lesbians.[63] It would take until 1985 for NAC to include lesbian issues in its agenda - after the entrenchment of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and in the context of a high-profile and successful campaign by lesbian activists in connection with the Boyer Committee.[64]

Throughout the 1980s, Canadian lesbians, galvanised by the threat of the New Right,[61] reinvolved themselves, sometimes reluctantly, in mixed-gender politics, through vehicles like the Coalition for Gay Rights in Ontario, which maintained an active lobby agenda, targetting issues such as amending the province's Human Rights Code and the battle for same-sex benefits. While the campaigns around reform of human rights codes at both the federal and provincial levels were gay led, support came from lesbians and the women's movement more generally, although parts of the women's movement had hesitated.[66] A lesbian presence within their organisations pressured feminists to acknowledge lesbians within their ranks and tackle questions of lesbian rights and homophobia. But too frequently feminist groups ignored lesbian issues at a time when women's movements preferred to distance themselves from gay politics in order to protect their public image.

State-directed initiatives to overcome discrimination against gays and lesbians yielded successful outcomes in the 1990s.[11] Struggles for lesbian rights increasingly were channelled towards addressing legal inequalities in mixed-gender organisations. Within women's movements, attention to the intersections of multiple oppressions and questions of how best to weave together this panoply of identities and solidify effective coalitions preoccupied the feminist agenda. Minority women, including lesbians, continued to demonstrate that their various locations - defined in terms of race, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, ability, age or geography - vis-a-vis majority women of the dominant culture meant that they were differently affected by public policies, programmes, and entitlements, and therefore differently connected to the state and nation. These debates consumed substantial feminist energies, with the result that state-focussed lobbying by women's movements did little to advance the specific equality demands of lesbian feminists.

By the time queer nationalism surfaced in the 1990s, lesbians had endured a long history of complicated negotiation within the gay liberation movement and feminist movements. The multi-layered positioning of lesbian communities in relation to other movements, and the multiple identities that define individual lesbian experience, resulted in significant suspicion of the Queer Nation analysis. In emphasising the fluidity and instability of identity categories, a nationalist discourse informed by queer theory sometimes muddied distinctions between masculine and feminine, thus effectively rendering gender a meaningless concept. Lesbian feminists charged that this stance papered over the specificities of the oppression lesbians experience as women within a patriarchal state, and encouraged the construction of woman and lesbian as permeable categories." According to Sue Wilkinson and Celia Kitzinger, this amounted to a serious undermining of lesbian feminist politics:

As the meanings of heterosexuality and homosexuality become blurred within a fantasy world of ambiguity, indeterminacy and charade, the material realities of oppression and the feminist politics of resistance are forgotten."[69]

Feminist scholars of nationalisms in developing countries maintain the need to focus on women's place within emerging nationalisms. They note the tendency for women to be eclipsed in nationalist struggles. As R. Radhakrishnan queries:

Why is it that the advent of the politics of nationalism signals the subordination if not the demise of women's politics? Why does the politics of the "one" typically overwhelm the politics of the "other"? Why could the two not be coordinated within an equal and dialogic relationship of mutual accountability?'

So far, queer nationalism has not adequately problematised lesbian experience. But queer theory informed by feminist insights does hold the potential for creating a nationalist frame that includes the complexities of queer identities and those of lesbians. As I have argued, the insights of Jenson and Walker suggest that such a task could prove important as a liberatory strategy for queer Canadians.

Meanwhile, mainstream nationalist discourses retain an interest in lesbianism as it concerns national membership. Although this preoccupation spans a range of issues, including questions of whether any sexual minority can function as "good" citizens, as with heterosexual women within pan-Canadian nationalism, lesbians' reproductive capacity and the so-called "lesbian baby boom" of the past decade are of particular consequence, given that nationalisms characteristically are concerned with women's role in transmitting the cultural identities of their nations." In contrast to developing states, where lesbian sexuality often has been criminalised because of its non-procreative nature, legislatures in Canada currently are scrambling to regulate the reproduction and child-rearing of lesbians and their partners in myriad ways, including restricted access to new reproductive technologies. Despite numerous legal victories, much vulnerability remains for lesbians and their families within an environment dominated by the masculinist heterosexualised scripts that still inform Canadian nationalism.

If Carl Stychin is correct in asserting that "an appeal to the heterosexual nuclear family becomes an anchor to grab in an increasingly confusing 'new' world order,"[72] then we must brace ourselves for an escalation of the heterosexist nature of pan-Canadian nationalism in our increasingly globalised, neo-liberal society. Any reconstituted nationalism among sexual minorities must address the "relational positionality" of lesbians vis-a-vis queer politics, feminism and the patriarchal, homophobic and racist practices of the Canadian state. Queer theory can supply a critical analysis of national identities as constantly in flux, and therefore capable of re-creation to form new, inclusive, imagined communities. What is now most pressing is the articulation of an alternative, transformative nationalist discourse from a "pink perspective." Such a project can begin the process of re-imagining nationalist discourses in Canada in new and exciting ways that are liberatory for both queer and non-queer communities.


The author wishes to thank the Journal's anonymous reviewer whose detailed critique offered many valuable and Insightful comments.

1. For a full account of these events, consult Gary Kinsman, The Regulation of Desire (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1996).

2. Carl Stychin, A Nation By Rights (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998) 3.

3. The concept of "naming nations" is drawn from jape Jenson, "Naming Nations: Making Nationalist Claims in Canadian Public Discourse," Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology 30.3 (1993): 337-58.

4. Cynthia Enloe, Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense ofinternational Politics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990) 44.

5. S. Patricia Smart, "The (In?) Compatibility of Gender and Nation in Canadian Quebecois Feminist Writing" Essays on Canadian Writing, eds. Jack David and Robert Lecker. (Toronto: ECW Press, 1994) 15.

6. Jill Vickers, this volume.

7. Lois A. West, "Introduction: Feminism Constructs Nationalism," Feminist Nationalism (New York: Routledge, 1997).

8. Ibid. xxx.

9. Catherine Hall as quoted in Daiva K. Stasiulis, "Nationalisms, Racisms," Between Woman and Nation: Nationalisms, Transnationalism Feminisms, and the State. Eds. Caren Kaplan, Norma Alarcon and Minoo Moallem (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999) 182.

10. Becki Ross, "A Lesbian Politics of Erotic Decolonization," Painting the Maple: Essays on Race, Gender, and the Construction of Canada (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1998) 187-214.

11. See, for example, Beatrice Medicine, "`Warrior Women' - Sex Role Alternatives for Plains Indian Women," The Hidden Half. Studies of Plains Indian Women, eds. Patricia Alberts & Beatrice Medicine (Washington, DC: University Press of America, 1983) and Susan Beaver, "Gays and Lesbians of the First Nations," Piece of My Heart: A Lesbian of Colour Anthology, ed. Makeda Silvera (Toronto: Sister Vision, 1991).

12. Andrew Parker, Mary Russo, Doris Sommer and Patricia Yaeger, "Introduction," Nationalism & Sexualities (New York: Routledge, 1992) 6.

13. Anne McClintock, Aamir Mufit and Ella Shohat eds. Dangerous Liaisons: Gender, Nation & Postcolonial Perspectives (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997) 90.

14. On this point, see Enloe.

15. Andrew Parker et al. "Introduction" 7.

16. Ross 188.

17. Jan Penrose, "Construction, De(con)struction and Reconstruction. The Impact of Globalization and Fragmentation of the Canadian Nation State," International Journal of Canadian Studies 16 (Fall/Automne 1997): 28.

18. Again, the most comprehensive source on this history is Kinsman.

19. Penrose 28.

20. Mariana Valverde, The Age o fLight, Soap and Water: Moral Reform in English Canada, 18851925 (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1993) 104.

21. Gary Kinsman, "'Character Weaknesses' and `Fruit Machines': Towards an Analysis of the Anti-Homosexual Security Campaigns in the Canadian Civil Service," Labour/Le travail 35 (Spring 1995): 133-61.

22. Guy Laforest, Trudeau and the End of a Canadian Dream (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1995) 133, emphasis added.

23. David Rayside, On The Fringe: Gays Sr Lesbians in Politics (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998) 111.

24. Ibid. 115.

25. Ibid. 136. Rayside notes also that Bill C-33 did not add sexual orientation to the section of the Human Rights Act addressing affirmative action.

26. On these changes see "BC introduces new same-sex laws, commits to omnibus legislation, " EGALE Press Release and "Ontario introduces omnibus legislation, refuses to extend definition of 'spouse,"' EGALE Press Release

27. See "Press Release,"

28. Stychin.

29. Miriam Smith, "Social Movements and Equality Seeking: The Case of Gay Liberation in Canada," Canadian Journal ofPolitical Science XXXI.2 Uune 1998): 306.

30. I am grateful to the Journal's anonymous reviewer for bringing this point to MY attention.

31. Diana Majury, "Representing Lesbians and Gays in Law" Inside the Academy and Out, eds. Janice L. Ristock and Catherine G. Taylor (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998).

32. Kathleen A. Lahey, "Are We 'Persons' Yet?" Law and Sexuality in Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999) 342.

33. Stychin 13.

34. Ross.

35. Jill Vickers, this volume.

36. See, for example Isabella Bakker ed., Rethinking Restructuring: Gender and Change in Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996).

37. Tracey Raney, "Redrawing the Map of Canada," unpublished MA thesis (Carleton University, School of Canadian Studies, 1998) 141.

38. For an excellent comparative analysis of these governments, consult Sylvia Bashevkin, Women on the Defensive: Living Through Conservative Tunes (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998).

39. On the implementation of the national AIDS strategy, consult Gary Kinsman, "Managing AIDS Organizing: 'Consultation/ 'Partnership,' and the National AIDS Strategy," Organizing Dissent: Contemporary Social Movements in Theory and Practice, ed. William K. Carroll (Toronto: Garamond Press 1992).

40. Brian Walker, "Social Movements as Nationalisms or, On the Very Idea of a Queer Nation," Rethinking Nationalism Canadian Journal of Philosophy Supplementary, eds. Jocelyne Couture, Kai Nielsen and Michel Seymour, 22 (1996)- 505.

41. Jeffrey Escoffier, American Homo: Community and Perversity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998) 215.

42. Lauren Berlant and Elizabeth Freeman, "Queer Nationality," Gendered Agents: Women and Institutional Knowledge, eds. Silverstra Mariniello and Paul A. Bove (Durham: Duke University Press, 1998) 247.

43. Ibid. 260.

44. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1991).

45. Jeffrey Escoffier and Allan Berube, "Reflections on Queer Nation" 203.

46. Steven Seidman, ed. "Introduction," Queer Theory/Sociology (London: Blackwell, 1996) 12.

47. Arlene Stein and Ken Plummer, "'I Can't Even Think Straight': 'Queer' Theory and the Missing Sexual Revolution in Sociology," Queer Theory/Sociology 134.

48. Escoffier and BMrube 204.

49. David Rayside, for example, describes Queer Nation as exhibiting "youthful flamboyance" (47). His analysis suggests that Queer Nation had a negligible impact in the Canadian context.

50. Jenson 337.

51. Walker 520.

52. Micheline de Seve, "Women's National and Gendered Identity: The Case of Canada," unpublished manuscript, 1996. On this topic, see also Nira Yuval-Davis, Gender&Nation (London: Sage, 1997).

53. M. Jacqui Alexander and Chandra Talapade Mohanty, eds. "Introduction: Genealogies, Legacies, Movements," Feminist Genealogies, Colonial Legacies, Democratic Futures (New York: Routledge, 1997) as quoted in Ross 188.

54. See Ross and also her earlier book, The House thatfill Built (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995).

55. Parker et. al., "Introduction" 8.

56. Lillian Faderman, as quoted in Chris Weedon Feminism, Theory and the Politics ofDifference (London: Blackwell, 1999) 65.

57. Ross, " A Lesbian Politics of Exotic Decolonization" 200.

58. Ibid. 201.

59. Miriam Smith 291. For a more comprehensive treatment of this topic, see Miriam Smith, Lesbian and Gay Rights in Canada: Social Movements and Equality-Seeking, 1971-1995 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999).

60. Becki Ross, The House that fill Built 36.

61. At a 1970 conference sponsored by the group Toronto Women's Liberation Movement (rWLM), for instance, the issue of lesbianism polarised the event and continued to fracture the TWLM until it disbanded in 1972. In other feminist organisations, lesbians were also marginalised. Despite the radical feminist philosophy espoused by the Toronto New Feminists, for example, spokewoman Bonnie Kreps denied the presence of lesbians to the mainstream press. Ross reports that some lesbians in that group were "eventually instructed by 'the management' to 'get out"'" (The House that fill Built 25). Similarly, in her examination of the Toronto feminist press, Ross finds that an aversion to addressing lesbian issues was also clear in 19 70s publications like Velvet Fist, BellWI, The Other Woman and The New Feminist (25-26).

62. Jill Vickers, Pauline Rankin and Christine Appelle. Politics As If Women Mattered (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993) 75.

63. Ibid.

64. It is important to note, however, that NAC got funding for lesbian groups to make presentations to the Boyer Committee. NAC organised extensive representation to the Boyer Committee as did many gay and lesbian groups.

65. Ross (1995) covers the details of the campaign against anti-gay crusader Anita Bryant's visit to Toronto in 1978 and examines how that event both served to mobilise lesbians to organise with gay men and while simultaneously reinforcing for many lesbians their reluctance to engage in political strategising with gay men.

66. The details of these campaigns are documented in Didi Herman, Rights of Passage: Struggles for Lesbian br Gay Legal Equality (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994).

67. In 1995, for example, an Ontario court ruled that a section of the Child and Family Services Act of Ontario, which prevented lesbians from adopting, was unconstitutional.

68. Joshua Gamson, "Must Identity Movements Self-Destruct?: A Queer Dilemma," Queer Theory/Sociology 410.

69. Sue Wilkinson and Celia Kitzinger, as quoted in Weedon 382.

70. R. Radhakrishnan, "Nationalism, Gender, and the Narrative of Identity" Nationalisms Sr Sexualities 78.

71. Vickers 1987.

72. Stychin 195.

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