Queer Liberation: The Social Organization of Forgetting and the Resistance of Remembering

By Kinsman, Gary | Canadian Dimension, July-August 2010 | Go to article overview

Queer Liberation: The Social Organization of Forgetting and the Resistance of Remembering


Kinsman, Gary, Canadian Dimension


FOR ME ONE OF THE MOST EXCITING aspects of queer liberation was the recovery and remembering of our complex histories of resistance to oppression. Unfortunately, in much of the Left and within gay/lesbian communities our rich queer histories of struggle have been forgotten, creating a kind of social and historical amnesia. This forgetting has become one of the ways that a middle class, white, largely male, and moderate politics has been resituated at the heart of current gay/lesbian organizing that both moves us away from the radical roots of our struggles and towards accommodation with oppression and exploitation.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The Stonewall riots of 1969 are not often remembered as a major rebellion against police repression leading to the formation of Gay Liberation Fronts that were named partly in solidarity with the Vietnamese National Liberation Front then fighting against U.S. imperialism. Instead, Stonewall has become the occasion for celebrating a limited commercialized and commodified gay (and to some extent lesbian) culture during Pride events.

We need to ask who is included and excluded from these constructions of gay pride? While white, middle class men and non-trans people are included, most of the rest of us get excluded and marginalized. The mainstream gay movement seems to want nothing to do with the left, liberationist character of early organizing efforts. The radical roots of queer liberation get in the way of the new middle class "homonormativity" that no longer challenges capitalist social relations or builds alliances with other oppressed people but simply seeks acceptance into heterosexual middle class respectability. Our histories of struggle have been systematically forgotten.

The 1969 Reform

The 1969 criminal code is often misunderstood as when Pierre Elliot Trudeau legalized homosexuality. It was actually a limited and partial decriminalization. What is not often remembered is that the 1969 reform instituted a new form of public/private policing of queer sex. This led to an escalation of sexual policing including the pre-Olympic repression and clean-up campaigns in Montreal and Ottawa during 1975-1976, as well as the bath raids using bawdy house laws across Canada in the later 1970s and 1980s. It was these bath raids that produced the rebellions in the streets of Toronto during 1981 that helped to produce the massive expansion of gay community formation in that city. This reform also legislated a differential age of consent set at twenty-one to, supposedly, provide added protection for young men from the temptations of homosexual sex. This enshrined gay sex as some sort of special danger for young men. We still live with this legacy today with the age of consent set at eighteen for anal sex in much of Canada.

It is worth remembering how some early gay activists, such as Doug Sanders, viewed this reform. For him the 1969 reform,

  [t]akes the gay issue and describes it in non-homosexual terms.
  [Decriminalization] occurs in a way in which the
  issue is never joined. The debate never occurs. And so
  homosexuals are no more real after the reform than before ...
  I felt that an issue had been stolen from us.
  That we had forgotten that the reform issue
  was an issue that could have been used for
  public debate and it had been handled in such a way that
  there had been none.
  There has been a lot of forgetting here as well.

The Social Organization of Forgetting

A social organization of forgetting also occurs through the support that some gays and lesbians give to national security campaigns in the "war on terror" with its major impact on queers of colour. After all, queers were central targets of the Canadian national security campaigns from the late 1950s through to the 1990s leading to the purging of thousands of suspected gay men and lesbians from the public service and the military. …

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