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Remembering the Queer Liberation Movement’s Radical Roots

Activist and author Gary Kinsman challenges the 21st century neo-liberal queer

by Natascia L

Gary Kinsman takes questions from the audience at his Aug. 3 talk in Halifax (Natascia Lypny photo).
Gary Kinsman takes questions from the audience at his Aug. 3 talk in Halifax (Natascia Lypny photo).

HALIFAX — History isn’t the stuff of dry accounts of colonialism and civil wars, says Gary Kinsman; it’s the tool by which the oppressed focus and continue their battle against repression.

“We don’t tend to think of enough that history is a site of struggle in the present,” he said, quoting early-20th century philosopher and critical theorist Walter Benjamin to a crowd of enthralled audience members Thursday evening.

They had come to hear Kinsman’s talk “Queer Liberation History: Resisting Capitalism and Oppression and Challenging the Neo-Liberal Queer” at the Halifax North Memorial Public Library. Despite the tongue-twisting title, the presentation was an accessible queer history lesson with a jet-fueled thesis.

“To develop our radical imagination, we need to work against the systemic social organization of forgetting,” said Kinsman, illustrating in one sentence both his activist and sociology background. “A necessary antidote to the social organization of forgetting,” he later said, “is the resistance of remembering.”

Kinsman said the current queer liberation movement is being afflicted with “homo-normativity … how there are these new sets of norms in queer communities that align us with neo-liberal capitalism” and “homo-nationalism … the growing identification of queer people with the nation-states they’re a part of.” Although not at first apparent, these tendencies have a serious impact on the progress of the movement.

Kinsman traces these problems partially to the movement’s focus on the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. While he didn’t deny the Charter’s profound role in acquiring equal rights for queers, Kinsman said its creation in 1982 shifted the movement’s focus toward “legal struggles for formal equality.”

“It’s more ‘Let us in’ than ‘Let’s transform radically these social forms and institutions we find ourselves in’,” said Kinsman of the Charter-centric movement. He pointed to the won rights for queers to openly enlist in the military, adopt children and, most of all, get married as examples of the current queer movement zeroing in too much on the end goal of become equals with heterosexuals.

More than that, Kinsman said, “There has been a false construction of white, middle-class queers as the universal queer,” leading to the exclusion of people of colour, youth, and the working class. “Their experience of being queer is violently ripped away from their experience of class, colour, age, gender — whatever.”

The neo-liberal queer began in the late-1970s, explained Kinsman, when rapidly-growing queer organizations began to split into small groups. The middle-class participants used their experience in these larger organizations, as well as their socioeconomic positioning, to form powerful offshoots. The neo-liberalizing continued in the 1980s with the capitalization of the AIDS/HIV movement, as it became state- and corporate-funded.

Kinsman knows, because he was there.

Born in 1955, Gary Kinsman has participated in what are arguably the most pivotal decades of the queer liberation movement in Canada. As an academic (he currently teaches at Laurentian University in Sudbury, ON), he possesses a mental encyclopedia of those moments he didn’t experience for himself. He has authored, co-authored and edited several books on the topic of queer rights.

All this to say Kinsman understands how and why the queer liberation movement is where it is today — he just wishes others did as well. “We have to develop that ability to transform history from one generation to another,” he told the audience.

It begins with what he calls “historical recovery work,” a collective remembering project that teaches queers today about the struggles of the past, how they were linked to other forms of oppression, and what still remains to be won today.

Kinsman launched into a rapid-fire oral timeline tracing queer activism and oppression from the Communist Party-inspired “homophile organizing” of the 1950s and 60s and the same decades’ battle for queer social spaces, to the Toronto police raids of those very social spaces in the 1980s. He read aloud testimonials from lesbian members of the Canadian militia and military, and those targeted by the ‘national security’ undercover missions of the RCMP aiming to oust queers. He got giggles from descriptions of Professor Wake’s “fruit machine” queer detection tests and disbelief-shaken heads from Montreal’s “queer cleansing” prior to its 1976 Olympic Games.

He also illustrated the successes: the riots at Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco and Stonewall in New York City; the formation of Canadian Gay Liberation Fronts in the 1960s and 70s, of lesbian break-off groups, and of Halifax’s own Gay Alliance for Equality.

Then Kinsman asked the audience, straight-faced, “Is this really what’s being celebrated on pride days?” The crowd chuckled uncertainly.

Wearing a No One is Illegal t-shirt pinned with a Quebec student movement red felt square, Kinsman argued that the queer liberation movement must realign itself with the radical groups it took inspiration from — black power, anti-war, feminist, student — and those that continue to be, or are newly, poignant today.

He sees the need for a grassroots movement, and one that strongly engages youth.

He sees the need for a radical imagination.

Gary Kinsman is currently working on a new book called The Making of the Neo-Liberal Queer.


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