I recently mentioned the “f-word” in front of a gay male acquaintance, and he plugged his fingers into his ears and started singing “la la la la.” It stills astounds me that the word “feminist” elicits such a reaction from someone who is fairly active in the queer community. And though the 1980s pitched porn battles between the feminists and the queers are long behind us, I am afraid that a remnant of antagonism remains, and in these politically challenging times — with the government chopping things important to women and queers — this is not a good thing.
I was raised on chicken soup and liberal feminism. I understood the mechanics of sexism at the age of five, and by 11 years old, I had written my first editorial about abortion rights — for a Grade 6 English class assignment. I grew up with a strong feminist lawyer for a mother, and an equally strong father who did the majority of the cooking and gardening. In writing my autobiography for an 11th grade theatre production, I described myself as an “avid feminist.” That was the first time I got called a dyke — long before I knew that the label was such an apt description.
I felt an incredible sense of solidarity this week, after hearing about the Conservative axe falling on so many valuable government programs — including the complete elimination of the Law Commission of Canada, the Court Challenges program and a 38 percent cut to Status of Women Canada. A ripple of rage spread through the blogosphere as dozens of men and women reacted to what can only be described as a sign of things to come. Within moments of the announcement, the folks at Progressive Bloggers, a site that syndicates bloggers from all sorts of political stripes, asked people to post messages describing five things feminism has done for them. At the time of this writing, 83 people had done so, and the meme is mushrooming all through the net.
Beyond the cutting of the government purse strings, what has made so many people angry is the fact that the Conservatives have drastically altered the mandate of what remains of Status of Women Canada, removing the word “equality” from its mandate. Yes, you heard me right. The goal of the government agency used to be “to advance equality for women by addressing women’s economic, social, political and legal situation.” The organization’s new mission, according to its website, is to “to facilitate women’s participation in Canadian society by addressing their economic, social and cultural situation through Canadian organizations.” Sounds about as radical as shopping for dish soap.
In a recent meeting, Bev Oda told organizations receiving Status of Women funding that they are no longer allowed to engage in any form of advocacy or lobbying. You’ll recall that the Muslim women’s organizations funded by Status of Women last year lobbied to prevent Ontario from allowing Sharia law — something they won’t be allowed to do under the new policy. And in a clever trick of the cleaver, the Conservatives dealt them a double blow, by eliminating any funding that could have helped women to take cases of discrimination to court.
So we’re all in the same boat now. No group has benefited more from Court Challenges funding than the queer community. Thanks to clever interventions from groups like Egale Canada, we have achieved equal relationship recognition, and with the Charter of Rights as a backbone, we’ve fought homophobia and discrimination in classrooms and workplaces. Now the program is gone.
But it’s not like lobbying and legislative change can replace the Court Challenges program. The privileged relationships that the gay and lesbian community was able to forge behind closed doors won’t give us access to the new breed of decision-makers. The new power brokers on the Hill are the rightwing Christian groups that are waiting in the wings, praying for the day when the Conservatives win a majority so they can really take a run at gay rights and abortion laws.
Which means it’s time to return to our roots. Before we had government funding to fuel our activism, we had the streets. And though feminists and queers fought some vicious battles over censorship and pornography, we employed similar tactics to get our point across, and in doing so, we radically changed Canadian society. But there is so much work left to be done.
To the gay men who are still hurting from the porn wars, all I can tell you is that feminism has grown beyond the Andrea Dworkin days. The feminists that I know own a drawer full of dildos, which we understand to be a source of sexual pleasure — not an imitation of patriarchal power. We don’t necessarily accept binary notions of gender, and we welcome our trans brothers and sisters into the fold. We have been influenced by the DIY culture of independent music producers like Kathleen Hanna and Ani Difranco. Many of us reject the notion that traditionally feminine roles like cooking and sewing are by nature oppressive (although I can’t personally even sew a button). We take our activism seriously, but we know that a round of radical cheerleading is the best way to pump up any crowd. We know that activism works best when it’s fun, and when there’s actually something for people to do.
But we are not going to advance queer or women’s rights in Canada though an endless series of Stitch and Bitch sessions.