“The queer movement has been concentrating on a specific class of people when we’re talking about gay marriage or debating where to put the Gaybourhood. These questions are not relevant to a lot of queer people. What is relevant is what kids are not learning in public schools and what’s not available to queer people who are on the streets or queer people who use substances. These are people in our community that we don’t acknowledge. This is the other queer community that’s not so flashy or glam. I think it’s time to be called out on our own shit and to acknowledge that we’re abandoning members of our community.”
I’m talking with local social justice advocate Pete Beaulieu about what homophobia means in Ottawa in 2008. I’ve been talking with a lot of people about this subject in preparation for a community discussion hosted by the AIDS Committee of Ottawa on May 15.
Lately I feel conflicted about where we focus our energy as a queer community. There’s certainly no question that we know how to fight for our interests. But how do we prioritize those fights? Which of us within the diversity of queer cultures gets our needs met first? And why?
Pete is typical of a growing segment of young, queer activists who feel frustrated by the limited scope of the old guard: the battle-worn heroes who decriminalized gay sex, forced the government to respond to AIDS and declassified homosexuality as a mental illness. Those are some serious credentials. And with those successes came increased security, prosperity and privilege for some, but not all, gay Canadians.
At 22 years old, Pete’s already amassed some weighty credentials of his own. I got to know him this winter while protesting HIV funding cuts on Parliament Hill, marching against sex worker violence in -30 degree weather and attending a class on radical queer history.
His activism extends well beyond gender and sexuality rights, too. As a member of the PGA-Bloc, “the city’s most vocal anarchist group” according to Sun Media, Pete’s helped organize against the 2010 Olympics, the secretive SPP meetings in Montebello and the CANSEC weapons trade fair held in Ottawa last month.
Those credentials demonstrate his interest in queer liberation as one part of a broader social justice agenda. “Money and class are a bigger dividing aspect of people’s lives than sexuality is uniting,” he tells me. “I think that when people imagine the queer community, they’re thinking of their own class within the queer community.”
Pete notes the disproportionate queer representation among people living on the streets. He argues that well-off homos often enjoy upward social mobility despite being queer, whereas “a lot of those queer people living on the street ended up there because they are queer.” For Pete, this difference forms the crux of where we should focus our collective energies.
I ask him where homophobia is manifesting itself and causing the most damage in Ottawa in 2008. What should be our priority?
His answers suggest that we can’t effectively fend off external homophobia until we get our own priorities straight. He argues that we tend to target the more obvious kinds of homophobia, when more insidious forms may ultimately wreak greater havoc.
Take, for example, homophobic bullying in Ontario schools. Last month, Ontario Education Minister Kathleen Wynne appointed a “Safe Schools Action Team” to ensure that homosexual students are safe at school. “What I have asked them to do is to go back to stakeholders in the community and ask about sexual assault, gender or attacks on the basis of sexual orientation,” she said.
While Pete obviously supports the increased physical and sexual safety of queer and trans kids, he fears we are ignoring an even bigger problem by focussing solely on violence. “I’d be more interested in talking about education,” he says. “Like the fact that being gay is not in sexual health classes. I find that is so much more relevant and the danger behind it so real.”
“Looking back to my own schooling, there was no information out there. I had to discover everything on my own. I didn’t know about trans people. Or how to keep safe when I’m having sex with another boy.”
And for Pete, that lack of information and knowledge is what perpetuates the bullying. “Transphobic violence exists because of a lack of information. People get sick from having sex because of a lack of information. Those things go unnamed. It’s often brushed aside because bullying is the more dramatic form of homophobia. The other forms are hard to name and less tangible. They’re harder to fight.”
It makes me wonder how we get these kinds of fights on the mainstream queer agenda. Pete, however, questions whether that’s the right strategy at all.
“I feel like working-class people have a lot more in common with each other, across sexuality and gender, than they do with ruling-class people. If there is work to be done in working-class, street-involved or substance-using communities, it will derive from those communities themselves. Not queer people from a different class.”