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The cost of queer progress for the entire LGBT community

Tim McCaskell’s new book shines light on the communities left behind following historical queer movements

Tim McCaskell, a self-described “dinosaur” of the Canadian queer movement, says he hopes his new book, Queer Progress: Homophobia to Homonationalism, will help readers understand how historical queer movements have helped some LGBT communities while hindering others. Tim McCaskell/Facebook

Canada’s LGBT community has made huge progress in the last several decades. We’ve gone from being labelled as criminals pre-1969 to having legal recognition for our relationships. Employment non-discrimination is nationwide. Anti-bullying campaigns are in full force. HIV medications have turned a death sentence into a manageable condition.

We’re represented in vast numbers on silver screens and TV screens, and in copious advertising campaigns. And in many major cities at least, we can walk safely, hand-in-hand with our lover down the street.

At least, that’s the way things are for a certain sliver of our communities. But a wider view reveals the progress some of us so easily take for granted is not at all evenly distributed.

Employment benefits can be a huge boon to couples in well-paid, unionized jobs, but a disaster for those who might be on welfare as a means to pay for HIV medication.

Trans people and queer people of colour still face huge systemic barriers in health care, housing and employment, as well as routine violence and harassment at the hands of law enforcement.

There’s no simple solution to ensuring the benefits reaped by one sector of our communities are accessible to everyone. But Queer Progress can serve as a starting point for dialogue.

Queer Progress: Homophobia to Homonationalism, by Tim McCaskell, examines how this series of shifts has affected our communities, and whether it’s possible to move forward with a politic that’s both progressive and inclusive.

Though he’s well known as an in-your-face kind of activist, the book actually began from a very personal need to figure certain things out. An active member of Queers Against Israeli Apartheid, McCaskell was shocked when the group received notice they were banned from Toronto Pride in 2010.

“It just seemed so inconceivable they would ban a queer group from the parade,” he says. “I realized there had been a tectonic shift happening that I hadn’t been paying attention to, so the starting point was really my own elucidation to try to figure out what steps had led to this new idea of the movement that was very different from the one I started with.”

The book weaves together three main strands. The first is McCaskell’s personal journey from his coming out at Pride in 1974 through the present day. The second centres on documenting critical historical moments of the same period. The third analyzes how economic shifts and growing income inequality over that span have shaped our ability to relate to each other and have a meaningful political dialogue.  

Since the book’s analysis stops in 2014, it doesn’t touch on this year’s Black Lives Matter protest at Pride Toronto. But the heated rhetoric the incident produced from all sides of the queer community is emblematic of what McCaskell is talking about.

“The debate has become very polarized and there’s not much listening going on,” he says. “I would characterize a lot of the conversation as the politics of gesture: more about the person making the statement positioning themselves within their peer group as somebody who has the correct line.”  

As a self-described “dinosaur” of the Canadian queer movement, McCaskell often gets asked to speak at youth groups and community events to talk about how things were back in the early days.

While he recognizes a decided schism among younger queers between those who are politically active and those who don’t give a shit as long as they’ve got their Prada, he points out this divide is actually nothing new.

“In the early ’70s we were trying to engage this broader community,” he says. “They weren’t particularly interested and there was a lot of mutual antagonism. They thought we were a bunch of crazies just trying to rock the boat and we had this sort of arrogance that we, the politically correct, knew the right way to do things and they were just mentally colonized.”

But the 1981 bathhouse raids (which feature prominently in the book) acted as an unexpected leveller, unifying folks from all sectors of the community around a common cause, McCaskell writes.

“Suddenly all those bath boys who thought life was great and they had nothing to worry about found themselves facing criminal charges,” he says. “They realized that our side knew how to do politics and were useful to them, so they got involved. At the same time, us ‘holier than thou’ types saw the real power in networks and the issues of ordinary people.”

We understood that if we didn’t engage, we were just fooling ourselves into being agents of social change.”

Despite clocking in at close to 500 pages, McCaskell admits the book is incomplete, preferring to see it as a starting point for a larger series of dialogues, rather than a definitive statement.

“Being a dinosaur, I have the advantage of knowing history, but in terms of analyzing present events, younger people are probably better at that than I am,” he says.

“Every book is out of date as soon as it’s written, but it can still provide a framework people can either agree with or disagree with and build on. Hopefully someone else will pick up where I left off and write the next one.”