Years ago, a friend forwarded me a cartoon of a squid in a Japanese restaurant. He stands behind the sushi bar, tendrils snaking over the sneeze guard. Next to him, a chef is talking to a customer. The caption underneath reads, “He feels he can do more good working within the system.”
One of the great struggles activists face is whether or not to work with the brokers of power. Is our time better spent protesting in the street or in meetings with politicians? Is it better to be a policy-maker, with all the compromise that entails, or a critic?
At heart, journalists are critics. So, while I’ve rarely been an insider, over the years I have come to respect them. Some activists must engage with the machinations of power. It’s a difficult job: they must maintain a cordial attitude with authority figures while still being authentic in their message.
There are literally hundreds of gay people across the country who’ve accepted this responsibility. Queers sit on municipal boards and policy committees for political parties. They work with unions and professional bodies. There are gays who volunteer for the city’s Equity and Diversity Advisory Committee, the gay working group of the Canadian Bar Association, and the queer members’ caucuses of the NDP, the Liberals and the Green Party. These are people who do the behind-the-scenes work that most of us never hear about.
And yet there they are, pushing for change. They cajole their peers to reach past their comfort zone. They argue for a quicker turnaround and pick apart excuses for inertia. They are not awed by the CEO, but neither do they scream at her or throw a tantrum. They are even-keeled and strategic — but they know where their allegiances lie.
Here’s an example. After Stuart Murray was appointed to head the Human Rights Museum project, some details of his political record came out. As we reported in Capital Xtra this fall, he voted against pension and adoption rights for gays when he was the head of the Progressive Conservative party in Manitoba (a position he has since recanted).
The most interesting response was from the folks who’ve been members of a queer advisory committee to the museum. Jennifer Breakspear of Vancouver was quoted in these pages expressing her “concern” — surely a tactful way of framing opposition — about the appointment. She also said that she was willing to hear him out. Essentially, it was a “we’re watching you” kind of message.
Several other members of the advisory committee quietly alerted me to the story in its early stages and provided me with background information. They were helping to incite the rabble — as outsiders, our job was to kick up a fuss and help them wring concessions from Murray and the museum’s administration.
I admire Breakspear’s courage in speaking up and I realize that she was making a strategic judgment about how far to go in her comments to our reporter. I am also grateful to the advisory committee members who sent me alerts about the whole mess.
Here’s another scenario — this one more of a warning than an example. Canadian Blood Services (CBS) has long been under fire for forbidding gay men from donating blood. Because of the Kyle Freeman case, it’s in the news again and people have been chattering about the ban on Egale Canada’s listserv.
Like the museum, CBS also has a queer advisory group. I know this because one of the queer advisors sent out a mass email that landed in my inbox not that long ago. The email parroted the CBS’s lines about why the policy was still in place. It makes me wonder whether he misunderstands his responsibility as an activist: is he a queer activist making our case to the CBS or a CBS activist making the organization’s case to us?
When fighting from the inside, folks can be tempted to become defenders of the organizations they set out to change. Some end up ignoring persistent problems because of previous victories. Without a doubt, this is the biggest danger for an insider.
Case in point. In September, I made disparaging comments about the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), the country’s foremost censors. Civil servants and union reps rushed to the defence of the CBSA, lauding the work that has been done in other areas (advocating for same-sex partner benefits, non-discrimination legislation and protection for trans people) as a kind of excuse for their systemic targeting of books and vids coming into Canada from abroad. That’s a classic example of insiders using historical progress to excuse bad behaviour in the present.
Outsiders and insiders tend to be wary of each other. Some worry that activists on the outside will do more harm than good. They worry that our opponents’ views will harden in the face of aggressive challenges, that their work will become easily dismissible. This problem — at least as insiders articulate it — is one of strategy, not one of ideals. Of course, the opposite is usually true: better to make the issue impossible to ignore, to raise a stink, to keep the pressure on. When insiders say “tone it down,” outsiders generally have the common sense to refuse.
Some activists — like the museum advisors who privately distributed information about Stuart Murray’s antigay past — understand that public outrage strengthens their bargaining power. Others try to dampen the queer community’s response to fuckups, unwittingly weakening their own positions.
And this is why I respect insiders that can strike that balance, folks that help outsiders agitate for change and use our anger as leverage to fix bad policies. It’s a hard job — one that often goes awry — so to those who do it well: thank you.