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14 min

What’s in store for the future of queer studies?

A checkup on what was once an 'outsider discipline'

It wasn’t long ago that queer studies was very much an outsider discipline in the world of academics. It was in its infancy, taught and studied by a brave handful of students and faculty curious and determined enough to endure the taunts and denigration from those in other, more established and less “politically correct” fields of study.

But while the field may have had to struggle for acceptance into the canon, it did have the advantage of being wide open. Everything was fair game for study, from ancient history to the far future, and nothing was out of bounds. It was an exciting time academically.

But as queers have found increasingly greater acceptance in society and in the courts, there has been a parallel acceptance in the ivory towers of university campuses. Today, queer issues are a part of virtually every discipline from literary studies to law to medicine.

But just as queers in the wider society debate the virtues of “mainstreaming” — able to marry and adopt, finding protection under the law and increasing popularity with corporate Canada, settling in the suburbs — so homos in academe find themselves having similar debates. With all the advances gays have made, is there a shortage of pressing issues to be studied? Has the heyday of queer studies passed by? Or are there new frontiers and new topics to be unearthed and explored, and new boundaries to be crossed?

In search of answers to these questions, Capital Xtra asked a number of academics and students with a particular interest in these issues and their academic implications to speculate about the future of queer studies and the academy.

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STEPHEN BROWN
political science professor, University Of Ottawa

Lesbian and gay issues have become sort of mainstream topics. It’s not stigmatized. There’s not the assumption that you must yourself be gay if you’re studying it.

But there’s the continuing marginalization of trans issues. Trans is the cutting edge. Trans is the new gay. The normalization of same-sex relationships has all been around the argument that we’re the same. But trans issues have remained as marginalized as ever. In LGBT, it’s no coincidence that T comes fourth.

Homosexuality is about the gender of the people you’re attracted to. Trans exists without any object of desire. It makes gender seem like a lie, or the fact that there are two genders seems like a lie. It also challenges bastions of male entitlement and male privilege.

There can be resistance. Women’s studies has for a long time been open to gay and lesbian issues. But many feminist courses would be resistant to the idea that a man can become a woman. There’s a debate as to whether a male-to-female transsexual is a woman like any woman.

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DAVID RAYSIDE
director of Mark S Bonham Centre For Sexual Diversity Studies, University Of Toronto

There’s a lot of theoretical work around sexual ambiguity and crossing sexual boundaries, and the ways in which normalcy is transmitted. There’s also still a huge amount of historical work that needs to be done on what’s happened in the last 40 or 50 years. There has been an increase in theoretical work on trans issues. We need empirical work on trans issues and on bisexuality, which seems to have dropped through the floor.

There’s issues in schools, the extent to which schools recognize sexual diversity. The record of schools is not good.

There’s trans-national issues, looking at the global south, areas other than Europe and North America. In Canada, there’s been so little done on diasporic communities. [Prime Minister Stephen] Harper is trying to make inroads into those communities by opposing same-sex marriage on the assumption they’re conservative. We in the academy know very little about it.

I’m teaching a new class on religion and sexuality. I’m certainly going to include some stuff about sexuality in it. We don’t actually understand very much about religion in this country, and its various intersections.

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BRIAN O’NEILL
professor, Social Work, University Of British Columbia

I think in part, in the future, some of the inquiry will focus on actually implementing the equality and other legal rights that have been gained. So, for instance, if we accept that everyone has a right to social services, what does that actually mean in practice? This is much like the issues around accessibility and responsiveness of services to people from different ethnic backgrounds — services are allegedly open to all, but there are in reality, barriers for people from marginalized groups. So, for queer people, we have experienced stigma and silencing especially in the context of health and social services.

My own research focusses on how this happens, not in the obvious explicit ways, but in the subtle ways — for instance the ways that services are organized, the assumptions underlying professional practice, etc. To some extent, they are matters of exclusion. My interest is in the social organization of services. From my location in social work, I’m interested in how services are actually organized and delivered in ways that effectively include or exclude people who are members of various marginalized groups, particularly those who experience the intersection of oppressions related to sexuality, race, age, etc. I’ve been looking for instance at issues in services for queer immigrants.

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KRIS WELLS
PhD student, Faculty Of Education, University Of Alberta

Some of my work focusses on the next wave of [queer] activism — namely youth who are transforming their schools from spaces in which they were traditionally only concerned with survival into places where they can thrive. For example, last year I published the Gay-Straight Student Alliance Handbook with the Canadian Teachers’ Federation. Did you know that 1 in 10 schools in the United States now has a GSA? A similar trend is being evidenced here in Canada. I think the tipping point was the Marc Hall case, which portrayed a new national picture of queer youth — one that was about the politics of visibility and hope for the future, rather than a traditional focus on fear and invisibility.

This year Dr. Alvin Schrader and I published a book entitled “Challenging Silence, Challenging Censorship” which was written for school and public librarians to help them address the safety needs and concerns of sexual minority youth. Did you know that the most banned book in the United States last year was “And Tango Makes Three” — which is a book about two male penguins who adopt a baby.

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HELEN LENSKYJ
professor, Sociology And Equity Studies, University Of Toronto

I came out after I got my PhD in 1979. In those days some of the graduate students who came out didn’t receive a great deal of validation from the professors. In 1986, I became a sessional instructor. And if I did a course on women and education, I looked mainly at women, class and sexuality. That was a bit jarring for some of my students, who thought they’d signed up for a feel-good course.

When I started, the conventional wisdom was: don’t come out until you get tenure. But there’s been an influx of gay and lesbian faculty who’ve been hired in the last 10 years. There’s been some improvement, an increase in tolerance, I wouldn’t necessarily say acceptance.

But even the same people who are teaching phys ed, who are not necessarily known for their sensitive attitudes, are respected for teaching about homosexuality. The Gay Games has helped.

The politics have changed so much. It’s not that identity politics have faded. But a lot of coalitions have demonstrated that they can do amazing things.

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DAWN MOORE
professor, Department Of Law, Carleton University

In the area of family law, there will be research to be done on political agendas. Does same-sex marriage now mean the mainstreaming of gay culture and a depoliticization?

I think the question is particularly relevant in terms of feminism, of how including same-sex couples in the institution of marriage will change it.

In international law, we have to look at the questions of international adoption, at couples who are coming to Canada to get married and the recognition when they get back.

I hope there’ll be more space for trans issues in terms of really making it onto the agenda. There hasn’t really been a lot of attention paid to trans issues.

We still need to look at relationships between queer communities and police in terms of hate crimes and sexuality, raise the issues of who gets to decide what’s a hate crime and who gets targeted as gay. It might mean the return of identity issues.

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SUSAN BOYD
law professor, University Of British Columbia

A key issue that remains to be sorted out is defining legal parenthood in same-sex parenting situations. For instance, if a child is born within a lesbian relationship, are both women deemed to be mothers? Do they have to put their names on the birth registration in order to make this clear or will there be a presumption? Does it matter if they are married or not? What if there is a known sperm donor? Will he automatically be a legal father, or not? Can there be three legal parents (two mothers, one father) or more?

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NICOLE LAVIOLETTE
law professor, University Of Ottawa

Right now, I’m reading a thesis draft on gay and lesbian refugees. It’s more about how the law perceives sexual orientation and sexual identity. What do you do if someone claims to be bisexual? The law is something that categorizes, it classifies and it constrains.

From my personal perspective, my work has been in international law and that will continue. I’ve written an article on the new refugee laws including gay and lesbian sponsorship, but, in some ways, there’s still problems.

While Canada’s made huge steps, it’s one of 192 countries in the world. If you’re in the States, you’re going to be writing about same-sex marriage for the next 20 or 30 years. There’s lots of work going on the UN in pushing for recognition of sexual orientation in terms of human rights protection.

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PETER NEWMAN
professor, Faculty Of Social Work, University Of Toronto

Even with same-sex marriages being legalized, how do we work with those who don’t want to perform marriages because of religious beliefs? How do we implement, how do we do training for those who perform ceremonies, how do we reform the bureaucracy? What are the barriers to those in rural areas who want to get married while dealing with homophobia?

When I moved here with my partner, we were among the first to enter as a same-sex couple. It needed a new code for being a same-sex partner. My partner didn’t speak English, we needed services, it was a bureaucratic muddle.

We have to look at the whole domain of globalization. Often we only look at negatives, but there may be positives, if we can export human rights.

We need to look at the connections between stigma, homophobia, hatred, racism and death. Here’s what stigma does, here’s the consequences for health. It clearly contributes to vulnerability. It’s not just philosophy; it’s life and death. In my work in India, the main area is in HIV prevention. We’re looking at structural violence, at the negative health outcomes for gay and lesbian people.

We need more focus on the transgendered. From my experience, their barriers exceed anything LGB people face. If we’re not covering all the letters, we should stop stringing them together. People say it, but don’t include everybody.

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RICHARD SULLIVAN
professor, Social Work And Family Studies, University Of British Columbia

The book I edited, “Queer Families, Common Agendas,” was really to question the furor about sexual minority families since they were almost relentlessly conventional. A more recent article challenges the sexual minority community not to celebrate the Equal Marriage Act as the end of systemic discrimination, because it will be a long time before Canada achieves reconciliation of the thousands of other Acts and regulatory devices necessary to achieve competent family practice with sexual minority families.

Currently, I am writing a piece that I will submit to the Journal Of Gay & Lesbian Family Studies on barriers to adoption by same-sex couples. It is illustrative of the concern we expressed earlier about the need to make family serving agencies competent to work with same-sex couples. This comes out of some research on barriers to adoption which revealed to my surprise that same-sex couples are approved for adoption, but then not matched to waiting children with the same frequency as hetero-normative couples. This raises the question of whether there is some vicarious stigma attached to presenting these couples as candidates for particular children.

I am equally interested in learning how professional child-welfare social workers are prepared to assess these couples. I am going to argue that a priority on asserting the right to adopt as a newly won legal right may even be reason enough not to place a child with the couple since that approach is not child-centred but rather uses the child to assert adult rights. I am hoping the piece will draw some fire. It is intended to be controversial and I will probably draw on Margaret Somerville’s formulae for ethical decision making in public policy.

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JEREMY DIAS
psychology and political science student, queer rights activist, University Of Ottawa

The future of Queer studies has the potential to become institutionalized, like Women’s Studies, and finally have a real place in Canadian academia. However we still face the obstacles of a lack of funding for research, and obviously support from many administrations. Additionally, since the victory of same-sex marriage, the queer community is at a loss in terms of having a new and real goal. Whereas before we had a united cause (that may or may not have been the best cause), now we’re lost.

Our national network is down, and we need a new big voice to speak against discrimination.

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CHRISTOPHER DEEBLE
grad student, Faculty Of Law, University Of Ottawa

I wrote my major paper for my law degree on a proposed repeal of section six of the Assisted Human Reproduction Act, the ban on commercial surrogacy.

My thesis was that the ban on commercial surrogacy imposes a discriminatory burden on gay male couples who wish to have genetically linked children.

My recommendation is to allow commercial surrogacy arrangements in Canada as they do in the United States. It’s kind of controversial because society and the courts are only ready to think about women as nurturers.

But in the United States, I think they’ve actually gone a lot further in legitimizing and mainstreaming healthy gay relationships — in Canada we can marry, but we cannot legally hire a surrogate to bear our children.

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DIANA MAJURY
professor, Department Of Law, Carleton University

Despite recent legal advances/victories/changes (depending on one’s perspective — I am not a fan of marriage) for lesbians, gays and bisexuals (not sure there has been much that could fall into any of those categories for transgendered people), we are, I think, sliding backwards in terms of human rights and equality analysis generally — so I anticipate that we will be responding to serious backlash and erosion as activists and as academics.

I think attempts to move forward as activists will be met with the public response, “You have marriage, you have equality. Now be quiet, we have heard more than enough from you” — and I fear new forms of closeting will result

We have morphed from homosexual to gay to lesbian/gay to LGBT to queer — with many resting at one designation or another. For example, I still identify as lesbian, not queer — so the question is where to next? What comes after queer?

I think/hope the analysis of gender and its relationships to sexualities will continue to be a key focus.

The critiques (and defenses) of mainstreaming will continue.

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SARAH TODD
professor, School Of Social Work, Carleton University

Social work researchers continue to grapple with how to provide queer-positive social services, particularly in rural areas where there may not be organizations whose focus is explicitly on providing support to [queer] communities.

There is also interesting work being done looking at how queer communities have shaped social services provision and how queer activism and AIDS activism informs social-justice activism in general. There is also work being done regarding how to create queer-positive spaces within schools of social work.

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JODIE MEDD
professor, Department Of English, Carleton University

Within my field of literary studies, “queer” literary analysis has become a mode of interpretation that is not necessarily limited to reading by queer readers of overtly queer texts or authors. Rather, reading for complexities of sexuality, desire and gender is an approach that is applied across many different texts, authors and literary periods.

I think some of the strongest interventions in literary studies from a queer perspective have actually involved critical readings of heterosexuality — which consider heterosexuality and the established system of gender binaries as not “natural” so much as they are socially produced and “naturalized.” It is a questioning of previously taken-for-granted forms of identity and social relations, which exposes the ideological machinery that produces and reproduces the norm (at the cost of abjecting the “marginal” — we see how heterosexuality “needs” its marginalized queer other in order to function and continuously reestablish its own sense of legitimacy).

There has also been, of course, ongoing work on authors who we might now identify as gay, lesbian or queer — while being careful to consider the limitations of those categories at particular historical moments. The interest in queer studies continues to unearth original research on well-known figures — in my own field of modernism, for example, the scholarship on Oscar Wilde has been immense and very active since the 1990s — and our understandings of his writing, his life and historical context continue to deepen with this ongoing critical attention. The same could be said of Henry James, Radclyffe Hall and Virginia Woolf.

At this point, literary scholarship cannot ignore the findings and influence of queer studies — it has changed the way we think about literature. Students (queer and straight) have also been very receptive to queer literary studies — for this approach raises very complex questions about how we read a text (biographically, historically; according to what is edited out as much as what is put in; textual strategies for articulating that which “dare not speak its name;” issues of obscenity and censorship; literature, desire, and identity; dynamics of power.)

In the broadest strokes, queer literary and cultural studies are becoming increasingly historicized and globalized. There has been careful work in considering the formation of sexual identities and desires within specific historical, national and geographic contexts. There is ongoing and careful debate between ideas of transhistorical or transnational similarities in same-sex desire and identities, versus notions of radical differences and discontinuities over history and between cultures. In other words, to what extent can we think of same-sex desire and identity as transhistorical and transnational, and to what extent are they radically different across histories and cultures?

The field of transgender studies is also developing rapidly, and receiving careful scholarly attention, and is prompting a re-thinking of ideas of gender and sexuality.

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DORIS BUSS
professor, Department Of Law, Carleton University

My area of research is international law and human rights. While I think there are still many issues of study domestically, there are also lots internationally: the repeated refusal of international organisations, such as the UN, to formally recognize sexuality as a pressing human rights concern; the work of the Christian Right, together with the Vatican, in opposing human rights recognition of sexual minorities, women and other categories of individuals; the work of the Christian Right and the Vatican in using anti-gay discourse to impact the delivery of HIV/AIDS funding.

I think there are larger issues, as well, for what human rights recognition for sexual minorities might mean — what impact it would have, for example, for women whose very existence as sexually autonomous actors remains largely unacknowledged. In Canada, more specifically, I think much more research is needed into the relationship between sexuality and socio-economic standing: how lower-income or marginal Canadians are impacted — or not — by so called “equality victories,” like same-sex marriage.

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ANDREW LESK
professor, Department Of English, University Of Toronto

I think that universities are very much ahead of the game when it comes to reflecting advances in equality and legal rights. Though such rights tend not to be foregrounded in popular fiction and literature, research into the history of lesbian/gay/queer literature in Canada has been ongoing for at least the past 20 years. Many Canadian universities offer courses in queer literature and sexual diversity studies, and have been for some time. I regularly incorporate such literature in the courses I teach; and it is also a staple of my research interests. The University Of Toronto’s English Department has been wonderfully receptive to all sorts of queer studies.

The highlighting of the struggle for rights in the media has certainly had, I believe, an effect on the student body’s more easy acceptance of queer lit. In teaching Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy, for example, I no longer wonder if students might find the somewhat oblique depictions of gay sex unnerving. Nor do I wait for people to wince at Dionne Brand’s (necessary) use of sexual slang.

If anything, universities and academics are rapidly moving beyond advances in queer rights to explore other cross-affiliations, be they concerned with race, ethnicity, gender and class. I teach a course on Gender And Sexuality In Canadian Literature that has included writers such as Trish Salah, a Toronto poet whose recent collection, Wanting In Arabic, is a mesmeric examination of “becoming” transgendered in a diasporic context. Anurima Banerji’s Night Artillery reconfigures lesbian desire in a queer South Asian context; and Gregory Scofield’s writing engages subjects as diverse as First Nations queers and HIV/AIDS. Makeda Silvera and Shani Mootoo are all worth a look, amongst others.

Other Canadian authors have moved beyond using being gay or lesbian as a contentious subject in itself. The characters may be queer, but that isn’t the source of their problems. I’m thinking here of Darren Greer’s utterly brilliant, comic and disturbing novel Still Life With June. John Miller’s sharp and inventive A Sharp Intake Of Breath has a protagonist with a cleft palate. And Anosh Irani’s The Song Of Kahunsha should be read, not least for its evocation of the compelling 2004 film Born Into Brothels. Is the latter novel queer? No. But perhaps now that we rest relatively comfortably in our nest of queer rights, a closer look at the world around us seems to me to be imperative.