SFU event shows LGBTQ+ movement falls short of full inclusivity

Among activists, we need less prescription, more intersectional understanding

Photo by Cecilie Johnsen via Unsplash

06/05/19: This article was corrected from an older version. Ashley was identified as a PhD candidate. He is instead a PhD student.

By: Ashley Moore, Peak Contributor

“Has the LGBTQ+ movement failed?”

This was the provocative question posed to a diverse panel of academics, politicians, activists, and artists during a public event organized by SFU students, held on April 7 at the university’s Harbour Centre. While most panellists noted the hard-earned progress that has benefited the lives of many queer Canadians, some pointed out a number of ways in which the movement might be said to have “failed.”

This conversation was wide-ranging and it would be impossible to do it full justice here. But to speak on it concisely, it touched on how the concerns and wellbeing of trans* folk have been largely neglected, and how most progress has been achieved through, and thus perpetuates, the machinery of ongoing colonialism across these lands we now call Canada. It explored the movement’s increasing complicity with late capitalism and institutions that harm people of colour. It highlighted the danger of Western queer complacency while so many queer people are suffering across the globe.

With palpable emotion, experienced activists in the audience reminded us that we stand on their shoulders, and that to simply dismiss their efforts as “failed” is ignorant at the very least, if not ungrateful and offensive. But while listening to and learning from the discussion, as an applied linguist, it also became apparent to me that a great deal of talk revolved around telling others within the community how they should conduct themselves as LGBTQ+ individuals.

At one point, a panellist implored the audience to shut homophobic and transphobic people out of their lives. An audience member later questioned this approach and instead advocated for engaging in dialogue with such people.

Like a modern-day Harvey Milk, another panellist encouraged everyone to come out. Another audience member, based on their experience with employment discrimination, advised people to stay closeted until they had enough power to stay safe and protect themselves.

Who among us hasn’t similarly mistaken their own experience for that of others? I am as guilty of that as anyone else (apologies to an ex-boyfriend I once pressured to come out to his family). But on the walk home, it occurred to me that these prescriptive edicts, while well-intentioned, were actually symptoms of one of the ways in which the LGBTQ2S+ movement in Canada (and other places) could do better.

We need to remind ourselves of the importance of intersectionality — a teaching, a gift, that Black feminist scholars like Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw and bell hooks first conceptualized, alerting us to the various dimensions along which oppression and privilege shape our lives differently.

For example, the ability to pass — meaning the ability to be accepted within a space without being identified as queer — is a form of privilege and, for many queer people, an impossibility. Likewise, while coming out can be a positive experience with an “it gets better” ending for many, for some it can lead to ostracization, homelessness, and violence.

While I personally try to engage homophobic and transphobic people in dialogue, I do so while reminding myself that I have particular privileges that help me to do so. These privileges might not be available to others who are just coming to terms with their identities, or who are living with depression, or who are simply exhausted from the emotional labour involved in constantly having to explain and defend who they are.

While a growing number of people find shelter and solidarity under the umbrella of the LGBTQ2S+ movement, we should not forget the unique tensions of privilege and oppression that converge upon the particular ground where we each find ourselves.

The irony of advising others not to give advice is not lost on me. At the same time, I offer a suggestion to help us move forward. The LGBTQ2S+ movement here in Canada has not failed. There is merely more work to be done. That work is probably best done through collective, coherent action.

Going forward, rather than advise each other on how to live our best queer lives, we might better spend that time listening attentively and empathetically to each other and learning about the diversity among us.

Ashley Moore is a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Education at UBC.