Danika reviews We Still Demand!: Redefining Resistance in Sex and Gender Struggles edited by Patrizia Gentile, Gary Kinsman, and L. Pauline Rankin

We Still Demand edited by Patrizia Gentile

A weird thing about living in Canada is that you tend to know US history, laws, politics, etc more than you know your own. Reading We Still Demand! was a wake-up call that I actually know very little about Canadian queer history and activism, and that’s something I want to fix. Unfortunately, I had some issues with this particular text on the subject. For one thing, it is a very academic text, and it becomes dense to the point of being unreadable at several points. They do give a rough timeline of Canadian queer activism, but the focus is mostly on talking about radical vs neoliberal/homonormative/transnormative/homonationalist/human rights activism, and they seem to immediately dismiss out of hand anything that could be included in the latter category.

I will say, this is first time I’ve read anything and thought “I wish this was less radical.” Generally I am completely for radical activism. In this collection, though, it looks backwards at activism of the 70s and 80s and seems to neatly divide any work being done then as being either radical (worthwhile) or neoliberal (counterproductive). At times, this seems to require some odd mental gymnastics, such as defining 70s same-sex marriage activism as purely radical, but the same-sex marriage activism that followed as purely homonormative.

The essay that really got under my skin was about the beginning of trans activism in Canada (as an aside, this collection uses “trans*” “transman” and “transwoman,” even though it was published in 2017. Not sure why.) Instead of celebrating Raj and the work he did for trans representation, while also acknowledging the problems/limitations, this seems to drag him through the mud for not being radical enough, despite him publicly changing his stance on gay trans men (he originally posits trans men as being in opposition to butch women, so he paints all trans men as straight, but after backlash he became quite active in including gay trans men in his magazine, helping them to make connections with each other). It leaves a bad taste in my mouth to say that fighting for trans rights is homonormative or transnormative–that fighting for human rights isn’t worthwhile, because it doesn’t singlehandedly fix every problem.

Another essay acknowledges that Doug Wilson, who was fired as a teacher for being gay, lost his court case because sexual orientation wasn’t covered under the human Rights commission, but the text seems to congratulate him for walking away from teaching and entirely into activism, instead of acknowledging that fighting for rights has a place in queer activism. It also mentions a quotation from a queer rights activist that change happened because lobbying for rights laid the groundwork, but militancy of gays in streets brought results. Instead of recognizing this as two sides to the same fight, the author seems to conclude that the lobbying was pointless, or at least not very important.

There also seems to be some nostalgia about 70s and 80s activism as being back when All Queer Activism Was Radical. I would argue that the reason for that is because at the time, being out at all was radical. The liberal queers were still in the closet. Now, more people are able to participate in the discussion, because there is less danger in coming out, especially for cis white wealthy privileged gay men, so it’s not surprising that the conversation has changed. I also disagree with this strict division between radical and neoliberal activism because there is so much grey area: is fighting to repeal anti-queer laws radical, but not fighting for human rights that would prevent those laws?

Homonormativity/transnormativity also assumes that queer people can be easily absorbed by the system–that same-sex marriage did not change the institution of marriage at all. Can’t there be some space between revolution and assimilation? Isn’t it possible that same-sex marriage complicates the institution of marriage even as it reinforces other aspects? I agree that we should be fighting for big, radical change, for dismantling the system, but I also think there is merit to people trying to change it from within in the meantime. This collection seems to suggests that anything less that revolution is misguided. It made me think of the Trevor Project, which seems calls skyrocket after things like trans people being barred from the military–policy changes have real immediate effects for some people. Same-sex marriage may not have ended queer oppression, but it did change people’s lives: for the people able to see their partner in the hospital, for people able to bring their partner into the country, for kids who saw the world as a little less hostile to their existence.

All of this is not to say that I disagree with centring the most marginalized members of our community. One of the later essays describes how gay activism dropped issues of class and poverty after gay community was labelled as the “pink market” (white, middle class, cis, etc), and I do see how this plays out in ignoring the most vulnerable people in our community. I do believe that we should be prioritizing the most pressing, life-threatening issues the queer community faces, even if it’s not politically expedient (such as acknowledging that the issues of safety in sex work and the rate of murders of trans women are intertwined). I think we should be fighting on all fronts, though, and not promoting further fracturing inside the community by sorting people into Good Queer Activists and Bad Normative Activists.

I feel a little silly going into such depth in my issues with a book that very few people have even heard of, but it got me thinking! And honestly, that’s a good thing in itself. I do like exploring academic texts every once in a while as a way to stretch and test my own thinking on a topic. A few other notes that I have on this one: the introduction acknowledges that there is no indigenous perspective offered in the collection, and says that it’s a huge gap, but… I don’t feel like that’s good enough. It seems strange to me to say that an indigenous viewpoint is crucial, and then go ahead and publish your collection without one. Isn’t that your job to find that contributor?

I liked the later chapters much more than the first section. The “passing” chapter introduces the difficulty of “reading” people in the past as either trans men or butch women, and the problems that these categories suggest, as well as the ones present in the language of “passing.” I was also really interested in the chapter about dyke s/m in Canada, and how the “lesbian sex wars” debate on BDSM didn’t really exist in Canada (unlike the US), possibly because Canadian censorship of lesbian SM material could have allowed for solidarity in lesbian communities in fighting censorship. The later section also seems to be less concerned with the division between neoliberal and radical activism–for instance, the sex work chapter has a very different attitude towards police coalition than earlier chapters did.

I definitely want to explore this topic further. I want to know more about both the past and present queer activism in my own country, without just swapping in the US queer history that I know and assuming that it’s the same. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll be seeking out these particular editors in the next books on the topic I pick up, because I didn’t think that their lens added to the topic.

Danika reviews Virtual Equality: The Mainstreaming of Gay and Lesbian Liberation by Urvashi Vaid

virtualequality

Virtual Equality: The Mainstreaming of Gay and Lesbian Liberation by Urvashi Vaid is an examination of the history of the gay and lesbian right/liberation movement, as well as its current trajectory. It takes a close look at gay and lesbian advocacy as it stands now and suggests what some of the problems with the movement are and how it can improve. It’s obviously well-informed and thorough about the political climate of the time. There’s just one problem: it was written in 1995.

It’s maybe an odd choice to pick up a book about the state of queer activism from 20 years ago, but I actually found Virtual Equality an interesting—if not a page-turning—read. For one thing, its look at gay and lesbian (and Vaid does mostly concentrate on gay and lesbian activism, though transgender and bisexual activism is mentioned as well) history is still accurate, and since Vaid lived through the activism of the 80s, it’s described in the kind of detail that I think would be glossed over in a more modern overview.

That detail does sometimes devolve into dense history and statistics that are fairly irrelevant now and are a a slog to get through, but the more general history is fascinating, and reminds me that I have a lot more to learn. Also interesting is seeing some of Vaid’s predictions and recommendations some to pass. For instance, she argues early in the book that gay and lesbian activism at the time had relied too heavily on political activism, ignoring cultural activism. Vaid said that we needed to have more cultural representation in order to turn the tide of public opinion. And, of course, in the late 90s onward, we did get a lot more gay and lesbian representation in media, and the public opinion did shift dramatically!

More than history or a look at “current” 90s politics, however, Virtual Equality has a lot to offer in terms of activist strategy. Vaid has a lot of very practical advice about how to build the movement and make it more effective. One of the more interesting aspects of this is her examination of the Christian Right as a political force. I’ll admit that I saw the Christian Right as a sort of timeless presence in American politics, but Vaid describes its rise as a political force, and also what we can learn from them. Namely, the Christian Right in particular and the Supremacist Right (Vaid’s term) in general are incredibly organized, and Virtual Equality argues that we need to use a similar system to educate activists in order to spread knowledge and strategy.

Overall, reading Virtual Equality reminded me of how much we have to learn from our past so that we don’t keep repeating the same mistakes of previous generations of activists. And yes, the bulk of the criticism that Vaid has is still valid. (I was especially grateful that as a woman of colour activist in a community largely of white men, Vaid offers an intersectional look at sexism and racism within the gay and lesbian community as well as homophobia in the feminist and activists of colour communities.) In fact, I might even say that Vaid’s warning about “virtual equality” versus true equality is even more true today. We need to pass on knowledge of activists so that we don’t have to keep reinventing the wheel, and so that we can continue to make progress.

I did find Virtual Equality to be a slow read: it’s dense and occasionally irrelevant, but it also has so much valuable knowledge packed into it. I would highly recommend this for people who are in queer activism—and even if you’re not, Virtual Equality finishes the book by describing practical ways to get involved in activism and politics, or to take it to the next level if you already are. This gave me a lot to think about: it was well worth the time commitment.

Elinor reviews Bodymap by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha

bodymap

I loved poetry as a teenager, but post-college I’ve hardly read any. As an adult, I read novels largely for escape and relaxation, and nonfiction for information and/or work and grad school. Poetry is a different animal, grounded in emotional truths, ideals, and sensations. It’s not something I make time for much anymore, but I jumped at the chance to review Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha‘s new book of poetry, Bodymap. I picked it up not because it’s poetry, but because it’s Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha. I first read her work in Colonize This! as a college student. Her essays have popped up in many anthologies I’ve liked over the years, and I’ve admired Piepzna-Samarasinha for more than a decade now. Once I saw her at Femme Conference and it felt like seeing a celebrity. After you read this book, I think you’ll feel the same way.

Like her other writing, Bodymap is deeply personal and political. The poems are mostly short, rooted in her life as a Tamil/Burgher Sri Lankan and Irish/Roma disabled queer femme. Her life, love, activism, sexuality, identity, body, and family all tangle through pages. As in previous writing, she explores the difficulties and joys of chosen family and community, and brings generosity and maturity to the subject. In many ways, this was the book I wanted How to Grow Up to be. Piepzna-Samarasinha wrestles with real, difficult topics with emotion and intelligence. By the end of this book of poems, she is a parent with an impressive career, meaningful relationships, and more than a little insight into how to care for herself and those she loves. This book is wise without being preachy or self-aggrandizing, and loving without being cliche or saccharine. The writing itself is straight-up gorgeous.

The first night I read it, I intended to skim this book but got sucked in right away. Piepzna-Samarasinha’s descriptions are evocative, and at times made me cry. It also made me wonder if I should call my ex-best friend and try to talk things out. It made me want to read tarot cards and cook vegan food and whip up homemade beauty treatments. Reading this slim book was a wonderfully emotional experience that connected me to my values and priorities.

Normally in my reviews I suggest who might and might not be interested in a particular book, but I think just about everyone should read Bodymap. If you read poetry, this book is a reminder why you love it. If you don’t read poetry, you should read Bodymap because it’s accessible and beautiful, written with deep maturity and open-hearted honesty. If you’re a long-time fan, you won’t be disappointed as she covers familiar topics with precise and vivid language. If you haven’t read Piepzna-Samarasinha’s work before, Bodymap is an excellent place to start.

Elinor Zimmerman is sometimes on tumblr at http://elinorradicalzimmerman.tumblr.com/

Danika reviews Drag King Dreams by Leslie Feinberg

I loved this book. I still have yet to read Feinberg’s classic novel Stone Butch Blues, but I definitely am motivated to now. I read Drag King Dreams for an English class of mine, and I can see why it would be assigned: there is a lot here to tease out.

[mild spoilers] On the one hand, and probably the reason I enjoyed it so much, Drag King Dreams is a deeply political novel. Not just because it deals with subjects that are always politicized (trans people and racialized people, especially), but because it is about Max’s political reawakening.

Max, as a visibly gender nonconforming person, spends the beginning of the novel just attempting to survive, just trying to get through day by day in a world that is largely hostile to hir. Throughout the novel, however, Max reconnects with hir activist past. I totally understand that there’s sometimes when the only thing we can do is just try to survive, but when that’s all you’re doing, every day, it becomes nearly impossible to do without losing momentum. In rediscovering activism, Max finds a reason to do more than just struggle to survive day-to-day, and I feel like that’s such an important message. [end mild spoilers]

There is more than just queer politics in Drag King Dreams, however. Max’s aunt, despite not being there physically, is a constant presence in the novel. Max’s experiences with virtual reality weave throughout the novel–though, arguably there are never really resolved. Max’s Jewish identity is explored. The war in Iraq plays a part in the novel.

It is odd that, despite Max playing on a computer, and despite the prominence in the novel of the war in Iraq, Drag King Dreams still felt like a timeless story to me. It explores, I think, the endless struggle in being part of an oppressed group. I really recommend this one, as long you’re okay with your fiction having a heaping dose of political opinion, and now I can’t wait to read Feinberg’s previous novel.