Articulate Silences, Racism and Settler Colonialism in LGBTQ Politics

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Scott Lauria Morgensen, Queen’s University
Guest contributor

This entry is part of the CFHSS’s VP Equity Issues series on issues related to LGBTQI2-S (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, questioning, intersex and Two-Spirited) peoples.

Perhaps you’ve heard the idea that experiencing oppression should sensitize one group not to oppress another. It is matched by evidence to the contrary, that some oppressed people invest in oppressing other oppressed people all the time. And so we find LGBTQ movements in Canada and the United States professing the inclusion of diversity as their hallmark and, paradoxically, pursuing their freedom by securing the unfreedom of others. I foreground these tensions in order to think through how LGBTQ movements mask their conditioning by racism and settler colonialism, a reality long noted and challenged by Two-Spirit activists.

LGBTQ movements are familiar with their antiracism praxis remaining an open question, as invitations to practice it often are contested, if not shut down. Does anyone’s library still own, Out of Place: Interrogating Silences in Queerness / Raciality edited by Adi Kuntsman and Esperanza Miyake? One essay’s critique of Islamophobia in the anti-homophobia campaigns of the United Kingdom organization Outrage, led to a threatened legal action and this informed the decision of Raw Nerve Press to remove the book from circulation. For two years Canadian LGBTQ politics have been riven by debate over the ban, readmission, and withdrawal of Queers Against Israeli Apartheid from Toronto Pride.

Political activism that confronts the silencing of antiracism needs to be informed by what Sirma Bilge in this series calls “queer intersectionality”. This intersectional turn must address concerns raised in the censored essay in Out of Place – “On the Depoliticization of Intersectionality Talk” by Umut Erel, Jin Haritaworn, Encarnación Rodríguez and Christian Klesse, in which they argue that intersectionality will be insufficient to feminist or queer critique if it merely names social locations but does not go further and seek a transformation of the structural conditions that produce inequitable and exclusionary power relations. In his blog in this series, Rinaldo Walcott’s trenchant account of the historical structuring of injustice traces the invisibility of Black queer and trans lives in Canada to the violence of the transatlantic slave trade that defined European modernity and heteropatriarchy in opposition to both blackness and Islam and rendered Black queer and trans subjects an impossibility in the dominant imaginary.

Understanding how racism works, and how the conditions it structures go missing in practice, will be deepened once we mark their formation through the silenced conditions of settler colonialism. I take up such historical silences in my new book, Spaces between Us: Queer Settler Colonialism and Indigenous Decolonization. Two-Spirit people have critiqued their invisibility as subjects in Canadian and United States LGBTQ politics by challenging the power relations of settler colonialism. Two-Spirit scholarship and activism informs Patrick Wolfe’s recognition that settler colonialism is not a historical event, but a perpetual structure of white settler societies and of non-Native and Native relationships.

I invite readers to ask, with the benefit of a history lesson, the following: How and why has silencing settler colonialism conditioned LGBTQ movements; and what might definitively interrupt it? I began forming answers to these questions while working as a white critic of racism and settler colonialism in Canada and the United States, where I often appear before white LGBTQ audiences to examine their ties to Native people. My listeners sometimes express surprise if I start by addressing settler colonialism, given their familiarity with other stories of Native people that feel more comforting, less conflictual. Such listeners have learned that Native nations in North America traditionally honoured gender and sexual diversity; and, that such traditions positively inform their own non-Native lives.

Whether referencing anthropology, LGBTQ history, or counterculturism, such stories promise many things: a shared nature, with Native peoples representing primordial traits that they “re”-claim; an authentic culture, something denied by pathologization in science or religion; and a global purview, once that nature or culture is extrapolated worldwide. A promise underlying all others in these stories is that of gaining ancient roots on Native lands. White people produced these stories, based on their knowledge, or fear of admitting, that even queer exile from settler society does not mean that they are not settlers. Imagining their indigeneity has been crucial to instantiating whiteness in LGBTQ politics, and to erasing non-Native queer/trans people of colour – except when inviting their assimilated participation. People of colour at times adapted such stories to antiracist or anticolonial ends. However, engaging white settler imaginaries of indigeneity also could separate people of colour from their own responsibility in Two-Spirit critiques.

Indigenous LGBTQ and Two-Spirit activists long have interrupted white settler narratives of indigeneity: by arguing that such stories are appropriative and, moreover, that the issue LGBTQ politics face is decolonization. Soon after the 1975 formation of Gay American Indians (GAI) in San Francisco, co-founders Barbara Cameron (Lakota) and Randy Burns (Paiute) in an Advocate interview deferred the interviewer’s inquiry into what their group meant for the gay movement. Cameron and Burns argued that GAI organized first to offer support “for each other” and thence to contribute to decolonization. Responding to the impending United States bicentennial at the time, Cameron (in the book, Gay American History) said she felt “Angry… What should Indians celebrate? Two-hundred years of broken promises, land theft, genocide and rape? …We’re going to be demonstrating in Philadelphia in ’76. There are plans for demonstrations at Mount Rushmore. Gay Indians will be there.”

Cameron’s desire to defend Native peoples is echoed in the moment when Native gays and lesbians in New York City formed the group WeWah and BarCheeAmpe. This formation centred the historical figures of We’wha – honoured Zuni lhamana and representative of her nation to United States President Grover Cleveland in 1886 – and Bar Chee Ampe (“Woman Chief”) whose life of leadership for her people included leading the Crow to victory in battle. Each group shared the sentiment of Gilbert Deschamps’ (Ojibwe) text for Two-Spirits in Toronto, We Are Part of a Tradition: A Guide on Two-Spirited People for First Nations Communities. Notably, the tradition being renewed here is not limited to “gender” or “sexuality,” for it also situates Two-Spirit people in the defense of resistant Native nations.

Recent criticism in queer studies has shown that Indigenous stakes are illegible in the field’s longstanding critique of nationalisms – whether imperial homonationalisms, or heteropatriarchal racial/ethnic and postcolonial nationalisms that remain problematic to queer and trans people of colour. Critics acknowledge that not considering the national stakes of Two-Spirit people follows a historical absence of attention to Indigenous politics in the field. A stronger reading would mark within queer studies the historical presence of an articulate silence about settler colonialism despite this power conditioning all queer life and critique on contested Indigenous lands.

Two-Spirit activist histories already model alternatives. WeWah and BarCheeAmpe helped lead the 1990 founding of New York City’s first coalition of queer/trans of colour organizations: the Cairos Collective, progenitor of the Audre Lorde Project. The collective’s first issue of its magazine ColorLife! named its responsibility to Two-Spirit leadership. For the 1992 Quincentennial, ColorLife! centred the calls of Two-Spirit activist to challenge the settler state. It printed reflections by non-Native people of color on their inheritance of settler colonialism and responsibility to Indigenous decolonization. Interlinked analysis of racism and settler colonialism emerged to illuminate the lives of Two-Spirit people as well as alliances with non-Native queer/trans people of colour. In Canada, the work of the Native Youth Sexual Health Network under founding director Jessica Yee (Oneida) is inspiring dynamic antiracist coalitions grounded in committed work for Indigenous decolonization.

Such potential ties join white settler narratives as my evidence that LGBTQ movements in Canada and the United States formed relationally to Two-Spirit activism. If “conversation” marks circulating stories about indigeneity, it more deeply invokes the historical structuring of LGBTQ politics by white settler colonialism. The conversations I interpret were not chosen, nor can they be entirely refused. They reflect colonial relations established between white settlers and Native nations, which then inform the interrelated lives of all non-Native and Native people in settler society.

As these relations are on-going, I invite conversation regarding how LGBTQ racism and antiracism are conditioned by settler colonialism. I trust that Islamophobia, anti-black racism, settler colonization in the Americas, and Indigenous national resurgence can be explained interdependently, even if theory in queer studies has yet to provide an account. One generative possibility in Canada today is the emergence of conversation among activists addressing queer Palestinian solidarity and Two-Spirit organizing. In light of such connections, the historical relationship between WeWah and BarCheeAmpe and the Cairos Collectives is good to think. Two-Spirit and queer/trans people of colour movements remain those to which white critics like me must be accountable. It is to the possibility of such responsible relationships that I invite a return to conversation.

Scott L. Morgensen is an assistant professor of Gender Studies and Cultural Studies at Queen’s University in Kingston, the author of Spaces between Us: Queer Settler Colonialism and Indigenous Decolonization and co-editor, Queer Indigenous Studies: Critical Interventions in Theory, Politics, and Literature


Equity Matters


Lesbian/ Gay/ Bisexual/ Transgendered/ Queer/ Intersex/ Two-Spirited


Dear Dr. Morgensen,

Thank you for this insightful piece. Your ideas are inspiring and provocative and left me with a few questions that I would greatly appreciate if you could address.

Do you see this instantiation of whiteness in LGBTQ politics as a side effect of queers imagining their indigeneity because it was a useful analogy, or would you argue that instantiating whiteness has been in some way a concerted, explicit effort on the part of white queers? If the latter, why do you think this is? Do you think that different (dis)proportions of visibility, control, interest, and other forms of engagement would be inevitable if a racialization other than whiteness had come to be hegemonic through different historical circumstance?

For many white queers who don’t come into sustained contact with Indigenous peoples, the composition of their activist circles and links to others may have a lot to do with rarely experiencing themselves as being in community with Indigenous communities.

Given that the possibility of forming coalitions with different groups may not be apparent to many people, and that for white queers to seek out Indigenous groups could be once again assimilative and tokenizing, what should a reformed LGBTQ politics look like, in your opinion? Could you speak a little more to your understanding of the specific actions that white queer activists are responsible for pursuing in order to be truly anti-racist and decolonizing?