Fatima Jaffer, University of British Columbia
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.
Media stories build on tropes and themes familiar to readers. Such tropes and themes act as a shorthand or ‘common sense’ of what we, as readers, are assumed to believe or are likely to accept. I would argue that in Canada these tropes haven’t changed much since Confederation, although they have varied in form over time and space. Historically these tropes – of white superiority versus the racial inferiority of the Other, and of the Other as savage, backward or resistant to progress – applied to Indigenous peoples. More recently, these tropes, including of the barbarian Other, have been extended to racialized citizens, immigrants and newcomers. Here, I examine how the figure of the queer, racialized Canadian, continues to appear in national political and media discourses.
On December 15, 2007 The Vancouver Sun carried a cover story entitled: “Canada’s Changing Moral Landscape: Are Immigrants to the country changing the face of what’s considered right or wrong?” The first paragraph reads: “‘I hate homosexuality,’ says Balwant Singh Gill, a prominent leader in BC’s large Sikh community. “Most Sikhs believe homosexuality is unnatural and you can’t produce kids through it. And secondarily, no major religion allows it.” That article was published five days after the December 10, 2007 action by two thousand protesters, most of them Punjabi Sikhs, to block the Canadian government’s deportation of Laibar Singh, a paralyzed refugee claimant from India. Coinciding with International Human Rights Day, the protesters had gathered at Vancouver International Airport and stopped his deportation by Canadian Border Services, which led mainstream media to lambast them for their “illegal” and “violent” behavior.
The connection between these events form the crux of my story of how homonationalism, a phenomenon given name by Jasbir Puar in Terrorist Assemblages, is playing out in Vancouver, a city touted in Canadian travel guides for its “tolerance and diversity.” By “homonationalism” I refer to the nation-state’s selectively strategic incorporation of privileged queer bodies in the project of nationhood often in times of war, and this strategy’s worldwide surge post 9/11. Various scholars and activists have shown how homonationalist discourses also flourish in times of heightened anti-immigrant and Islamophobic sentiments. Puar tells us that homonationalism thrives on the perception of “immigrant populations and communities of colour as more homophobic… [which helps fuel] anti-immigrant rhetoric, counterterrorist or antiwelfare discourse.”
Scott Morgensen extends Puar’s concept in Settler Homonationalism, in which he takes up “the conditions under which U.S. queer projects produce a settler homonationalism,” and centres “the terrorizing methods that create queer subjects as agents of the violence of the settler state.” Queer movements for rights become less ‘queer’ as their discourse adopts normative settler ‘common sense,’ which marks the Other – indigenous and non-white – as backward, unprogressive and frozen in time.
As a settler society, Canada fits the bill all too well. In this piece, I extend these works in order to address the current discourse in ‘the West’ and in post-same-sex-marriage Canada in particular by examining the various racial and sexual logics that such media stories evoke. I am interested in the operations of power that help construct the Canadian national as tolerant or supportive of queer identity, versus the racialized outsider, who is irremediably homophobic and always constructed as Other. Homophobia is now projected onto non-western Others as reflective of their unprogressive, undeveloped, and backward ethos. In contrast, the West (or whiteness) comes across as liberated, progressive and gay-positive.
Balwant Singh Gill’s comment in The Sun, “I hate homosexuality,” inevitably provoked an outcry among Vancouver’s queers. As the facilitator of Trikone Vancouver, an organization of queer South Asians, I expected media phone calls for our reaction. But only two came: one from Punjabi TV News, the other from Vancouver’s queer newspaper, Xtra West. The mainstream media overwhelmingly carried the voices of queer community leaders who decried the South Asian community’s culpability for homophobia in Vancouver. The fact that Balwant Singh Gill was the only South Asian quoted in a story on immigrant values shows how media frames communities of colour as homogenized and monolithic.
It was, as The Sun blithely put it, because “Gill, the spokesperson for 39 Sikh temples in British Columbia, appears to combine in one person many of the conservative and libertarian values that immigrants are bringing to and expressing in Canada.” Incidentally, the values referenced in the story had been defined as such by an Angus Reed poll that found immigrants hold ‘different’ values; for example, only 17 percent of immigrants – versus 19 percent of real Canadians – hold middle-of-the-road views. What these middle-of-the-road values are is not clear. It’s noteworthy that the only other ‘immigrant’ quoted in this story was an engineer who came to Canada from Hong Kong. Bill Chu likewise apparently represented the voice of the entire Chinese community (41 percent of Vancouver’s population). Nowhere in the story do we learn that Gill was wrong and that Sikh texts do not allude to homosexuality at all, nor was there an effort made to interview South Asian queers. Further, Gill claimed his comment had been made in an interview with The Sun three years before, although this was publicly disputed by the reporter.
The move by the media to publish this story worked in the interests of a state openly angered at the failed deportation of Laibar Singh. By pitting (white) queers against immigrants of colour, the media constructed these two communities as separate and monolithic, failing to take into account not only intersections – one could be both queer and immigrant – but also the alliances that exist among and between the two communities. South Asian queers, such as the members of Trikone Vancouver, were placed in a double bind: we understood all too clearly the obvious perils of the racism versus homophobia trap set by The Sun and other media outlets.
There was one prominent exception to this coverage. Punjabi TV News proactively contacted Trikone Vancouver for a reaction. They made an effort to explore various aspects of the story, including the connection with the Laibar Singh case. They juxtaposed two queer positionalities: Alan Herbert, a former gay city councilor and I, representing Trikone Vancouver. Simply put, my position was to condemn the homophobic comment by Gill and to also condemn the racist tone of The Sun’s article. I explained the article’s impact on South Asian queers, and that by doing nothing to educate on or even acknowledge our existence as South Asian or Muslim queers, it not only fuels racism against us but homophobia too.
When I repeated these points in an interview with Xtra West, there was a backlash within the queer community. On December 21, 2008, well-known members of Vancouver queer scene called a community meeting, at which I was berated for apparently trivializing Gill’s comment and condoning homophobia. The perception that I had chosen ‘race’ over ‘queer’ meant I had not stood up for ‘Canadian values’ and had not been queer in a way that was acceptable for a dominant white queer community. I was accused of turning my back on the goal of gay liberation. Such accusations emerge from either/or assumptions that pit ‘race’ and ‘queerness’ as distinct rather than intersecting identities. My attempt to complicate this binary logic was tantamount to a betrayal of my country, a country that posits itself as a ‘progressive’ forward-thinking, gay-positive nation. At risk of homogenizing the queer community, I must mention that not everyone voiced this position and Trikone Vancouver had some allies.
To wrap up the story, Gill apologized for his comments and Trikone Vancouver won a Community Hero award from Xtra West for our part in shifting the discourse. However, nine months later, a white gay man, Jordan Smith, was assaulted by a South Asian man and Trikone Vancouver was back at square one. We condemned the assault on Smith, but also had to, again, ‘defend’ our communities from the homogenizing charge that we, as a collective, were responsible.
I tell this story to illustrate how the media used anti-immigrant tropes to mobilise homonationalist discourse within the Vancouver queer community, but also, how what is framed as a queer liberation struggle for rights has in fact become a fight for national entitlement and rights to national belonging. Puar explains, “Gay marriage, for example, is not simply a demand for equality with heterosexual norms, but more importantly, a demand for the reinstatement of white privileges and rights – rights of property and inheritance in particular.” Gay and lesbian liberation movements have become a drive for privileges lost. As such, they can only benefit those who face ‘oppression’ on the basis of homophobia alone.
The message of the media frame in this example was simple: the homo subject is under threat by immigrant Others. The message I got from the queer community was also simple: Queers are offered the opportunity of acceptance and inclusion, and we too can ‘belong’ as queers of colour – if we conform to a queer identity and a view of queer liberation that leads to the accumulation of national capital. We too can gain rights (and safety from violence) if we join this project of nationhood that centralizes whiteness as national identity. At the heart of this conception of ‘Canadianness,’ however, is collusion in the project of ahistoricity. This collusion requires a forgetting of the fact of Canada as Indigenous land, and that Indigenous notions of two-spiritedness were in existence well before European colonization. The invitation to accumulate or ‘invest’ in whiteness in order to arrive at ‘belonging’ continues the violence of settler sexuality and the stratification of sexual and racial hierarchies on which the settler nation rests.
‘Canadianness’ requires our participation in the cultural, economic and literal erasure of this history just as it requires a deliberate forgetting of the project of colonization as grounded in the dispossession of Indigenous peoples or the fact that gay liberation and gay-positive attitudes are recent inventions in the West. It’s what we do each time we espouse ‘Canadian values’ or present ourselves as queer first, people of colour second, and see the two identities as separate and unequal, rather than as intersectional or interlocking, as Sirma Bilge and Rinaldo Walcott argue in this LGBTQI2-S series.
It is critical that we, individually as queers, collectively as queer researchers, academics and as activists, re-examine our frameworks for viewing the world and the directions that our research and organizational objectives take. Central to this critical self-reflection project is the need to expose the racial and colonial imaginary that exist alongside what we call ‘Canadian values’ of diversity and tolerance, which we valorize and brazenly tout abroad, despite the glaring contradictions at home.
Fatima Jaffer is a long-time lesbian activist in Vancouver and a doctoral student and Liu Scholar at the University of British Columbia. She thanks Dana Olwan and Yasmin Jiwani for their insightful feedback.