Queering the language of ‘sexual minorities’ in Canada

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Alexa DeGagne, University of Alberta
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.

The term “sexual minorities,” said to have been coined by Lars Ullerstam in the late 1960s, is now experiencing a resurrection. It is being used by Canadian government agencies, while at the same time it is gaining popularity in some of Canada’s LGB (lesbian, gay, bisexual) circles.

The return of the language of sexual minorities is indicative of the, largely uncontested prevalence of liberal equal rights politics within some LGB organizations and governmental institutions. But many Canadian activists and scholars argue that while the liberal equal rights framework may afford people formal protections, it does little to challenge common assumptions of acceptable sexuality and the ways in which heteronormativity permeates society. As this discourse becomes increasingly normalized, it is important to consider the meaning and power of the language of sexual minorities and its accompanying political framework.

Using a queer analysis, I  argue that the discourse of  sexual minorities, and its liberal equal rights framework, is problematic because it espouses assimilationist politics; it does not question how or why particular sexualities are rendered abnormal or deviant; and it fails to challenge the existence or coherence of the supposed sexual majority.

Simply put, the concept of sexual minorities describes people who, based on their sexual conduct, orientation or lifestyle, are other than of the “heterosexual majority.” Following liberal equal rights based politics the concept of sexual minorities emulates the concept of ethnic minorities: both terms are used to demonstrate that their respective minorities are in need of state protection against the interests and wills of ethnic and sexual majorities. The University of Alberta’s Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services opened in 2008. It defines ‘sexual minorities’ thusly: Sexual minorities are those persons who constitute a minority population due to differences in their sexual orientations and/or gender identities. Groups characterized as sexual minorities across sex, sexual, and gender differences include lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transsexuals, intersexuals, transgendered, and Two-Spirit Aboriginals. Section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects sexual minorities against discrimination in Canadian culture and society.

The organization leans on the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and makes the case that lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transsexuals, intersexuals, transgendered and Two-Spirited citizens’ differences place them in a minority position and in need of protection.

In order to attain equality, oppressed groups must first prove that they are an identifiable group and, second, that they have been treated unequally – through abuse, neglect or the denial of certain rights and protections – when compared to or at the hands of the majority. The minorities in question are burdened with having to prove that they are victims of abuse, neglect and/or inequality because of their (supposed) biological and thus immutable identities.

The term sexual minority was moderately popular when it emerged in the late 1960s. Its popularity waned, however, as many scholars and activists began rejecting the mainstream, liberal equal rights project of some LGB organizations and accordingly opted for the more radical monikers of queer and/or sexual deviant.

Birthed in the 1990s, queer theory holds that sexuality should not be essentialized into strict identity categories because the meaning and categories of sexuality change and, moreover, vary over space and time. Queer theorists and activists accordingly argue that identity categories (such as lesbian, gay and bisexual) are normalized and that identity-based politics are confining and exclusionary. Yet, in recent times, the term sexual minorities is being used evermore, and often absent mindedly, by many Canadian governmental bodies and apparatuses, and LGB organizations.

The prevalence of the language of sexual minority is indicative of how naturalized and uncontested liberal equal rights discourse is within North America’s LGB social and political movements, and within state institutions as well. Arguably the term sexual minority is more politically correct and palatable than its counterparts, which include the reappropriated identifiers of sexual deviants and queers. Supposedly, the heterosexual majority will be more amenable to tolerating and accommodating the sexual minority than they will the indefinable and unruly queers.

But the term’s digestibility is its ruin: First, using the language of sexual minorities shackles any debate about sexuality too tightly to liberal equal rights politics. Past and current equal rights campaigns certainly have assured some “minority” populations serious and needed protections, in terms of employment, pay and housing rights and protections against abuses, mistreatment, or neglect. But in fighting for and eventually gaining these rights, minority populations are essentially asking to be accepted as part of the rights bearing majority.

Diane Richardson argues that since the 1990s, assimilationism has seen resurgence through mainstream gay and lesbian activism, most noticeably through the rhetoric of equal rights. As Richardson states regarding the current state of this faction of gay and lesbian activism: “This is a politics that by invoking – and simultaneously constituting – a ‘gay movement’ that seeks incorporation into the mainstream, rejects the earlier political language of women’s, lesbian and gay liberation in favour of a ‘lesbian and gay equality’ rhetoric.”

Steven Seidman similarly argues that equal rights and minority rights language is reformist and assimilationist, rather than radical or revolutionary. Though he is speaking in reference to the current state of American LGB movements, his observations are applicable to the equal rights and sexual minority agenda of some Canadian LGB groups and organizations:

These reformers do not wish to change America beyond altering the status of gays from outsider to citizen. An assimilationist agenda does not necessarily protest the dominant status of heterosexuality; it’s about minority rights, not toppling the majority. Nor do these reformers wish to challenge the broader spectrum of sexual-intimate norms that govern behavior, such as the norm of marriage, monogamy, or gender norms of sexuality. Assimilationists press America to live up to its promise of equal treatment of all of its citizens; they wish to be a part of what is considered a basically good nation; this requires reform, not revolution.

Although “minority” groups have demonstrated their otherness to make equity claims, Mary Bernstein warns that the current mainstream lesbian and gay movement is abandoning its emphasis on being different from the ‘straight majority’ in favour of a moderate politics that highlights similarities to the straight majority. These groups are capitulating to a politics in which equality comes with acceptance and the quickest route to acceptance is assimilation. Formal, but not substantive, equality is granted once minorities are recognized (categorized), acknowledged (allowed to speak) and accepted (depoliticized). Ultimately, therefore, accommodation occurs on the terms of the majority.

Second, the term sexual minorities does not question how some sexualities are rendered deviant or abnormal. It merely assumes the position of being outside the majority. Contemporary, albeit contested, theories of sexuality posit that the majority of the population is heterosexual, therefore it is psychologically, developmentally and morally normal to be heterosexual (the logic seems circular because it is). By calling themselves sexual minorities political groups are reaffirming the notion that the majority of the population is unshakably heterosexual, that sexuality should be pathologized as a fixed orientation or identity, and that any individual or group that does not fit the accepted criteria is abnormal and undeserving of certain rights and protections.

And third, the term gives the impression that there is a homogeneous sexual majority. But what exactly is the nature of the majority to which sexual minorities stand in opposition? Is there really a large, coherent majority of heterosexuals? Arguably, there are evermore people who do not espouse a heterosexual identity or lifestyle complete with traditional gender roles and monogamy till death. And it is not only the homosexuals or queers that stand outside this model but also those who are heterosexual, and whose sexuality is interpreted, constructed and treated differently because of their race, religion, ability, income and/or gender. Precisely because of their difference, such individuals have never completely belonged to the heterosexual majority. Thus, when we start adding up all the people who practice, espouse, support, are affected by or celebrate a sexuality other than those which are socially accepted and normalized, we are left with a large group indeed – a majority even.

While it is not surprising that Canadian government agencies are using the language of sexual minorities, it is of concern that a growing number of Canadian LBG organizations are choosing language and politics that are based on creating strict identity categories. This language excludes many Canadians who cannot or will not conform to society’s normalized and accepted sexuality categories. Those who cannot easily assimilate are ignored or, worse yet, actively silenced by their supposed allies.

We must challenge the assumptions and language of our country’s more powerful LGB organizations, otherwise they will continue to monopolize discourse and public debates, and set restrictive priorities and agendas for Canada’s sexually marginalized citizens.

Alexa DeGagne is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Alberta.


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