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‘For Me It Doesn’t Seem Insurmountable’

Activist and author of ‘The Regulation of Desire,’ Gary Kinsman, on queer liberation, the world’s crises and the importance of organizing.

Katie Hyslop 13 Feb 2024The Tyee

Katie Hyslop writes about education and youth issues for The Tyee.

Much has changed for queer and trans rights in Canada since the first edition of The Regulation of Desire was published by Black Rose Books in 1987.

But those changes have been driven by “neoliberal queers” and divorced from interconnected struggles against racism, capitalism, classism, misogyny and other forms of oppression holding us all back, says author, academic and activist Gary Kinsman.

Commissioned by Concordia University Press to update The Regulation of Desire for its third edition — the second edition was published in 1996 — Kinsman, a sociology professor emeritus at Laurentian University, traces the history of the Canadian state’s attempt to stifle any genders and sexualities outside of European settler culture to its genocide against First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities.

“I've learned an awful lot since 1996, especially around Indigenous struggles and their significance,” he said. “I'm now 68, and I think in some ways, perhaps, I'm more radical than I was earlier on.”

Kinsman, who has been an active community organizer since the 1970s, acknowledges the progress that has been made, including the legalization of gay marriage and the 2017 apology for the purge of queer people from federal government workplaces and other discriminations.

But the third edition of The Regulation of Desire, out later this month, takes a critical analysis of these wins, arguing that they embody an ahistorical view of queer and trans rights that excludes almost everyone who isn’t a white, wealthy man.

Queer neoliberalism shows up, he argues, in everything from the backlash to removing police from Pride parades to considering the federal Liberals queer and trans allies without criticizing Canada’s ongoing participation in genocides and conflicts at home and abroad.

Queer liberation, Kinsman asserts, must be bound up with other struggles for justice, such as the struggle for the peace and liberation of Palestinians.

Kinsman, who spoke to The Tyee before Alberta Premier Danielle Smith unveiled her plan to restrict the rights of transgender kids, holds on to “radical hope” that collective organization can achieve a better form of queer liberation.

“What I've been trying to do in my work is to show that there's a direct linkage between the types of critical work that can be done, sometimes in university contexts, sometimes not,” he said, “and producing knowledge for activism, for trying to change the world.”

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Tyee: Why do a third edition of The Regulation of Desire now?

Gary Kinsman: An awful lot of stuff has happened since the second edition came out in 1996: the same-sex marriage struggle, the organizing around the purge campaigns against us and eventually the apology moment.

One of the major things the third edition talks about is the emergence of what I described as the “neoliberal queer.” How a whole layer of white, middle-class, largely gay men — but not only — come to accept capitalist social relations as being absolutely necessary and essential for any move forward in LGBT+ rights.

The problem with that approach is that it excludes lots of people who are queer and trans: working-class people, Black people, Indigenous people, people who are unhoused. All of those people fell out of the more respectable, normalizing LGBT+ rights agenda.

So it was both an attempt to update because an update was required, but also an attempt to deal with new important issues and to try to locate them in social history and struggle.

Has your imagined audience changed from the first to the third edition?

It has. Because there's a larger audience that now exists in 2024 than in 1987. The audience still includes people who do research, theorizing and thinking about these questions. It also includes activists and organizers. But it's also a different type of impact the book will have.

Right now, there's lots of queer and trans activists organizing around many issues. For instance, I'm involved in a group called Queers for Palestine. And many people involved in that group have had no real connections with the older, more mainstream, so-called respectable forms of LGBT organizing. I'm trying to provide people with ways of understanding how it is that what used to be a radical movement no longer is. And how we could try to transform that movement into something able to meet the needs of the people who have been excluded.

Why is it important to link the fight for queer and trans liberation to class struggle, anti-racism and anti-capitalist movements?

Gender and sexuality struggles have always been bound up with questions of class, gender, race. That was understood really well with the initial emergence of the Gay Liberation Fronts, for instance, in solidarity with the Black Panther Party, in solidarity with the National Liberation Front in South Vietnam.

It's only when you have the movement redefined by white, middle-class, largely gay men as being in their interests, when you have other issues of race, class and, to some extent, gender being cut away from what is considered to be the mainstream issues and topics LGBT people should be organizing around.

How did you avoid going down that neoliberal path?

I always saw my commitment to gay liberation being tied up with radical social transformation. In some ways that stayed constant for me, even as I got older and resisted becoming more moderate.

I was involved in the resistance to the bath raids in Toronto, in organizing against the anti-gay, anti-feminist, anti-lesbian right wing. And I was also forming my ideas working with Dorothy Smith, a significant feminist sociologist, [when] I was a student at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

So my intellectual, research-oriented and scholarly perspectives get bound up with this radical sense of struggles against sexual regulation being very anti-capitalist, anti-racist, anti-patriarchal in character. I always thought it was a question of seizing space within the university, within the academic world, to put at the service of activism and trying to change the world.

The book talks about Canada's historical and ongoing genocide of Indigenous Peoples, and the war on trans people in the U.S. and Canada. What are the chances we could experience a genocide of queer and trans people?

Genocide is central and integral to the state formation in Canada, the United States, Australia, South Africa, all sorts of other places. It's especially tied up with settler colonial relationships. That's something the more mainstream LGBT+ movement has actually yet to come to terms with. People are talking about the need to culturally support Two-Spirit people, which is important. But they tried to separate that from the genocide that was and still is enacted against Indigenous people.

One of the things that I've learned in terms of my involvement with Indigenous people in Sudbury, Toronto and other places, has been the ways in which sexual and gender regulation happened within Canadian state formation has to be understood as being directed against third and fourth gender groupings among Indigenous people.

That's in part what the residential school system, the Indian Act, the development of treaties was all about: trying to destroy the ways in which Indigenous people were doing gender differently from the way gender was being consolidated within European-based societies. Central to the emergence of so-called normal gender and sexuality in Canadian society is these genocidal attacks on Indigenous people.

Fortunately, those campaigns weren't entirely successful. We now have a Two-Spirit form of resistance that is trying to reclaim some of those different ways of doing gender and sexuality.

I'm still a little bit wary of using genocide in the context of attacks on queer and trans people. We have undermined some of the ways in which right-wing moral conservative people have tried to organize their lives with assumptions about the normality of gender and the gender binary, opening up many more possibilities for people.

What that meant is the more moral conservative, right-wing, often white supremacist and even fascist forces have started to target young trans people in particular. This is not going to go away.

How does this right-wing, conservative, in some cases fascist backlash compare to other fights against queer and trans oppression in Canadian history?

It has some similarities to what was going on in the late ’70s, early ’80s, when you had the rise of the so-called Moral Majority right wing in the United States and Canada. That was tied to the escalation of the police campaigns against gay bathhouses and gay bars in Montreal, Toronto and other centres.

We need to continue to learn from that. Because we understood that in fighting the right wing, it wasn't simply queer and trans people on our own. It was alliances and interconnected struggles that would actually win. I was involved in a group called Gay Liberation Against the Right Everywhere that participated in anti-Klan actions with groups organizing against racism, that understood almost from the beginning that all of our struggles against the right wing were interconnected.

But there was one mistake that we made. We thought that when we defeated people like Anita Bryant, that we'd actually won, not only against the right wing but against neoliberalism. What we didn't fully realize is that opened up space for another form of neoliberalism to emerge, that the neoliberal queer emerges out of, that supports limited rights for women and gays as long as we're respectable, don't act up too much, don't disrupt things too much.

Central to neoliberalism is the expansion of the prison system, tightening up of borders, attacks on poor people. Also remember the fight for LGB rights, people involved in that organizing consciously decided to not fight for the rights of trans people at that point in time, which is why the rights of trans people are decades behind where the limited form of rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual people are at.

We're facing a situation in which there's a pandemic that has killed lots of people, is disabling lots of people, that governments are basically ignoring: telling us it's over, or that it's endemic and we just have to live with it. Especially for people in the Global South, who have limited access to vaccines, personal protective equipment, this is a setup for lots of people to die, be disabled or live with the consequences of long COVID.

We've lost some of the things we gained from our mobilizations during the AIDS crisis. At that point, we understood that safe sex was everyone's responsibility. We created new erotic cultures around safer sex and safe sex practices; they became the sexual practices people engaged in. But neoliberalism undermined and destroyed that form of social solidarity. Now people only deal with these things as an individual responsibility in individual situations.

We're facing pretty hard times. And that's why this book is going to be useful and appropriate for people trying to understand how we got into the situation that we're in, and how we can begin to think about how we can get out of it.

You were on The Secret Life of Canada last year discussing how homosexuality actually wasn’t decriminalized in Canada. Why do we misremember this history?

The 1969 Criminal Code reform has been entirely misrepresented in terms of the mythology of the Liberal party. What actually happened in 1969 was that two sexual offences, gross indecency and buggery, were partially exempted or decriminalized if they were engaged in by only two individuals, who were 21 or over, in private. That was only two of the possible sexual offences that could be used against men who had sex with men.

And the argument made to motivate the ’69 Criminal Code reform by both NDPers and Liberals who supported it was that people who were mentally ill should be under a doctor's or medical therapist's care, and not put in prison.

People don't remember that the We Demand demonstration on Parliament Hill in August 1971, the first lesbian and gay rights demonstration in the country, was in large part directed against the limitations of the 1969 Criminal Code reform. Which is one of the reasons why Pride is still in August in Vancouver.

Part of it is that you have new historical tendencies, what I call neoliberal queer history, whereby those struggles that we engaged in, the problems that emerged, tend to get forgotten, tend to get lost. And as Patrizia Gentile and I pointed out in The Canadian War on Queers, there's a social organization of forgetting that takes place. They want us to forget our histories of organizing and activism.

It's important to remember the police repression against queer sex intensified after the Criminal Code reform. The massive bath raids and attacks on bars in the late ’70s and early ’80s, those were able to take place because of the limitations of the 1969 Criminal Code reform. The police and the state could claim that men having sex in a room in a bathhouse, or having sex in the backroom of a bar, were having sex in a so-called public place.

That's why hundreds of men were able to be charged with bawdy house-related offences. The Right to Privacy Committee had to fight and develop a different notion of privacy, which was that privacy should not be organized in relationship to state definitions of public or private, but actually be based on the social practices that people themselves engaged in, to construct relations of intimacy and privacy.

People forget that people actually had to wage major struggles to get such things as unemployment insurance. And then of course, once people forget about those struggles and victories, governments and state institutions try to change the character of them.

The mainstream, neoliberal LGBT groups want to talk about how wonderful Pierre Elliott Trudeau was or Justin Trudeau is. Egale gave Justin a leadership award in 2018, after the apology process. I actually have a whole section in the third edition of The Regulation of Desire on what I described as the apology movement, and how an apology should have taken place in the early 1990s.

Egale got lots of money out of it, because now the LGBT Purge Fund produced a new infrastructure for the neoliberal queer. It's not accountable to our movements or communities in any way, because they get direct state funding from the federal government that supports what they're doing.

We’re facing multiple very urgent struggles right now: COVID, genocide, militarized policing, ongoing racism, housing crisis, climate change and more. It feels almost insurmountable. What keeps you going?

When you actually are part of organizing with people, you have a real sense of social solidarity and sometimes a sense of power. For me it doesn't seem insurmountable. It seems like these struggles are interconnected. And if we actually can learn from the positive experiences of rebellion in one area, we can actually translate that into rebellion or resistance in other areas.

Like in AIDS Action Now, we did organizing that meant that people got treatments that allowed them to survive. If we hadn't organized, that would not have happened. That included having illegal sites for people to get aerosolized pentamidine, smuggling aerosolized pentamidine across borders.

I was also an anti-poverty activist with the Sudbury Coalition Against Poverty. One time, the Ontario Works office told us there's no way this person is going to get a check today. So we sent people down to their office, disrupted their work, and by the end of the day, that person had their check. When you win victories like that, that's actually really important.

I end the book on two major points. One is radical hope, and how we need to keep radical hope alive in terms of our struggles against all of those forces who would want to contain that radical hope. But also that we need revolutionary love. And by that I mean a very different approach to love that moves far beyond neoliberalism, that understands the connections between love, social solidarity and transforming the world.

What does that ideal world look like?

By organizing, by developing forms of social solidarity, forms of radical hope, notions of revolutionary love, we can actually begin to prefigure what a different world could and would look like. A society based on mutual aid, where caring for people's needs is actually at the centre. So that when people are in encampments, they don't get clobbered by the cops or city officials trying to force them out, but they actually get the care and support that they need.

It's similar to when I was involved with the AIDS Committee of Toronto, the moments of caring and support that you had in the buddy systems for people living with AIDS and HIV, and the type of support that was taking place. These are real moments that need to be built on, that point us towards a better, different type of world.

Unfortunately, there's obstacles that we have to confront in this case, in particular pinpointing the police and the amount of money and violence they're allowed to engage in. That's now happening against Palestine solidarity organizing in Toronto, and many other places, as well, where the police are now being really brutal.  [Tyee]

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