Commentary | Of roots and radicals

Renewing Queer McGill, renewing Queer politics

We don’t have to start from the beginning; the tale of our community is the tale of every individual who has ever made it what it is and was, of every person who has ever wandered into our office feeling anxious or excited or confused or afraid. Our story is one of Homo Hops, rallies, pride, poster-making, surreptitious (and not-so-surreptitious) hook-ups, of people fighting together and weeping together and laughing together and falling in love. The question is: Where are we now? And where will we go?

A Legacy

Perhaps we can start with this: over forty years ago, a group of McGill students sat down and penned “Gay,” the founding document of Gay McGill, whose mandate was “to provide a service-oriented gay club.” At that time, simply creating a space for gay people to come and dance, celebrate themselves, and hook up was the extreme left of a war-torn political arena. This small group of people called Gay McGill danced and shouted, lost and won, until the time came to fight new battles, to push even further and harder so that more people could live in the freedom of that space. So Gay McGill became Gay and Lesbian McGill, and then Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual McGill, and then LGBT McGill, and then Queer McGill (QM). Yet the battles are not over, our fight not finished.

A New Direction

QM’s current executive recently voted to enact a policy that will result in QM boycotting companies and institutions known to fund state regimes that violate international law and human rights standards, or that criminalize same-sex relations or persecute people based on gender identity or expression. At QM’s upcoming Spring 2011 General Assembly, constituents will be asked to ratify this policy and officially expand our mandate by writing solidarity with all oppressed groups into our constitution. We also urge everyone interested to join our new Political Action Working Group. Together, we will work to reactivate QM politically on a broad range of issues, from forms of state oppression this policy may or may not address, to trans rights, serophobia, indigenous rights, and police brutality.

We will never be able to fight on every front that demands active struggle, but that is no reason to sit back and anesthetize ourselves to the concrete structures that fragment communities, queer or not, suppress the self-determination of multitudes, queer or not, and systematically marginalize individuals, queer or not, striving for a voice, for a future, for freedom.

Binaries, Intersections

Queer communities mounting political resistance today confront a powerful binary: radical-mainstream, or in more academic terms, liberation-integration. We are told we must fall into one of two factions of a divided movement and, frequently, hold the other in disdain. “Radical” – with one word, we can put people in a box and avoid engaging with certain histories, voices, and ongoing struggles. We give this binary life each time we deem a person or an organization “too radical” or “not radical enough.” This either/or proposition of radicalness is itself the enforcement of a new boundary, a division utterly contrary to a queer politics, founded on a need to demolish boundaries and resist enforced orders.

The QM executive developed its boycott policy partly as a rejection of a particular boundary between resistance movements. In late February, New York City’s LGBT Center cancelled an Israeli Apartheid Week fundraiser. The Center’s executive director has stated that the Israeli occupation of Palestine is a “non-LGBT issue.” Subsequently, in early March, Toronto mayor Rob Ford threatened to withhold all funding for 2011 Toronto Pride if organizers allow Queers Against Israeli Apartheid to participate. Together, these events catalyzed a response that upholds the links between all forms of oppression and the need for solidarity between resistance movements.

The dancers at QM’s first Homo Hop did not consider their actions radical; neither will we. We would like to advocate an intersectional mode of queer politics defined not by its distance from a “mainstream” but by a challenge to the partitions between people, communities, and resistance struggles. No two communities and no two forms of oppression are identical, and so no two movements of resistance can or should ever simply merge. Recognizing the particularities of a given struggle but also the common forces – fear of the other, fear of difference – that enable all forms of oppression, our version of solidarity is not about speaking for others, but with them. We strive to make others heard, and to speak across the borders that a purely identity-based politics erects. If it is by nature “radical,” though, to join forces, to create new bonds, to fight with others rather than only for ourselves, then we will be “radical.

On Alienation

For even approaching such contentious and emotion-ridden issues as Israel-Palestine, Queer McGill will be charged with alienating some of the very constituents it is mandated to serve. First, we reiterate that this new stance is blind to nationality, ethnicity, and religion. It is founded on a conviction of the illegitimacy of certain state practices, and not of any states themselves.

Second, we must resist the notion that to be inclusive and welcoming is to be non-political, or political only vis-à-vis a limited set of uncontroversial issues. Many of our constituents want us to engage in political action on a wide range of issues, and by refusing to do so, we alienate them. Queer McGill can also alienate the members of our community most in need of our services, those marginalized for being queer and racialized, working-class, Muslim in an Islamophobic society, by restricting itself politically to the struggles deemed relevant to queers by a non-representative subset of largely white, upper-middle-class college undergrads.

Finally, we must deeply question the legitimacy of demanding equal treatment for gays, lesbians, and trans people before the law at home while ignoring, for example, the demands of the people of Burma living under a repressive regime. Or of Palestinians, who are denied the same legal status as Jews in Israel by grossly prejudicial citizenship requirements, while subject to arbitrary arrest and lacking freedom of movement simply for being Palestinian. No conflict is black-and-white or reducible to oppressor and oppressed, but we will not let complexity obstruct action against any regime that has by almost any measure rendered a people under its authority second-class citizens, if citizens at all.

Ways Forward

There is a piece of paper that now sits yellowing in a cabinet in the Queer McGill office; it dates back to 1972. One must wonder: What will we write? What words will we leave for McGill students ten, twenty, thirty years in the future? What story do we want to tell? One in which we have abandoned the battlefield, content to lounge upon the laurels of the past? Or one in which we continue to change, to transform, to lose and win, because the world we live in still denies many people the freedom that our predecessors carved out for us?

There is no one way to be queer, no one way to be political. However, we stand to lose much in standing still. Whatever comes of this renewed effort, we need to continue to change, to push – to Homo Hop, to rally, to create posters and pride, to fight and weep and laugh and fall in love together. We need to again become an active community of individuals moving forward, because the alternative is to dance, blind, to the monotonous tune of stagnation at a party thrown a thousand times before. Yes, there are many ways to be queer. The question is: Where can they take us? Where will we go?

Ryan Thom is a Co-administrator of Queer McGill. Kevin Paul is Treasurer, and can be reached at  Join QM for its Spring 2011 General Assembly Tuesday at 7PM in the SSMU Breakout Room.