Queer Canadian Spaces

Reviewed by Suzanne James

Both of these works—Liz Millward’s study of the creation of lesbian spaces across Canada, and the essays on queer activism in Manon Tremblay’s collection—provide valuable records of the development of Canada’s queer community/ies from the 1960s through 2013. While Queer Mobilizations is more diverse in terms of its social and historical focus, Making a Scene provides an in-depth exploration of the developing community of Canadian lesbians over a twenty-year period between 1964 and 1984.

In Making a Scene: Lesbians and Community across Canada, 1964-84, Millward describes the Canadian lesbian “scene” as developing “in fits and starts, gaining momentum in the 1970’s and splintering in the early 1980’s along lines of racialized identity, class distinctions, generational differences over political priorities, and, in some cases, the redirection of energy to the politics of HIV.” Although she was not personally active in the events she describes, Millward writes nostalgically of the “culture of women-centred possibility” and the joyful eroticism that developed at lesbian conferences, communal houses, concerts, and meetings. Using the lens of cultural geography and a vast array of interviews, print documents, photographs, and publications of all kinds, she documents Canadian lesbian history from 1964—when the country’s first homophile organization, ASK (the Association for Social Knowledge), was founded in Vancouver—through the heady days of community and political organization in the late 1960s and the 1970s, and up to the mid-1980s, when the community “splintered.” Millward’s title—Making a Scene—references both the concept of causing a public spectacle and the creation of an identifiable “scene” which would nurture lesbian identity. Identifying her goal as an exploration of “[lesbian] geography, and . . . [an evaluation of] the different spaces in which lesbians found themselves and each other, and in which being lesbian . . . [became] possible in new ways,” Millward documents a range of organizations, forums, and locations throughout Canada in which, and through which, lesbians engaged with each other. “Part 1: Creating Places” explores the urban bars, members-only social clubs, drop-ins, communal houses, centres, and bookstores which became “spaces of becoming, reaffirming, bolstering, and solidifying a sense of lesbian identity.” “Part 2: Overcoming Geography” provides an account of conferences, festivals, and a range of social and political events to which lesbians travelled from around the country, closing with a discussion of the movement of small groups of lesbians into rural areas, where they established often-isolated communities.

Yet, disappointingly, Making a Scene fails to embody the enthusiasm and energy the author references. Perhaps because of the exhaustive archival research Millward has carried out, as well as her desire to accurately represent the complex interpersonal and political issues that eventually contributed to a dissolution (or at least a loosening) of the lesbian community in the 1980s, Making a Scene at times reads like a detailed account of the rather mundane experiences of groups of insular friends. I found myself scanning the black and white photographs for places that might resonate, a story that might captivate, but encountered little of this. Many of the events described are socially significant and this work includes detailed first-hand accounts of lesbian communities and groups at a crucial time in Canada’s queer history, yet the overall effect is rather muted and insubstantial, like the deliberately blurred photograph on the cover.

Queer Mobilizations: Social Movement Activism and Canadian Public Policy has a broader mandate than Millward’s work, and the variety and range of the selected essays produce a more dynamic text. Working from the theoretical perspectives of social movement theory and public policy analysis, this collection aims “to explore the numerous and diverse relationships between LGBTQ activism and the federal, provincial, and local governments in Canada.” Focusing primarily on Canadian events after 2006, the essays discuss legal issues such as the age of consent and trans human rights, Two-Spirit activism in First Nations communities (and specifically in the context of residential schools and the HIV/AIDS crisis), and family rights (including same-sex marriage and parenting). LGBTQ movements in Atlantic Canada, Ontario, Quebec, and Western Canada are explored in the regional section of the text, while Halifax, Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver serve as focal points for essays in the municipal category. The geographical perspective of much of the collection suggests interesting parallels and divergences, perhaps most evident in the contrast between the discussion of high-profile movements in Toronto and Montreal and the aptly entitled essay “‘Punch[ing] More Than Its Weight’: LGBT Organizing in Halifax, Nova Scotia.”

Overall, Queer Mobilizations provides both a carefully documented account of the development of queer activism in Canada and an opportunity for members of the LGBTQ community to reflect on progress made. Tremblay concludes on a guardedly optimistic note, suggesting that “the LGBTQ movement is both united and diversified . . . [and] queer activism has been successful in that it has gained public acceptance as well as new political and socio-cultural benefits.” However, the editor is quick to add that considerable work remains for activists before social and cultural equality becomes a reality.

In a number of ways, Millward’s Making a Scene and Tremblay’s Queer Mobilizations read as complementary texts, both focusing on the development of queer social and political organizations in Canada. Millward encourages us to consider the uniqueness of lesbian activism, highlighting the danger of arbitrarily subsuming it within a broader queer positionality (especially in the context of the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s, the historical context of her work). In contrast, the essays Tremblay presents remind us of the increasing diversity of social/political movements for queer rights, moving beyond the Anglo- and Franco-Canadian-dominated organizations Millward charts and into broader realms such as trans equality and the issues faced by non-heteronormative members of Indigenous and other marginalized communities across Canada.

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