In a Queer Country:
Gay and Lesbian Studies in the Canadian Context
Arsenal Pulp Press
This book has many strengths. It is a unique state-of-the-art collection of gay and lesbian studies work in Canada. In a Queer Country covers a wide range of issues, often in a interesting and original way.
A few of the chapters are so good they justify the book on their own. For example, Wesley Crichlow’s important chapter looks at the specific ways that male same-sex sexuality is expressed in African-Canadian and African-Caribbean communities in Canada. This is groundbreaking work that reminds us that the labels “gay” and “lesbian” are often used as if they were inclusive, and yet they often exclude the perspectives of people of colour who have same-sex sexual experiences. This creates the “invisible men” who can be seen neither inside gay and lesbian communities (where they simply don’t fit the implicitly “white” image of “gay” or “lesbian”) nor in African-Caribbean or African-Canadian communities (which often stigmatize same-sex activities and identities).
There are chapters that explore really interesting dimensions of lesbian and gay existence. For example, two chapters (by Gordon Brent Ingram and Catherine Nash) look at the specific places where lesbian and gay life happens (for example, the nude beach for men) and ask really interesting questions about how these spaces got to be this way, and how they have changed.
There is a great interview with filmmaker Lynne Fernie, whose important movie, Forbidden Love, is a beautiful examination of lesbian existence before the 1969 Stonewall riot in New York City, which opened up the contemporary queer movement.
Michelle Owen explores the hot issue of queer family politics, asking whether the queer movement is being co-opted into heterosexual family forms or subverting the heterosexual family when we gain recognition for same-sex relationships.
Yet there is an overall problem with the book. It really is a sophisticated collection of works in lesbian and gay studies — meaning it has the university stamped all over it. In a Queer Country is written for an academic context, not for a movement. Sadly, aside from Gary Kinsman’s important contribution, there is very little on the challenges facing queer-liberation politics at the present time. The smell of activism just isn’t here.
Brave queer pioneers have battled hard to win a place for lesbian and gay studies in our heterosexist universities. Sadly, though, it is a rather defanged and academic version of queer life that has made it into these spaces. The creative street activism that has been a key feature of the queer movement since Stonewall simply doesn’t translate well into academia, where the focus is on knowledge for its own sake.
This book has a lot to offer. Overall, it is an impressive collection that shows us the strengths and weaknesses of university-based gay and lesbian studies.