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  • With/out apologies:queering public conversations about redressive nationalisms

On 11 August 2016, the Globe and Mail's John Ibbitson published a piece noting that "Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will apologize on behalf of all Canadians to those who were imprisoned, fired from their jobs or otherwise persecuted in the past because of their sexuality."1 There was considerable excitement over this announcement, with some pinning on it the hope of recognition and redress. Helen Kennedy, the Executive Director of the national LGBT rights organization Egale, calls the forthcoming apology "a long-awaited moment and a very emotional moment," adding: "[f]or the government to recognize the damage that it caused, the harm that it caused, to thousands and thousands of Canadians is a historic moment for our communities."2

Immediately after the Ibbitson article was released, the University of British Columbia Public Affairs reached out to me as one faculty expert on sexuality to prepare possible news media releases related to the forthcoming apology. I was asked to provide my thoughts on the following set of questions:

  1. 1. Why is it important for governments to address historic wrongs?

  2. 2. What impact do you think Prime Minister Trudeau's formal apology will have?

  3. 3. Is an apology enough to make a difference in the everyday lives of LGBTQ people? What more can the government do to support LGBTQ communities?

  4. 4. Anything else that you would like to add?

As I do with most media requests, I viewed this specific invitation as an opportunity to participate in public pedagogy.3 That is, I am generally interested in extending the academic work of teaching beyond the confines of the university's walls and my own classrooms. I understand [End Page 102] my work as a scholar to include a civic responsibility to offer my expertise towards broader public education about issues of social justice. In the specific case of the apology, my hope was to offer to the public some analytical resources for thinking about the limitations of the apology as an approach to redressing historical geographies of sexual exclusion. I drew these resources from the interdisciplinary body of work that has come to be called 'queer of color theorizing.' The works of queer of color theorists are useful because they insist that a diverse set of sexual communities, bodies, and practices have been rendered abnormal by the state sanctioning of heteronormativity in law and policymaking. They ask us to expand our analysis beyond the binary homosexual/heterosexual, which, they argue, has never been the sole operative factor in the production of sexual otherness. Cathy Cohen has, for example, insisted that the intense public demonization of the figure of the 'welfare queen', usually portrayed as a poor, often black, single mother, challenges simplistic conceptions of all heterosexualities as normative.4 In other words, queer of colour theorizing insists that thinking 'queerly' means thinking beyond sexual identity to consider how intersectionality shapes what counts as sexually normative.

A key question that informed my approach to the media engagement is this: What is the historical horizon being considered and redressed in acts of national apology such as that promised to "our communities," to use Kennedy's phrase? Queer of color theorizing demands asking critical questions about who constitutes "our communities" and which acts and moments of persecution are being redressed. In other words, queer of color theorizing offers critical tools for interrogating the subjects and histories being addressed by the promise of "redressive nationalisms." Robert Diaz (2013) uses this term in another context to describe state practices that are "seemingly meant to enact reparation – monetary or otherwise – but in reality only further the consolidation of state power and the expansion of transnational capital."5 Diaz thus extends the ambit of queer of color theorizing by also asking us to consider how such acts of redress might fold previously excluded (sexual) subjects into the nation, thus marking the project of inclusion as a nationalist one. Jasbir Puar (2007) has named such a process "homonationalism"; it is worth emphasizing here that Puar argues that such inclusions rely on the continued, even intensified, abjection of other (queer) subjects.6 Hence, following these scholars, it was crucial for me to make sure that my response to Question #4 invites the public to consider how apologies such as this one can be used to expand Canadian exceptionalism, premised as it already is on warm and fuzzy notions of tolerance, multiculturalism and increasingly, LGBT-friendliness. Bringing Canadian exceptionalism to the fold of the public conversation around the promised apology is crucial in order to refuse the possibility that such an apology will be used to reproduce a map of the world in which the equation of West/North=progress and East/South=backwardness is accomplished through redress around historical geographies of sexualities.

In my response to the questions posed by the UBC Office of Public Affairs, another matter that I hope to bring to the public conversation around the apology is that the redressive nationalism of the apology is premised on defining persecution as one based on sexual identity. Indeed, particular flashpoint moments are identified as key to the narrative of what needs to be apologized for. This includes the legal designation of male homosexuality as a crime in the Canadian Criminal Code since Confederation, which was then decriminalized in 1969. In addition, the purging of gays and lesbians from the civil service and the armed forces, especially during the Cold War and well into the 1980s and 1990s, has been identified as a specific state-sanctioned form of heteronormativity that necessitates redress. Such acts of exclusion rely on the socio-spatial construction of gays and lesbians not only as out of place from the nation-state's apparatuses of governance and security, but perhaps more insidiously as actual threats to the nation-state's safety in the face of foreign hostility. Gary Kinsman has noted how, during the Cold War era, "[h]omosexuals were designated a 'national security threat' because of their 'character [End Page 103] weakness' which supposedly left gay men and lesbians open to blackmail by Soviet agents."7 At this time, the Canadian government invested all manners of financial, policy, research and personnel resources towards creating a knowledge production infrastructure around the problem of homosexuality, with the RCMP "collecting the names of thousands of possible homosexuals" and with research on the detection of homosexuality being funded as a priority at this time.8 Indeed, at the time, about $10,000 – equivalent to $80,000 today – was spent on the development and testing of equipment to detect homosexuality.9 While the scope of this piece prevents a full accounting of the extent of such government efforts,10 what is worth emphasizing is that anxieties about homosexuality translated into specific governmental programs of surveillance, research and policymaking. The linking of homosexuality with character weakness was a key plank of such actions, the corollary of which is that heterosexuality is normalcy of character and thus needs to be protected by the nation-state.

In this spirit, it is worth examining in what other ways and in what other historical moments heteronormativity has been identified as a concern of the Canadian state. It is also worth asking, following Cohen, how heteronormativity produces certain heterosexualities as non-normative, an approach that then enables us to ask in what ways state heteronormativity has gone beyond the targeting of LGBT people. What I want to suggest in my media engagement is that reducing "our communities" to LGBT people would disallow the promised apology from speaking to other forms of state-led productions of otherness in which particular sexual practices and sexual forms were targets, but for which (homo)sexual identity per se was not the main or sole mode of othering. I insist that thinking beyond especially 'gay and lesbian' would allow us to expand on what historical events and which sexual subjects need to be addressed and redressed. And yet, even in UBC Public Affairs' invitation to engage in public pedagogy via media work, the only space where such an intervention is possible is in the last question, as the penultimate one already marks 'LGBTQ' as the primary subject of redress and apology. Indeed, the most recent version of the Q&A that I've seen scrubs question #4 and thus my answer to it. Nevertheless, this does not foreclose the possibility of bringing up these issues if and when media requests seek interviews with faculty experts on the apology. After all, part of the task that scholars, engaging in public pedagogy via media work, is to mine opportunities offered by such open-ended questions to broaden the scope of what public conversation might include.

Queer-inflected critical race and indigenous studies scholarship, such as the example drawn from Cohen above, already offers historical-geographic accounts of racial and colonial violence being meted out through the control of sexuality. I offered some of these examples in my answers to Question #4, and I expand on some of them here. In the Canadian settler colonial context, government efforts at preserving heterosexuality often took on particular racial contours, with certain migrant and indigenous communities being framed in law, policy and broader public discourse as racial-sexual threats to the national project of white hetero-futurity,11 For example, legal restrictions on migration into Canada, as in the financially prohibitive head tax, put urban Chinese bachelor communities under conditions of "compulsory deviance," as these communities were forced into homosociality and restricted from state sanctioned heterosexual institutions of marriage and family formation.12 Such restrictions were accompanied by legal prohibitions on interracial relations between Chinese men and white women, which were premised on preserving heterosexualities that are based on racial purity. Moreover, in her research on Canadian government debates between 1910 and 1915 about South Asian women's migration to Canada, Enakshi Dua (2000) notes that "South Asian women were seen as a threat to Canadian society because their presence would facilitate the permanent settlement of South Asian men, and thus the emergence of South Asian communities."13 These examples illustrate that, during Canada's relative youth as a settler colonial nation, racialized and interracial heterosexualities were sanctioned while white heterosexualities were celebrated, the latter having been a focus of [End Page 104] colonial efforts at white settlement since at least the mid 1600s when the filles du roi were brought to early French Canada to facilitate settler reproduction in the St. Lawrence region.14

State investments in European forms of heteropatriarchy also informed settler colonial efforts at subjugating and dispossessing indigenous communities. As Martin Cannon and Bonita Lawrence have both argued, heteropatriarchy constituted a key plank of the Indian Act, as Canadian efforts at civilizing indigenous communities included vilifying indigenous gender and sexual formations as non-normative and imposing on them the European binary system of gender and patrilineal forms of nuclear family.15 Sarah De Leeuw's research also documents the ways that indigenous children were targeted for civilization in part through the imposition of binary gender norms and heterosexuality in curriculum and pedagogy in Indian residential schools.16 These examples show how indigenous people's adherence to heteronormativity became institutionalized by the Canadian state to measure their proximity to civilization. Nevertheless, not all forms of indigenous adherence to heterosexuality were considered normative. Renisa Mawani's work on race in early British Columbia documents governmental anxieties about so-called 'half-breeds', a newfound taxonomic category for people of mixed indigenous-white ancestry.17 She argues that such anxieties were, in part, due to the challenge 'half-breeds' posed to governmental efforts at delineating the spatial separation of indigenous reserve communities from settler communities. As with some of the examples above, then, these anxieties vividly illustrate the importance of state sexual controls for the socio-spatial production of the settler colonial nation.

Gordon Brent Ingram (2003) has noted that even straightforward legal restrictions on homosexuality were enforced unevenly along lines of race in the first half of the 1900s in British Columbia.18 He notes that, in the early 1910s, "more than half of the records of trials for consensual homosexuality before the end of World War I targeted Sikhs, sometimes identified in court documents as 'Hindoos,'"19 even while the Sikh population numbered only a few thousand. This clearly disproportionate pattern makes clear the confluence of state racial control and state sexual control. The trial dossiers of Sikh men accused of 'buggery,' Ingram notes, reveals white anxieties about "the self-confidence of 'oriental' groups, especially at their assertion of sexualities divergent from the Victorian nexus."20 Ingram's research concerns a historical-geographic context that predates Cold War anxieties about queer threats to national safety. It also illustrates the racialized unevenness of the policing of homosexuality post-Confederation. As in the examples above about indigenous and Asian communities and the state's concerns about their intimate and sexual lives, Ingram's work provides an opportunity to expand our understanding of just what it was that had been understood as the threat posed by queerness. Along with their supposed psychological susceptibility to Soviet agents and thus as threats to national safety at a time of geopolitical conflict, the additional examples above testify to an early Canadian anxiousness around white reproductive futurity and miscegenation, which constructed migrant and indigenous communities as queer for the threat they posed to emergent settler colonial (sexual) orders.

These examples illustrate the need to pay attention both to the diverse historical geographies of sexual control in Canadian national formation and to the ways that state heteronormativity cannot be disentangled from the racial project of settler colonial nation state formation. What I want to do, in my role as a public interlocutor on the promised apology to "our communities," is to ask us collectively to consider that gays and lesbians were not the sole targets of state repression and that settler colonial nation state formation have long made strong use of sexual prohibitions and regulations to advance white heteronormativity, with its targets exceeding strictly LGBT communities. The goal of such an intervention is less about asking the Canadian state to issue more apologies to more subjects for a greater number of repressions, though this [End Page 105] is arguably warranted. Instead, for me, bringing up these 'other' episodes of sexual control is a means to encourage more public conversations about the broader centrality of sexual control for Canadian nation building. When the promised apology eventually gets delivered, it will join other state apologies in Canada, among them to Chinese head tax payers and to indigenous former residential school students. While the former will inevitably be framed – as it already is – around sexual identity, the latter two are usually thought about in terms of race. My intervention is to refuse such discreteness, using political and analytical energies drawn from queer of color theorizing, which insists on thinking about these as thoroughly entangled with each other.

John Paul Catungal
Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice University of British Columbia


1. John Ibbitson, "Justin Trudeau to apologize for historic persecution of gay Canadians, "The Globe and Mail (11 August 2016)

2. Ibid. As of the last edit of this piece in November 2017, the apology remains forthcoming, with government officials noting that an apology will be delivered by the end of the calendar year. See John Ibbitson, "Formal apology for LGBTQ persecution could include compensation: sources," The Globe and Mail (7 November 2017). Available online:

3. Faculty experts' solicited answers are typically compiled and edited into a Q&A-style media release, which ends with each expert's contact information and media availability. In the case of this forthcoming apology, we have been informed that the media release will be made public, at least via the UBC website, on the day of the delivery of the apology itself. In early November 2017, we were given the opportunity to review our original answers from 2016 and make edits as we see fit.

4. Cathy Cohen, "Punks, Bulldaggers and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics?" GLQ, 3 (1997): 437-465.

5. Robert Diaz, "Redressive Nationalisms, Queer Victimhood and Japanese Duress," In Martin F. Manalansan IV and Augusto Espiritu, eds., Filipino Studies: Palimpsests of Nation and Diaspora (New York: New York University Press): 200.

6. Jasbir Puar, Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times (Durham: Duke University Press).

7. Gary Kinsman, "'Character Weaknesses' and 'Fruit Machines': Towards an Analysis of the Anti-Homosexual Security Campaign in the Canadian Civil Service," Labour/Le Travail 35 (1995): 134.

8. Ibid.

9. Jack Hauer, "Canada 'Poured Thousands and Thousands' into 'Fruit Machine' – a wildly unsuccessful attempt at gaydar, National Post (24 May 2017)

10. The book The Canadian War on Queers offer a fuller accounting of Cold War-era state persecutions of homosexuality in government. See Gary Kinsman and Patrizia Gentile, The Canadian War on Queers: National Security as Sexual Regulation (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010).

11. Dai Kojima, John Paul Catungal and Robert Diaz, "Introduction: Feeling Queer, Feeling Asian, Feeling Canadian," TOPIA: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies forthcoming (2017).

12. Nayan Shah, "Race-ing Sex," Frontiers: A Journal of Women's Studies 35 (2014): 26-36; Judy Wu, "Asian American History and Racialized Compulsory Deviance," Journal of Women's History 15 (2003): 58-62.

13. Enakshi Dua, "The Hindu Woman's Question," Canadian Woman Studies 20 (2000): 112.

14. Jan Noel, "New France: Les Femmes Favorisées," Atlantis 6 (1981): 88.

15. Martin Cannon, "The Regulation of First Nations Sexuality," Canadian Journal of Native Studies XVIII (1998): 1-18; Bonita Lawrence, "Real" Indians and Others: Mixed-Blood Urban Native Peoples and Indigenous Nationhood (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2004).

16. Sarah de Leeuw, "Intimate Colonialisms: The Material and Experienced Places of British Columbia's Residential Schools," Canadian Geographer 51 (2007): 339-359.

17. Renisa Mawani, "'Half-breeds,' Racial Opacity and Geographies of Crime: Law's Research for the 'Original' Indian," Cultural Geographies 17 (2010): 487-506.

18. Gordon Brent Ingram, "Returning to the Scene of the Crime: Uses of Trial Dossiers on Consensual Male Homosexuality for Urban Research, with examples from Twentieth-Century British Columbia," GLQ 10.1 (2003): 77-110.

19. Ibid, 91.

20. Ibid, 91.

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