Problematizing monolithic conceptions of queerness, but also reifying exclusions in 1980s Montreal
By Amanda Krett
By Amanda Krett
Coalition-building amongst overlapping yet diverse groups in activist contexts can become incredibly fraught. This basic tension propels the texts of two lesbian writers of the 1984 “Gay Issue” of Concordia University’s The Link- one entitled “Not just preaching to the converted” and the other called “Proceeding with lots of…caution.”[i] Both of these writers try to grapple with very personal aversions to working alongside gay men and heterosexual feminists, attesting to these two groups discriminated against in some fashion.[ii] Yet, they also express a larger institutional understanding that because of these groups’ shared oppressions as women and/or queer individuals, that there exists some need to work together in order to achieve greater enfranchisement and empowerment.[iii] Emblematizing the complexity of identity politics and navigating matrices of varying privileges and oppressions, both articles illustrate the importance of acknowledging the different and specific experiences people have as they walk through the world, particularly as lesbians in the 1980s, Montreal context. Their arguments demonstrate the possible issues with homogenized, “umbrella” conceptions of queerness despite its inclusive intent, testifying to their very particular experiences as lesbians shaped dually by gender and sexual orientation- articulating their feelings of exclusion in queer or feminist spaces. But, in doing so, they perpetuate other exclusions as they fail to interrogate the ways in which other identity categories impact other queer people involved in the 1980s, Montreal, University scene. Therefore, by highlighting the marginal experiences of lesbians in Montreal in the mid-1980s, these articles in the 1984 edition of The Link problematize monolithic conceptions of queerness, but, they also reify other exclusions in the queer community, in the process.
Concordia’s newspaper The Link published these two articles in a special “Gay Issue” on March 20, 1984.[iv] The Link began as a paper in 1980 and has historically attempted to feature news stories not often included in “mainstream” media.[v] Written by Susan Shea, a self-identified lesbian-feminist, her article, “Not just preaching to the converted” explores Shea’s nuanced critiques of the multiple on-campus or Montreal-based political groups to which she, and any other female lesbian readers, could belong.[vi] Shea lists “Lesbian/Gay Groups,” “The Lesbian Sewing Circle,” “Feminist (?) Groups,” and “A Word About Lesbian-Separatism,” outlining the issues she’s faced in negotiating her various intersecting identities in these spaces, such as, in her opinion, the different political and activist priorities of gay men and lesbians.[vii] She also makes sure to divulge these groups’ possible political potentials, such as after critiquing Lesbian Sewing Circles for often “deteriorating” into gossip, she states that there is now such a group at Concordia “…trying to change this image.”[viii] Arguably, while Shea illustrates divisions amongst often grouped together identity categories like queer people and/or women, she still recognizes the political power of working in coalitions with other marginalized groups.[ix] Another self-identified lesbian writer, Susan Carpenter Britton, authored her article “Proceeding with lots of…caution,” which similarly offers reticence over politically organizing and sharing space with gay men.[x] More so than Shea, Britton explicitly names the misogyny she’s experienced from gay men, listing micro-aggressions like stereotypical jokes at lesbians expense to more macro-level issues, such as having men take over political discussions regarding rape at McGill’s Womyn’s Union.[xi] Echoing Shea, but with arguably more reluctance, Britton still sees the value in participating in activist causes with gay men, noting that she will just “Proceed With Caution.”[xii] The ways in which these two documents stress the specific experiences of lesbian writers, particularly in how they feel they are put below gay men and heterosexual feminists in activist spaces places these writers into longstanding hierarchies in Western political organizational history. As will be explored, their feelings of marginalization help destabilize the idea of a homogenized, monolithic queerness. However, in advocating for very specific understandings of lesbian space and organization, these texts also reify exclusions.
It’s also important to contextualize these two articles in Montreal during the 1980s. Scholar Julie A. Podmore has traced lesbian visibility, especially in relation to city-space, in Montreal since the 1950s.[xiii] She argues that the 1980s was a “Golden Age” for the concretization of lesbian commercial spaces in the Plateau area with booming lesbian-specific bars, but that unlike the 1960s, 1970s, and 1990s, where lesbians worked together with gay men, “…the 1980s were a decade in which these two communities were socially, politically, and spatially sperate in Montreal.”[xiv] Just 1 to 2 years before The Link published this Issue, important lesbian cultural spaces opened like the lesbian-owned bars L’Exit, Labyris and Lilith.[xv] However, in 1983, Babyface, Montreal’s sole “lesbian-only” night club closed due to growing anglophone and francophone tensions, showing the precarity of these lesbian-only city spaces even during this “Golden Age.”[xvi] As Podmore notes, lesbian bars would eventually decline in the 1990s, in part due to changes in how lesbians identified more so as “queer” and politically mobilized more so alongside gay men in light of growing HIV/AIDs activism in the city.[xvii] While most of the spaces talked about in these articles aren’t bars, these spatial and social patterns still remain relevant. Thus, this historical context provides a jumping off point for discussing these two lesbian writers spatial and political separation with gay men in the 1980s, as well as seeing what is/could be lost with conceptualizing queerness as monolithic.
Problematizing Monolithic Conceptions of Queerness
Firstly, these two articles both articulate lesbian feelings of marginalization during the 1980s in Montreal, thus, demonstrating the very specific experiences of lesbians, potentially separating them from other members of the supposedly “monolithic” queer community. Through both Shea and Britton expressing the burden of representing a community who already face political opposition, they exemplify lesbians marginal, specific experience.[xviii] In both of their introductory statements, they feel implored to distinguish the oft connected personal from the political- a concept coined by feminist Carol Hanisch who argues that for oppressed bodies, their daily personal struggles of moving through life are inextricable from discriminatory systemic forces.[xix] In order to feel comfortable critiquing the marginalized groups in which they belong, Shea and Britton differentiate between their personal opinions and what is/should be enshrined institutionally. Shea states, “In view of the massive amount of hate literature already directed against us as lesbians/feminists/gay men, resisting the impulse to print positive propaganda is difficult. The mass media already distorts and denigrates everything we say- why am I doing their job for them?”[xx] By alluding to the widely disseminating “hate literature,” Shea’s statement points to this burden of representation that afflicts marginalized groups. Additionally, Shea points to the tension she must face as a lesbian writer between writing what would personally benefit queer communities- the “positive propaganda”- and the political implications of what’s she’s actually writing-potentially adding to the hate speech used against them. Her personal opinions are by default, political, that can have institutional effects, adding or subtracting to their oppression as queer people and/or women.
Similarly, Britton opens by stating, “I’ve decided to present my own views rather than attempt to be ‘politically correct’…I believe the usual disclaimer ‘the opinions expressed by the writer do not necessarily represent those of the masses’ is appropriate here; I speak for one lesbian, that one is myself.”[xxi] Britton explicitly distinguishes between her “own” critiques of the relationship between lesbians and gay men and the “political,” navigating the burden of representation she feels- that her personal anecdotes could be weaponized to further oppress queer people. Therefore, the fact that both Shea and Britton’s articles introduce their opinion-pieces with diction that strictly divides the personal from the political demonstrates the complexity of contributing to conversations about groups not afforded ample mediated representation. This evidence attests to the very specific, marginal experiences of lesbians in Montreal in the 1980s, thus, problematizing monolithic conceptions of queerness.
Secondly, both Shea and Britton implicitly or explicitly discuss the importance of geographic and physical space, particularly in a University setting, to subjectivity formation and community activism as lesbians- again, showing the specificities of their experience, in turn, problematizing monolithic queer coalition-building. As Podmore notes in her text, lesbians occupying intersecting identity categories of being both women and queer, was important to how they occupied physical space in Montreal in the 1980s.[xxii] Historically, women had been denied access to certain social spaces unlike gay men, seen with Quebec banning women from being in taverns until 1971, demonstrating the importance in recognizing lesbians particular relationship to city space.[xxiii] Additionally, Podmore notes the emerging lesbian-only bar scene of the “Golden Age” of the ‘80s, such as L’Exit, centralized women-only spaces to help cultivate their own lesbian-feminist culture previously not afforded to them by the predominantly gay men-only social and political spaces of the Village, illustrating the crucial relationship between space and constructing an identity-specific politics.[xxiv] Readers of Shea and Britton’s 1984 articles can similarly see them invoking the importance of space to their identity and activism, but also noting many lesbian-affiliated groups advocating for women-only spaces in certain instances. Both Shea and Britton mention the importance of University space to their activist socialization with Shea mentioning the Lesbian Sewing Circle specifically meeting out of Concordia and with Britton recalling her experiences at the McGill Womyn Union.[xxv] Shea also mentions a “women-only police at ‘Take Back the Night’ demos,” demonstrating this centralization of women-only spaces in feminist activism, showing the importance of space to lesbian-feminists once again.[xxvi]
Britton also states, “Lesbians can and do become insular and ghettoized. Our preference for time and energies expended to womyn takes over and space becomes our wombs- warm, protected, and devoid of reality.”[xxvii] Here, Britton uses gendered language to illustrate this connection between space and identity/political formation for lesbians, framing these women-only spaces as “wombs,” as well as speaking to feelings of spatial separation (and marginalization) from gay men, using the diction “ghettoized.”[xxviii] Britton also discusses gay men having more time to speak at a symposium than lesbians with the latter only receiving the last 2 hours of the meeting to conduct their workshop, highlighting the ways in which gay men marginalized lesbians in physical activist spaces, unintentionally or not.[xxix] Therefore, Shea and Britton’s articles illustrate the importance of having specific women-only, lesbian spaces, spatially separated from gay men, echoing many of the sentiments and practices performed by lesbian bar owners of the 1980s in Podmore’s text- an idea not without critique as will be explored later. With these specific, marginal experiences in mind, it problematizes monolithic conceptions of queerness, especially when these writers underline the literal distance between lesbians and gay men.
Thirdly, both Shea and Britton’s 1984 articles include the rhetoric of unity and agreement, illustrating both the divides, but also the coalitions between lesbians and gay men, as well as heterosexual feminists. Throughout her article, Shea explores the divisions she’s experienced as a lesbian-feminist from both gay men and “feminists (?)”, such as framing gay “issues” as “diametrically opposed to, [my] position as a feminist,” citing problems like pedophilia, bar raids, and S&M as exclusive to gay men, but also condemning certain feminist groups that have lesbians “…quietly stuffing envelopes, in order to preserve ‘respectability’ and to avoid nasty labels,” hinting at historic lesbian-feminist divides like the Lavender Menace.[xxx] However, Shea, ends up also condemning the idea of lesbian-separatism and a complete exit from women or queer political activist groups, arguing that their activism shouldn’t be “…directed inward rather than outwards”.[xxxi] She notably uses the language of agreement and unity when ultimately advocating for lesbian involvement in queer and/or women’s groups while still maintaining the importance in recognizing their differences or lack of “sameness,” stating: “When people criticize our communities for our apparent lack of unity (as I have), keep this in mind: It doesn’t always mean agreement, It doesn’t ever mean the same.”[xxxii] Similarly, Britton spends most of her article enumerating the difficulties lesbians experience working with gay men, stating, “It has been my sad experience to discover that great degree of misogyny exists in the male homosexual population” and “On the organizational level, there is always a power imbalance. Lesbians do the shit work and gay men do the media work.”[xxxiii] However, like Shea, she ultimately advocates for lesbians still working with gay men in some capacity, while keeping in mind these aforementioned power imbalances and women’s specific experiences, by using the rhetoric of agreement and unity.[xxxiv] Britton says, “Not meaning we have to love each other, or agree…the two groups can never agree on certain issues…but getting our priorities straight and being tolerant.”[xxxv] This, thus, highlights the ways in which Shea and Britton problematize monolithic conceptions of queerness. While expressing the divergent experiences of lesbians from gay men, both also bringing up the issue of porn as a divisive issue, they also still advocated for some form of coalition-building with Shea even bringing up successful “Lesbian/Gay unity” or mobilizing when in 1983 they “…expressed their solidarity in a protest against the queer-bashing of a young man at Bishops University.[xxxvi] Just as Podmore depicted a complicated relationship between lesbians and gay men engaged in political organizing in her text, discussing later 1990s ACT UP mobilization, Shea and Britton articulate a heterogeneous, complex picture of queer coalitions too-destabilizing monolithic conceptions.[xxxvii]
Reifying Other /Exclusions in the Queer Community
Despite testifying to feelings of marginalization and exclusion in the lesbian community in the 1980s, Shea and Britton also reify other exclusions in the process. In particular, they exclude discussions of race and class when talking about their intersecting identity categories as women and queer people. Kimberle Crenshaw argues for the importance of intersectionality, especially in analyzing black women’s experiences in anti-racist and anti-patriarchal activist spaces, stating, “…the experiences of women of color are frequently the product of intersecting patterns of racism and sexism,” noting how those different institutional oppressions affect black women’s lives.[xxxviii] We can apply Crenshaw’s intersectional critique to Shea and Britton’s articles that while honestly explaining their issues with both sexism and homophobia, exclude lesbians of colour by not acknowledging how racial injustice would complicate their lives.[xxxix] In fact, Shea further elides the fact that lesbians of colour exist as she analogizes the discrimination lesbians face as women to racism, suggesting that women are a separate category from people of colour: “Like victims of racial discrimination, as women we are immediately visible by our gender…”[xl] The picture attached to Shea’s text also only features 3 white women hugging each other, further excluding black lesbians. Just as Crenshaw also looks at class status as an intersecting identity category with race and gender, Shea and Britton, implicitly exclude poor, non-University attending lesbians and activists as they address their readership as those familiar with the University, thus, middle to upper class scene, talking about University Unions like the McGill’s Womyn Union.[xli] Therefore, Shea and Britton also reify exclusions, implicitly or explicitly excluding people of colour and poor people from their arguments.
Finally, Shea and Britton’s texts’ above focus on women-only spaces and repeating of the binary- lesbian and gay- can arguably be seen as trans-exclusionary or not inclusive of gender non-conforming individuals. Trans scholar Julia Serano has articulated the ways in which “women-only” lesbian spaces have been weaponized against trans women- excluding them from activist spaces, such as the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival.[xlii] Although lesbians wouldn’t be using the word transgender back in the 1980s, Shea and Britton, along with other lesbian feminists of the 1980s explored in Podmore’s text’s, gender essentialism can be critiqued for possibly having these trans-exclusionary effects. Despite Podmore arguing that “Their women-only status, therefore, was an important territorial strategy that ensured freedom from harassment and voyeurs,” it’s important to interrogate whether lesbian bar-owners of the 1980s’ and these lesbian-feminists at Universities’ definition of “women-only” was inclusive of trans women and not violently exclusionary like the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival.[xliii] Even the gendered imagery that Britton invokes, conceiving of lesbian, women-only spaces as a “womb,” promotes a biological determinism or gender essentialism that excludes trans women.[xliv]In conclusion, by examining the marginal lesbian experiences of Shea and Britton in 1980s Montreal, it’s clear that through their writing, they problematized monolithic conceptions of queerness, stressing the marked differences and oppressions lesbians faced in comparison to gay men and heterosexual feminists. This was seen through looking at the ways Shea and Britton expressed the burden of representing a marginalized group, thus, needing to separate the personal from political, examining spatial differences between lesbians and gay men, and seeing how they advocated for a kind of queer coalition-building that still highlighted that they “weren’t the same.” However, while testifying their experiences of exclusion and isolation, these two articles also reify additional exclusions, not addressing the marginal and specific experiences of queer people of colour, poor queer people, and trans women. In addition, these texts also showed the importance of standpoint epistemology in activism as Shea and Britton’s very personal accounts help readers and historians begin to understand experiences of sexism and homophobia in 1980s, Montreal. In their writing, these lesbian writers ultimately show that although conceptually fraught, the “umbrella” of coalition-building can still shelter vulnerable individuals from getting “drowned” by an onslaught of figurat
[i] Susan Carpenter Britton, “Proceeding with lots of…caution,” The Link (Montreal, QC), Mar. 20, 1984.; Susan Shea, “Not just preaching to the converted,” The Link (Montreal, QC), Mar. 20, 1984.
[ii] Susan Carpenter Britton, “Proceeding with lots of…caution.”; Susan Shea, “Not just preaching to the converted.”
[iii] Ibid.; Ibid.
[iv] Ibid.; ibid.
[v] Miriam Lafontaine, “History of Concordia’s Board of Governors,” The Link (Montreal, QC), Sep. 5, 2017. https://thelinknewspaper.ca/article/history-of-concordias-board-of-governors. ; “Mandate,” The Link Publication Society INC, Dec. 2014, https://thelinknewspaper.ca/pdf/policies/Link_Mandate_Rev2014.pdf.
[vi] Susan Shea, “Not just preaching to the converted.”
[x] Susan Carpenter Britton, “Proceeding with lots of…caution.”
[xiii] Julie A. Podmore, “Gone ‘Underground’? Lesbian Visibility and the Consolidation of Queer Space in Montreal,” Social & Culture Geography 7, no. 4 (2006): 596, doi: 10.1080/14649360600825737.
[xiv] Julie A. Podmore, “Gone ‘Underground’?,” 601.
[xv] Ibid., 608.
[xvi] Richard Burnett, “Where in the world is Montreal’s Babyface,” Xtra (2010). https://www.dailyxtra.com/where-in-the-world-is-montreals-babyface-30848.
[xvii] Julie A. Podmore, “Gone ‘Underground’?,” 614.
[xviii] Susan Carpenter Britton, “Proceeding with lots of…caution.”; Susan Shea, “Not just preaching to the converted.”
[xix] Carol Hanisch, “The Personal Is Political,” January 2006. http://webhome.cs.uvic.ca/~mserra/AttachedFiles/PersonalPolitical.pdf.
[xx] Susan Shea, “Not just preaching to the converted.”
[xxi] Susan Carpenter Britton, “Proceeding with lots of…caution.”
[xxii] Julie A. Podmore, “Gone ‘Underground’?,” 602.
[xxiii] Ibid., 603.
[xxiv] Ibid., 611.
[xxv] Susan Carpenter Britton, “Proceeding with lots of…caution.”; Susan Shea, “Not just preaching to the converted.”
[xxvi] Susan Shea, “Not just preaching to the converted.”
[xxvii] Susan Carpenter Britton, “Proceeding with lots of…caution.”
[xxx] Susan Shea, “Not just preaching to the converted.”; Alex Ketchum, “Lecture 2: Sexual Diversity and Social Movement(s) Histories” (lecture, GSFS 250, Montreal, QC, May 2, 2018).
[xxxi] Susan Shea, “Not just preaching to the converted.”
[xxxiii] Susan Carpenter Britton, “Proceeding with lots of…caution.”
[xxxvi] Susan Shea, “Not just preaching to the converted.”
[xxxvii] Julie A. Podmore, “Gone ‘Underground’?,” 614.
[xxxviii] Kimberle Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity politics, and Violence Against Women of Color,” Stanford Law Review 43, no. 6 (1991), 1.
[xxxix] Susan Carpenter Britton, “Proceeding with lots of…caution.”; Susan Shea, “Not just preaching to the converted.”
[xl] Susan Shea, “Not just preaching to the converted.”
[xli] Kimberle Crenshaw, “Mapping Margins,” 2. ; Susan Carpenter Britton, “Proceeding with lots of…caution.”
[xlii] Julia Serano, Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity (Seal Press, 2007), 237.
[xliii] Julie A. Podmore, “Gone ‘Underground’?,” 611.
[xliv] Susan Carpenter Britton, “Proceeding with lots of…caution.”