The queerest of citizens: youth, sexuality, and the nation


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A Major Research Project

Submitted to the M.A. Program in Cultural Studies and Critical Theory
in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements
for the Degree
Master of Arts

McMaster University

© Copyright by Derritt Mason, August 2006

“Anti-homophobia education is about respect of difference and recognition of the human rights guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Ontario Human Rights Code to gay and lesbian people. It is no different from education about the human rights of other minorities. It is education that helps prepare all young people to grow up as productive and constructive citizens in the diverse society of the city of Toronto.”

-- Toronto District School Board, Anti-Homophobia Education Resource Guide (5)

“Maybe we need a royal commission to look at what it means to be a citizen, what it means to hold a Canadian passport, what rights accrue, what obligations fall upon you. I don't think we've ever done that. I mean, we passed the Citizenship Act in 1946, but there hasn't been a hard look in the modern era, the globalized modern era. Maybe it's time.”

-- Jack Granatstein, Historian (qtd in Kidd D1)
“You see: coming out, it’s only part of the story. Coming into: now that’s the story.”

-- Alix H. Mukonambi, Hadithi Yetu (Our Stories)

I sat in the darkened auditorium, a member of an impressively large and eclectic gathering of people. Seven stories unfolded on the flickering screen before us: stories about struggles with illness, about bodies that refuse to belong, about hilarious collisions between race and sexuality; these stories spoke of eroticized androgyny, of complicated relationships with friends and family, of the importance of history and language to our fragile senses of self. Although every story was distinct and defiantly individual, the air nonetheless crackled with an energy that united the entire theatre. Along with the colourful array of people with whom I sat in the theatre, I laughed, I shared silence, I applauded. The sense of community – of support, of a willingness to teach and learn, of individual stories that somehow still felt shared – was undeniable. In that moment, I felt like I belonged to this group that had gathered to experience Inside Out’s screening of the 2006 Queer Youth Digital Video Project (QYDVP). But what was the significance of my belonging in that moment, surrounded by all those strangers? Were we a community founded solely on sexual difference? What was this strange connection to the others that I felt, a connection triggered by the stories that were unfolding before us? If this was indeed a pedagogical moment, was it contributing to my status as a “productive and constructive citizen” as the Toronto District School Board might suggest (charania 5)? What does it even mean to be a citizen? And why does the TDSB’s ambiguous description of the practice of citizenship seem to have such a close correlation with queer sexuality?

“All ideas and no outlet?” asks Inside Out’s website, “channel them into the Queer Youth Digital Video Project!” (“Queer,” par. 3). Founded in 1998, the QYDVP selects six to eight youth every year to participate in a five-month intensive filmmaking workshop, during which they write and create a short film “all in a queer-positive environment” (“Queer,” par. 1). These films are then compiled and screened at Toronto’s Inside Out Gay and Lesbian Film Festival every May. Applicants to the program must be 24 years of age or younger, and have little to no previous experience with filmmaking. Inside Out further offers copies of the compilations to “various community organizations that work with youth and do anti-homophobia-education” (“Queer,” par. 2).

In this paper, I will explore the complex tensions between discourses of youth, sexuality, and citizenship that collide in pedagogical projects like the QYDVP. I am interested in how the myriad stories told by the QYDVP’s filmmakers work to problematize heteronormative understandings of sexuality and belonging. I will argue that queer youth are without many citizen’s rights: they are largely absent from the popular imagination, their voices are absent from what Seyla Benhabib calls a nation’s “moral conversation,” and they are transformed into political metaphors that serve to reinforce conservative views of child asexuality and privatized citizenship (13). I will begin by exploring these intricate discourses of citizenship, sexuality, and youth; the relationship between radical queer movements and the language of nationalism – most notably Queer Nation – will be central to my argument. Finally, I will examine the videos in the QYDVP’s archives and contrast them with a text that addresses many of the same issues as these young filmmakers but presents a startlingly different perspective on youth and sexuality: Ritch Savin-Williams’ The New Gay Teenager. I will argue that the QYDVP – a performative act of citizenship through cultural production – succeeds in creating a queer pedagogical moment that has the radical potential to transform our understandings of community, belonging, and how we relate to one another. As Michael P. Brown argues in RePlacing Citizenship, we must “enhance the democratic project [of citizenship] by demonstrating that the spatial emphasis of its framework is indeed more than mere metaphor. To pursue the project successfully we must consider how citizenship affects, and is affected by, its various spatial contexts” (15). I will focus my analysis of the QYDVP’s films on how queer citizenship bleeds into and contaminates spaces like the family, the city, and our ideological notions of public and private spheres, while arguing that the QYDVP’s films, as cultural texts, are additional spaces for the practice of citizenship.

I would like to explain how I see the term queer operating in this paper. The word queer, in my mind, is tied closely to its use in the Queer Nation campaign of the early 90s: a means of representing a wide range of sexual categories (such as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, transsexual, and two-spirited) while simultaneously questioning the fixity of these categories and asking us to imagine new ways of being-with-others. “Queer theory transgresses the stabilities of the representational,” writes Deborah Britzman, and allows for “the very proliferation of alternative sites of identification and critique” (80). I see queerness not only as a playful and malleable tool for critiquing identity, but also as a powerful means of destabilizing normative categories of sex, gender, and sexuality and highlighting their arbitrary, socially constructed constitution. Queer theory is “non-identitarian,” writes Shane Phelan, “not in rejecting all identities, but in recognizing that no identity is self-sufficient and adequate to the job that language forces upon it” (136). I am uninterested in considering the limits of queerness, as some theorists do; I am invested in exploring the tremendous potential of a queer theoretical lens. Gary Kinsman, for example, argues that queer theory “contested heterosexual hegemony but is limited by the character of queer theory itself, which largely addresses only cultural and discursive terrains, rather than social practices. Its theory of language, drawn from poststructuralism, does not emphasize that language and discourse are produced by people located in various social positions” (210). Much to the contrary, I would argue that queer theory highlights the very constructedness of Kinsman’s distinction between language and social power. My perception of queer theory follows Eve Sedgwick who, invoking Foucault, argues that “modern sexuality is so intimately entangled with the historically distinctive contexts and structures now called ‘knowledge’ that such knowledge can scarcely be a transparent window onto a separate realm of sexuality: rather, it constitutes that sexuality” (“Gender” 279). Language, power, and sexuality are inextricably linked in a network of relations, and queer theory allows us to peer into the interstices of this tightly woven tapestry.

“We Are Everywhere, We Want Everything”: this was Queer Nation’s slogan, a rallying cry for queers to emerge from the shadows, reject assimilationist pressure to conform to heteronormative ideas of gender and sexuality, embrace identities that celebrate sexual difference, and become visible and audible in mass reclamations of public space. At its roots, the radical Queer Nation movement strove to provide citizens with what Lauren Berlant and Elizabeth Freeman call “a camp counternationality” – an alternative to the heteronormative, exclusionary, and silencing constraints of American and Canadian citizenship (164). Queer Nation endeavoured, through subversive situationist-inspired public spectacle, to reinscribe queerness in everydayness: in consumption, corporate and national identity, and above all else, public space. The bodies of queer citizens, Queer Nation declared, need space to belong. “Visibility is critical if a safe public existence is to be forged for American gays,” Berlant and Freeman argue (153). Queer Nation’s practices, they continue, “allow the individual bodies of Queer Nationals to act as visibly queer flashcards, in an ongoing project of cultural pedagogy aimed at exposing the range and variety of bounded spaces upon which heterosexual supremacy depends” (155). But what is it about the idea of the nation in particular that lends itself so well to this movement? And why does this trope continue to surface in critical works? In the introduction to In a Queer Country, for example, Canadian critic Terry Goldie suggests: “we who claim a different sexual identity might live in our own world, that indefinable space which could be called ‘queer country’” (1). The language of nationalism is indeed deeply imbricated in queer movements and theoretical works; the appeal behind the choice of “country” in lieu of something like “community,” it seems, lies in the rights and duties that are ostensibly inherent to the citizen who belongs to a particular nation.

Much has been written and debated about the constitution of citizenship. What, for example, does it mean to be a citizen and have a citizen’s rights? What are the nation’s responsibilities to the citizen? And what duties must citizens, in turn, perform for their nation? How does a nation define its citizens and those it positions in opposition to its citizenry? I am interested in exploring the intricate relationship between citizenship and the sexualities of queer youth. In an attempt to handle delicately these specific yet very complex theoretical axes, I envision this paper as taking the form of a palimpsest. I will begin by considering discourses of nationalism and citizenship, and the relationship of a nation to its “others” – the undesirables kept outside a country’s borders and silenced if/when they are granted entry. To this base I will add a second layer of theoretical analysis – that of sexuality – which will serve to complicate the first; how are those who do not conform to ideological models of sexuality pushed to a nation’s fringes and denied their citizen’s rights? Youth, the third layer of analysis, will further trouble the first two in an unusual and provocative manner. How, if at all, do queer youth fit into a nation’s model of citizenship? Youth, who seem to serve a particularly metaphorical purpose as the nation’s standard bearers of innocence, nostalgia, and what Lee Edelman calls “reproductive futurism,” create powerful anxieties in the nation when they embrace the sexuality their popular images intend to negate (29). Through this paper, I will explore what emerges from the interstices of these three complex axes when they are brought into collision with one another.

I am aware that citizenship/sexuality/youth is but one possible combination of a boundless array of discourses that could be explored. Although notions of race, class, disability, and gender are by no means absent from this paper, for reasons related to time and space, my focus on them will not be explicit. Rather, these discourses will emerge and collide through the videos in the QYDVP and the triangular relationship between youth, sexuality, and citizenship that I have established.

As I have mentioned, so much has been written about nationalism and citizenship that it is impossible to pin down a strict definition of either term. In “Nationalisms and Sexualities,” Sedgwick writes that nationalism is “the name of an entire underlying dimension of modern social functioning that could be organized in a near-infinite number of different and even contradictory ways” (146). One conclusion, however, is consistent across theoretical works: the nation creates boundaries, defining itself as much by what it includes as what it keeps on the outside (or, similarly, pushes to the fringes of its interior). “All identities operate through exclusion,” writes Judith Butler, “through the discursive construction of a constitutive outside and the production of abjected and marginalized subjects, apparently outside the field of the symbolic, the representable” (qtd in Hall 28). Nationalism is no different, and as we shall see, the nation draws borders to create myriad “others” defined in opposition to its sense of national self. “The empowerment of citizenship,” writes Phelan in Sexual Strangers, “is always bought with explusion,” and the range of those who find themselves expelled from a given nation is alarmingly broad and ever-shifting (12). Recognizing the constant flux of national identity, Sedgwick writes: “It may be that there exists for nations, as for genders, simply no normal way to partake of the categorical definitiveness of the national, no single kind of ‘other’ of what a nation is to which all can by the same structuration be definitionally opposed” (“Nationalisms” 150). As a result, a nation will frequently produce different classes of citizens, including “legal” citizens who are not considered as such. In addition to displaced persons, immigrants, and refugees, the others of the nation are many.

In The Rights of Others, Seyla Benhabib draws on the work of Immanuel Kant and Hannah Arendt in her detailed theorization of citizenship. She writes that “the practice and institution of citizenship can be disaggregated into three components: collective identity, privileges of political membership, and social rights and claims” (145). Political membership, she argues, involves “the principles and practices for incorporating aliens and strangers, immigrants and newcomers, refugees and asylum seekers, into existing polities,” and is “meaningful only when accompanied by rituals of entry, access, belonging, and privilege” (1). These rituals differ tremendously across nations and their diverse peoples, affecting citizens and others in innumerable ways. A citizen’s social rights, for example, may include the right to health care and protection by the law. But even ostensibly full citizens can be distinguished and differently treated due to some aspect of their identity; queers, for example, may be stigmatized and pathologized by the medical community and receive differential or simply inadequate medical treatment and/or psychological support. Further, violent crimes against queers have a distinct history of being ignored of improperly handled (Phelan, Warner); an example of how some citizens may not receive the full protection they are purportedly due is Niko Blaxxx’s film In the Dark, which depicts women who refuse to report their sexual assaults at the hands of other women for fear of being ridiculed by the police. An in-depth discussion of how a nation’s various rights affect its citizenry would be a fascinating one, but for the purposes of this paper, I am most interested in what Benhabib has called “rituals of belonging” (1). Who belongs to a nation? Why, and how do citizens belong? Phelan posits a much broader definition of citizenship, claiming that it is “about recognition and participation” (3). She cites theorist Gary Oldfield, who writes that “citizenship is an activity or a practice, and not simply a status, so that not to engage in the practice is, in important senses, not to be a citizen” (qtd in Phelan 13). It would indeed be easy to focus this paper on how the right to participate in social institutions like marriage and the military is an integral aspect of citizenship, but I am interested in other, less tangible components of the citizen. “Citizenship requires … inclusion in institutions,” Phelan recognizes, “but it also requires a public culture of acknowledgement” (148). To me, this suggests that citizenship has a crucial performative side – how citizens come not only to be figured in the popular imagination, but also how they themselves demand acknowledgement as members of a particular nation. In The Sexual Citizen, David Bell and Jon Binnie add “a set of ‘representational’ or ‘cultural’ rights to those usually associated with citizenship: the right to symbolic presence and visibility, the right to endignifying representations, and the right to define modes of identity … what might be read together as ‘the right to be different’” (20). I would like to consider how citizens manage to articulate and perform these differences, asserting their presence in what Benhabib calls the “moral conversation” (14).

Opinions on how citizenship can be performed are as varied as attempts at defining this complex idea. In their Take Back Higher Education, Henry and Susan Giroux argue that “for many people today, citizenship is about the act of buying and selling commodities, rather than broadening the scope of their freedoms and rights in order to expand the operations of a substantive democracy” (1). Berlant similarly argues that the practice of citizenship has been privatized, writing in The Queen of America Goes to Washington City that the nation “promises that if you invest your energies in work and family-making, [it] will secure the broader social and economic conditions in which your labour can gain value and your life can be lived with dignity” (4). In addition to the Girouxs’ emphasis on consumerism, Berlant’s vision of citizenship recognizes how the family serves a specific symbolic purpose to the nation. Citizenship is rendered “as a condition of social membership produced by personal acts and values, especially acts originating in or directed toward the family sphere,” Berlant writes; “no longer valuing personhood as something directed toward public life, contemporary nationalist ideology recognizes a public good only in a particularly constricted nation of simultaneously lived private lives” (5). I argue that an integral part of the practice of citizenship is constantly working to define and redefine what it means to be-with-others in the world – in other words, to blur the boundary between the socially constructed schism that divides public and private spheres. “When the modal form of the citizen is called into question,” Berlant argues, “when it is no longer a straight, white, reproductively inclined heterosexual but rather might be anything, any jumble of things, the logic of the national future comes into crisis” (18). This subversive questioning of citizenship is accomplished through storytelling, dialogue, and conversation within political communities – what Benhabib terms “democratic iterations” (21) and, as I will explore later, Berlant’s theorization of subversive Diva Citizenship.

The act of “defining the identity of the democratic people,” Benhabib writes, “is an ongoing process of constitutional self-creation,” but in order to work towards defining one’s identity and improving democracy, one must first be visible enough to demand recognition from other citizens (21). This, it seems, is a right in and of itself, one that may not be available to the stateless, who according to Arendt, are without citizenship rights and any human rights whatsoever (Benhabib 50). Drawing on Arendt, Benhabib discusses how the right to have rights is a fundamental human right. The stateless, Arendt writes, “are deprived, not of the right to freedom, but of the right to action; not of the right to think whatever they please, but of the right to opinion” (qtd in Benhabib 51). Without this fundamental right to action and opinion, the stateless are entirely invisible. Also crucial to Arendt’s argument is her “resounding plea for the acknowledgment of every human being to ‘belong to some community’” (qtd in Benhabib 51). Arendt’s right to have rights, Benhabib explains, “can be realized only in a political community in which we are judged not through the characteristics which define us at birth, but through our actions and opinions, by what we do and say and think” (57). In this model, the members of a community have a duty to participate in Benhabib’s “moral conversation”: a dialogue that demands that I, as a citizen, “respect the moral worth of the other by recognizing that I must provide them with a justification for my actions” (14). Phelan contends that “citizenship does not require the active approval and communion of others, but it does require an affirmation of one’s place in the political community” (5). In other words, the moral conversation must not necessarily be a consensus, but should remain open to dissensual dialogue with participants recognizing the right of others to engage in conversation. Along these lines, Brown argues that radical citizenship must be agonistic in that it “[strives] for effect and material change in people’s lives,” and antagonistic in its creation of a moment (or series of moments) “where friends and allies [square] off against enemies while pursuing their collective ends” (11-12). Through the moral conversation, Benhabib contends that a perpetual series of “democratic iterations” occur that shape a nation’s citizenry, but I will further explore this later on (64).

We see how integral voice is to Arendt and Benhabib’s conception of citizenship – as a citizen, I cannot belong unless other members of my community recognize their duty to enter into a moral conversation with me. As a citizen, Phelan argues, I “make a particular kind of claim on other citizens” when I recognize them as citizens; I am asking for reciprocal recognition (14). We can also see how a nation’s undesirable others – be they undesirable for reasons related to race, class, disability, sexuality, or (lack of) nationality – are denied access to the moral conversation, left without an outlet through which they can claim their citizen’s right to be heard, without recognition and a means of participation. Youth who embrace queer sexualities are notably absent from popular culture – they are largely without Bell and Binnie’s right to visibility and representation that these authors argue is so integral to citizenship. Dan Lavoie’s film Pretty Lil’ Fuck, for example, examines how the voices of young queer sex trade workers are silenced in the media. “I have a name, I have parents,” Lavoie insists in an attempt to vocalize his own story; he further dubs television news footage with his own voice to tell the stories of murdered male sex trade workers. Jamie Ross’ as-Phyx It: The Gay Mainstream expresses similar discontent with popular representations of queers, calling them “as frustrating as the closet,” while Christopher Douglas’ How I Learned to Speak focuses on one youth’s near inability to speak his queer desires. “I’m writing about the missed opportunities of another year,” says Douglas’ narrator with trepidation, “unsure of what to say, how to break the silence.” Like Zygmunt Bauman’s description of refugees, we could say that queer youth are “ineffable. They are Jacques Derrida’s ‘undecidables’ made flesh … they are not only untouchables, but unthinkables. In a world filled to the brim with imagined communities, they are the unimaginables” (141). How, indeed, can one begin to imagine another if the other is without voice?1 I am not attempting to conflate refugees and queers here, but rather point to the striking similarities between displaced persons and those who find themselves outside of the heterosexual mainstream. It becomes clear why the language of citizenship permeates queer activist movements: queer populations have been without voice, without means of expression, unable to imagine themselves differently and be imagined by nations that propagate a constrictively heteronormative vision of their citizenry. Queers are citizens who experience their citizenship as compromised; as Benhabib writes, “one can have one set of rights but not another: one can have political rights without being a national … more commonly, though, one has social rights and benefits without either sharing in the same collective identity or having the privileges of political membership” (146). Queers suffer exclusion of a certain kind from certain aspects of citizenship – it follows, then, that their exclusion could be understood and negotiated through this very same lens.

The similarities between queer communities and theoretical conceptualizations of the stateless are quite remarkable. The queer narrator of Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy, for example, who describes himself as being “caught between the boys’ and the girls’ worlds, not belonging or wanted in either” (39) bears a striking resemblance to Benhabib’s description of a stateless person who, “having been once rendered a refugee [or a] minority, … cannot find another polity to recognize one as its member, and remains in a state of limbo, caught between territories, none of which desire one to be its resident” (55). In the film N(either)/N(or), Embrun R. illustrates this similarity with the simple claim that “in the physical architecture of society … they forgot to leave room for me.” The challenge currently confronting queer politics, Phelan argues, “is to provide spaces in which people may or may not be out, may or may not be visible, to foster plural worlds and spheres”; in other words, we must create new spaces for imagination and participation (107). To do so, as I will argue, we must move beyond rigid notions of nationality, citizenship, and the public/private divide, using them as fluid critical tools that can be moulded and reshaped as necessary.

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