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


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Before I progress to a more detailed discussion of sexual citizenship, I feel it necessary to locate myself within this text. As I muse about the liminality and voicelessness of queer communities, I cannot help but be conscious of my own relatively privileged position as a gay white male writing from the comforts of academe, with a venue for freely articulating my ideas and concerns. Compared to many queer youth, my own coming-out narrative has been a positive one: I am fortunate to have had the support of friends and family, and I have rarely felt discriminated against or judged for embracing a queer sexuality. I am privileged to be writing from within the relatively liberal borders of Canada as our neighbours to the south contend with a leader who would delight in a sweeping ban denying queer citizens access to the institution of marriage, homosexuality remains a criminal offence in many countries, and queers around the world face confront violence and persecution for their sexual practices. I am further privileged to be writing from Toronto – a city where, a few short weeks ago, I could celebrate one of the world’s largest pride parades surrounded by thousands of equally eager participants, while two hours to the south in London, Ontario, pride day revellers were confronted by protesters wielding signs that read “AIDS: God’s Cure for Homosexuality” and “Stay away from our children.” It is precisely because I have taken so much pleasure in my sexuality that I feel so passionately about this topic; I wish all queer youth could come out in high school (and I wish I could have done so myself), be able to freely and playfully reimagine how they belong as citizens and community members, and have access to popular representations of queerness that enable sexual creativity instead of limiting it. Even writing from a relatively privileged, Canadian context it is clear that much space remains to improve the lives of queer individuals.

Bell and Binnie argue that “all citizenship is sexual citizenship, in that the foundational tenets of being a citizen are all inflected by sexualities” (10). Phelan further contends that heterosexuality is the “prerequisite for modern citizenship”; queers must conform to heteronormative forms of gender performance or remain largely unrepresented in the popular imagination (5). Bell and Binnie argue that it is the duty of sexual citizens to challenge the heterosexualization of citizenship discourse – a duty that is manifested in social movements like Queer Nation, wherein queer citizens force their way into “the national imaginary, [where] gays, lesbians, and bisexuals are most thoroughly sexual strangers” (Phelan 7). By now, it should be clear why queers often choose to mobilize the language of nationalism and citizenship in their activist projects. As discussed earlier, Queer Nation, which endeavoured to “assert that queer people had a right to take up cultural space – right here, right now – with no apologies and no arguments,” was a distinctly pedagogical project, designed not only to claim a visible physical presence integral to citizenship, but also to challenge heterosexuals to engage with queers in a conversation that marks them as citizens and community members (Stryker, par. 5). “I Hate Straights!” proclaims a Queer Nation broadsheet, distributed at New York and Chicago Gay Pride parades in the summer of 1990. “Go tell [straights] to go away until they have spent a month walking hand in hand in public with someone of the same sex. After they survive that, then you’ll hear what they have to say about queer anger. Otherwise, tell them to shut up and listen” (Berlant and Freeman 153). Straights can only speak once their life experience has been queered, the pamphlet maintains; otherwise, they should be silent and listen to the venomous choler of queer anger. Ostensibly, dialogue can only occur once these figurative straights have troubled their own subjective positionings and risked the type of shaming queers regularly experience; it is only when we are on even ground, the queer says to the straight, that we can engage in conversation. “Queer National spectacle depend[s] upon the citizen’s capacity to merge his/her private, fractured body with a collectively identified whole one,” write Berlant and Freeman (170). By challenging the “straight” masses in such a provocative manner, Queer Nation asks: “What can we do to force the officially constituted nation to speak a new political tongue?” (Berlant and Freeman 171). And, as newly-arrived queer citizens, how can we participate in this nation’s moral conversation when we’ve been silenced for so long?

Although Queer Nation began in the United States, Canada had its own series of movements; according to Tom Warner, Queer Nation groups in Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, and Vancouver were founded late in 1990 and remained active for about two years before slowly fading away (259). In spite of its short life, Warner argues, Queer Nation managed to leave an impressive footprint on queer history: first, the activist group triggered a critical debate on the correlation between identity and community “that is still engaging activists and theorists a decade after [queer nation] burst onto the scene”; further, activists reclaimed the word “queer,” resignifying its pervasive derogatory usage to one “more inclusive of sexual minorities and other marginalized peoples … [representing] the belief in an identity that is more ambiguous and fluid than gay, lesbian, or homosexual” (263). Ironically, Queer Nation’s downfall sprung from the very trope it adopted as its namesake. The group was frequently accused of racism and sexism and seen as a movement of white gay males who, among queers, were viewed as relatively privileged for the ease with which they could assimilate; queer national minorities were quick to ask: who is really included in this Queer Nation? Kinsman argues that the group “became trapped within … a nationalist discourse that constructs boundaries between those within and those without the ‘nation’” (210). Similarly, Warner claims that despite Queer Nation’s intention to “bring people together … and to affirm sameness by defining a common identity on the fringes,” the movement’s inclusiveness is premised on “boundaries that threaten to marginalize those whose difference doesn’t conform to the new nation” (258). In reference to this fundamental problem and the frustration it evoked, Lori Lyons, a former activist with Queer Nation, writes: “We had no strategy for creating our new inclusive nation, nothing to consolidate the myriad of people who brought their anger to our doorstep” (qtd in Warner 260).

As Kinsman argues, “there are major problems when the ‘queer’ aspects of someone’s life [are] violently abstracted from the relations of gender, race, class, and sometimes national oppression” (223). To this list of identity attributes I would add age. Much writing has been done on how race, class, and disability serve to complicate notions of the sexual citizen, creating new layers of marginalization within ostensibly unified communities like Queer Nation. “I feel that there is a double closet,” writes Jean B., a disabled activist from Calgary, “that you are a second-class citizen because you’re disabled and you are a second-class citizen because you’re gay and it will take a few more years for people to come to realize that you’re first class citizens no matter what” (qtd in Warner 316). “The production of queer spaces and citizenship” like Queer Nation, write Bell and Binnie, “means inclusion for some, but also implies the exclusion of others: not all queers are equally free to gain from these encounters” (84). Queer youth, I argue, confront a particular paradox of citizenship: that of being over-looked. Just as Bell and Binnie claim that “reinstating class into these debates has to be seen as imperative if we are to avoid replacing discrimination based on sexuality with discrimination based on class,” I argue that age is an equally important factor that must be included in debates about queer sexualities (144).

I will use the category of youth in this paper in a rather precarious fashion, rendering it unstable through the lens of queer theory. Steven Bruhm and Natasha Hurley adopt a similar strategy in Curiouser, their fascinating volume on child sexuality:

What is the magic age of childhood? Those who discuss age-of-consent laws seem to consider anyone under that age (usually sixteen) to be a child: teenagers are ‘children’ (indistinguishable from toddlers, it seems) if they are involved in the making of pornography. Yet teens who rape or murder are tried as ‘adults,’ as if the concept of childhood were dependent entirely on the magnitude of the crime (xxv).

Just as Bruhm and Hurley conclude that “there may very well be no definition of ‘child’ that applies to all situations [since] our culture affords itself a sliding scale of ‘appropriate’ childhood sexuality and sexual expression,” I will view “youth” as a similarly malleable category of age (xxv). Although I would argue that “youth” generally signifies an older set of individuals than does “children,” the categories of children and youth tend to overlap; youth to some are children to others (especially when it comes to issues surrounding the age of consent), while some perceive relatively mature children as youth. I use “youth” in lieu of “children” to include an older (late teens, early twenties) segment of the population that might not be signified by the latter category. My view of youth, however, also comprises those in their early teens who could be called children.

What I have called the “over-looked” paradox of queer youth emerges through seemingly opposing arguments about youth and citizenship. On the one hand, Henry and Susan Giroux claim that youth, seen as “disposable and unproductive” by the nation, are “removed from the moral concerns of society” (69). “Under the rubric of war, security, and antiterrorism,” the Girouxs argue, “children are ‘disappeared’ from the most basic social spheres that provide the conditions for a sense of agency and possibility, and they are rhetorically excised from any discourse about the future” (64). On the other hand, images of youth seem, at a fundamental level, to constitute discourse about the future; the nation is invested in the symbolic value of youth as signifiers of asexual innocence and reproductive futurism, yet the physical bodies and right-to-belong of the youth themselves are seen as irrelevant. The nation’s “hybrid official image” that lies “at the heart of contemporary citizenship policy,” argues Berlant, is “of the nation as a vicious youth, and as a formerly innocent youth betrayed by bad parenting, and as a child who might be saved by good official parents” (65). Here is the paradox of over-looking: images of children and youth are everywhere, and yet their voices are nowhere. Youth are subject to intense surveillance to ensure their conformity to the loaded symbolism with which they have been imbued, yet, as the Girouxs point out, they are utterly refused a voice in the nation’s moral conversation. This seems particularly true for youth who embrace queer sexualities. Unaligned with Edelman’s reproductive futurism – the ideology that positions children as a symbol of how society reproduces itself – queer youth (especially those who fight for representation) are a source of disruption in discourses that employ children as silent and malleable (heterosexual) metaphors; as Berlant writes, “the most hopeful national pictures of ‘life’ circulating in the public sphere are not of adults in everyday life, in public, or in politics, but rather of the most vulnerable minor or virtual citizens – fetuses, children … persons that, paradoxically, cannot yet act as citizens” (5). As Bruhm and Hurley argue, youth become “a kind of ground zero for the edifice that is adult life and around which narratives of sexuality get organized” (xiii).

In an argument that chafes (albeit productively) with that of the Girouxs, Berlant sees children and youth as being icons central to nationalist discourse – symbols of both a (heterosexual) future and figures of innocence mobilized to make “ethical claims on the adult political agents who write laws, make culture, administer resources, control things” (6). Because youth serve such a specific political purpose, they remain silenced, their voices appropriated by the nation and its representatives. The “little girl” in particular, Berlant argues, “stands … as a condensation of many (infantile) citizenship fantasies.” (58). She continues:

It is in her name as future citizen that state and federal governments have long policed morality around sex and other transgressive representations; the psychological and political vulnerability she represents has provided a model for other struggles to transform minority experience in the United States. And it is in her name that something Other to her, called, let’s say, ‘adult culture,’ has been defined and privileged in many national domains (58).

This “dominant narrative” of the little girl includes a vision of children who are “innocent of sexual desires and intentions,” Bruhm and Hurley argue; “at the same time, however, children are also officially, tacitly, assumed to be heterosexual” (ix). When this little girl becomes sexual – especially queerly so – her disaffection from the sexually sedated narrative that tells her story can create moral panic. A site of both utopian fantasy for an unwritten “and therefore unblemished” future, and nostalgia for a less sexually tumultuous and complicated past (Bruhm and Hurley xiii), youth come to embody what Berlant calls “dead” citizenship – a purportedly fixed identity that produces a sense of security and continuity (63). As what Bruhm and Hurley call “the bearer of heteronormativity,” the child appears to “render ideology invisible by cloaking it in simple stories, euphemisms, and platitudes” (xiii). And queer boys can be just as terrifying as queer girls; Sedgwick writes that the socially acceptable narrative for gay men is that of a homosexual “who (a) is already grown up and (b) acts masculine” (“How to Bring” 156). “Extremely and chronically effeminate boys,” she writes, “is the abject that haunts psychoanalysis,” resulting in mass “effeminophobia” (“How to Bring” 156). Youth in general have their values and opinions ventriloquized by the nation; queer youth seem to be done a double-disservice as they are pushed even further away from participation in the moral conversation and a sense of belonging for their flagrant non-conformity to popular myths of childhood asexuality. “The well-being and future of youth offer a crucial rationale for engaging in a critical discussion about the long-term consequences of current administration policies, especially those driven by neoliberalism,” write the Girouxs (66). But will youth be involved in this conversation? And of what kinds of youth are we speaking here? I would like to further investigate the (absence of) narratives that keep queer youth silenced, as well as potential means of breaking this silence.

It is a well-known fact that still-pervasive homophobia and heterosexism severely damage queer individuals, particularly hindering queer youth who are struggling with many facets of their identities simultaneously. Warner reports that “suicide is the leading cause of death among gay and lesbian youth, who account for as many as 30 per cent of all successful suicide attempts (345). He further lists the mental illnesses that pervade queer communities, including “severe depression, anxiety, paranoia, and extreme loneliness,” and points out that drug and alcohol addiction among queers is quite common (345). This, of course, says nothing of the youth who contend with harassment – both physical and verbal – at home and at school, and face stigmatization and rejection by peers, family, and community members. While I believe that recognizing and discussing the social ills that plague many queer youth is of critical importance to a project such as this, I also want to make an effort to move beyond what Eric Rofes terms a narrative of “martyr-target-victim” (41). Frequently, Rofes argues, the positioning of queers as perpetual victims inhibits many youth from coming out and freely enjoying their sexuality. I feel compelled to recognize the obstacles confronting queer youth both inside the closet and out, but I would also like to explore the myriad pleasures that can be derived from queer sexualities. The capacity to speak of pleasure is why I argue queer youth must be allowed a citizen’s voice. Youth speaking of their own queer pleasures would inhibit their transformation into symbols for reproductive futurism and would enable them to shrug off contemporary narratives that confine and silence them, stories that make it “nearly impossible for young people to embrace non-normative identities or take possession of their bodies and their lives” (Rasmussen et al 3). As Rasmussen et al argue in Youth and Sexualities, we must begin “[imbuing] youth … and institutions with agency” (5). Queer youth should not always have their stories told by others: psychiatrists who speak of gender dysphoria, teachers who speak of the impossibility of being queer in high school, parents who tell and re-tell the story of Matthew Shepard, politicians who use the rhetoric of reproductive futurism – stories that teach youth that (queer) sexuality should remain private. These stories, urban legends and cautionary tales for today’s queer youth, fail to account for the pleasure and pride that queer sexualities can bring when youth are granted agency and public presence on terms not “defined by adult understandings” (Talburt 32).

As I write these words, Stephen Harper’s conservative government is attempting to pass a bill that would increase the age of sexual consent from 14 to 16 years. The popular rhetoric in this debate is, of course, that of protecting the nation’s children; “adults who prey upon young people are the targets of these reforms, not consenting teenagers” claims Justice Minister Vic Toews, who also plans to strategically change the Age of Consent law’s name to the “Age of Protection law” (CBC, par. 3). Toews happily reports that “there is ‘widespread public support’ for the proposed legislation among law enforcement and child protection agencies, as well as ordinary Canadians” (CBC, par. 7). Do these “ordinary Canadians,” I wonder, include those youth who are being affected by this bill? It is ironic that Toews suggests that “consenting teenagers” are not the intended target of a bill that intends to remove a teenager’s ability to consent. This omission of youth from a conversation that affects their sexuality, I argue, is precisely the way youth (in this case, queer and otherwise) are denied their right-to-belong as citizens. For a relatively liberal country, Canada’s legislative history surrounding child sexuality remains rather draconian; for example, in spite of several court decisions in the late 1990s determining that a higher age of consent for anal intercourse (currently, 18 years) is discriminatory against homosexuals, “to date,” writes Warner, “the federal government has not introduced Criminal Code amendments to comply with these decisions” (289). Further, the controversial and much debated Bill C-128, which included a very broad and sweeping definition regarding the constitution of child pornography and sexuality, was described by the Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights in Ontario (CLGRO) as a law “intended to be used against paedophiles with the happy optional extra of catching some lesbians, gay men and bisexuals in the net” (qtd in Warner 280). Indeed, between 1993-95, the bill resulted in a series of 482 panicked charges in London, Ontario, “61 dealing with pornography and 249 with other offences involving various sexual activities: obtaining the sexual services of a person under the age of eighteen and having consensual anal intercourse with a person under the age of eighteen” (Warner 285). All of the reported cases involved “men and youth or boys,” and “no discernible interest was shown by the London police … for the exploitation of young women and girls by older heterosexual men” (285).

My point here is not that Canada should adopt an “anything goes” policy for sexual activity between adults and youth. However, I do believe that it would be beneficial to involve youth more actively in decisions regarding their sexual behaviour instead of forbidding them entirely from being sexual. My feelings are perfectly encapsulated in a statement written by CLGRO in response to Bill C-128:

The attack on paedophiles reflected in Bill C-128 is not accompanied by the corresponding condemnation of child abuse by family members; no major measures have been undertaken to prevent rape and abuse of children within the family … Nor is concern shown for improving the treatment of young people by adults, increasing the autonomy of children/young people, or giving them increased power for self-definition or control over their own actions. Legitimate concerns can be expressed about the sexual exploitation of youth by adults, gay and straight, but these are not met by simply forbidding sexual activity. Open discussion of sexuality in the schools, etc, are generally opposed by those who support Bill 128 and such legislation (qtd in Warner 281).

The current move to change the age of consent in Canada is but another reflection of the “danger and victimization” narrative that haunts queer youth, according to Rasmussen et al; “queer youth agency,” they write, “whether linked to sexual desire or activity, or to projects of crafting the self and relations to others, is relegated to the domain of the unthinkable” (7). As was the case with the legislation of Bill C-128, Harper’s conservative government has given no indication of how their Age of Protection law will serve only to protect and not create new classes of criminals, sexual deviants, and disempowered youth. This loosely camouflaged bill, couched in the intentionally manipulative rhetoric of “save the children,” is nothing more than a thinly veiled means of morally policing the sexual behaviour of youth and further contributing to their status as over-looked citizens.

How can we begin to imagine the unimaginables, and bring the “domain of the unthinkable” queer youth into the realm of the thinkable? How can we escape the metaphors that constrict the sexualities of queer youth and avoid narrative binaries like those of “(1) risk and danger and (2) the well-adjusted, out, and proud gay youth” (Talburt 18)? Jeffrey Weeks writes that we are in dire need of “elaborate narrative forms which give shape and meaning to individual lives, and link us to a larger collective story, which tells of oppression, survival, resistance, transgression, and claims to full citizenship” (qtd in Talburt 26). These stories, Weeks continues, allow “a sense of collective belonging that provides the agency and means of change” (26). To complicate this statement, I argue that this empowering collective story must still avoid totalization by recognizing individual differences: the myriad unique patches woven together to create this larger tapestry. Ken Plummer has written at length about the importance of storytelling to citizenship in Telling Sexual Stories. He argues that society itself is constituted by a “seamless web of stories emerging everywhere through interaction” (5); for Plummer, the challenge confronting us all as storytellers is “to speak the unspeakable and represent the unrepresentable, to create a world of different images and signs that transgress, regress, progress, and ingress” (149). This is not to suggest that all can be represented and spoken, but rather that we must make space for a multitude of subversive stories to proliferate while recognizing that language will always be insufficient to capture the always-unimaginable excesses of identity; in Sue Golding’s words, we must think queer identity as “a route, a mapping, an impossible geography – impossible not because it does not exist, but because it exists and does not exist exactly at the same time.” (qtd in Britzman 81). In order for these transgressive narratives to problematize heteronormative understandings of sexuality, Plummer claims that there must be “social worlds embodying a strong community of support waiting to receive [the stories]” (16). These communities, he continues, are populated by individuals who recognize the importance of what he calls “intimate citizenship: a cluster of emerging concerns over the rights to choose what we do with our bodies, our feelings, our identities, our relationships, our genders, our eroticisms and our representations” (17). As engaged intimate citizens, we must participate in critical dialogue (in Benhabib’s words, a moral conversation) that questions the stories and representations disseminated about our sexual identities. “Rights and responsibilities are not ‘natural’ or ‘inalienable,’” writes Plummer;

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