The Queer Agenda on Campus: Invisible? Stalled? Incomplete?

Rainbow of human sillouettes

For universities to become truly inclusive, sexual orientation and gender identity have to be fully incorporated into the employment equity agenda, argues the University of Toronto’s David Rayside.

Is the queer agenda on campus invisible, stalled, or incomplete? Does this seem like yesterday’s question? So much seems to have changed over the last decade, expanding the recognition of sexual diversity on Canadian campuses.  Many students think that widespread anti-gay prejudice is part of the disreputable past they associate with their parents’ generation,  in much the same way that so many women today think of feminism as passé.

Some young people may even think that queer is “in”; others think that sexual minorities are so “normalized” that these issues are boring. There are established queer faculty who feel amply enough supported, so are complacent about the need for further action.

It’s true that more changes have occurred in Canadian law, policy, institutional practice – and yes, public attitudes – than anyone I know would have predicted fifteen or twenty years ago.

In 1980, 69 per cent of Canadian respondents to a national survey said that homosexual relations were always “wrong.” Cold comfort that this was a slightly lower number than the 76 per cent of Americans who said the same. In stark contrast, a 2007 Pew survey showed that 70 per cent of Canadians agreed that “homosexuality should be accepted by society.” Over the same period, we find similar shifts in responses to questions about specific gay/lesbian rights questions.  This change in public opinion is more significant than we find on virtually any other policy issue. We also find dramatic generational differences, with young people much more favourably disposed to sexual minorities than older cohorts.

So what’s left to do?

First, the amazing change in popular outlooks nonetheless leaves about 30 per cent of the population still disapproving of homosexuality and, probably even more so, of bisexuality and transgenderism. Many of them strongly disapprove. The Canadian National Election Studies include “thermometer” items that ask respondents to assess their warm or cold feelings towards particular groups by providing a temperature rating from zero to 100. Gays and lesbians get an average of 59, a good deal higher than in decades past, but low compared to almost all other groups. Ten per cent give scores of a very frigid zero.

Questions associated with raising children also create widespread anxiety. When asked if same-sex couples should have the right to adopt kids, about half say no to a right that has already been legally secured. (On this point, we’re not different from Americans.) There are a variety of reasons for the disquiet over or rejection of parenting rights, but the big picture suggests that many Canadians do not treat “family” as extending beyond the heterosexual norm. Many Canadians who are otherwise supportive of extending public recognition to sexual minorities retain serious anxieties about their children stepping too far outside restrictive gender expectations.

Sex itself is still scary for many, and silence often prevails where it shouldn’t. There are fears, anxieties, and prejudice surrounding HIV-positive people, and this undoubtedly reproduces a reluctance to disclose publicly. The presumptions surrounding sex work, and the moralizing tone that often surfaces in discussions of it, leaves most of us unprepared to realize that some of our students pay their tuition through that work.

And what about Canadian schools – elementary and high schools – where our students come from? Have schools moved widely and systematically to recognize lesbian gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) students and staff and to confront the ubiquitous use of anti-gay language to denigrate or embarrass others? Have they integrated a routine recognition of sexual diversity in the curriculum, as we would expect them to along gender and race lines?

Well, no, they haven’t. There are some school boards that have developed terrific policies, the Toronto District School Board being an important leader. Is there evidence that this has produced sweeping change at the school or classroom level? No. How do I know? I ask teachers about this regularly, and I ask my own students year after year. Yes, some schools are good; a few are terrific. But most have changed little over the decades in their response to this set of issues. A recent survey conducted by Egale Canada (the country’s major national LGBT group) shows the same chilling results on LGBT issues that surveys in other provinces and in the U.S. have been showing for years.

So, many of our students who are not themselves queer or “questioning” will be arriving at our doorsteps without ever being challenged around this particular form of diversity and still ready to deploy the language that so strenuously polices heterosexual normalcy. And let’s face it, some of the higher education settings they find themselves in will not challenge those habits. The epithets may fade away on campus, where there are fewer faculties and departments in which explicitly prejudicial or insulting language is “cool.” But the patterns of antipathy or anxiety about sexual difference will often remain.

And remember, too, that even if more school students than ever are coming out as queer in high school, and at an earlier age, many do not, and they enter universities and colleges unsure as to what the climate will be. In the absence of positive signals about inclusiveness from the institution, the department or program, and instructors, the uncertainty about being open will be amplified.

As we all know, our universities and colleges vary a lot from one to another, and they contain huge internal variations in readiness to embrace issues related to gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity. On some campuses, widespread deployment of “positive space” stickers suggests that there is at least some talk of sexual diversity. On others there is hardly a peep, even if in the past there may well have been activist attempts to press for change.

Within each of our institutions, we know there are drastically different organizational cultures across disciplines and constituencies. Within any one of them, there may be a willingness to recognize the importance of addressing racial, Aboriginal, gender, or disability issues but a complete indifference to, or avoidance of, sexuality issues. On some campuses, faculties of engineering will still be a challenge, though years of thought-provoking scrutiny have created openings for raising these issues. What about physical education, medicine, teacher education, commerce, nursing, physics – for that matter political science?

This isn’t just about students either. The challenges for administrative staff and other support workers can be formidable. In most places there are few enough LGBT faculty members who are as fully out as their heterosexual colleagues. But there are even fewer out staff. Most administrative offices are occupied by women, and it is still more difficult to be out as a woman than a man. Staff members are also more likely to feel vulnerable and, of course, they work more continuously than faculty do alongside colleagues whose views matter to them. Often enough, they will have experienced less-than-respectful treatment at the hands of faculty members, and they may well fear an increase in that kind of behaviour, if this particular “difference” were to be known. In other parts of the campus workforce – grounds-keeping, maintenance, security – the constraints on being out may be even greater.

And if it is fair to say that there is dramatic unevenness in our uptake of issues related to gays and lesbians, how much more true is that for gender identity? The word “transgender” takes in a wide range of identities and practices that cross sex/gender lines. It includes those who have (and wish to retain) mixed characteristics and those who want to shift from one gender identity to another (with or without surgery). For colleagues, friends, supervisors, and instructors, this can represent relatively uncharted territory and unsettle deeply-embedded gender binaries. I would submit that there isn’t a single university or college in Ontario that has fully embraced the challenge of creating more transgendered inclusiveness, though a few (including my own) have taken some steps, with York University probably in the lead on this front.

Bisexuality regularly gets left out in all this. It’s odd that the form of sexual difference that has often been characterized as “chic” – for example, in school settings – is in real life the least understood and talked about. Bisexuality suggests ambiguity, and that spells danger. Many people, straight and queer, still reject the very idea of bisexuality or dismiss it as a phase or a cover for something more serious; namely homosexuality. If it means a bit of experimenting in one’s youth, well, that’s ok, maybe even a bit adventurous. But if it means something ongoing – a permanent willingness to imagine oneself with either opposite-sex or same-sex partners – then warning  flags go up and anxiety levels escalate.

Then there’s the question of ethno-racial diversity. Queer is still largely read as white. Mainstream media representations still reflect that. Erotic material aimed at sexual minorities (overwhelmingly at gay men) is mostly white, and some portrayals of minorities feed into prejudicial stereotypes. Many activist groups have worked hard to address this issue, but my sense is that the movement(s) as a whole  are still seen as more white-dominated than they should be.

There are lots of reasons for this, but one of them is that it is harder to be out and active in some settings than others.  In communities where levels of morally traditional religious practice are more widespread (e.g., Afro-Caribbean communities, Korean, Muslim), and where immigration waves  have been more recent and from relatively conservative regions in the world with little public recognition of sexual diversity, public manifestations of sexual difference are going to be more challenging. That is especially true where community or religious leaders will dismiss homosexuality as “Western” or as a form of corruption originating outside their communities.

Canadian institutions that are in the process of accommodating religious diversity – a complex and sometimes conflictual process – have to face up to the challenge of providing supports for, and encouragement to, sexual minorities within religious communities. That, of course, includes Christian communities, of all colours and cultures. This will mean helping to kick start discussions of sexual diversity within social settings where such discussions have been entirely absent or conducted in only hushed voices.

This is more difficult than it sounds. Many – most? – queer activists or allies start off from a position of religious skepticism. People of faith who believe in welcoming or inclusive interpretations of scripture are often drowned out by more conservative or exclusionary voices. The trick is to generate a discussion that opens minds and doesn’t close ears. There is no formula for this, but students, faculty, and administrators with an instinct for bridge building have some room to work in here. There is evidence of real change in the attitudes of even those groups historically most antagonistic to the public recognition of sexual diversity. Young evangelical Protestants are significantly more open to discuss these issues inclusively than their elders, and so are young people in most other faith traditions. Muslims born in Canada are much more accepting of homosexuality than first-generation immigrants.

One of the ways of working toward bridge building is to avoid censoriousness. I have said this before and I’ll say it again: shutting down folks you find offensive is not an effective way of making political change. We have seen repeated examples of calls for a prohibition of (as opposed to protest against) anti-gay speech. Yes, there are extremes that may well warrant exclusion;  Fred Phelps comes to mind. In most cases, though, homophobic or transphobic commentary has a right to space and air.

We have to remember that earlier waves of lesbian/gay activism faced state and media prohibitions, intended to keep immorality and deviance away from public view. It hardly makes sense to me that we countenance using the same “policing” tools to shield us (and our students) from offensive prejudice. In purely strategic terms, the strong stuff that sometimes comes from the opponents of equity can shake the complacent among us and remind us that there are still millions of Canadians who really do not want to recognize us.

One last point concerns what we teach in colleges and universities.  An important measure of how inclusive these institutions are is to assess how much questions of sexual diversity are being explored in our classrooms and in the books that our students read. In some disciplines we might well say, “quite a lot.” There are lots of English and sociology departments, and programs in women’s studies, that provide good illustrations. In some cases, history, social work, anthropology, French or modern languages would illustrate a similar inclusiveness. Political science?  Really only in a few places.  Medicine, nursing, phys ed., the sciences? Also only a few.

Associated with this is the question of whether interdisciplinary programs on sexuality have grown and prospered. I’ve had the privilege of directing the centre that houses what I think is the largest and most established of these programs (though not the first). Through this experience, and on the basis of our surveying other institutions across Canada and around the world, I know how modestly these new ventures are resourced and how fragile most of them are. Peek around the web sites of many of them, in this country and abroad, and you will discover small teaching programs based largely on stipends. Times are difficult for universities and colleges and, as a member of a huge teaching department,  I know how difficult it is to keep up with increasing enrolments. But if we’re to take this new field seriously, there simply has to be more sustained support for it. This does not mean ghettoizing queer or sexuality studies, for the experience at the U of T and other institutions demonstrates that such inter-disciplinary centres can act as a creative spur to the exploration of these questions within the more established disciplines.

What about published scholarship? Yes, there’s been a major expansion of the literature on sexuality and, in some disciplines, it is well integrated into the disciplinary core. But as with the study of gender and race and disability, it often gets relegated to its own little niche. The work on sexuality in the social sciences, for example, still too often gets treated as marginal within disciplines. A book on how the labour movement deals with sexual diversity issues does not get positioned within the broader analytical literature on how unions are adjusting to new challenges in the workplace.  Typically, it gets left to the margins for those few students and faculty interested specifically in LGBT issues.

For our institutions to become more fully inclusive, sexual orientation and gender identity have to be fully incorporated into the employment equity agenda, and I mean fully. Too often, and I say this in 2010,  institutions that have set out on an affirmative agenda around equity issues have limited themselves to the four so-called designated groups. However great the challenges of making substantial progress on those – people with disabilities and Aboriginals being obvious examples – sexual diversity needs full inclusion.

Serious attention to this particular equity issue needs fresh approaches. Basic visibility is still an issue; as is the long-embedded pattern of avoiding the subject. But there are new forms of openness to making change on this front, and new questions that need addressing.

In some places, even as small a gesture as displaying a positive space sticker or a poster advertising a queer event can be a major step toward generating discussion. In classrooms, using illustrations or case studies that avoid assuming heterosexuality may help students understand how ubiquitous that assumption is. Knowing more about where advice is available for those who are first coming to terms with their own distinctive identities is an important step.

Every setting is different; each one poses distinctive opportunities to make a difference. We expect creativity from students; we should require it of ourselves.

David Rayside is a professor of political science and sexual diversity studies at the University of Toronto.