Being a part of the Museum Queeries cluster of the Thinking Through the Museum project has been an exciting and rewarding experience. Thinking Through the Museum has allowed me the opportunity to experience far-reaching discussions around contemporary issues within museums around the world. In Museum Queeries, as a Research Assistant for Drs. Angela Failler and Heather Milne, I was immersed in deeper readings of queer pasts, presents, and futurities. As the world grapples with the global Covid-19 pandemic, Thinking Through The Museum and Museum Queeries provided me with access to engaging conferences, research talks, and meetings through electronic platforms that sustained my academic morale. These events complemented and enhanced my journey through an MA in Cultural Studies at the University of Winnipeg.
One particular event of note that I attended through this Research Assistantship was on Building the Hamilton 2SLGBTQ+ Community Archive. Held October 19-21, 2021, this event consisted of two virtual roundtable critical discussions on how to archive queer material in Hamilton. Speakers on the tables included artists, curators, community members, and academics such as Syrus Marcus Ware, Pamila Matharu, Sheri Osden Nault, Rebecka Sheffield, Richard Douglas-Chin, Walka Geeshy Meegqun, Pauline Kajiura, and Cole Gately. The event taught me that creating an archive, in essence, creates a legacy for future generations to have access to history left out of main narratives. These archives also potentially provide material for museums to work with in memory production. Additionally, the importance that counter-archiving has in the process of creating archives that are publicly driven was discussed in detail. There was an abundance of storytelling within the discussions, which in their own way were a counter-archive in creation. Chatting amongst friends, colleagues, and community forms a counter-archival space that has living voices animating the information as memories. In this era of pandemic Zoom meetings, I think a positive result has been communication across countries and regions creating beautiful moments of counter-archiving such as this roundtable.
Another example of an event I was able to attend by way of my research assistantship was the Exhibitionism: Sexuality at the Museum Conference held from December 9-11, 2021. This was a 3-day online conference that spanned across countries and created opportunities for LGBTQ2IA+ people, people of colour, sex workers, kink collectives, women, and other groups to engage audiences in programming that explored a variety of topics related to human sexuality and display. The conference was organized by Melissa Blundell-Osorio, Director of Education at the Wilzig Erotic Museum, Rebecca Fasman, Curator at the Kinsey Institute in Indiana, and Hannes Hacke, Research Associate and Curator at the Research Centre for Cultural History of Sexuality at Humbolt University, with keynote speakers such as Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens. This conference brought together scholars and speakers from across the globe to discuss what to do with all the sexuality (or its repression) in museums, how to create sex museums, how to conquer taboo, and how to create safe pedagogical experiences about sex. It was also a large-scale networking adventure of like-minded scholars, thinkers, and activists to engage with each other’s research and work. The event allowed not only for discussions from various places around the world, but also for artistic expression and modes of presentation regarding sexuality in a museum setting; there were even a few on-camera performances. One of the most powerful of these was done by Robert Andy Coombs and Vicente Ugartechea, who used an art performance to weave the experience of disability, gender, desire, and kink into a powerful educational tool about people who live their queer lives at these intersections. I think the conference as a whole displayed the level of care and respect needed in Cultural Studies as it evolves in the future.
Lastly, I want to mention the opportunity Museum Queeries provided for me to attend the Canadian Museum for Human Rights here in Winnipeg. I visited the museum with a question in mind about how queerness and disability might be displayed and articulated within spaces of public memory. Monumental structures of display such as the CMHR project outwardly narratives of progress and accomplishments of the State, but looking for intersectionalities such as queerness and disability within them reveal gaps in the narrative structure. Often museums and institutions work hard to check as many boxes as possible without realizing these boxes can overlap each other in multitudes of different ways. One of my primary directives when attending the museum was to explore the widely touted progressive accessibility features implemented within it. I did find that the museum offered a well-thought-out experience for a blind person such as myself. It is not often that I have attended a Canadian museum or institution and found that all the didactic information is accessible through not only braille but also raised numerical codes to access via smart devices or audio descriptions of what is being looked at. This reminded me that though we may go on research endeavours to critique, we can be surprised by the positive accomplishments within structures.
These are just a few experiences that being a part of the Museum Queeries research cluster has allowed me to take part in. Being in discussions and dialogue with Drs. Failler and Milne, as well as the many great Research Assistants and team members in the project, has given me much to take forward as I finish my MA at the University of Winnipeg and into the future. I have learned that immersing oneself within as many conversations as possible, and exploring institutions inside and out, is a productive pathway through the interdisciplinary fields of Cultural Studies.
At a time when BIPOC, 2SLGBTQ+, and women’s contributions and histories are underrepresented, misrepresented, or are completely absent from museum displays (see Failler, Ives & Milne), I thought it would be a good time to flip the idea of the museum on its head: seeing Winnipeg as a museum. It is an opportunity to experience history outside of fixed physical spaces in order to free oneself from the often ridged, political constraints of institutions.
The Historic Queer Winnipeg walking tour is located on Treaty One Territory, traditional territory of the Anishinaabeg, Cree, Oji-Cree, Dakota, and Dene Peoples, and on the homeland of the Métis Nation. This walking tour is free, and you can do it whenever you want, at your own speed. You can even tour the city from your home computer, while accessing historic photos, interviews, videos, blogs, and articles. This is all to show the viewer that Winnipeg is a museum, filled with memories of love, danger, dancing, fear, and friendship. I believe it is important to remember the queer folks who lived here before us, and fought for the rights we have to love and exist today.
After extensive searches through newspapers, podcasts, articles, and archival interviews, I have found 32 locations* that have served as safe spaces for queer people at various points of time. On the tour you will see historic buildings built as early as 1883, outdoor meeting places, and places where buildings used to be. This includes Winnipeg’s first gay club, Winnipeg’s first women-only/lesbian club, and the city’s first drag queen club. This tour through time demonstrates that we have always been here. These are building that we walk or drive past every day, and yet we are unaware of the layered histories of these places, and the memories and ghosts that inhabit them. These histories have been concealed, and the information that is accessible to the public is scattered and fragmented. It is my hope that having all of this information in one place can lead to more awareness, and a celebration of 2SLGBTQ+ history in Winnipeg. All of this said, we still have a lot of work to do in our communities. We have to acknowledge that while we do have queer spaces now, racism, transphobia, and misogyny still exist in them. This tour through Winnipeg’s queer past, and the queer history media embedded in the map will show how much of a journey it was to get others to recognise our rights, and that the job is not done until our Queer spaces are fully accessible, inclusive, and safe for all who need them.
While you are here, check out the One Queer City ads that are up around Winnipeg!
A big thank you to Angela Failler, Heather Milne, Nicole Ritchie, and Lauren Bosc for all of your guidance, feedback, and support while I worked on this project.
*I will be adding more locations and information as I unearth them, with a focused effort to add as much historical QTBIPOC content as possible.
**Britt Bauer is currently a student in the Cultural Studies MA program at the University of Winnipeg, and she received her undergraduate training in both Environmental Studies and Classics. Her work primarily focuses on underrepresented aspects of classical scholarship such as the lives of queer women and the poor. She is currently engaged in projects centred on recreating foodways and pathways of the poor in Roman Italy via ethnoarchaeology and experimental archaeology.
The Manitoba Museum, true to its name, displays information about Manitoba’s rich history. Its galleries tell us much about Manitoba’s natural environment, from its arctic to its boreal forests and parklands. The museum also houses Manitoban/Winnipeg-based histories, such as the significance of the Hudson’s Bay Company in Manitoba and the 1920 Winnipeg Strike. For the most part, though, the museum itself appears to be a classic natural history museum. It contains stuffed and stitched animals encased in glass walls, preserved plants in manicured backgrounds, and hallways of dioramas, some of which are life-sized human bodies within their presumably natural contexts. Self-touring around the main floor, one will find easily digestible information about evolution, brief descriptions about ecosystems, and quick bites about types of Manitoba’s fauna and flora.
However, even if the museum appears to be a stereotypical conglomerate of science exhibits, it was hard not to enjoy myself as I weaved through the museum. There always seems to be something to do: objects to touch, videos to interact with, buttons to press, sounds to hear and lights to turn on, levers to press, and even, at one point, things to smell. Much of my experience within this museum involved active engagement with the galleries. The Manitoba Museum seems to me not a space for the quiet contemplation of information, but a space for play; one that invites its visitors to imagine beyond the material presented.
It is no wonder then that the museum is usually full of children on school field trips. Throughout my visits at the museum in search for research content, I found it hard not be distracted by the children around me and the snippets of conversations that they had with each other. I recall coming across this one child pointing to what appeared to be a fat brown worm and having a dynamic conversation with another child about some experience they had with a slug one time.
Initially, I went into the museum to look at Manitoba’s stories of immigration, but, in following the lead of the children, I began to see the museum as a space for fantasy, one that is open to queer critical thinking. I wondered how this fantastical space might allow me to “read in” my own research interests, mainly that of queer immigrant stories. Seeing as how some of these conversations involved personal experience, I also wondered how I could use my own experiences, especially as a Filipino person, to guide my research. Could I, somehow, read in my own stories and those of others from the Filipino community to illuminate queer/immigrant/Filipino narratives that might not even be in the museum in the first place? Being able to read in these stories rather than just being in search for them might open up a different way for me to conduct my research in the museum.
Learning from the Dwende
As I walked through the hallways of the boreal forest gallery, I thought of how much some of the galleries reminded me of home. I thought of the plants and how, even though much of them were unfamiliar or weren’t present back in the Philippines, they made me think of the stories that my parents, aunts, and my grandmothers used to tell me growing up. One particular memory that came to mind was one hot day before the third grade. At the time, my brothers, my mother, and I were walking in our tsinelas¹by the old church near our grandmother’s house. I remember the church being mostly worn-down, its sides and surrounding pavement cracked under the hot Philippine sun. My brothers and I loved to walk by here because it was the fastest way to access what I now know to be a blocked-off yard, but was then a ground of infinite space. All the way from the church to the yard, wild grass took over the earth, even in the small spaces between the broken pavement where sunlight could still peek its head through. Dotted across the sides of the concrete and the grass were small mounds of dirt bursting with neat lines of marching ants.
Before my brothers and I could start sprinting across the grass, Mama warned us to watch where we stepped so as to not step on the anthills. She warned us of the creatures called the dwende who may be living deep underneath these hills. The dwendes, she explained, are nature spirits that usually live in anthills, trees, caves, or around spots in nature that simply feel mystical. They are usually thought of as tiny and old creatures, but are mostly invisible. Here and there, in places like the bukid²or the gubat³, they were busy guarding nature and creating mischief or concocting luck whenever it pleased them. From then on, I thought of the dwende every time I was in the presence of nature even though I have not seen this creature once. It was clear that I didn’t need to see them to know that they were real. Somehow, imagining these creatures running around the museum space and hiding themselves in the exhibits made me think that they had lessons to teach me about the museum. In thinking about their invisible presence, I began to ask myself what it meant to be visible or invisible in the museum space and what this might mean for the Filipinx/o immigrant stories and histories that may or may not be present in the museum. More importantly, I wondered about what this (in)visibility might mean for Filipinx/o immigrants whose stories and histories may or may not be present in the museum.
The (In)visible Immigrant in the Museum
Galleries on immigration begin to appear nearing the end of the Parklands/Mixed Woods area of the museum. These galleries include “The Commerce of Migration”, the “Wood, Water, and Free Land” Gallery, and the newly added “Winnipeg Gallery”. They discuss the history of immigration of a diverse number of groups to Manitoba’s Parklands area. The first gallery “The Commerce of Migration” contains videos that foreshadow how the museum will portray immigration in the later galleries. At the press of a button, the gallery presents skits of immigration commercials. Each video is on a different era of Canadian migration, from the settlement of European families in Western Canada to present Canada as a popular site for global migration. Going through the videos, it was startling to see how they portray Canada’s timeline of non-diversity to sudden diversity by ending with a skit titled “The Age of Multiculturalism.” This progress narrative seems to portray Canada as a nation that has gone through an extensive and surprising character development where suddenly, without explanation, it opened its arms and softened its heart to immigrants all over the world.
The panel next to this gallery called “Cultural Diversity” substantiates this portrayal by saying that “[a]lthough different cultures [within Canada] sometimes clashed with one another, the value of cultural diversity gradually was recognized. Today the rich cultural mosaic of the region is celebrated.” This theme of a diverse Canada is one that is prevalent throughout these galleries about immigration. Doing so seems to address the influx of non-European immigrants in Canada in the 20th century, which is to highlight the presence of racialized immigrants.
It wasn’t until I reached the “Immigration” kiosk under the “Wood, Water and Free Land” exhibit did I see information about the immigration of certain ethnic groups to Manitoba. Unlike the other displays, the kiosk briefly points out the Canadian government’s restrictions on the immigration of people from “non-traditional points of origin” (which is to say racialized people) and their gradual acceptance in Manitoba. However, this is all done without explaining the reasons for the restrictions or the later approvals of these groups.
Among these groups were the Filipinos who mostly began to arrive in Manitoba in the mid-20th century. According to Historian Jon G. Malek (2019), Filipino migrants first came to fill the demand for garment workers and healthcare professionals during the 1960s-1980s (49). At the time, Winnipeg in particular faced a high demand for garment workers, mostly due to its waning European (mostly Italian) workers who began to break away from the garment industry because of poor working conditions and wages (106).
One particular figurehead who can attest to early Filipino immigration is Perla Javate, the current president of the Philippine Heritage Council of Manitoba and community liaison officer for the Winnipeg School division. In an interview with CBC, Javate tells the story of how she first came to Canada as a social worker to bring in Filipinas for Manitoba’s growing need for garment workers in the 70s. She recounts her feelings of frustration when she first came to Winnipeg with the other women and their experiences of having to navigate “cultural difference[s].” These differences might be interpreted as difficulties of having to assimilate to a predominantly white Winnipeg because she notes how, at the time of her arrival, Winnipeg wasn’t as “multicultural as it is today” (“CBC Asks: How is the Filipino experience in Manitoba changing?”). Although her history with the garment industry and how she came to Winnipeg is not covered in the Manitoba Museum, her image is shown in the new Winnipeg Gallery. She is part of the gallery’s “Personalities Wall” which presents thirty Winnipeggers who have had an impact on the city’s communities and present history. Within this wall she holds the title of “Multiculturalism promoter” and is described as someone who “focuses on promoting Filipino culture and multiculturalism.”
The Manitoba Museum surrounds multiculturalism in tones of celebration. It is seen as a great feat for Canada to include so many groups of different races and ethnicities, making Canada appear as this accepting country that is welcoming of everyone, regardless of background. This renders immigration, especially the migration of racialized peoples, as a positive process as it only adds to the country’s diversity. The museum also seems to suggest that although Canada contains people of different racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds, these populations are able to live harmoniously with one another. This use of multiculturalism is one that can be called “liberal multiculturalism.” Critics of liberal multiculturalism, such as Stephen May and Christine E. Sleeter, say that although it calls for the recognition of different ethnic/cultural groups, it “abdicates any corresponding recognition of unequal, and often untidy, power relations that underpin inequality and limit cultural interaction” (4). Similarly, the framing of multiculturalism within the museum can also be interpreted as fostering “multicultural nationalism”, which is described by Caitlin Gordon-Walker as a way of establishing nationalism through the recognition of minorities within a nation (specifically Canada) and is subsequently conflated with the nation’s apparent “inclusivity” and “benevolence” (5). This positive image works to mask the ways that Canada participates in “practices of exclusion and violence within, at, and beyond [its] borders” (9). It is as if, almost paradoxically, the museum’s goal of showcasing its racialized migrants only actually obscures the systems and histories of racism that affect them within Canada.
Although the museum’s Immigration kiosk hints at the problems that recent immigrants face in Canada, such as “discrimination and issues related to human rights and labour practices,” it does so in a way that distances Canada’s role in the presence of racism throughout and after the immigration process. It is as if these experiences simply just occur or that they aren’t tied to the nation in any way. Indeed, racism has always been present in Canada’s early immigration policies such as in the case of The Immigration Act of 1952, wherein Canada held the power to deny migration based on nationality, ethnicity, “unsuitability” to adapt to Canada’s environmental climate, and perceived “inability to become readily assimilated” (“Immigration Act, 1952”). For Filipinos (among other groups, such as and especially Black people), one of the ways in which their prohibition was justified by the Canadian government was because it was believed that they wouldn’t be able to adjust to Canada’s climate (Knowles 169; Malek 83-86). Climate-based policies such as the one included in the Immigration Act have been present in previous Canadian immigration policies and have consequently privileged the entrance of white immigrants over racialized immigrants. These policies have often been used to hide the reality that Canada simply did not want to accept immigrants of colour into the country (Knowles 91, 170). Later on, however, shifts in immigration policies (such as the beginning of the Points System⁴, for example), and pressure from the Philippine government led to Canada finally allowing Filipinos within the province to fill up needed or unwanted labour sectors (Malek 49).
Even now, however, Filipinos still face problems after years of being able to enter Manitoba. From the same CBC interview, Perla recounts the difficulties that Filipinos face, saying that “the challenges when [they] first came are still here” especially when it comes to job security. In this interview she says:
“[Filipinos] usually start from the very bottom… some survive and manage [sic] to land in good jobs, others [have to] divert to other professions or even lowly jobs just to be able to support their families. That I feel is a hurdle that Canada has to work on. Although there has been some changes in terms of supports from [the] government, it still is not enough (‘CBC Asks: How is the Filipino experience in Manitoba changing?’). “
Perla Javate’s interview points out Canada’s involvement in the marginalization of Filipino immigrants in a way that the Manitoba Museum could not, even when the museum itself displayed Javate as Winnipeg’s own “multicultural promoter”. This limits the museum’s celebration of multiculturalism as a celebration at the superficial level, where it applauds the presence of people of colour rather than examining its relationships with them. This begs the question of whether multiculturalism should be celebrated in the museum if its celebration only sanitizes Canada’s relationship with its racialized immigrants.
Marisa Largo, a Filipinx artist and educator, adds to this point when she talks about how the representation of minorities is often relegated to progressive optics or used as evidence for Canada’s exceptionalism. She says that
“When minoritized subjects are made visible within official multicultural discourse in Canada, such visibility often continues to legitimize the interests of the nation-state, and reproduce colonial and neoliberal narratives. To be visible is simply not enough… Simply being visible in various sectors of society such as arts and culture does not guarantee social justice and inclusion” (99).
Even when racialized immigrants are included in the museum, their presence does not interrogate how they have shaped Manitoba’s or Winnipeg’s histories in the first place. Instead, they are tokenized in the interest of upholding Canada as a benevolent country. In this way, their visibility in the museum only serves to make their real histories invisible.
It is important to note that there are layers to visibility and invisibility when it comes to the representation of Filipinos in Manitoba. Whereas truthful accounts of Filipino migrant experiences are only partially visible when it comes to Canadian or Manitoban discourse, queer Filipinx stories, on the other hand, are invisible. Queer, Manitoban Filipinxs are often left out of discussions of Filipino immigration or are not seen as fitting with the image of what a Filipino Manitoban should be. A uniquely Manitoban perspective of queer Filipinx experience is not only underrepresented in academic literature, it also hardly appears in Manitoban or Manitoba-based Filipino media outlets.
However, there is a recent exception to this invisibility when it comes to the work of Ally Gonzalo, a queer, more specifically bakla⁵, artist whose work has been featured in CBC and has even appeared in an exhibit within Aceartinc, an art centre in Winnipeg. Gonzalo’s exhibit, “Bakla”, shows a series of black and white portraits of bakla people who are part of the Filipinx diaspora in Winnipeg. In these portraits, Gonzalo gives each subject the space to tell their own story, be it through the photograph or the descriptions that come with each one. The exhibit makes a statement that Winnipeg has its own “thriving bakla and Filipinx community” and that they are “an important part of Winnipeg culture” (Gonzalo).
Keeping Absent Subjects in Sight
When I am reflecting on that moment with Mama all those years ago when my brothers and I came across those anthills, I wondered why she felt it more important to warn us of the unseen rather than the swarms of ants that could have easily nipped at our feet. After teaching us about the dwende she instructed us to say “tabi tabi po”⁶, which was a way for us to pardon ourselves in their presence. She explained that saying so signals regard for the dwende’s existence and served as an indication of respect towards these creatures. It was also a way for us to let them know that we didn’t wish to harm them, which was less about a broken anthill or two but about what might happen because we couldn’t see their invisible lives. The act of imagining the existence of the dwende around the church’s path, then, was an exercise to pay attention to what was once thought to be absent from a space. Now, “reading” them in the museum serves as a model for me to reveal the memories and histories of unrepresented subjects, specifically that of Filipinx/o immigrants in Manitoba.
These Filipinx/o stories, which are stories that are otherwise invisible or excluded within the museum, must be known. In thinking of the dwende as a creature that is invisible, Filipinx/o people in the Manitoba Museum in some way occupy different statuses of partial visibility and invisibility, where their stories are either incomplete or nonexistent. What I learned from the dwende is that invisibility itself is a mode of inquiry, where acknowledging what is invisible in the first place might uncover more information about a space. This is why the histories of immigration that appeared to be missing in the museum provided a more comprehensive outlook on Canada than the histories they had on display. Most importantly, it allowed me to recognize the voices that are invisible within those already invisible groups, such as queer immigrant voices. The invisibility of their stories within the museum makes it ever more important to think about how they might influence the museum itself, whether it might be through the process of imagining childhood creatures like the dwende running free in the museum, or through other means. Imagining what is not already included within the museum space or content opens up new ways to think about what, and for who, the museum can be.
Tsinelas – slippers in Tagalog
Bukid – field or farm in Tagalog
Gubat – forest in Tagalog
Points System – The Points System was a new system of immigration that was constructed during the 60s and followed the Immigration Act of 1952. Unlike the Immigration Act which focused on accepting immigrants based on identity (race, ethnicity, etc.), this system ranked potential immigrants based on a points basis. Points were rewarded to potential immigrants based on factors such as language ability (English and or French), education, and work experience, among other factors. Those who scored higher or were able to score above certain point thresholds (fifty points was usually the passing) were more likely to be accepted into Canada (Knowles 195-196).
Bakla – As written by Gonzalo in his CBC article, someone who is bakla is “a Filipino person assigned male at birth but may have adopted mannerisms traditionally regarded as feminine. The term includes individuals who identify as trans, non-binary, bisexual, etc. While most bakla are attracted to men, collectively referring to them as ‘gay’ would be inaccurate as some self-identify as women” (Gonzalo).
“tabi tabi po” – literally translates to “excuse me” in Tagalog.
Knowles, Valerie. Strangers at Our Gates: Canadian Immigration and Immigration Policy, 1540-2007. Rev. ed., Toronto, Dundurn Press, 2007, pp. 91, 169-170, 195-196.
Largo, Marrisa. “Reimagining Filipina Visibility though ‘Black Mirror’: The Queer Decolonial Diasporic Aesthetic of Marigold Santos.” Diasporic Intimacies: Queer Filipinos and Canadian Imaginaries, edited by Diaz, Robert et. al, 2018, pp. 99-118.
Malek, Jon G. The Pearl of the Prairies: The History of the Winnipeg Filipino Community. PhD dissertation, University of Western Ontario. 2019. Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository. 6193.
May, Stephen, and Christine E, Sleeter. Introduction. Critical Multiculturalism: Theory and Praxis, edited by Stephen May and Christine E. Sleeter, Taylor & Francis, 2010, pp. 1-16.
*Mika Castro is an undergraduate student at the University of Winnipeg who is currently majoring in sociology. She is interested in learning about the stories and lives of queer POC immigrants in Canada, most specifically how they navigate their queer identities between their Canadian and immigrant communities. She currently works as a Research Assistant with Museum Queeries.
I began the Transgender Oral History Project in Spring 2019 as part of my work as a Research Assistant (RA) for the Museum Queeries research group based at the University of Winnipeg. The goal of my project is to document the lived experiences and perspectives of transgender people living on the prairies. Towards this I conducted interviews where transgender people told stories of their lives, offering a glimpse into the breadth and diversity of trans experiences and understandings of gender identity. Museum Queeries opened up the possibility for me to explore the complexities of the changing language of gender identity and how trans life-narratives are represented (or not) within archives and institutions of public memory including museums. Drawing from this critical work, the Transgender Oral History Project is an attempt to engage archival institutions in documenting trans life-narratives with a more expansive framework for what trans life is and can be. This project was funded through my RAship with Museum Queeries and with the Abe and Bertha Arnold Oral History Grant from the Oral History Centre at the University of Winnipeg. The Oral History Centre also provided me with invaluable resources and training in conducting and archiving oral history, and is currently the place where the transcripts and audio of the Transgender Oral History Project are archived. I would like to thank Dr. Heather Milne, Dr. Angela Failler, and Lauren Bosc from Museum Queeries for their support, guidance, and consultation in developing my methodology, finding contacts, and applying for ethics approval for this project. I would like to thank Kimberly Moore, Kent Davies, and Brett Lougheed for the technical assistance and training in conducting oral history and for promoting and archiving this project. I would also like to thank Albert McLeod and the Two-Spirit Archive, which I was connected to both through Museum Queeries and Brett Lougheed, for their resources in conducting oral histories, their advice on navigating the occasional overlaps and important distinctions between trans and Two-Spirit identities, and for providing such a great example of what community-based and critical (counter)archiving can look like. Most of all, I would like to thank my interview participants: Brandy Pollard, Mateo Llanillos, Lara Rae, Jarvis Brownlie, and Ben Baader. This project would not have been possible without you. What follows is a snapshot of the project and some preliminary analysis based on selected excerpts from my research and interviews. My hope is that this work can serve as an entry point for sharing the project with others and as a brief summary of a first stage of my research, which I plan to expand on in the future.
Transgender people are often expected to have a specific life narrative which lines up with hegemonic understandings of what transitioning is thought to be like. This narrative typically involves some sort of early childhood experience of gender transgression, a later feeling of being “trapped in the wrong body,” and then eventual medical transition where the trans person is expected to blend in with the broader cisgender public and not be recognizable as transgender. Commenting on transgender autobiographies and life stories, the trans studies scholar Jay Prosser writes that: “the autobiographical act for the transsexual begins even before the published autobiography—namely, in the clinician’s office where, in order to be diagnosed as transsexual, s/he [or they] must recount a transsexual autobiography. . . . Narrative is also a kind of second skin: the story the transsexual must weave around the body in order that this body may be ‘read.’ ” (101). Therefore, transgender people often have a particular relationship to the genre of life-narrative where we must articulate a story about ourselves in order for the cisgender public to make sense of us.
This genre is often used by trans people almost like a tool for navigating medical institutions which expect certain narratives of trans identity in order to allow access to hormones and gender affirmative surgeries for transgender individuals. While the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) has expanded its definition of gender dysphoria to state that “the distress is not limited to a desire to simply be of the other gender, but may include a desire to be of an alternative gender, provided that it differs from the individual’s assigned gender,” the legacy of the metaphor of being “trapped in the wrong body” which assumes a specific and very binary experience of gender identity, looms large over any narrative account of transgender experience. This narrative does not allow much room for non-binary and genderqueer expressions of transgender identity where the subject may not wish to conceal their difference from the binary cisgender mainstream and may even find affirmation in this difference.
By framing these oral history interviews around asking participants to tell me their life story, I hope to self-consciously reflect back on the more prescriptive forms of transgender life narratives. By creating a setting with no consequences or penalties for what participants discuss with me and by having myself as a transgender researcher conducting the interviews, my hope is that these interviews can be a space for trans people to explore the nuances of their experiences. One participant, Mateo Llanillos, explored the complexities of his gender presentation saying: “transitioning is weird. For someone like myself who is very binary in presentation… that’s the one big negative I feel in my transition is I just look really heteronormative, and by looking at me you don’t see my history. You don’t see who feel I actually am.” While “passing” as the gender one identifies as is often seen as the ultimate goal for trans people, for Mateo, there was a loss in passing as a cis-gender man since, for him, being seen specifically as a transgender person felt important.
While my research focused on transgender people currently living on the prairies, almost all of the participants I have interviewed so far have made their home on the prairies after growing up and living most of their lives elsewhere. This has somewhat limited the scope of my research as I have not yet interviewed a trans person who was born and raised in Winnipeg. However, this dilemma has raised interesting questions for me about how Winnipeg has been a refuge for some trans people. I’m curious now about what roles physical movement and migration play in trans narratives as many transgender people end up seeking home in places other than where they grew up.
One participant, Ben Baader, articulated his fraught sense of what “home” means for him as a Jewish transgender man formerly involved in lesbian organizing in Berlin. For him, there was a sense of often being out of place in the cities he lived in or in some of the communities he found himself a part of. Although he identifies as queer, he has often experienced tension in queer communities. When I asked him about this tension, he answered with this:
“This has come up recently in a relationship I’ve been having with someone in Seattle who identifies very much as queer, and for whom ‘queer’ is sort of the equivalent of ‘home.’ Like queer space is safe space, and this is just not my experience… I mean, you know, starting in Germany with antisemitism and the lesbian and women’s world… So, [the] lesbian world was not safe space (laughs) and the transphobic, you know, aspects of the lesbian and gay world. I mean, for me… queer is not automatically safe.”
Like Ben, many of the participants explored how their multiple intersecting identities shaped their experience and are often in tension with one another.
Many participants, when telling their life story, talked very little about the specifics of their experience of being transgender and instead told other stories that might not immediately seem to be related to gender identity, but which were shaped by being trans. For one participant, Jarvis Brownlie, identifying as transgender has been an important part of life but, as he articulates, it has only been one part of broad changes throughout his life:
“It would’ve been around 33, I guess, or so, when I started identifying as trans and now I’m in my mid-fifties. So, it’s been a long span of time, and these are very different times of life, your early thirties, and your mid-fifties… different times of my career, and even different locations. So, for quite a while it meant being at odds… feeling really at odds with the society that surrounds me.”
Jarvis’s story taught me that a great deal about what it means to come to terms with being transgender at different points in a person’s life and how that does not negate the experiences a person had before identifying as trans, but in retrospect, inflects those memories with new forms of meaning.
Another participant, Lara Rae, stated that: “It bothers me when people say, “I don’t care,” you know “what your gender is,” because I care very much, and this came at an extremely high price.” I got a sense of pride from Lara’s statement as she expressed the importance of honouring her identity. Sometimes the struggle of being trans is not so much coming into one’s own identity, but the loneliness that follows when others are not able to understand or appreciate the beauty of that. In this and other statements by the interviewees, there was an interest in grappling with the different ways trans people are perceived and misperceived by cisgender people. While different participants had different responses, Lara articulated a sense that for her, being trans was not something that needed to be hidden or ashamed of. For her, being trans is something to be celebrated.
One question I was very interested in exploring was how people initially began to understand themselves as transgender and what their connections to other transgender people were like. While trans narratives are often framed around a personal inner struggle, part of my interest in doing this project initially was to explore how trans people discuss gender identity with each other and how this might be different than the way they are often expected to present their stories for a general audience. For this reason, one of the questions I asked my participants was if they could tell me about their first experience knowingly meeting another transgender person. One participant, Brandy Pollard, responded to this question by discussing a cousin of hers who the family found out was transgender only after her cousin’s death:
“I didn’t even know what the word transgender was. I didn’t even know was a lesbian or, or a gay person was. It was a cousin of mine, and you know, she was much, much older than I was and, um — I didn’t know about it until she passed away. She died of suicide. And…in… she was dressed… she was in a dress, a black dress and everything in, in her coffin and that’s when we found out she was living her life as a woman.”
I was moved by this response as it made me think about how many people as children first find out about transgender people either through sensationalized media stories or through tragedy. For Brandy, this cousin who she never had the chance to talk to about being transgender, was in some in ways a figure who opened up the possibility for a way of being in the world that she did not previously know about. This made me wonder about how trans people build individual and collective senses of identity. It seems often that we do so through hearing the stories of people who have come before us, stories which are often told about people not by them. Many of those who have come before us we will never meet, but hearing these stories might help to give one a sense as though there are others who have come before them and felt and struggled with similar things.
My hope for this project is twofold: I hope that it can be a valuable resource for anyone interested in researching transgender histories of the prairies and I also hope it can be valuable for trans community members to read these interviews and learn about the experiences of different transgender individuals speaking about their lives and experiences on their own terms without the pressure to conform to a regulatory narrative such as exists in the DSM-V and many medical institutions. While the initial phase of this project consisted of five interviews which have since been fully transcribed and made accessible through the Oral History Centre at the University of Winnipeg, I have since conducted several more interviews and plan to continue conducting interviews in the future. In Fall 2020 I will begin my MA in Gender Studies at Queen’s University, where I plan to expand my theorizing of these interviews as part of a broader project on transgender people and life narrative.
Joanne Meyerowitz notes that the use of this metaphor of being born, or sometimes “trapped” in the “wrong body,” as a way to describe transgender experience was common by the 1960s (2002, 66).
Baader, Ben. Interviewed by Misha Falk, July 29, 2019 in Winnipeg, MB. Digital Audio Recording. Transgender Oral History Project, “First Cluster,” Oral History Centre Archive, University of Winnipeg, Winnipeg, MB.
Brownlie, Jarvis. Interviewed by Misha Falk, May 31, 2019 in Winnipeg, MB. Digital Audio Recording. Transgender Oral History Project, “First Cluster,” Oral History Centre Archive, University of Winnipeg, Winnipeg, MB.
Llanillos, Mateo. Interviewed by Misha Falk, May 18, 2019 in Winnipeg, MB. Digital Audio Recording. Transgender Oral History Project, “First Cluster,” Oral History Centre Archive, University of Winnipeg, Winnipeg, MB.
Pollard, Brandy. Interviewed by Misha Falk, April 23, 2019 in Winnipeg, MB. Digital Audio Recording. Transgender Oral History Project, “First Cluster,” Oral History Centre Archive, University of Winnipeg, Winnipeg, MB.
Rae Lara. Interviewed by Misha Falk, July 22, 2019 in Winnipeg, MB. Digital Audio Recording. Transgender Oral History Project, “First Cluster,” Oral History Centre Archive, University of Winnipeg, Winnipeg, MB.
*Misha Falk is a white non-binary transfeminine settler based out of Winnipeg, Treaty One Territory. They are a recent graduate of the English honours program at University of Winnipeg and are currently pursuing an MA in Gender Studies at Queen’s University. They are also a published poet whose writing has been nominated for a National Magazine Award and they are a co-founder of Trans Hive, a peer-based residency program for transgender artists.
From February 6-9, a gathering called the Beading Symposium: Ziigimineshin was held in Winnipeg, Manitoba. As an attendee, my intention was to be present as a beading enthusiast and occasional artist.1 Once the featured topics of the symposium were released, however, I realized the potential for a much deeper reflection on the transmission of knowledge regarding traditional and contemporary beading practices and the role museums might play in this. In addition to being a beading enthusiast and occasional artist, I am a university student and work as a Research Assistant on a project called Museum Queeries that raises critical questions about the relevance and potentiality of museums as contexts for learning and representation.
Franchesca Hebert-Spence, an Anishinaabe MFA student, artist and symposium organizer, opened the event by sharing a story about working on an academic paper for her Master’s program. In it she had written “beading is love,” and was challenged by a professor who requested citation. To this, she replied, “but from where?” How does one cite oral knowledge passed on by relatives and ancestors who do not hold academic degrees or publications?
Hebert-Spence’s anecdote reminded me of Patricia Monture’s essay “Race, Gender, and the University: Strategies for Survival” (2010), which discusses how Canadian universities, as inherently white colonial institutions, create barriers to success for women and BIPOC (Black Indigenous and People of Colour) individuals. Monture describes witnessing the denial of tenure to another scholar who published in new international journals judged to be substandard, which she believes to be code for non-Western. Scholars face trouble citing work by Indigenous knowledge keepers if only Westernized peer-reviewed journals are deemed to be reputable.2
Jennine Krauchi, a Métis bead artist and designer, also gave a talk early in the symposium on “Connecting with Our Ancestors.” Krauchi spoke specifically about a project she was commissioned to do for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) to represent the Métis people of Manitoba. She, along with some assistants, beaded a large 26-foot octopus bag that is now on display. A pivotal point made by Krauchi was the amount of time she had spent within the walls of another Winnipeg-based museum—the Manitoba Museum—throughout her career, leading her to view the museum as her university. This demonstrates the duality of colonial institutions like museums and universities—that they can be sites of systemic oppression and sites of reclamation at once. Krauchi’s experience demonstrates the importance of having access to museum collections and not keeping them completely locked away. Opening archival doors for individuals to view and study collections not offered on display can provide opportunities to share local and familial histories, bridging existing gaps between communities and institutions.
Towards the end of the first day of the symposium, all participants who opted in for the site visits were divided into three groups and shuttled to the Winnipeg Art Gallery, the Manitoba Craft Museum, and the University of Winnipeg to view beaded collections housed in each space.
The first stop for my group was at the Winnipeg Art Gallery (figure 1), which focused on a dedicated table with some beaded pieces from their collection on display for us to look at. We were also welcomed to wander around the other galleries and exhibitions with any remaining time we had.
Our second stop was the Manitoba Craft Museum where we had the chance to peruse lots of different beading works from their collections, and see the “behind the scenes” storage area (figure 2). A museum docent observed that there is no benefit in keeping the pieces hidden away, and so they welcome anyone from the public who wants to view the collection to contact them and make arrangements to do so. This echoes what Krauchi had discussed regarding access to archival objects and discovering alternative routes to knowledge of the past.
One critical thing I noticed while wandering around the Manitoba Craft Museum was that identifying tags were limited or vague on many of the pieces (see figures 3 & 4). This reminds me of Nicole Robert’s article “Getting Intersectional in Museums” (2014) in which she explains that the choices made about what information to include within exhibit labels is a reflection of what is deemed valuable by the collector.
I inquired about these labels with a museum employee who told me that they attempt to find as much information on the pieces as possible, but many works were acquired in the 1930 to 1940’s when procedures were not as they are today. While not explicitly said, this led me to wonder if many of the backstories regarding the pieces were perhaps not held with high regard in the first place and, therefore, not recorded by the original collectors. If the stories themselves had been recognized as important by collectors, might there have been more specific information such as the artist’s name, place of origin, or more concrete time frames? This lack of historical record and specificity remained on my mind throughout the day, especially since there were pieces marked as being from the 1960’s and 1970’s that lacked information too, contradicting what I was told.
In addition to the general collections in the museum, the exhibit May The Land Remember You As You Walk Upon Its Surface was also on display. This exhibit included works by Katherine Boyer, Dayna Danger, Camille Georgeson-Usher, and assinajaq, and was curated by Hebert-Spence. I was particularly excited to see Danger’s piece Breathe Out, which is a large print of a photograph featuring Danger wearing a beaded BDSM mask (an expression of the sexual culture(s) of bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism) that she created collectively with Nicole Redstar and Tricia Livingston. Along with the mask being a beautiful display of beadwork and creativity, Danger also wanted the piece to serve as a catalyst for conversations regarding the complexities of Indigenous sexuality and non-normative desire. Despite the history of colonization and its goal of controlling Indigenous bodies, Indigenous people have found ways to practice decolonization, forging their own paths regarding their bodies, genders and sexualities and towards a sovereign erotic future. “Sovereign erotic” is a term coined by Qwo-Li Driskill in their article “Stolen From Our Bodies: First Nations Two-Spirits/Queers and the Journey to a Sovereign Erotic” and it describes “a return to and/or continuance of the complex realities of gender and sexuality that are ever-present in both the human and more-than-human world, but erased and hidden by colonial cultures” (56)
Our final stop of the day was the University of Winnipeg to view the Anthropology Museum. Staff had placed Indigenous beadworks from North America and Africa out on tables for us to see, and provided gloves for us to handle the pieces (see figures 5 & 6). This was a neat experience since, when you think of museums, you tend to think of artifacts locked away behind glass where no one can access them. By removing the glass and inviting us to touch the beadings, a deeper connection to the pieces could be made. Additionally, the ability to look at the works from different angles, including inside the pieces, allowed participants to study the craftsperson’s techniques and materials as many participants were also craftspeople. Information such as where the item was collected, by who, and its cultural significance was provided for each piece when possible. Overall, I was impressed with my visit here. By allowing us to handle the works, I feel the Anthropology Museum recognized that these pieces are more than just art to look at—they are bridges between the past and present. This recognition was also present in their description of beadwork in connection to the collection Beads of Resistance, Resilience, and Reconciliation located in one of the display windows at the university. They describe beadwork as not only an art form but also “a spiritual journey, an act of resistance, and a path toward reconciliation”.
In A Recognition of Being: Reconstructing Native Womanhood(2000), Kim Anderson discusses acts of resistance and the reclaiming of identity. She writes, “whether at the individual level or the national level, creative expression is essential for the recovery of our identity” (144). Through Anderson’s lens, the whole beading symposium could be seen as a way to resist and reclaim—resisting the idea of “dead” or “ancient” art forms, and resisting past and ongoing colonization that seeks to sever ties to Indigenous traditions. This resistance continues through the passing on of knowledge to others, including by institutions, such as museums and galleries, as places where material culture and people gather. Reclaiming shows up as an important act of resistance as more and more Indigenous and colonized people seek out their histories. The symposium taught me that, through beading and research, we can learn about and make connections to our ancestors and past traditions. Beadwork conveys knowledge through its materials, techniques, and the stories represented within the works themselves.
Throughout Canadian history, the Indian Act has undergone many changes since its original signing into law in 1876, including various amendments that restricted Indigenous traditional and spiritual practices. Singing, drumming, sewing and ziigimineshin—which translates as “dropping beads” in Ojibway (Brandson)—are some creative forms of expression that were taken away by force in an effort to assimilate Indigenous communities into Canadian culture. Returning to Hebert-Spence’s description of the act of beading as one of love, we can see how beading can be the basis of community building, a way to defy internalized negativity and create connections that allow us to feel that we are authentic just as we are (Koncan). To seek out these practices, then, is one way to reclaim and foster our stolen identities.
1 Unfortunately I was only able to attend the first two days of the symposium, with this blog post covering the first of the two. If interested, the symposium’s schedule can still be viewed at: https://beadingsymp.ca/Schedule (Still available as of May 1, 2020).
2 Hebert-Spence also shared another story about putting this symposium together. She talked about how a colleague and her were both planning curatorial projects and symposiums at the same time, both about beading. But instead of it becoming a competition, both celebrated it and wanted the best for one another. This solidarity was fantastic to hear about, that we can take on the same work and collectively benefit as a community.
*Chris Eastman is an Indigenous queer undergrad currently working towards a BSc in Information Technology and a BA in Theatre Productions at the University of Winnipeg. He is interested in Indigenous feminism and queer theory, as well as the role technology can play in sharing knowledge with accessibility in mind.
I immigrated to Canada ten years ago from the Philippines. Being a Filipino immigrant who happens to be queer, I look for places that tell stories about racialized queer migrant lives. These stories are important because they can be sources of familiarity in a country that can make racialized queers feel like they don’t belong. They can also offer alternatives to representations of queer lives as predominantly white, and ideally provide insight into experiences of and motivations for human migration.
The Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) seemed to be the perfect place to begin. At first glance, the Museum is promising. A quick scan through its website and social media pages makes apparent its desire to open up new discussions about human rights issues and to tell stories of diverse lives. As a Research Assistant for Museum Queeries (MQ), a project based out of the University of Winnipeg, I have been able to specifically investigate queer (hi)stories within the context of the CMHR and other museums. In this blog post, I investigate how the CMHR tells stories about queerness, ethnicity, and migration. As I see it, the museum has the potential to be more than a place of education about migration issues; it could also be a place that can facilitate feelings of connection among visitors who might also happen to be racialized, queer, or (im)migrants, or all of the above.
Finding the content that I initially sought in the museum, however, proved to be a challenge. For one thing, the museum’s queer content was quite hard to find. The CMHR does host an annual Pride Tour that guides its visitors through its LGBT content, but at the time of my visit the tour was not available. Finding content on queerness AND migration was even more of a challenge. I relied on CMHR staff as well as my Museum Queeries colleagues and their past research, including the blogs and audio guides they had written. Following their direction, I finally came upon the story of Arsham Parsi hidden amongst exhibits that were not obviously about “queer issues.” Parsi’s story comes up twice in the museum—first on the second floor as part of the Canadian Journey’s exhibit “Who Gets In?: Refugee Experiences at Canada’s Gates,” and then on the fourth floor in the Turning Points for Humanity exhibit under “Gender and Sexual Diversity Rights: Protecting Diversity.”
I found this double-feature in and of itself to be quite odd. One of my MQ colleagues prompted me to wonder, was the museum not able to find any other stories of queer migration to highlight? Why repeat the same person’s story twice? In any case, the two exhibits trace the journey of Parsi, a queer Iranian refugee, from his life in Iran, Turkey, and eventually Canada. These exhibits are both presented in the form of short videos that contain clips of interviews with Parsi and a compilation of pictures taken throughout Iran, Turkey, and Canada. The videos follow the same narrative of what anthropologist David Murray describes as “migration to liberation nation” (453). This common trope frames the queer refugee as escaping the oppressive homophobia of their original country only to come to a country that not only accepts but apparently celebrates their queerness without exception. In this way, sexual diversity becomes “a feature of a ‘civilized’ society, opposed to ‘uncivilized’ societies characterized by their rampant homophobia” (Murray 453). This narrative is reconstructed in the way in which the museum tells Parsi’s move from Iran and Turkey to Toronto. Parsi’s queer life in Iran and Turkey is depicted through a series of graphic images that show beatings, harsh protests, and military involvement. This reads as if queerness within these countries only ever exists in the presence of violence. In contrast to this, Parsi’s life in Canada is depicted as a queer utopia of gay pride and peaceful protests, rendering homophobia obsolete.
The CMHR presents Parsi’s journey as a refugee in a way that conflates his being in Canada with his belonging in Canada. It does so by showing Parsi as immediately and effortlessly adjusting to Canadian life after moving to Toronto, as if just being in Canada automatically translates to belonging in it. Although Parsi is not an immigrant but a refugee, and although I am not a refugee but an immigrant, witnessing Parsi’s story told in this way was a great discomfort to me. Even if I cannot understand the full extent of his experience, I cannot help but feel that the museum’s version of Parsi’s move is a sanitized one, one that is oversimplified and leaves too much out. What the museum does not discuss in Parsi’s refugee story is the precarity that comes with moving to a new country, as well as the ways in which the intersection of queerness and ethnicity affects such a move.
I cannot help but feel that the museum’s version of Parsi’s move is a sanitized one, one that is oversimplified and leaves too much out. What the museum does not discuss in Parsi’s refugee story is the precarity that comes with moving to a new country, as well as the ways in which the intersection of queerness and ethnicity affects such a move.
The process of transitioning to Canadian life after immigration can be described as one of “liminality.” This term was first described by Dutch-German French anthropologist Arnold Van Gennep as the moment of transition between two periods, when one has left or “separated” from the previous stage but has not yet been fully “incorporated” into the next (11). Later on, British anthropologist Victor Turner describes liminality as “an area of ambiguity, a sort of social limbo” (57). Gennep’s and Turner’s definitions have also been extended directly to the experiences of immigrants. In his article, “The Uses and Meanings of Liminality,” global studies scholar Bjørn Thomassen refers to “ethnic minorities, social minorities, transgender immigrant groups betwixt and between old and new culture” (17) as examples of peoples who experience liminality. Thomassen writes that immigrants and refugees are “betwixt and between home and host, part of society, but never fully integrated” (19). Here he highlights the in-between-ness that immigrants and refugees face when they negotiate between the ideals, culture, and overall social life between the old country and the new but never actually feeling fully “integrated” into the new. Indeed, as researchers Donnan et al. note in their study, this state of liminality leaves immigrants and refugees “caught between the moments of departure and arrival” and thus “feel[ing] as if they have never arrived” (12-13). In other words, migration is not only a process that takes place in the moment of moving between two countries, but one that continues well after landing in the new country.
Liminality can create a particular experience for queer refugees in Canada. Precisely because they may also face a crisscross of racist, homophobic, linguistic, and other barriers that make it harder to find resources to survive, particularly when it comes to employment and housing (Lee and Brotman 257). Parsi himself describes these barriers in detail in a CBC article titled “LGBTQ Refugees Face Risk and Isolation Even After They Arrive in Canada” (2019). I found this article while doing further research on Parsi’s work after I left the museum, and was surprised to find it to be opposite to the positive version of migrant experience that the CMHR documents. This article describes the “limited access to employment, housing, and particularly mental health services” that queer Iranian refugees like him face after coming to Canada. These limitations are part of why Parsi eventually founded his own organization, the International Railroad for Queer Refugees (formerly known as Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees), which helps queer refugees “find housing, jobs, legal aid, counselling, and financial support” within Canada (see “Protecting Diversity” video). The CMHR, however, does not mention Canada’s role in these difficulties, or why they arise for queer refugees in Canada in the first place. It does not signal to Canada’s inadequacy when it comes to helping the lives of refugees, making these barriers appear as individual problems that some refugees face rather than systemic issues.
An important part of feeling like a part of a place is also finding belonging within its communities, but this can be a complicated process for queer and racialized refugees. As Lee and Brotman observe in their studies of queer refugees in Canada, “sexual minority refugees [can encounter] both racism within mainstream queer communities and homophobia/transphobia within their particular racialized community, resulting in complex intersectional experiences of exclusion” (259). Finding community is integral for queer refugees to survive within the new country after being displaced and disconnected from their support networks back in their original country. But, as Lee and Brotman find, queer refugees are sometimes put in a position where they are only seen as queer and not racialized in certain communities, or racialized but not queer in others (269). Canada’s larger problems of racism and homophobia have worked their way into communities to the point where queerness and race are seen as separate rather than intersecting.
Parsi echoes this observation in the same CBC article where he describes both his struggles as a gay Iranian man and the struggles that his queer clients face when trying to find belonging within Canada. Speaking from his own experience, Parsi finds that his skin colour and ethnicity made it difficult for him to find acceptance in Canada. He states:
I also found myself in a strange paradox. I wasn’t accepted for who I really was in Canada either. I am not white. I am not black. Eventually, I came to find out that I am not even properly “brown.” When people talked about “brown people” in Canada, I noticed they were mostly referring to people from South Asia or Latin America. But I’m from the Middle East—the middle of everything and still living in the margins (see “Village of the Missing”).
Moreover, even when he and other queer refugees do find belonging in their own ethnic community, Parsi says becoming visibly queer can be difficult because they might risk “los[ing] the emotional support of [their families] if they were to find out about [their] sexual orientation.”
I have encountered this “tip-toeing” around my queerness or my Filipino-ness in order to fit into certain communities. Being in these communities, where only a fraction of my identities seem to properly “belong,” always left me feeling fragmented. I felt the same way seeing Parsi’s story in the CMHR. It is a feeling that stems from spaces that make it seem that my experiences as a migrant, queer, and racialized person can be separated into compartments when they are really a big, messy blob of interlocking identities.
When the CMHR presents us with Parsi, a person who also embodies these intersections, their representation falls short of recognizing the messy and complicated relationships that queer migrants—whether immigrants or refugees—often have in Canada. Not addressing the particular experiences that queer migrants may have in Canada strips Parsi’s story from its nuance and makes it seem as if he did not have authority over his own story in the museum. This is especially apparent when we examine the different versions of migrant experience that the museum portrays compared to Parsi’s own CBC article. What remains of Parsi’s story in the CMHR, then, appears to be a tokenistic moment, a tale to show off Canada’s “progressiveness,” a shiny tool for displaying the museum’s seeming “wokeness.” The museum needs to engage in queer migrant stories that do not just highlight happiness, but an array of experiences that can sometimes be ugly, sad, hard to tell, and yet potentially relatable and inspiring. Our stories are complex, and these complexities belong in the museum.
*Mika Castro is an undergraduate student at the University of Winnipeg who is currently majoring in sociology. She is interested in learning about the stories and lives of queer POC immigrants in Canada, most specifically how they navigate their queer identities between their Canadian and immigrant communities.
For the past twelve weeks I have been working as a Mitacs-Globalink Research Intern with the Museum Queeries project based at the University of Winnipeg. Museum Queeries describes itself as “prioritiz[ing] Two-Spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, and queer, (2S+LGBTTQ) contributions and interventions into museums and museum studies both as a means of addressing structural exclusions and opening new modes of productive inquiry and activism.” I was very intrigued by this research focus as I had not yet realized that there were research projects focused on queer people, which was impossible for me to imagine in China. The project requires visits to museums and our trip to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) has been on my mind for months. The museum’s purpose is “to explore the subject of human rights with a special but not exclusive reference to Canada, to enhance the public’s understanding of human rights, to promote respect for others and to encourage reflection and dialogue” (CMHR). I was impressed by the CMHR because it was the first museum that I was aware of that was promoting human rights. I got the chance to visit this national museum twice with Museum Queeries. The first time I went on a “Pride Tour” with my supervisors and other research assistants from July 22-23, 2019, and after that I took a self-guided tour.
At first glance, I was particularly interested in an exhibit called “Taking the Cake: The Right to Same-Sex Marriage.” However, upon further investigation, I found myself embarrassed by the way the museum illustrated Chinese queer people. “Taking the Cake” is an exhibit in the Canadian Journeys gallery about same-sex marriage in Canada. The exhibition is a multi-layered cake—which is framed layer by layer with same-sex couples’ wedding pictures along with their names. Notably, the couples are mostly white people, while Asian faces are rare, especially those of East Asian people. At the left and right side of the cake are two couples’ stories about same-sex marriage. The left side is called “Trailblazing for the Right to Marry,” which features the story of Manitobans Chris Vogel and Richard North who were the first couple in Canada to undertake a court battle to achieve legal same-sex marriage. On the right side is a portrayal of Angeline and Jeannette Fong’s marriage in 2012, after same-sex marriage had already become legal in Canada. Angeline’sis one of the rare examples of an Asian face in the exhibit. The museum’s story emphasizes that this couple had two ceremonies, one of which was a traditional Chinese wedding tea ceremony. The panel states that “a tea ceremony signifies respect for elders and welcomes a spouse into a new family” and that “the Fongs demonstrated respect to their elders by serving tea to family members from both families” (“Taking the Cake”). This particular framing raised many questions for me.
For instance, I wondered whether Angeline Fong immigrated to Canada prior to her marriage or was married prior to becoming a Canadian resident, or whether she is Canadian born. This is notable because Chinese mainland citizens do not have access to legal same-sex marriage currently. Also, as far as I know from my knowledge of traditional Chinese marriage, parents from both sides should attend the wedding and drink the tea to show their acceptance to the new family member. Once they have finished the tea, the new spouse traditionally begins to call them “father” and “mother”. In this case, why does the museum use “elders” and “family members” instead of “parents”? Does this indicate that their parents were not present at their wedding? Chinese attach great importance to filial piety, which is also one of the main reasons for the wedding tea ceremony. However, based on my lived observation, parents are usually the last ones to accept a queer daughter/son. This conflict exists in many parts of China. What was Angeline’s parents’ opinion? Have they changed their minds or supported her from the very beginning? Angeline Fong’s marriage is obviously not a typical example of Chinese queer people who would be envious of her, because most queer Chinese cannot get married or receive congratulations from their family.
Interestingly, I got to know the connotative meaning of “taking the cake”, which is “to be the winner.” When I participated in the Museum Queeries workshop after the visit, this drove me to an even more abashed situation, for the rest of the researchers and research assistants were shocked about my talking about Chinese queer people’s real lives. Many queer people around the world like Chinese have not been “winners,” yet the museum includes a Chinese style wedding ceremony without recognizing this difficulty. Also, while the panel discusses Angeline Fong’s cultural heritage, her nationality or citizenship status is unclear. For me, not knowing if she is Chinese or Canadian born makes a difference. By portraying Angeline Fong’s marriage as fully accepted, the museum easily misleads Western/North American visitors to think that Chinese same-sex marriage is as easy as it is for Canadian queers, which is absolutely wrong.
The way the museum tells the Fongs’ story might make visitors think that Chinese parents are all open about same-sex marriage, or that parents are not obstacles to getting married. One reasonable explanation could be the fact that the curators are working from a western perspective, and their culture does not highlight filial piety as Chinese people do. Their preconceived ideas concerning the relationship between parents and offspring have been limiting their understanding of queer life in China. The museum also gives visitors a fake impression with respect to the Chinese queer community: as long as same-sex marriage becomes legal in mainland China or they get married in Canada, there would be no other problems for same-sex couples such as family objection.
However, the real circumstances are more complex and knotty. According to the largest national survey ever conducted on sexual and gender diversity issues in China by the United Nations Development Programme – BEING LGBTI IN CHINA, A National Survey on Social Attitudes towards Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Gender Expression, “Sexual and gender minority people in China still live in the shadows, with only 5% of them willing to live their diversity openly.” Most LGBTI people are facing discrimination in many aspects of their lives, and the family is the place where the deepest forms of rejection and abuse reside, and discriminations occur most frequently. While most get into heterosexual relationships under family pressures, some decide to have “cooperation marriages.” Statistics show that more than half of the families reject the minorities; nearly two thirds of minority respondents suggest that they feel under great pressure from their families to get married and have children. Among the married minority respondents, nearly 84.1% are married with heterosexuals, 13.2% are in “marriages of convenience” and 2.6% in same-sex marriages are registered in foreign countries. These findings strongly prove the fact that family is the biggest barrier to queer community in China.
The filial piety spirit in traditional Chinese culture can account for the complexity of the potential for same-sex marriage in China. There is a Chinese saying: “Among hundreds of behaviors, filial piety is the most important one.” Meanwhile, the relationship between parents and children are much more closed than westerners. For Chinese parents, children are the centre of their lives, and they are willing to devote everything to their kids including high-expense education, residence, wedding and caring for their grandchildren. Moreover, the deep-rooted idea of getting married and having children also exist nowadays as an essential way of showing filial piety. Even a heterosexual person that refuses to get married or does not give birth to a child would be likely to be considered as the black sheep of the family. Due to the deeply rooted bias which has existed for thousands of years about marriage, Chinese queers are experiencing more difficulties than westerners.
Living in a cultural background like this, Chinese queers have different opinions about their right to marriage. As the above statistics show, most queer people have to marry heterosexuals as they get older. Some young people have more freedom to refuse to get married or to marry abroad, but this is uncommon. When talking about “coming out” to parents and marriage, many choose to hide their sexual orientations and put off their marriage on the pretext of having a busy job. Some bolder couples would take their partner to family under the name of “good friends”.
Nevertheless, an important recent event that encouraged discussion of same-sex marriage in China was Taiwan’s legalization of same-sex marriage on 24 May 2019, making it the first region in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage. Though the official media mostly ignored it, citizens from across China enthusiastically posted blogs on Sina Weibo and Wechat with tags like “love is love” to celebrate the success. It soon became a top trending topic and achieved more than 200 million readers and participants on Weibo.
In mainland China, proponents of same-sex marriage also exist. One example is Sun Wenlin. Sun Wenlin and Hu Mingliang are gay Chinese partners who applied to get married in 2015. After being refused by Changsha city authorities, they filed what is in fact the first lawsuit about same-sex marriage in China. In an interview, Sun says that “the original text of the Marriage Law does not say one man and one woman, but a husband and a wife” and that they personally “believe that this term refers not only to heterosexual couples but also to same-sex couples” (Jie). However, the case wrapped up quickly and they unfortunately, yet unsurprisingly, lost. Despite the failure, Sun and Hu still planned to hold their wedding on May 17, 2016, the International Day Against Homophobia. Their wedding attracted more than 10 media outlets and their stories were reported both at home and abroad.
After the case and wedding, Sun continued to promote same-sex marriage. He is working on a project for “100 Same-Sex Weddings,” and to date eight weddings have been held successfully. Half of the couples’ marriages were admitted by family members from at least one side of the couples, and some also gained support from their families after weddings. Sun notes that “one wedding can be small, two weddings may also be ignored, but if we can have 100 couples wanting to get legal union, people cannot neglect us” (Jie). Luckily, the weddings have attracted some international media and public attention.
Apart from wedding ceremonies, Sun also wants to amend the law. In 2018, Sun posted an article on his social media to encourage and instruct people to make suggestions for the civil code in order to legalize same-sex marriage. The reason for Sun’s persistence is that he wants to have legal documents to protect them from catastrophes like being separated by others or being unable to be each other’s next of kin. As the gay law student Jack Baker said, “Whatever rights straight people have, I want too.” He argued that “the institution of marriage has been used by the legal system as a distribution mechanism for many rights and privileges, [which] can be obtained only through a legal marriage,” and to legalize same-sex marriage would give queer people “a new dignity and self-respect” (Chauncey).
In fact, although Sun has done so many things on the website, not much change has manifested yet. His lawsuit did not get much attention from the public. The more disappointing fact is that even LGBTQ people like me also know little about his work. It is still sensitive in China to talk about queer identities. We can imagine that most Chinese people, like the government, tend to avoid gay things on the internet, and the people who advocate same-sex marriage and queer rights are either brave queer people or open minded heterosexuals, and they are few. For the middle-aged and elderly people who seldom surf the internet, queer topics can be a huge taboo. Therefore, due to the conservative environment, most queer people choose to hide and get married with heterosexuals. Meanwhile, as it is not common in China to parade or fight against the authority, the call for same-sex marriage is not loud at all.
Intriguingly, as the younger generation becomes more and more progressive and have more access to know the world, their thinking about marriage has changed. Just like many westerners, they do not think marriage is necessary and they are more concerned with their career as well as the relationship with their partners. This might challenge the presumed requirement of marriage and present co-habitation as a preferred option for both homosexuals and heterosexuals.
When I take a look at Canadian lesbian and gay liberation, it is noted that “most queer liberationists dreamed of the day that marriage would be abolished altogether” (Knegt). Just like the liberation activist Gerald Hannon said, “We took a constructionist view of homosexuality, and thought that all people should be free of repressive social institutions like marriage that bring with it traditional gender and sex roles. The government should be out of the marriage business period. We shouldn’t be trying to get in” (Knegt). Brenda Cossman also argued that governments should pursue a “more comprehensive and principled approach” to the legal recognition and support of the “full range of close personal relationships among adults” (Knegt). But there is one important point: though many queer Canadians do not get married, they do have legal common-law rights with their partners and children. According to Statistics Canada’s census of population (2006) there were 45,345 co-habitating same-sex couples in Canada, which is more than 6 times that of the same-sex marriage statistics. In this way, perhaps there is a common trend among Chinese and Canadian queers to define their relationships outside of legal marriage.
By comparing the different cultural backgrounds between Canada and China, we can assume that Chinese queer people will have a long way to go before same-sex marriage is legalized, and that it is not as simple as suggested by the CMHR’s “Taking the Cake” exhibit. It would be more effective for the museum to use several sentences about the reality of queer lives in China so that misconceptions could be avoided and western visitors could appreciate the complexities. As a queer Chinese, I cherish this research so much as it takes me on a new journey and makes me think ahead: what is the way for the Chinese queer, and in what ways can we achieve the human rights that Canadian queers seem to have? I believe there is a lot that we can borrow from this history, and the future for us could be promising that someday, we can really “take the cake.”
Thank-you to the Fongs, Angeline in particular, for sharing their story and appearing in the “Taking the Cake” exhibit so that I could have the opportunity to explore this topic.
*Hubery Huang is currently studying at Northwest A&F University as an English major in China. She is particularly interested in queer theory and how LGBTQ groups influence museum cultures. She joined the Museum Queeries project as a Mitacs Intern for 2019, and was sponsored in part by the China Scholarship Council (CSC).
I have to admit that before I moved to Winnipeg this fall, I had never heard of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR), Canada’s newest national museum. My past research into museums has been focused around early Canadian archaeology, its ties to the Royal Ontario Museum’s collections, and the roles museums have historically played in colonization and the building of empire. As a Research Assistant with the Museum Queeries project, I’ve been particularly intrigued by the notion of the CMHR as an “idea” museum; a shiny new institution with no skeletons in its closet in the most literal sense. In a 2013 interview, then-CEO of the CMHR Stuart Murray explained: “We’re not an artefact museum—we’re more of a digital technology, idea museum.” Where does this place the CMHR within the history of museology? Might new strategies of collection and display queer the museum, or do they merely provide a new image for familiar practices?
What struck me most when visiting the museum was its apparent alignment with the curatorial ideologies of “new museology,” a critique-based approach to museums as public institutions–an alignment which ultimately fails. Although attempting to avoid a top-down enforcement of knowledge and over-reliance on matter-as-truth in the spirit of new museology, the CMHR actually treats its collection of stories, images, and affects much as an “old” museum might its artefacts. Implicitly positioned in contrast to a collection-based historical museum, it seems to be pushing against conceptions of the museum as an elitist and irrelevant institution designed to educate and discipline the public. However, the CMHR does not escape the pitfalls of “old” museology: its collected narratives are subsumed under a framework of national identity, and become objects of cultural capital. This is exemplified in the Indigenous Perspectives gallery, where experiences, affect, and the landscape itself appear as elements of the idea museum’s collection.
According to Eilean Hooper-Greenhill, the past few decades have seen museology shift towards participation, plurality, and engagement with contemporary social concerns. Leaving behind the authoritative and supposedly neutral voice of traditional institutions, “new” museums might include subjugated voices, strive for curatorial transparency, and pursue active dialogue with their publics. The CMHR attempts conversation through the tone of its exhibits, blog posts, and collaborative displays. Its overarching message of equality extends to many of its didactic panels, which are full of open questions, calls to reflect and develop one’s own opinion, and insights from multiple contributors. The museum positions itself as an institution that holds and curates information, but that does not dictate truth or produce knowledge of or over others. The “About” page on its website, for instance, declares the museum will “welcome [its] visitors as partners on a journey,” and “offers both the inspiration and tools to make a difference in the lives of others.” Rather than curating a collection of objects or artworks, this idea museum houses vast galleries of touch-screens, multi-media kiosks, and countless text and image displays. The museum’s website describes the building as a “striking new landmark,” the product of cutting-edge building techniques and “awe-inspiring” materials.The CMHR is not bogged down by its murky museological past–rather than legitimizing itself through calls to its own history, it consistently declares itsrelevancy through an aura of newness and contemporaneity.
Tucked into the back corner of the museum’s second-floor hall, after a large introductory display about the history of human rights, visitors encounter the Indigenous Perspectives gallery. New museological ideologies are at work in this gallery’s use of aesthetic displays, which are designed to create non-authoritative sentimental attachments with the viewer. In one of the gallery’s digital kiosks, there is mention of the archaeological dig that took place at the museum’s site prior to its construction. We are shown some digital images of the fruits of the endeavour: mostly arrowheads and pottery shards. This small display got me thinking about the CMHR in relation to more traditional, collection-based museums. If these relics are not what the CMHR holds on to, might the museum be collecting something else? Rather than gatheringmaterial evidence of cultural experience, history, or exchange, it purports to focus on collecting personal and community stories, showcasing individual and collective experiences and projects. Instead of relying on the display of material culture to produce knowledge about an Indigenous “Other,” the Indigenous Perspectives gallery uses stories and artistic production to tell an implicitly non-Indigenous audience about Indigenous cultures. The museum relies on art and technology to connect with the viewer, rather than presenting material evidence as the only source of truth, or relying on the aura of historical or scientific authenticity tied to object-based displays. Through videos, quotes, poetry, stories, and art, the museum allows multiple voices to express themselves. However, I wonder if the inclusion and acceptance of multiple knowledges actually guarantees meaningful dialogue, since their expressions are all folded into Canadian identity and a universal humanity. In other words, citizens are encouraged to contribute and produce their own knowledge, but it is subsumed within a story dictated by the institution.
This gallery and its ties to archaeology also purport to establish how the museum relates to the land it’s on, as it introduces a long history of Indigenous presence in the region. A window looks out over The Forks, accompanied by a panel about the area’s history. A bronze cast of a centuries-old footprint—uncovered during the archaeological dig—lends affective weight to the panel, encouraging us to connect with the former inhabitants of the museum site. Material culture, then, is used not to produce scientific knowledge, but to connect the museum and its visitors to The Forks, to Winnipeg, and to Indigenous history. The landscape itself, framed by the window and historicized by the panel, becomes part of the collection, materially grounding the gallery. The viewer is encouraged to participate in the historicity of the land, and relate sentimentally to Indigenous philosophies and experiences.
In a 2011 CBC article about the CMHR dig, archaeologists who worked on the project claim museum officials ignored recommendations for continuing the excavation. While the museum may have neglected to fully excavate the area in order to get construction under way, it does not hesitate to use this material proof of human presence to establish itself as somehow a part of the land’s history. The evidence of Indigenous life beneath its foundation “legitimizes” its claims to the site, as indigeneity becomes a sentimental residue of Canadian, (and more broadly, human) history. Early North American archaeologists did not trust Indigenous communities with their material or immaterial heritage, and laid claim to both culture and territory through collecting. The CMHR literally and figuratively mined the land it sits on for indigeneity, quietly sidestepping any questions of its right to that very land through the ethics of sharing, collaboration, sentimental identification and recognition that pervade its gallery spaces.
The landscape continues to be a prominent feature, and the museum consistently places itself in relation to its geographic position. The CMHR’s architecture not only directs the visitor along a teleological path towards human rights and equality, but intersperses the global with the local and the national with the regional.The viewer is cocooned in expansive but dark galleries, and crisscrossed layers of glowing alabaster. Periodically, however, we catch glimpses of the outside world, stepping into patches of brilliant sunshine streaming through the museum’s glass walls. The museum features several such stops along the journey upwards, allowing visitors to look out upon the city in moments of rest or reflection. The peak of the museum, and the grand conclusion of its pathway, is the Tower of Hope–a monument to peace and victory over adversity. Visitors are offered a bird’s eye view of the city below, tiny and tranquil under the benevolent, optimistic gaze of the tower. The viewer is thus never fully swept away into the narrative worlds of the museum’s galleries- the institution’s space is interspersed with reminders of our position, before finally opening up to this panorama.This use of the local as a situating force provides the opportunity for reflection and seems to disrupt the grand narratives of “old” museology. These reminders of the viewers’ positionality, alongside the artwork and stories included in the CMHR, might spark the production of counter-narratives and critique. The museum’s singular narrative of triumph and hope, however, extends to its framing of the land. It’s worth noting, for instance, that the only part of the city not visible from the Tower of Hope is Winnipeg’s North End—home to much of the city’s Indigenous population, and blocked from view by an elevator shaft.
At times the CMHR focuses on its location, its material specificity and situatedness; at times it gestures to global unity, and international experiences. Overall, it maintains a generalized conception of rights and equality; and a concern with affective, immaterial knowledge. Its exhibits are composed of stories, images, and interactive panels- collections of objectified experience, occasionally punctuated with views of the landscape. “Old” museums have been faulted for presenting artefacts and relics with little to no context, as objects of scientific and historic knowledge about cultures Other to the West. “New” museums, however, are not safe from the pitfalls of traditional museology. At the CMHR, stories are presented without sufficient context or depth, as objects of a sentimental knowledge about humanity in general. It becomes a celebration not of material conquest or ownership, but of the nation’s affective, experiential wealth—where cultural capital is created from distinct experiences, stories of triumph, and the recognition of diverse histories. Similarly, the landscape is framed affectively, and presented as something we all share, with a history we can all experience. This hopeful tone masks a colonial ideology, granting legitimacy to this sparkling monument to Canada’s image as a global human rights leader—a monument that literally sits atop a buried history of Indigenous presence.
 Hooper-Greenhill, Eilean. Museums and the Interpretation of Visual Culture. New York: Routledge, 2000. Print. p. 140.
 Dean, Amber, and Angela Failler. “‘An Amazing Gift’? Memory Entrepreneurship, Settler Colonialism and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.” Memory Studies, Apr. 2019, p. 9.
*Claire Wright holds a BFA in printmaking from OCAD U, and has recently completed an MA in Cultural Studies at the University of Winnipeg. She is interested in the role of aesthetics and material culture in affective communication and meaning-making; and with relationships between art, activism, and education.
The perimeter of Canadian Journeys, a gallery at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, is lined with story booths that name “steps and missteps on the road to greater rights for everyone in Canada” (wall text). In the centre of the gallery are touchscreen digital memory banks (basically, computers) where visitors can scroll through stories based on topic and time period. These banks provide a wealth of information beyond the story booths, but their subtle stature and placement against other, more sensory-stimulating installations draw visitors away from them, leaving them largely untouched. Right to Safety, the only representation and story of sex work in the Museum, is nestled into one of these digital memory banks, effectively hidden from view.
In the broader public imaginary, sex work tends to be constructed within simplistic dichotomies of violence/pleasure and victimization/agency, obscuring the complex forms of labour and experience it involves. Extremes of violence and victimization have been mobilized to argue that sex work itself is something inherently violent and harmful. In this way, violence enacted upon sex workers becomes an expected and justified experience. To counter this harmful understanding, activists like COYOTE have talked about sex work as a liberatory and progressive labour, one that may push against sexual politics bound to marriage and monogamy. As sex work scholar Elizabeth Bernstein has suggested, however, this kind of celebratory politics has come primarily from sex workers with white and class privilege (77). What these extremities lack then is attention to how structural inequalities inform experiences within the sex trade. Through this lack, intersections of white supremacy, colonialism, and transphobia are seen as irrelevant to understanding sex work. This neglects the lived experiences of sex workers, particularly those who are racialized, Indigenous, and genderqueer. While neither entirely violent nor entirely celebratory sentiments prove useful in capturing the realities of sex work, they comprise how sex work is publicly imagined and in turn, regulated.
In using the exhibited story Right to Safety as a starting point, I consider how the Museum’s representation of sex work contributes to the sex work imaginary. While this particular “exhibit” is small and not very visible, especially when compared to the scale of the Museum’s permanent installations, I see value in holding national representations of sex work accountable as they inform how non-sex working publics and allies are able to talk about and support sex workers.
Right to Safety outlines a court case initiated by Terri-Jean Bedford, Amy Lebovitch, and Valerie Scott in 2007. This case argued that Canada’s existing laws regulating the sex trade violated the right to security of the person, protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms . The digitized story also references the introduction of The Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act (Bill C-36), which was implemented seven years following the success of Bedford vs. Attorney General of Canada. For context, Bill C-36 criminalizes the act of purchasing sex and negotiating the selling of sex in public. The bill also restricts the ways that sex workers are able to advertise their services online. While selling sex is legal under Bill C-36, it criminalizes crucial components of how sex workers generate income, which makes it very difficult to work legally as a sex worker in Canada (Winnipeg Working Group). Three photos accompany the textual portion of Right to Safety, one featuring Bedford holding up her leather riding crop in prideful celebration alongside Scott and lawyer Nikki Thomas.
The criticality of Right to Safety took me by surprise, naming that prior to 2007, “sex workers in Canada have worked without human rights protection” and that Bill C-36 has “further criminalized prostitution,” forcing workers “to operate alone in isolated areas” (Right to Safety). Considering the Museum’s national status, I had expected that they would side with the state’s understanding of Bill C-36 – that the bill better protects workers from the exploitation of sex work (Department of Justice Canada). Instead, the Museum positions Bill C-36 as worsening conditions for sex workers, something the state has not yet admitted to. By naming that Canadian law contributes to harmful working environments for sex workers, the Museum disrupts the common understanding that sex workers experience harm because of their profession alone. While this is a move toward a critical assessment of sex work in Canada, the conversation stops there.
Right to Safety leaves racism, settler colonialism, and white supremacy in relation to sex work entirely unaddressed. This is a significant silence, which allows the Museum to speak about sex work as if removed from the legacies that the Canadian state is built upon. As queer sex worker and theorist Zahra Stardust argues, refusing to name systemic inequalities constructs an illusion that sex workers are unaffected by privileges and marginalization (68). Right to Safety’s narrative exists within this illusion, upholding an imaginary that suggests institutionalized racism has nothing to do with sex work in Canada. To the Museum, naming the structural, social, and legal inequalities within the sex trade is seemingly too much, too disruptive, and as education scholars Alice Pitt and Deborah Britzman might pose, too “difficult.” Pitt and Britzman write about “difficult knowledge” as content that asks viewers to interrogate their own understanding of, and relationship to, the world (756). By refusing to tackle representation that asks viewers to engage in questions about race, privilege, marginalization, and sex work in Canada, the Museum opts to maintain a simplistic and imagined illusion of sex work.
This refusal continues, showing itself in a much more visible way than the hidden location of Right to Safety. Above the story booths in the Canadian Journeys gallery is a large digital collection of images. These images feature the faces of those represented throughout the gallery, including Bedford (second from the left, top row, in the image above). While Bedford is seen with her whip in full view in the digital banks (see Fig. #2), the same photo has been carefully cropped here for the border, rendering the whip invisible. As queer theorist and museum scholar Jennifer Tyburczy writes about other instances where a whip has appeared in museum contexts, the whip in public view evokes an excited curiosity and, perhaps, an unsettling association with enslavement, discipline, and BDSM communities. While white slave owners have used the whip to carry out non-consensual torture on Black subjects, the whip has too been adapted as a device to engage with consensual erotics of pain, pleasure, domination, and submission. The whip then, is not simply an object, but a symbol of two inseparable histories: the transatlantic slave trade and kink/BDSM cultures. Tyburczy argues that because of these interimplications, the whip can be used as a “tool for examining sexual values,” namely the “fears, anxieties, and affections regarding race and sex” (193). In this way, the cropping of the whip can be read as an intentional choice, one that refuses to acknowledge the importance of discussing whips and their ongoing relationships to white supremacy and kinky sex. These discussions are, however, imperative to unpacking the complexities of race, sex (work), and systemic oppression in Canada. So it seems to me that the whip and all it evokes could act precisely as a tool for the Museum to further its conversation on sex work, which, as it is, stops short of unsettling assumptions about race and systemic oppressions. If the whip remained alongside Bedford, would difficult conversations about race and sex work be supported in the Museum? In other words, could the Museum bring the whip into clearer focus (rather than cropping it out of the frame) as a method to turn towards difficult knowledge about sex work in Canada?
As a continuance of this “turning toward,” in my research with Museum Queeries, I have sought out histories of sex work in Canada that move beyond the silences of Right to Safety. I engage with these histories by beginning to understand them as bound to the land that the Museum, and I myself, occupy. Therefore, I have looked to sources that account for histories of sex work in Winnipeg, such as, the Manitoba Gay and Lesbian Archives and Amy Catherine Wilkinson’s “Sex work and the Social-Spatial Order of Boomtown.” Rather than shy away from examining how systemic inequalities and race emerge within these histories, I have turned directly to them. This has allowed me to carry out my research in a way that is attuned to difficult histories of sex work in Winnipeg. These histories matter, and they deserve space and critical attention. As Indigenous scholar Sarah Hunt writes, “remembering and naming histories of violence and inequality in the sex trade” must not simply be viewed “as injustices of the past, but rather structures of the present” (98). In other words, histories of sex work that account for intersections of systemic oppressions help to understand the contemporary socio-legal contexts that sex workers navigate today. This work complicates the simplicities of the sex work imaginary to ask critical questions about race, privilege, and marginalization within or around sex work in Canada.
Protected under section s.7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
You can access the full decision of Bedford vs. Attorney General of Canada here.Pivot Legal offers a summarized version of the proceedings, available here.
Due to how close Bedford is holding her whip in the digital memory bank photo, including this image without the whip would require close editing. The other images on the digital photo border appear to have wide framing, often exposing the background behind the person featured. Bedford’s picture does not include any background. Because a wider frame would expose the whip, I speculate that the close cropping of Bedford’s image was intentional.
BDSM defines a community who engages in consensual acts of bondage and discipline, domination and submission, and sadomasochism.
Bedford v. Canada (Attorney General). Supreme Court of Canada. 2014.
Bernstein, Elizabeth. Temporarily Yours: Intimacy, Authenticity, and the Commerce of Sex. University of Chicago Press, 2007.
Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Part 1 of the Constitution Act, 1982, being Schedule B to the Canada Act 1982 (UK), 1982, s. 7.
Hunt, Sarah. “Decolonizing Sex Work: Developing an Intersectional Indigenous Approach.” Selling Sex: Experience, Advocacy, and Research on Sex Work in Canada, edited by Emily van der Meulen et al., University of British Columbia Press, 2013, pp. 82- 100.
*Dallas Cant is currently working towards completing a B.A. in Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Winnipeg. They are interested in exploring queer embodiments, curatorial methodologies, and queer cultural production in relation to sex work. Dallas recognizes the creative form as medium of resistance and incorporates digital photography, poetry, and hand stitching into their research-creation methodology. Currently, they are developing an undergraduate course in sexuality and online communities alongside Dr. Fiona J. Green (University of Winnipeg). Dallas also works as a research assistant with the Greenhouse Artlab to explore and think queerly in relation to bee eco-cultures. In the future, Dallas intends to pursue an M.A. in sexuality studies.
In June 2018, as a Research Assistant for a team project at the University of Winnipeg called Museum Queeries, I went on a “Pride Tour” offered by the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. I was specifically interested in how gender identity and transgender communities were being represented by the museum. The only point in our tour that directly discussed transgender identity was when we stopped by the bathrooms where—to the side of the male and female stalls—we were pointed to a single stall accessible washroom which our tour guide used to highlight the importance of including people of diverse gender identities. While it is good that they have this accessible bathroom stall, it felt like the purpose of this stop in the tour was meant to acknowledge transgender people by way of raising the “bathroom issue” that is getting some attention in popular discourse [a current topic that the museum wanted to weigh in on], but not as something that was taken into account during the actual curatorial process of the Museum’s exhibits¹. I thought that reducing the expansive range of issues implicated in representing trans communities to one reference to the “bathroom issue” was a disappointing oversimplification. In thinking through questions of how trans histories are represented and the futures these histories might orient us towards, I considered how the language to describe transgender identity has changed over time, how trans people have appeared, or been left out, within broader queer spaces, and what the impacts of racism and colonialism have had both as external pressures and from within queer and trans communities. The Museum’s failure to address any of these complexities prompted me to look for other spaces of public history in Winnipeg where representations of transgender stories might be found.
Archiving trans history has some particular challenges. While certain identity categories have been used to describe the experiences of groups during specific time periods, these categories were often placed upon communities without the community’s consent, leaving them to negotiate how they related to these taxonomies in retrospect. At present, it appears that the transgender community has much greater say over how gender identity is articulated through language than they did in the past². It is important not to impose present discourses of identity onto historical understandings of language and identity. However, it is also necessary to critically examine how the language of identity is operating and how diverse experiences existed even when there were fewer categories of recognition available.
An example of the complexities of changing gender identity language can be seen in the 1994 premier issue of Winnipeg’s Gay and Lesbian magazine Swerve,which included a demographic survey of its readership. The first question asked “you are…?” with only two possible responses: ‘male’ and ‘female’. At first glance, it may seem that the publication was unaware of gender expressions that exist outside of this binary understanding; however, if you read further on, this is not the case. Later in the quiz, there are references to ‘transvestites’, ‘drag queens’, ‘effeminate men’, and ‘butch women’. The absence of direct acknowledgement of gender identities existing outside of the binary should not be taken to suggest that there was no experience or discussion of gender non-conformity. Rather, this absence can be understood through the lens of Foucault’s repressive hypothesis, as “this is not a plain and simple imposition of silence. Rather, it was a new regime of discourses. Not any less was said about it; on the contrary. But things were said in a different way; it was different people who said them, from different points of view” (27). Clearly, Swerveand its readership were aware that many people live in tension with the concept of the gender binary; at the same time, the quiz also reveals that gender was thought of differently even within queer communities at different points in history.
As new language for identity emerges, people begin to understand themselves through it and can demand institutional and cultural recognition by rallying around specific identity markers. Gender theorist Paul Preciado says “there are not two sexes, but a multiplicity of genetic, hormonal, chromosomal, genital, sexual, and sensual configurations. There is no empirical truth to male or female gender beyond an assemblage of normative cultural fictions” (265). Thinking of gender as a fiction can make it seem meaningless, but this is not the case. The normative fictions perpetuated by society are already alienating for many people, and, if gender is a fiction, then alternate fictions can be created to challenge the narrative that binary gender is an inherent truth. For instance, when ‘non-binary’ became a term in the queer community, many people who already were gender non-conforming found this term meaningful as a way to articulate their understandings of their own gender beyond the binary system that holds ‘male’ and ‘female’ to be the only essentially true expressions of gender. This is not to say that the feelings which draw people to identify with the term non-binary did not exist prior to the word emerging, but that they would have been understood differently both by the community and by larger cultural discourse; different language would have existed to articulate these experiences.
When I visited the Manitoba Gay and Lesbian Archives to do some research on transgender history, I saw this tension between how individuals and communities create language to understand themselves and how institutions negotiate this first hand. Just from its name, I could assume that the Archives would have more resources on the gay and lesbian community than on trans individuals³, but, since there is no specific transgender archive in Winnipeg, I thought it might at least be a good starting point for understanding how this community is represented within archival spaces.
In the Archives, I found the most material on transgender history in box 20, folder 6 titled “Transvestites & Transvestism, Transgenderists”. These are words very few people within the transgender community describe themselves with today. While in the study of transgender history, it is important not to impose present understandings of transgender identity on how people in the community understood themselves in the past, the fact that the majority of the contents of this folder were article clippings from the Winnipeg Sunand the Winnipeg Free Pressfrom the 80s and 90s and not content from the transgender community directly makes me think that the understandings of identity articulated within the archive do not necessarily come from the community itself.
Queers who do not fall into normative scripts, which inherently privilege whiteness and cis-normativity, are allowed into archival spaces only as recent add-ons—tokens for the institution to show how ‘progressive’ they are.
While queer archives might be assumed to be progressive or radical, the curatorial starting point of these archives are often tied up in the same projects of whiteness, colonialism and imperialism as their straight counterparts. Syrus Marcus Ware critiques BIPOC representation within queer archival spaces, observing: “this erasure is part of the larger conceptualization of the black queer subject as a new entity, whose history is built upon an already existing white LGBTTI2QQ space and history” (170). Queers who do not fall into normative scripts, which inherently privilege whiteness and cis-normativity, are allowed into archival spaces only as recent add-ons—tokens for the institution to show how ‘progressive’ they are. Ware suggests that “we start with a black trans and queer history as a way to orient us towards different pasts and futures” (170). By centering archival work being done by those who have historically been disregarded in queer archiving, the conversation around identity and representation can be opened up for many marginalized communities to have greater autonomy to represent their identities and narratives themselves rather than being fit into normative discourses.
In 2014, the University of Winnipeg held a conference called Writing Trans Genres: Emergent Literatures and Criticism.Looking at the description of the conference perhaps offers some evidence of how the transgender community—at least its literary and scholarly members— has more recently come to understand itself. The second paragraph of the conference description reads: “What is or might be Trans Literature? Transsexual, two spirit, genderqueer and transgender literatures? What are or might be trans genres, narratives, figures, poetics? What makes writing trans?” While the conference is a pretty specific context and does not represent the trans community as a whole, this flurry of questions serves as a reminder that trans cultural production and identity is not static. Instead of a folder label that tries to encompass the trans experience, questions like these reveal how trans identity is held open within certain contexts in the community as something that is actively being negotiated and resisting being fitted into boxes.
In thinking through these examples of trans representation within institutions that facilitate the creation of public memory in Winnipeg, I was struck by the necessity of critiquing sources both inside and outside the community. Trans communities are not homogenous and a multitude of experiences and expressions exist within them. As language to describe trans identity changes—sometimes at different times and in different ways across parts of the community—it is necessary to rethink how we approach archiving these histories. Centering trans communities in the archiving process, particularly QTBIPOC communities, can point trans histories in radically new directions. Questioning what has been deemed worthy of archiving, and noticing what has been left out, can open up new possibilities for imagining what trans futurity might look like.
While the accessible washroom was the one stop related to transgender issues on this particular Pride Tour, according to some of my colleagues other Pride Tours at the CMHR have highlighted a story on transgender musician and activist Michelle Josef which is located in the one of the digital memory banks which visitors can explore. This being said, the memory banks are extensive and can be difficult to navigate, meaning that stories such as Michelle Josef’s are hard to find unless they are specifically pointed out.
Online platforms such as Tumblr and Twitter are examples of digital spaces where communities of primarily young trans people have played with language, debating which words to reclaim, and even inventing new terms to describe and make sense of their experiences.
Ware, Syrus Marcus. “All Power to All People? Black LBGTTI2QQ Activism, Remembrance, and Archiving in Toronto.” TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly, vol. 4, no. 2, 2017, pp. 170-180. DOI: 10.1215/23289252-3814961.
*Misha Falk is an undergraduate student working towards an honours degree in English at the University of Winnipeg. She is particularly interested in queer theory with a focus on trans subjectivities, cultural production & history.