Tag Archives: CMHR

On Being and Belonging: A Queer Immigrant’s Perspective on the Portrayal of Queer Refugee Experience at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights

By Mika Castro*

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.

“Who Gets In” exhibit displays an interactive globe that can be spun around to view videos of refugees from around the world. (CMHR Canadian Journeys Gallery, photo credit: Mika Castro)

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.”

“Gender and Sexual Diversity Rights”, a page in one of the four digital books from the Turning Points for Humanity exhibit. This exhibit is interactive and allows visitors to view videos about a variety of human rights issues. (CMHR, photo credit: Mika Castro)

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.

Video stills from Arsham Parsi’s story in the CMHR’s Who Gets In? Exhibit (photo credit: Mika Castro)

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.

Works Cited

Donnan, Hastings, et al., editors. Migrating Borders and Moving Times: Temporality and the Crossing of Borders in Europe. Manchester University Press, 2017. JSTOR.

Gennep, Arnold van. The Rites of Passage. University of Chicago Press, 1960.

Lee, Edward Ou Jin, and Shari Brotman. “Identity, Refugeeness, Belonging: Experiences of Sexual Minority Refugees in Canada.” Canadian Review of Sociology, vol. 48, no. 3, 2011, pp. 241-274. Wiley Online Library.

Murray, David A.B. “The (Not So) Straight Story: Queering Migration Narratives of Sexual Orientation and Gendered Identity Refugee Claimants.” Sexualities, vol. 17, no. 4, 2014, 451-457. SAGE Journals.

Thomassen, Bjørn. “The Uses and Meanings of Liminality.” International Political Anthropology, vol. 2, no.3, 2009, 6-27. 

Turner, Victor. “Liminal to Liminoid, in Play, Flow, and Ritual: An Essay in Comparative Symbology.” Rice Institute Pamphlet – Rice University Studies, vol. 60, no. 3, 1974, pp. 53-92. Rice University.

Parsi, Arsham. “Village of the Missing: LGBTQ Refugees Face Risk and Isolation Even After They Arrive in Canada.” CBC, 22 March 2019.

*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.

“Taking the Cake” at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights and a Comparison of Same-Sex Marriage Discourse in China

By Hubery (Liang) Huang*

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.

(“Taking the Cake” at the CMHR.
Photo credit: Hubery Huang)

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’s is 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. 

(Display text from “Taking the Cake” at the CMHR, depicting the story of Angeline and Jeanette Fong.
Photo credit: Hubery Huang)

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.

(Photo and tea set from the “Taking the Cake” exhibit at the CMHR.
Photo credit: Hubery Huang)

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.

Works cited:

CMHR. “Our Mandate.” Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

Jie, Jiang. Court accepts China’s first gay marriage rights lawsuit. Globaltimes, 6 Jan. 2016.

Chauncey, George. Why Marriage: The History Shaping Today’s Debate Over Gay Equality. Basic Books, 2004.

 Knegt, Peter. About Canada Queer RightsFernwood Publishing, 2011.

Le Bourdais, Céline, et al. “Changes in Conjugal Life in Canada: Is Cohabitation Progressively Replacing Marriage?” Canadian Perspectives in Sexualities Studies: Identities, Experiences, and the Contexts of Change, edited by Diane Naugler, Oxford University Press Canada, 2012, pp. 223-234.

“Taking the Cake.” Exhibit in the Canadian Journeys Gallery, Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

United Nations Development Programme. “BEING LGBTI IN CHINA, A National Survey on Social Attitudes towards Sexual Orientation, Gender Identify and Gender Expression.” 16 Jan. 2018.

*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).

Curatorial Dreaming at the CMHR and Manitoba Museum

From July 22-23, 2019, student research assistants involved with Museum Queeries came together for a workshop to dream curatorial revisions and newly imagined exhibits at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights and the Manitoba Museum.

This workshop, organized by Museum Queeries leaders Drs. Heather Milne and Angela Failler and facilitated by Research Associate Nicole Ritchie, began with an overview of the practice of curatorial dreaming as outlined by Erica Lehrer and Shelley Ruth Butler in their edited collection Curatorial Dreams: Critics Imagine Exhibitions, challenging the students, as critics, to envision their own exhibitions.

Grounded in this idea, the first day of the workshop included a visit to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights where the group was led on one of the museum’s Pride Tours. After the tour, the group was encouraged to “queer the labels” featured in the CMHR and reimagine how the museum’s queer content could be altered to be more inclusive and representative.

To complement this experience, the second day of the workshop included a short introductory presentation by Research Coordinator Lauren Bosc and a self-guided visit to the Manitoba Museum. After this visit, students were encouraged to “imagine queerness” within the museum, which, unlike the CMHR, does not include any queer histories or representations. Because of this, students imagined and designed their own queer exhibit and interventions into the Manitoba Museum’s various galleries.

Coming together after both tours, this workshop allowed research assistants to re-envision exhibits such as “Taking the Cake” on same-sex marriage in the CMHR and imagine queer Manitoban histories in the Manitoba Museum’s Urban Gallery (among many other generative and creative curatorial dreams).

To hear the perspective of one of the workshop attendees, Amelia Dawn Smith, check out her post “Curatorial Dreaming: A Museum Queeries Workshop” featured here in Musings.

(photo credits: Lauren Bosc)

The Idea of an Idea Museum: Immaterial Collections at the CMHR

By Claire Wright*

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.

View of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.
(photo credit: Lauren Bosc)

According to Eilean Hooper-Greenhill, the past few decades have seen museology shift towards participation, plurality, and engagement with contemporary social concerns.[1] 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. 

The view from inside the Indigenous Perspectives gallery’s “basket theatre” to the windows overlooking The Forks. (photo credit: Lauren Bosc)

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.

Part of the panoramic view from the Tower of Hope. The elevator shaft mentioned below is on the left, blocking the city’s North End.
(photo credit: Angela Failler)

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.[2]

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.

[1] Hooper-Greenhill, Eilean. Museums and the Interpretation of Visual Culture. New York: Routledge, 2000. Print. p. 140.

[2] 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.

Disrupting Representation: Sex Work Visibility at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights

By Dallas Cant*

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.

Figure 1: Photo of the Canadian Journeys Gallery. 14 July 2019, The Canadian Museum for Human Rights, Winnipeg.
Photo credit: Dallas Cant

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.

Figure 2: Photo of Nikki Thomas, Terri-Jean Bedford, and Valerie Scott in the CMHR’s Digital Memory Bank. 15 May 2019, The Canadian Museum for Human Rights, Winnipeg.
Photo credit: Dallas Cant

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 [1]. 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[2]. 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.

Figure 3: Image of the digital collection of images in the Canadian Journeys gallery. 15 May 2019, The Canadian Museum for Human Rights, Winnipeg.
Photo credit: Dallas Cant

This refusal continues, showing itself in a much more visible way than the hidden location of Right to SafetyAbove 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[3]. 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[4] 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. 

[1]Protected under section s.7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

[2]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.

[3]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. 

[4]BDSM defines a community who engages in consensual acts of bondage and discipline, domination and submission, and sadomasochism. 

Works cited:

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. 

Bennett, Darcie. “Supreme Court Rules in Support of Sex Workers.” Pivot Legal, 20 Dec. 2013.

Canada. Department of Justice. Prostitution Criminal Law Reform: Bill C-36, the Protection and Communities and Exploited Persons Act, 2014.

Canadian Bar Association. Bill C-36, Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act. National Criminal Justice Section and Municipal Law Section of the Canadian Bar Association, October 2014.

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.

Pitt, Allison and Deborah Britzman. “Speculations on Qualities of Difficult Knowledge in Teaching and Learning: An Experiment in Psychoanalytic Research.” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, vol. 16, no. 6, 2003, pp. 755-776.

Text, Right to Safety, Canadian Museum for Human Rights, Winnipeg. Accessed 12 May 2019

Tyburczy, Jennifer. Sex Museums: The Politics and Performance of Display. University of Chicago Press, 2016.

Wall text, Canadian Journeys, Canadian Museum for Human Rights, Winnipeg. Accessed 12 May 2019. 

Wilkinson, Amy Catherine. Sex Work and the Social-Spatial Order of Boomtown: Winnipeg, 1873-1912. Master’s Thesis, 2015. 

Winnipeg Working Group. “What to Expect from C-36.” Sex Work Winnipeg, 2014.

*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.

Congress 2019: Museum Queeries RAs Present their Work

Left to right: Dallas Cant, Thiané Diop, Angela Failler, Nicole Ritchie, Claire Wright, and Jase Falk (photo credit: Lauren Bosc)

An interdisciplinary team of Research Assistants (RAs) presented their research at the 7th Annual Meeting of the Sexuality Studies Association/L’association des études de la sexualité. The meeting, which took place as a part of the Congress of the Social Sciences and Humanities in Vancouver, BC, from June 2-4, included these students on a panel titled “Museum Queeries: Thinking Through the Museum.”

Each student presented work evolving from their projects as research assistants supervised by UWinnipeg faculty members Dr. Angela Failler (Women’s and Gender Studies) and Dr. Heather Milne (English).

Chaired by Museum Queeries Research Associate Nicole Ritchie (York University), the panel featured:

  • Disrupting the Archive: Sex Work, Displacement, and Development in Winnipeg, by Dallas Cant
  • Collecting Experience in Idea Museums, by Claire Wright
  • Archiving Trans History, by Jase Falk
  • Queer Black Bodies and the Museum, by Thiané Diop
(photo credit: Lauren Bosc)

The conference was an excellent opportunity for these RAs to not only share their engaging projects with their peers, but also to attend and participate in other panels that were related to their work.

For more information on the Sexuality Studies Association’s Meeting, see their website.

For more information about these RAs, check out the Research Assistants page.

Archiving Trans History: How Institutions of Public Memory Negotiate the Changing Language of Gender Identity

By Misha Falk*

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.

Photo of the author, Jase Falk, with a Swerve magazine.
Photo of the author, Misha Falk, with a Swerve magazine (photo credit: Heather Milne).

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. 

Photo of four copies of the magazine Swerve.

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.


  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. The Manitoba Gay and Lesbian Archives website includes a short sentence and hyperlink directing researchers to the University of Victoria’s Transgender Archives if they are specifically interested in this topic.

Works Cited:

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality Volume 1: An Introduction. Random House, 1978.

Preciado, Paul. Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Bioplolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era. The Feminist Press, 2013.

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.

Writing Trans Genres: Emergent Literatures and Criticism. Institute for Women’s and Gender Studies, 2014, http://www.writingtransgenres.com/. Accessed 29 August 2018.

*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.

Museum Queeries RAs Present at FIHRM 2018

Photo of students at conference.
L to R: Thiané Diop, Nicole Ritchie, Jana Elazar, Dallas Gillingham, and Jase Falk.

An interdisciplinary team of UWinnipeg students presented at the 2018 Federation of International Human Rights Museums Conference, which was held at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights last week from September 25-28, 2018.

Thiané Diop (MA, Cultural Studies), Dallas Cant (Women’s and Gender Studies), Jase Falk (English), and Jana Elazar (Women’s and Gender Studies) spoke on the Museum Queeries panel facilitated by UWinnipeg Research Associate Nicole Ritchie (PhD candidate, York University).

Each student presented work evolving from their projects as research assistants supervised by UWinnipeg faculty members Dr. Angela Failler (Women’s and Gender Studies) and Dr. Heather Milne (English).

Photo of students presenting at the FIHRM 2018 Conference (L to R: Dallas Gillingham, Jana Elazar, Jase Falk, Thiané Diop), photo credit: Lauren Bosc

Their conference papers included “Commemoration of Queer Victims of the Holocaust and Israeli Homonationalism” (Elazar), “Sex Work, Displacement, and Development” (Cant), “Archiving Trans History” (Falk), and “Queer Black Bodies and the Museum” (Diop). “Queerying” here is meant not only to address representations of gender and sexuality in the museums, but also to challenge the operation of white privilege, racism, and settler colonialism as they operate alongside homophobia and transphobia.

“This conference was a great professional development opportunity for the students,” notes Milne. “Not only did they gain valuable presentation skills, they also gained positive feedback from museum professionals and museum researchers from around the world.”

“This panel is a stellar example of the sophisticated research and scholarship currently in development by UWinnipeg students,” notes Failler. “The audience members were totally engaged and impressed, expressing their appreciation for how refreshing and sharp our students’ perspectives were.”

For more information about the Museum Queeries project, please visit out “About” page.

MQ UWinnipeg Students Create Queering the Museum Audio Guides

University of Winnipeg students developed Queering the Museum Audio Guides*, responding to content highlighted on a “Pride Tour” offered by the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. The Guides are intended to critically engage listeners/museumgoers and raise the bar of expectation around how museums and other sites that contribute to public discourse on historical and contemporary issues represent queer issues and lives.

The 7 audio guides, available here, were created with the invaluable support of sound artist Julia Dyck who led workshops on audio guide script writing and production. Julia also digitally mastered the final guides.

For further description of the Queering the Museum Audio Guide assignment, click here.

Museum Queeries awarded SSHRC Connection Grant

Dr. Angela Failler (left) and Dr. Heather Milne (Photo Credit: Naniece Ibrahim)

WINNIPEG, MB – UWinnipeg’s Dr. Heather Milne (English), with co-applicant Dr. Angela Failler (Women’s and Gender Studies), has been awarded over $22,000 to support the workshop Museum Queeries: Intersectional Interventions into Museum Cultures and Practices. This funding comes from a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Connection Grant and the Manitoba Research Connections Program.

The invite only workshop will be hosted at UWinnipeg this June to coincide with Winnipeg’s Pride Week and includes a site visit to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR). The workshop will be facilitated by Dr. Shelley Ruth Butler (McGill) and include a Curatorial Dreaming exercise

“The overall goal of the workshop is to connect members of our newly formed Museum Queeries research network, and translate specific objectives into tangible strategies for engaging museums on 2S+LGBTTQ issues,” Milne said. “We use an intersectional approach to think through ways in which gender, sexuality, race, class, ability, religion, ethnicity, and national identities are inter-implicated in museums and in museumgoers’ points of contact with museums. This workshop will be the first time our research team, which hails from across Canada, the U.S., and Australia, will come together to begin these important discussions.”

The CMHR is a catalyst for Museum Queeries and an ideal research site given the University’s proximity to the museum here in Winnipeg. UWinnipeg has already established a relationship with the museum through the work of its Cultural Studies Research Group and Failler’s SSHRC Partnership Development Grant project. The intent is to engage and potentially collaborate with the CMHR and other museums, galleries, and exhibition sites by proposing ways in which they might more effectively address 2S+LGBTTQ issues.

About the Project
Museum Queeries is a new interdisciplinary, collaborative research project based at UWinnipeg that involves academics, activists, curators, artists, community stakeholders, and students locally and internationally. As institutional spaces, museums are often closely linked to national identities and histories and also, tacitly, to heteronormative and cisnormative representations of the polity and public culture. Museum Queeries prioritizes Indigenous Two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, and queer (2S+LGBTTQ) contributions and interventions into museums and museum studies as a means of addressing structural exclusions and opening new modes of productive inquiry and activism. The idea of “queerying” the museum in this case is not only about addressing the museum’s representation of gender and sexuality; it is also about challenging normative formations including white privilege, racism and settler colonialism, among other systems of oppression, as they operate alongside homophobia and transphobia.