Dr. Ailsa Craig is fascinated by how people identify themselves. A professor of Sociology at MUN, she has taught many courses on Gender and Sexuality, and has, over the years, developed and taught workshops on diversity, tolerance, building awareness, education, and celebration about all things queer-related.
As part of St. John’s Pride Week, she will be holding a variation on that workshop entitled “Why Pride? A Workshop on Awareness, Challenges, and Queer Celebration”
Elling Lien sat down with her one afternoon to talk about it.
Typically, to begin, she shows her student a long list of questions called the “Heterosexual Questionnaire”…
“This questionnaire is for self-avowed heterosexuals only. If you are not openly heterosexual, pass it on to a friend who is. Please try to answer the questions as candidly as possible. Your responses will be held in strict confidence and your anonymity fully protected.
“…What do you think caused your heterosexuality?
“…Why are heterosexuals so promiscuous?
“…To whom have you disclosed your heterosexual tendencies? How did they react?
“…Why do you insist on flaunting your heterosexuality? Can’t you just be what you are and keep it quiet? …”
So what is the [Heterosexuality] Questionnaire?
My understanding of it is that it was used in the 80s as part of the in-your-face queer activism that was happening at the time. It’s a long list of questions, and I distribute that, and we talk about it. And I ask, “do you think it’s funny or does it piss you off?” “Why?”
I want to get people talking about them. Which questions are funny, which are not as funny, which are your favourites? Which is your least favourite one? Which one makes you feel most uncomfortable? Which one do you think is funniest?
…It makes it easier for us to start talking about how things are marked in unmarked categories. Like if someone is heterosexual, they don’t have to explain why they are the way they are.
And that’s why the questions are funny.
It’s the ‘default’.
Yeah, heterosexuality is the default.
And that’s the definition of heterocentrism: to assume that everyone is heterosexual. Those questions help people dive right into the concept, so they can see it’s not just a bunch of theory.
I could stand up there and go [nasal voice] “heterocentrism is when you use heterosexuality as the…” [laugh] Well that’s annoying.
And if you can’t have fun and be campy at a queer workshop, then where on earth can you do it?
…From there we can talk about different kinds of homophobia, how it can express itself in different ways, and how it’s possible for there to be homophobia without any homophobes…
Like, for example, you can have an organization where everyone in it is really trying their best, but it’s a larger problem…
…One example of it is if you look at social service provision; the ways that people do intake and the questions that people ask often assume heterosexuality in a way that can be really problematic:
“So what did he hit you with?”
“It wasn’t a he actually, my girlfriend beat me.”
It makes it so you have to come out at the same time that you’re coming for help.
If you look at the rates of street-involved youth who are lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgendered and you look at the way that social services are often provided—even though the social services are often quite open—the “neutral” mold for intake questions and that kind of thing often assumes heterosexuality in a quiet way. And that puts the burden on the person who’s coming to the service to clarify.
Which can be really problematic when somebody is at risk and feeling vulnerable.
So is it just a matter of contacting the organization and saying, “look, you need to change [the questions you are asking]”?
Like with anything, if someone is told “you need to do this,” it doesn’t work as well as if they have played with the ideas themselves and figured them out that way.
If it comes as a list of directions, it’s easy to fall into a robotic application of things, without actually understanding the spirit behind it.
But if you get a chance to do something that’s more interactive, then it’s like just reading a manual on how to knit and expecting to know how to knit…
One of the problems with telling people, “you need to be more sensitive” is that people will often become paranoid about being “politically correct”, and worry “if I slip up for just one minute, people are going to think I’m homophobic.”
But the whole point is that the divisions don’t have to be so hard and fast. What we need to do is listen to each other and develop a better understanding between people.
And you shouldn’t need a queer activist to do that work…
Often with political correctness we’re so careful to not say the wrong thing that we end up excluding people.
Why do you think there’s been such a huge shift in public opinion around gay and lesbian rights in Canada over the past 30 years? (From imprisonment to marriage rights?)
A lot of that has to do with political activism by groups like Egale and groups like Campaign for Equal Families, and a lot of that also has to do with people just talking to each other one-on-one.
It’s not because kd lang came out. It’s not because Ellen has her own show…
The acceptance of lesbian and gay marriage—even though some people are still opposed—that acceptance is a larger representation of people thinking about it: “If marriage is about love, and I’m a man and I’m in love with this man… why not?”
If you want to believe in romantic marriage, and if you have in front of you a relationship that you can see is based in that ideal, then why not?
How do you think St. John’s is doing in terms of acceptance?
…St. John’s is a city, and it has the same markers for cities that metropolis cities have. It’s the city that you come to. There is a tendency for there to be sexuality-based migration into cities. There was even an article a number of years back with the title “Get Thee to a Big City”
It was about the necessity of moving to a city if you’re lesbian or gay because with there being more people, there’s not only the possibility of anonymity. There’s also—looking at the gay and lesbian being a percentage of the population—the larger the group of people, the more likely they’ll be there.
If you want an identity-based community, one based around sexual identity, it’s less likely to happen in Holyrood than it is to happen in St. John’s.
From what I see, I think St. John’s is doing great. There’s a lot of stuff going on, and the people are listening to one another, but I’ve only been here a year. I can’t speak for what it is to be lesbian or gay here. …
It seems to me that there’s still a lot of work to do, but we’re clearly setting an example for the rest of the world here in Canada.
Some people say that pride—especially pride parades—are sometimes so over the top that they become a detriment to the cause of gay rights… What do you think about that?
…If you look at some of the really huge Pride parades in New York, or San Franscisco, or Toronto, and if you picture the stereotype of what you’re going to see at the gay pride parade, you’re going to see somebody wearing chaps without any underwear, so you can see their hairy butt-cheeks, and they’re also going to have a feather boa on, and there’s going to be a group of people who are stark naked and carrying briefcases… or something really flamboyant, and really in your face.
Sometimes there’s an argument that being that flamboyant and in-your-face will “give lesbians and gay men a bad name” because it’s so extreme. Some people believe that to get equal rights then they have to show that they are just like everybody else—so if you have these public displays of flamboyance, then we won’t look just like everybody else.
But the argument against that is: maybe that’s okay. Maybe there is space in the world for people who are different, and that we don’t all have to be exactly the same…There is space for people, and we can make space for that difference, and we can draw strength from those differences. It can be a really important source of creativity.
So clearly you can see where I stand in that debate.
I don’t think it’s necessary to tone things down in order to be acceptable and/or just like everybody else.
Because maybe we’re not just like everybody else. Maybe lesbians and gay men aren’t just like everybody else. And that’s okay. Assimilation is not the only way to get your rights. Human beings come in all different sorts of ways and make all sorts of different choices. …You can respect a choice that’s different from your own, and you can respect a choice that you would never make for yourself. And that is a more productive and joyful way to move through the world than to think that you’re only going to get respect if you can fit in. Because then it’s not actually about inclusion, it’s about occlusion. It’s about not being seen.
And that doesn’t mean that people who identify as lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender are always really flamboyant. There are plenty of people who are not. So there’s space for all of these different things…
I mean, Caribana is a big parade in Toronto that’s really flamboyant but nobody ever says that the black community needs to stop presenting itself in public with feathers on their heads or they’ll never be taken seriously. [laugh]
There’s something very important about celebration, and about making yourself very visible. It’s very easy to be invisible, because everybody is assumed to be heterosexual until proven otherwise.
And yeah, maybe it can cause a backlash from the community, but I think that’s something that we can all work through together…
I don’t want to be tolerated. Tolerance is a double-edged sword. How would that feel, to have your family ‘tolerate’ you.
There’s a big difference between tolerated and being accepted.
The “Why Pride? A Workshop on Awareness, Challenges, and Queer Celebration” workshop takes place at Memorial University, Arts and Admin building, room A1043 from 1-3pm on Tuesday, July 24. The workshop is free and open to the public.