The Judith Butler Footnote: On Post-Gay and the 20th Anniversary of Xtra West

By Stan Persky | June 6, 2013

The difference between July 1993, when Xtra! West newspaper first sashayed down Davie Street in Vancouver, and 2013, 20 years later, is neatly captured by what might be called The Judith Butler Footnote to Contemporary Canadian History.

In 1993, there was not only no same-sex marriage in Canada, but even prohibition of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in the Canadian Human Rights Act was three years away. In 1993, AIDS was a murderous pandemic in the Canadian gay community, and drugs to manage it, with strange names, such as “anti-retrovirals” and “protease inhibitors,” were not yet on the market. And in 1993, gay writers like me (I had just published Buddy’s: Meditations on Desire a couple of years earlier) were still trying to figure out what it meant to be gay.

Fast forward to 2013: Judith Butler is a well-known philosopher, a veteran professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and one of the half-dozen leading thinkers in the world about feminism, lesbianism and queer theory. In May 2013, Montreal’s McGill University decided to confer an honorary degree on Butler in recognition of her academic accomplishments, which include a bevy of brilliant books about sex, gender and language, beginning with Gender Trouble (1990), Bodies That Matter (1993), and Excitable Speech (1997). Butler became a contemporary Canadian history footnote when some people decided to protest the granting of the honorary degree to the prominent 57-year-old lesbian scholar.

Judith Butler.

Judith Butler.


Among the protestors were McGill student groups, a few faculty, and big-splash anti-Butler op-ed pieces in major right-wing Canadian papers like The National Post. Were the protestors upset about Butler being a feminist, an out-front lesbian, a major queer theorist? Not at all. Even her staunchest opponents were willing to offer a grudging nod of recognition to Butler’s sexual views. No, what got their Torah scroll unravelling is that Butler, who also happens to be a Jew, is a supporter of BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel) and identifies with “a Judaism that is not associated with state violence,” meaning that she opposes Israel’s treatment of its Palestinian inhabitants and neighbours.

While one doesn’t necessarily have to agree with the boycott-Israel movement (I don’t), it’s a perfectly respectable political position and is hardly cause for denying an honorary degree for lifetime achievement to Butler. The reason, happily, that all this is a mere footnote, is that McGill sees it the same way. On May 30, 2013 Butler delivered, without incident, an elegant, 8-minute, not particularly controversial, commencement address to McGill grads on the virtuous subject of “Why Study the Humanities?” (It’s on YouTube, of course.) End of flap. And that’s one of the differences between 1993 and 2013, when Xtra West is marking its 20th anniversary as a GLBT community newspaper.

In 2013, being homosexual in Canada is not an enormously big deal; having controversial views about Middle East politics may well be. The differences between then and now can, and should, be put in broader terms. Canada in 2013 is “post-gay.”

I mean three things by that. The three things are 1) gay identity; 2) gay legal status, and 3) public attitudes toward gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered individuals (GLBT).

Once upon a time (as recently as 1993), Canadian homosexuals were preoccupied with figuring out their sexual desires and how it affected their identities as human beings. Today, by and large, they aren’t. Homosexuality is pretty much “normal”; it’s just another way of affectionally relating to other people. It is not a cause for anxious pondering, family shouting matches, or therapy appointments. Okay, maybe there’s still more than enough bullying and name-calling in particularly brutal suburban high schools. But even that’s down a bit, thanks to courageous kids who have formed Straight-Gay Alliance clubs in those neanderthalish centres of learning.

Second, in 1996, Canada included gays and lesbians in its anti-discrimination Human Rights Act, and in 2005, the True North Strong and Free became the fourth nation in the world to fully legalize same-sex marriage, for better or worse, through thick and thin, ’til the Grim Reaper do us part. You may now kiss him or her or whoever you want.

Finally, public attitudes have undergone a sea-change. People have gotten used to Ellen and Glee and Brokeback Mountain popping up throughout the culture. Young people, in classes I teach at Capilano University, are in favour of same-sex marriage by margins of 75 per cent and up. Even their parents and grandparents, by comfortable majorities, think it’s okay, too. All of the foregoing is what I mean by “post-gay.” In Canada, individuals who are GLBT (gee, I keep getting that familiar acronym mixed up with bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches) can live ordinary lives without worrying too much about discrimination, legal barriers, or even insulting antediluvian public behaviour.

But in case you think I’ve gone all pollyanna-ish in my dotage, I should remind you about the Law of Uneven Development. It’s an old Marxist idea that economies develop differently depending on their particular circumstances and histories. The same is true for culture and sexuality.

So, while Canada and parts of Europe are generally post-gay, at the same time, in other countries you can find situations that are scarifyingly pre-gay or, more likely, just plain gay. In some countries, such as Uganda, Iran and points Hellward, legislatures are recurrently threatening to attempt to prohibit gay behaviour and to punish homosexuals, in barbaric forms up to and including death. Most of this extremist and dangerous anti-gay oppression is inspired by cultural superstition and religious beliefs.

In other countries such as the United States, Russia, and just last month, France, homosexuals are engaged in various phases of gay struggle. In Russia, the state attempts to ban gay pride parades and isn’t shy about unleashing state forces of violence against homosexuals. In France, though the government recently legalized same-sex marriage, large and angry anti-gay demonstrations (mostly fomented by religious beliefs) opposed such legal moves toward equality. And in nearby America, where Judith Butler flourishes, the decades-long battle for gay equality is slowly but obviously being won.

In 2013, the cultural situation for homosexuals is hardly uniform, but progress is undeniable. Of course, even in post-gay spaces, vigilance is required, thinking about what it all means matters, and we may even still need LGBT publications like Xtra, east-west-north-and-south. But hey, maybe elderly geezers like me who are practically “post-sexual” (and post-everything else) aren’t the right people to ask about all this. Check it out with your local teenager, or just hit the “like” button on your nearest Facebook pro-gay page.





  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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