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In The Ruins of Queer Clout: A Brief Report from Toronto
Queer Clout is vivaciously written, and its archive and oral testimonies offers readers a bevy of details that could produce many other research projects, as well as conceptual and theoretical interventions. Queer Clout is a detailed and energetic history of post-war queer Chicago in which the story of queer emergence into city politics is revealed and told. By so doing, Stewart-Winter hopes to add to the texture and thickness of U.S. queer history by navigating away from cities like San Francisco and New York to the U.S. mid-west, to the heartland, so to speak, to demonstrate both similarities and profound differences.
Stewart-Winter’s work demonstrates the ongoing importance of social histories, oral histories and community histories that can trace how local politics both has it own rhymes and rhythms and how those also line up with national and even international trends in queer political organizing. Indeed, one of the most important strengths of this work, at least in my reading of it, is how familiar its stories seem. What I mean is that while I am not familiar with the various personalities—politicians and activists that populate this book—the trajectory of the story is familiar. In effect one wonders about how a similar template has been used to enact queer politics at the level of the city across all of North America. Indeed, Stewart-Winter concludes his study with Obama, marriage equality (as the U.S. calls it) and the successful challenge by the late Vernita Gray, a local Chicago activist who won a judicial injunction in 2013 to marry earlier because of terminal illness (233). Stewart-Winter tells us the judge who ruled in her favor was an Obama appointee. A certain kind of happily neatly packaged queer emergence concludes this otherwise very fine study.
But it is to the context of queer emergence that I want to dedicate the remainder of my comments, all provoked by Queer Clout’s very fine historical research. To do so I will take up one aspect of Queer Clout’s contribution and turn it towards the city of Toronto to make sense of what I will call neoliberal white queer niche inclusion in the political machines of local politics. Stewart-Winter maps in great detailed the brokered politics enacted and practiced by Black Aldermen and gay activists in Chicago. This politics allowed for the emergence of gay politicians both in the backrooms and in the legislative bodies, a triumph of sorts. Queer Clout is curious about what this emergence might mean for the future of city politics. Let me just say, from my distance in Toronto, what is clear to me is that, as Stewart-Winter argues, queer emergence in Chicago’s city politics has clearly not worked to interdict police violence in black communities as the entire world knows only too well.
I have been thinking about queer politicians, policing and development in the Toronto scene recently. So let me use Toronto as an example to probe the neoliberal queer settlement at the level of city politics. Indeed, Toronto’s history of queer political emergence is different from Chicago because we have different demographics but nonetheless there are also many similarities. I will resist a capsule history here and jump right into the issues as I see them so that we might make the links in the present.
The most notable queer city politician in Toronto served for 19 years in what we call Ward 27, which includes both the gay village and Toronto’s oldest and largest social housing project, Regent Park. Kyle Rae retired in 2010 and an Asian-Canadian lesbian was elected to replace him. In the 19-year period that Rae held office he reportedly oversaw “the greatest influx of development anywhere in the city, and the area remains the top destination for new development projects” (Houston, 2010) as was reported at the time of his retirement. This development trend, to be nice, was mainly lead by a white left Mayor. The major project has been the “revitalization” of Regent Park. What does that mean? It meant that social housing was demolished and the city entered into an agreement with a private development corporation to rebuild the area as a mix-income housing district. Read another way, the city pushed out poor people of color and black people, some of them obviously queer (I will return to this later) in favor of transferring public wealth to a private corporation that built condos for profit and drastically reduced the number of social housing units in the area. Some call this form of redevelopment, gentrification. I prefer to call it financialization. It produces wealth for white middle and upper class folks through real estate and, coupled with policing often going under the moniker “community policing,” remakes neighborhoods as zones unfriendly to poor black peoples and POC.
Indeed, Rae also helped to produce a crisis in Toronto Pride by calling for a ban on the organization Queers Against Israeli Apartheid from the Parade in 2010—a ban that had to be withdrawn weeks after its announcement because of queer community organization against it (Kouri-Towe, 2011). This move by Rae demonstrated one of the central ways in which queer neoliberal niche politics now works to tamp down if not make impossible contemporary queer radical politics. Such desires become even clearer when policing has to be accounted for.
In fact, as Stewart-Winter discusses (226-27), policing is at the heart of neoliberal queer politics and its left counterparts have continued to produce a historical compact that renders black poor and POC marginal to the now renewing city cores of North America. The suburbs have now become zones of the dispossessed and refused removed from our city cores where the new investments in condos, shops, walking, public transit and so on are not understood as necessary for the poor’s quality of life. Indeed, community policing with its LGBT liaisons officers (most of them queer), its community meetings, alerts and so on have come to forge a different relationship with queer communities as their protectors, rather than the previous history of their abusers. Both police and queer assumptions of black peoples as threats to queer people characterize the shift in relations.
Indeed, what is most telling is that in these logics black queers still do not exist. So for example when police alerts and patrols target youth in gay villages it is never assumed that those youth are queer; nor do queer organizations see police violence enacted on black people as necessarily enacted on black queer people. Instead white queers now see the police as a collaborator. This logic of queer that still cannot imagine black people as always already queer is one of the most violent forms of the contemporary queer political settlement in our neoliberal city politics. Toronto’s recent history is characterized by the silence of the white gay councilor Rae, the white left Mayor, David Miller and the so-called “community policing” police chief Bill Blair (and now Mark Saunders) establishing TAVIS (Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy), a special group of police unleashed on black poor POC communities (Kipfer and Saberi, 2014).
A final word on the limits of our critical language: One of the things that I did find slightly jarring about Queer Clout was the rendition of black and queer as separate entities. Our critical language continues to betray the complexity of the lives we live. One wonders how we might enact a more radical politics of thought if we removed the AND from blacks and queers. If we remove the AND maybe something else would be revealed. Maybe, just maybe a different kind of queer politics would emerge—a queer politics in which white queers and others work to overthrow the white supremacist politics that frames our city, state/province and national lives?
Project NIA, BYP 100 and Assata’s Daughters’ recent win against Anita Alvares (Lulay, 2016) is an important addendum to Queer Clout’s conclusion. In this scene, the entire criminal (in)justice system is under deep political stress, and black queer youth will not back down until change happens. BLM Toronto’s 15-day tent city is a part of this movement too (Goodyear, 2015). Black queer trans poor folks are at the forefront of new social movements reshaping local city politics and refusing the representational inclusion model of neoliberal niche queer politics as sufficient.