Queering the History Curriculum

Published on November 9, 2021

Andrea Prajerova

This is the first in a two-part blog series in which I reflect on queering the Canadian history curriculum. Below, in Part 1, I contextualize the incorporation of queer history in Canadian history and argue that queering the history curriculum across levels of teaching is a must.

The stories we tell each other matter. And particularly history education has a major role in circulating the master narratives pertinent to nations and their heritage.[1] Narratives help us understand how the past influences the present and the possibilities of our collective and individual futures. It was not until university that I learned about how different women left their mark on history or even heard a mention in my high school classes about the accomplishments of gender and sexually diverse people. Did these individuals and groups really exist in the past? Or have they always played a minor role (and hence almost no mention!), and are doomed to be pushed to the margins of our collective amnesia? White European colonization, the ubiquitous and long-lasting project in the history of humankind,[2] was framed by my white history teachers as a curious exploration of distant lands. In their accounts, these remote lands welcomed new inhabitants with an opportunity to build and start anew. There was a silence regarding the presence of those who had always been there and the violence that accompanied this insatiable desire for wealth. The concept Terra Nullius rebuked in numerous works by Cree artist Kent Monkman critiques the idea of an empty land seized by Europeans (mainly white Christian men) with no consequences. The idea of “nobody’s land” led European settlers to impose their own (hetero)sexual fantasies and fears on the First peoples’ communities. As much as being attracted, they found the spectrum of sexualities and genders encountered during the first encounters with Indigenous Peoples abominable and in need of regulation.[3]

As I am writing this blog in the final quarter of 2021, and sixteen years post-high school, history education did change. Gender and sexual diversity is not a taboo topic anymore. However, even when queer history is included in a Canadian history class, more often than not the subject is told from a white cis[4]-male Eurocentric perspective, which excludes the experiences of many 2SLGBTQI+ individuals.[5] This tendency is problematic, given the institutionalized demand and calls from numerous groups and actors to diversify K-12 curricula in Canada. In this blog post, the first of a two-part series, I argue that queering a history curriculum is a must, an ethical obligation towards undoing the unequal relations that frame the possibilities of how diverse individuals and communities can live and thrive (or not) in the present. Next week, in Part 2 of my series, I reflect on my experiences working in the Canadian Centre for Gender and Sexual Diversity (CCGSD), a national non-profit organization from 2019-2020, where I had the opportunity to coordinate a Queer History program for youth, aged 14-18. This initiative was generously funded by the Department of Canadian Heritage and is currently in its third iteration. Drawing from my experiences with this program, I share conclusions about how an intersectional queer feminist pedagogy can challenge master historical narratives that celebrate only particular heroes while leaving out others.

Challenging Mainstream 2SLGBTQI+ History Narratives in Canada

Just as Terra Nullius was used to justify European expansion beyond the borders of the continent, the erasure of 2SLGBTQI+ diversity from history justifies the current hierarchies among sexually and gender diverse folks within the Canadian nation. In mainstream 2SLGBTQI+ history narratives,[6] which represent queer history from sexual repression to “gay” liberation symbolized by the legalization of same-sex marriage, there is very little space reserved for the achievements and lives of non-white cis-male individuals. If there is ever any (notable) mention of lesbians, bisexuals, and trans folks (and non-binary, two-spirit, and gender-queer people even less), it is because they are white too. The “white-washing” problem of history archives and records has also been criticized by many critical scholars. Mainstream 2SLGBTQI+ history is racist and imperialist.

This tendency was pinpointed by a collective of QTBIPOC [queer and trans Black, Indigenous, and people of colour] authors in their ground-breaking publication Marvellous Grounds: Queer of Colour Histories in Toronto. In the foreword to this timely and urgent piece of scholarship, Jinathana Haritaworn, Ghaida Moussa, and Syrus Marcus Ware argue that “[t]he historical horizon that arises from this [white queer archive] is as colonial as it is presentist. More often than not, the road to progress that opens up on it leads us to “rights” (gay marriage), “protections” (police contingents at Pride and in the gaybourhood), and “inclusion” (gays in the military and the corporate world). Its milestones thus resemble white, cis incorporation into national, global, and neoliberal subjecthood.”[7] As these critical scholars explain, even when racialized queers are included in the homonational[8] historical narratives, they are rarely portrayed as history makers, and are denied leading roles. Great achievements seem to be reserved only for white (cis) “queeroes.” The demand to unlearn this bias in history was something I came up against over and over in my role as the Canada Commemorate Coordinator in the CCGSD. Realizing that queer community is not a monolithic category, our team was tasked to interpret history through something other than “western eyes''[9] and challenge the normative status quo, which positions whiteness as the norm.

Intersectional queer feminist pedagogy allowed us to challenge dominant historical narratives in our program planning. In part 2 of this blog series, I reflect further on my experiences working with the CCGDS and coordinating the Queer History program for youth in pursuit of such goals. 

References:

Anderson, Stephanie. “The Stories Nations Tell: Sites of Pedagogy, Historical Consciousness, and National Narratives.” Canadian Journal of Education, vol. 40, no. 1, Canadian Society for the Study of Education, 2017, pp. 1–38.

Cannon, Martin. "The Regulation of First Nations Sexuality". The Canadian Journal of Native Studies, 17(1), 1998, pp. 1-18.

Cole, Desmond. The Skin We’re in: a Year of Black Resistance and Power. Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 2020.

Dryden, OmiSoore H., and Suzanne Lenon. Disrupting Queer Inclusion: Canadian Homonationalisms and the Politics of Belonging. Vancouver: University Of British Columbia Press, 2015.

Haritaworn, Jinathana, Ghaida Moussa, and Syrus Marcus Ware. Marvellous Grounds: Queer of Colour Histories of Toronto. Toronto: Between the Lines, 2018.

Maynard, Robyn, Simpson, Leanne Betasamosake. “Toward Black and Indigenous Futures” in Until We Are Free: An Edited Collection by Black Lives Matter Toronto. Syrus Ware, Sandra Hudson, Rodney Diverlus (Eds). University of Regina Press, 2020.

McCaskell, Tim. Queer Progress: From Homophobia to Homonationalism. Toronto: Between the Lines, 2016.

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. Feminism Without Borders Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.

Puar, Jasbir K. Terrorist Assemblages Homonationalism in Queer Times. Durham: Duke University Press, 2008. 

Short bio:

Andrea Prajerova is a queer feminist researcher and educator, currently working in a variety of roles in the non-profit sector to advance the issues of women, youth, and 2SLGBTQI+ people. With a PhD in Feminist and Gender Studies from the University of Ottawa, her research interest is framed at the intersection of interdisciplinary studies including history of gender and sexuality, transnational feminisms and critical queer, race and disability studies.

[1] See Anderson (2017) for the role history plays in circulating national narratives.

[2] Several critical authors have commented on the ongoing effects and legacies of colonialism in Canada. See for example Cole (2020) or Maynard with Simpson (2020).

[3] For more information on the accounts provided by European missionaries during the first encounters with Indigenous peoples see Cannon (1998).  

[4] Cis means “the same” and refers to a situation when a person identifies with the gender they were assigned to when they were born. Trans means the opposite.

[5] This acronym stands for two spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, intersex and other sexually and gender diverse folks. In this essay, I am using the term queer, 2SLGBTQI+, and sexually and gender diverse people interchangeably, being aware that neither ideally describes the complexity of identities pertinent to non-heterosexual communities and individuals.

[6] By mainstream narratives, I mean the numerous popularized 2SLGBTQI+ historiographical accounts, which centre the figure of the “white homosexual” and interpret the current situation as “being there”. See for example the documentaries produced by the Village Legacy Project , the CBC’sGay Revolution Time-line or how queer history is being referred to in the Canadian Encyclopedia.

[7] Haritaworn, Moussa, Ware (2018, p. 4).

[8] Jasbir Puar (2007) uses the term “homonationalism” to convey the collusion of sexuality into the American nation-building project. This concept illuminates the fact that the current American state legitimizes certain queers, the so-called “good homos”, to belong rightfully within nation and therefore being entitled to the same legal protections and rights as heterosexual citizens. A concept pertinent in the Canadian context as well. See for exampleDryden, OmiSoore H., Lenon, Suzanne, eds (2015) orTim McCaskell (2016).

[9] Here I am drawing on Chandra Mohanty’s (2003) concept developed in her book Feminism Without Borders. In the same way as for Mohanty, by illuminating the multiple intersections of subjecthood, which cannot be reduced to a single category, one can challenge the unequal hierarchies pertinent to 2SLGBTQI+ communities.

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