It’s very interesting, being in Toronto this week, and having spent a month travelling in the States and on the West Coast. I’m beginning to get a sense of just how different queer culture is in the “outside” compared to what it’s like in Montreal, and the big difference is language. I know, I know, anyone in the rest of the world thinks of Quebec’s language politics as this big huge pain in the ass, but living in Montreal, it just feels like an everyday reality – not some huge cross to bear, but a source of incredible richness and productive conflict and vast and nuanced learning.
That said, the political ramifications of language reach far and wide. I just got an e-mail today from a Montreal group of which I’m a peripheral member, called the Raging Trannies. The group is mainly populated, from what I know, of English-speaking university students, but the e-mail was written first in French (and well written, or perhaps well-translated, not badly translated by some pseudo-bilingual hack) and then in English. It was wonderful – a lot of groups in Montreal are firmly grounded in either English or French, and while hostility is generally quite minimal between those groups, the communication gap is not always easy to bridge and the cultural differences can be gigantic. It’s not just a question of translation; it’s about culture, with all the power inherent therein. And for the language geeks who are familiar the Sapir-Whorf theory, you will know that language creates culture as much as the other way around.
In other words (ha), there is no language in French for “genderqueer,” no concept of “boi” or “gyrl,” a freshly hatched and barely recognized translation of “queer” (“allosexuel”) and virtually no well-translated queer theory available in French. And that’s just the queer side of things. There’s also no word for “bottom” or “top” – only for “dominant” and “submissive.” You can imagine that this language affects perception, which affects how culture develops and moves forward, which affects how people think and behave, which affects how their sexuality develops and gets named and recognized… and so forth.
And the worst part is that the vast majority of anglophones (especially outside Quebec) who read that last paragraph will percieve that language difference as a lack – as something that makes French-speaking culture inferior, somehow less advanced than the English-speaking world, rather than seeing it as a completely different system and community and manner of thinking and way of relating that has its own warmth and love and value and intelligence and logic and cohesiveness.
That’s not to say there’s no room for change. I’ve worked with tons of Francophone queers, and many of them are critical of their own culture, in a positive and productive way. And there are wonderful examples of people bridging the differences and learning from each other, or at the very least extending an active welcome to one another (like the Raging Trannies have done) rather than sitting back and saying “yeah, they can show up if they want to.” Bilingual events abound, especially in university settings; English- and French-speaking groups collaborate and share resources; and so forth. There are differences, but those differences do not necessarily spell divisiveness. In fact they can inspire really creative collaborations and strategizing. It’s downright impressive sometimes.
But I think largely the English-speaking world, particularly outside Quebec, either dismisses or fails to consider the Francophone perspective on queer questions entirely. And being outside Quebec has made it really evident to me the extent to which my own politics are inextricably wrapped up in language. I remember my father telling me that living as a fluently bilingual anglophone in Quebec, I would be affected for the rest of my life – in English-speaking places, I would hiss at people who criticize French-Canadians and French speakers because those people are my community and my home, and in French-speaking places, I would forever be branded the Anglo outsider. And damned if he isn’t right.
In Vancouver, I found myself bristling with irritation when I saw signs in English only, or worse, with shoddy use of French that’s used as a pretension to European charm or Canadian pseudo-inclusiveness. In Toronto, I’m starting to get tons of event invitations and such from within the queer and kinky community, and I always feel a little twitchy to realize that nobody here even thinks about French when they write them up - understandably in some ways, because if you live in Toronto you must necessarily speak enough English to get along – but it’s nonetheless really weird for me. Where are the politically astute Raging Trannies of Toronto? They just don’t exist. French is not on the menu.
I can’t help but think of it in reverse. Toronto is a super-multicultural city, as is Vancouver. If you live in either place and you’re part of pretty much any progressive community, you pretty much have some awareness of race politics; you kinda can’t avoid it. Even if you’re a lily-white suburbanite, your world will be populated with folks of colour everywhere you turn, and there will be discourse around racism, anti-racism, cultural sensitivity, cultural appropriation and so forth. It’s just part of reality.
So if you can imagine (most particularly if you are a white person) moving from Toronto or Vancouver to a place where everyone is white and nobody’s ever really heard of people of colour except maybe for those people over there in that place across that border where they do things differently and make all sorts of trouble… even if they’re not aiming that ignorance (even if it’s not mean or hostile) and lack of consideration at you per se, you would probably feel bizarre, like somehow the world has become more one-dimensional and you’re the only one who’s seeing the other layers.
Well, that’s how I feel sometimes outside Quebec. Like I walk around “passing” as an anglophone just like everyone else, except that I’m from that place with those people over there across that border where we do things differently, and I know very well that we’re not making trouble, we’re just trying to live and be respected, and want to learn without being condescended to, and want to be appreciated for what we are and what we have to offer rather than being seen as backwards and ornery. And even though when I’m in Montreal I’m not actually officially part of the “we” – I am not and cannot be considered Francophone - I am nonetheless swimming in French-speaking waters all the time, and surrounded by that culture and language and people and thought. So when I’m outside that territory, I can’t help but be an unwitting and clumsy ambassador, and seeing the ways in which the overwhelming power of the English language and the English-speaking majority of Canadian culture – despite all the gorgeousness of it, and all the amazing political work that gets done within it – does serve to obscure and belittle other ways of thinking and doing things, other richnesses.
There are no easy answers. But at the very least, being ever on the outside keeps me stocked with plenty of food for thought.