2. Signal Vol. 2, Gender

In this Episode Jess Mitchell talks to Richard Fung about Gender. Conversation starts with the definition of gender and the reason of gender identification, and goes on to the history of gay, lesbian liberation and trans identity. They continue on how today’s western society looks at gender, and how new generation define their gender as non-binary more than ever. They also talk about commonality and different cultural and historical barriers in defining gender, and how inclusion can widen the society to include all genders and start non-binary moves.

Jess Mitchel and Richard Fung on Gender

This is Quantization!

Hi, we are Arezoo Talebzadeh and Kaveh Ashourinia and this is our podcast on inclusion.

Arezoo: Quantization is and independent project with support of Inclusive Design Research Centre at OCAD University.

[Music: Quantization (Theme-Guitars)]


Kaveh: in this episode we have a conversation between Jess Mitchell and Richard Fung.

Arezoo: we asked them to join us in June 23rd to talk about Gender.

Kaveh: This is season One, called Signal. Episode two, Gender.

[Music: Quantization (Theme)]

Arezoo: for me the topic [gender] is very interesting because I don’t know why gender is important, for me why you say to kid like you are boy or girl, I would not say that, I would not tell anyone if my kid is boy or girl, kid has to figure out what it is!

RF: I think gender and the regulation of gender has been important for the question of ruling because of the question of reproduction. And that’s always been the case around different nationalisms, for example, and who controls reproduction, because reproduction is about reproducing the nation, often. And so, I mean, that’s one of the ways that gender has been important, but again the notion of gender and the notion of two genders is very specific to our (“our” as westerner) because there is a way in which I am a westerner.

Portrait of Richard Fung
Photo taken by Mezart Daulet, original in colour

Kaveh: that’s Richard Fung. Richard Fung is a video artist, film-maker and writer, and a professor in the faculty of art at OCAD University.

JM: Certainly some of the gender conversation has been about reproduction and, sort of, even states regulating these sorts of things. But, it occurs to me that maybe, I don’t know, but maybe there is laziness also in gender, that we have a tendency to sort things like the “Daniel Kahneman” (Thinking, Fast and Slow brain). We sort things and the binary is a very easy sort, you either are or aren’t, you are this or you are that.

Jess Mitchell in the Quantization studio

Arezoo: and Jess Mitchell, Jess is senior manager at the Inclusive Design Research Centre. She manages large scale projects and initiatives focusing on fostering innovation within diverse communities while achieving outcome that benefits everyone.




JM: It is a strange place for me because I haven’t done a lot of blurring professionally and I think that you probably done a lot of blurring professionally with gender, your own story, and your professional work. I work in inclusion and I am a lesbian, but I am not working in a specific area related to my gender. I don’t think?! (Laughter)

RF: I think gender for me has come up around dealing with the question of sexual politics, generally. In terms of lesbian and gay issues, gender has been important in different kinds of ways

JM: Like which kind of ways?

RF: Well, this is one of the insights that I had from teaching a course called Making Gender: LGBTQ Studio at OCAD that was started by Wendy Coburn, but I have inherited it and I actually thought it when Wendy was on sabbatical. Wendy passed away last year, a year ago now, and I’ll jump forward. So, my foundation, you know I came out in the early 70s, mid-70s, and right into the Lesbian and Gay Movement at that time which what we used, we didn’t have the “T” and the “B” even! And, then, you know, have been with those questions as they developed. And this year in my class, about 40% of the students identify their main issue in the context of LGBTQ Studio as non-binary trans, and bi-sexual. So that is a huge shift from Lesbian and Gay Movement.

JM: Which was neither binary.

RF: Lesbian and gay liberation, because liberation was connected to sexual liberation, which was also connected to the liberation struggles of the period, women liberation, but also the national liberation from Vietnam to Southern Africa to places like Nicaragua and El Salvador, etc., right? So, one of the things that struck me in this is that many of the people from my generation initially had problems with the assertion of trans identities when it first came to the fore.

JM: Oh, not just then, I mean…

RF: … and consistently. I think people, even of my generation, are now becoming more accepting as there’s more and more trans people working, but one of the things that struck me was that, okay, many of the people in my generation who were activists, who were also not just dealing with human rights kind of issues but also thinking intellectually about it; read Foucault for example, were thinking of the construction of sexual identity. We talked about social construction as opposed to essentialism, the idea that we were born with it even though that’s the argument that tends to win out in the human rights debate; “you have to give us right because we have no choice!” At the same time, I think there was a misrecognition that what with being liberated was a trans’ historical essential identity that we were liberating. And that, to be honest, was the way that I experienced it myself having grown up in the Caribbean, in a place in which sexual identities were known, but there was no … the only place to understand them was this kind of lesser than, a place of fear (or identity associated with fear) or lesser than, anyway. And so there was a sense in which we misrecognized that we were, in fact, liberating this thing that was preexisting, that was true. And I think one of the things that I now see, having worked with people in their late teens, and how their identities are so different and what they are trying to liberate, is that in fact these questions change and have been changing. I think part of why the question of gender, in fact, was suppressed in the early movement and I have to say suppressed because now I am realizing how the ways in which some stories of identities were able to be mobilized and some were not considered quite the right story to be told and it had to do with the fact that for those of us who, for example as a gay man, the way that my identity was seen, going back to the 60s when I was growing up, is that really what was happening I was not truly a man, but I was in fact a woman in a man’s body. So there’s a way in which same-sex desire had to be legitimize and it was done so, I think, at the expense of thinking like trans, because in the early theorization of sexuality and identity from 19th century on when those different movements like the Urnings and the Woman trapped in a male body; there’s all these different ways of people trying to understand what these non-normative or non-majority sexualities were, until it came to the point of like Magnus Hirschfeld in the early 19th century and first homosexual liberation movement that was squashed by the Nazis and then what we mark as Stonewall. So I think there is a sense in which there was misrecognition of what that was and now I think…

JM: A misrecognition of it because it was…

RF: Well, it was of all the variety, like if you have all these fruits available right, you got strawberries, you got apples, I don’t know, I’m pulling this metaphor out of my head, but then the only fruit that you recognize are the oranges and the citrus.

JM: Right, this was the heteronormative, you had to fit in one or the other, as you said, you were a woman trapped in a man’s body. You couldn’t be recognizing as a man who had an attraction to other men.

RF: So there was a way in which I think now looking back, that the possibility of trans was not recognized and was in fact…

JM: So trans was, I think, though recognized but outside of that realm. That was less than … much, much less than was trans. It was, I think, still recognized but not even consider on the same level. And you see this still in the lesbian and gay community, less so now, but in the 90s especially, a lot of hostility toward trans folks from gays and from lesbians. The famous exclusions from things like the Michigan Womyn’s Festival and questions of a cis-man or cis-woman and what makes a man, what makes a woman and these sorts of grey areas? But I think that you are not saying the story of gay liberation as a hidden trans story, are you?

RF: No, what I am saying is that gay liberation actually hid the trans story.

JM: Yeah, I see.

RF: Besides, I think we are in agreement, because I think that what happened with the trans stories; I mean there were very famous transsexuals in the 60s, etc…

JM: Yeah, of course.

RF: … but were seen as outside and that was troubling to the story of same-sex desire.

JM: Right.

RF: So it was not recognized and I think those stories are suppressed and one of the thing that struck me when I think back now to, for instance, lesbians I knew I remember in the 90s with someone who I knew as a lesbian said at an event: “I don’t really think that I am really am a lesbian” and that’s was one of the first people and one of the earliest trans people that I actually knew.

JM: Wow!

RF: And when that story, then, was told, that can be troubling to the lesbian narrative…

JM: …which is I think why originally they were very intentionally avoided.

RF: Exactly.

JM: Any kind of commonality, these were different enough and the story of understanding what it meant to be trans was troubling enough to even establishing what is was to be gay or lesbian. Yeah, absolutely!

RF: And then I think there was a way in which, perhaps, non-binary trans can be troubling to people who are invested in a transition from one gender to another. And one of the things that I said to my students about how things are shifting, I said the thing that you have to be preparing for is that in 20 or 30 years, you will also perhaps be in a conservative position and they’ll be new identities. And I think that was the insight that they had is that these things are not … that we can’t think of them … that there was a sense of lesbian and gay liberation; you were liberating this, but in fact what you’re liberating, hopefully, is the ability to understand that there are shifts, right?

JM: Well, even in gay and lesbian liberation, so called liberation, there are these shifts as well. You have … there’s a continuum within gay and within lesbian and with how you sort of present and how you identify and how you describe yourself. We have great vocabulary for these things. And the same is true in the trans community. Those who are part of what you’re calling the trans liberation or the trans story is always been sort of curious and fascinating to me. There are some who self-identify as being trans, transition physically, and then continue to self-identify as being trans — and some do not.

RF: Yeah.


JM: So, there is already such diversity and variation within any of these so called categories, I can imagine that where your students are can be seen as some natural progression toward why does it matter? And as we heard earlier (from Arezoo), why does it even matter? Why does gender even matter? Why do we talk about this? Why it is important that somebody is let into a bathroom and somebody is not? Why is this in the national news?

RF: I think because society has been organized. Our society in the West has certainly been organized around the notion of two genders that has been basically through colonialism. Both here, which is Two-Spirit is about also assertion of pre-colonial identities around gender and sexuality and then have been legally also spread around the world. So, I come from Trinidad, where the sodomy laws are actually the sodomy laws were the same ones that were developed in the end of the 1800s in Britain and then through colonialism. That’s the sodomy law, really, that they’re fighting over in India.

JM: Is it the same as the one in Texas?

RF: No because they would have perhaps a different history and I’m actually not sure about the Texan one, but it was certainly the one that was also here in Canada.

JM: Yeah, interesting.

JM: And there are also interesting things around gender, in terms of the sodomy laws, in that Queen Victoria, apparently, it was said, she couldn’t understand same-sex sexuality among women, which is why lesbian sex is not outlawed.

JM: (laughter) (inaudible)

RF: … She just couldn’t get her head around that.

JM: The famous “What would they do?

JM & RF: (laughter)

RF: And, then again … those women are not seen to have sexuality.

JM: Right.

RF: The whole question of women’s sexuality has been sort of debated with, also, not just within the West.

JM: All of this is the case and I’m still sort of amazed, and maybe this is the inherent apologist on me. I am sort of amazed by the commonalities in all the stories. Like I was saying, you listen to a performer like Elvira Kurt talk about her coming-out story, you listen to anybody talking about coming-out story, and if they’re in Trinidad, if they’re in rural America which is where I was, wherever there are, there are still these points of commonality where you can tell the story about your coming-out in a different generation than mine and we’ll have points of commonality. It occurs to me — that’s kind of amazing — that we still have these threads. You find that with your students as well?

RF: Yes, but I think the one thing to qualify that would be my coming-out in Trinidad, you’re coming-out in the States, and one’s coming-out here, no matter where the family is from, they’re coming-out into the specific context with specific notion, right?

JM: Yeah.

RF: I think there are other societies where the question of coming-out is a different question or it’s phrased different; it has different kind of touchstones. For example, for me in the Caribbean, which even though, I have to say Trinidad specifically the largest ethnic group is from India and Hindu although the country itself being post-colonial, post-independent is Christian, so it has this kind of notion of sex outside of marriage as being sin, which is I guess also the case in all of those — the Judeo-Christian, the Islamic, Jewish, and Christian tradition. They are other societies where it’s not a sin. So, in Buddhist society for example, in south Asia, it is not a sin. But it is still also not necessarily given equal status. So I was trying to get my head around this traveling in South and East Asia because you often see a lot of trans-people on the street. In India, where I spent a quite bit of time, you see Hijra, who are also considered the third gender. But, even though they are not in a sin framework, which gives a particular kind of weight within the Judeo-Christian and Islamic tradition, they’re still always lesser than — at least in the societies that I’ve had experience with. But they often lesser than in relation to family networks or the fact that then can’t have or they’re not seen to have children, that kind of thing. So I imagine coming-out within that context would be different, too.

JM: Of course.

RF: It wouldn’t have the weight of sin, but it would have a different kind of thing.

JM: Do you think it would have some commonalities still with coming-out …because part of coming-out that’s not so cultural — well, everything is cultural everything is context-dependent — but part of it is self-actualization and sort of understanding of your own identity and kind of nurturing your own identity as it’s growing and changing and understanding all of that. Maybe that’s the universal piece.

RF: Well, there’s also something else, I think, in that I was thinking about that because there is a film that I’ve just seen called “Outrun” which is about the first LGBT political party in the world, which was in the Philippines. And one of the things that appear in the Filipino context, it starts with these images of all these religious parades that all also drag parades: drag men in drag that, they kind of, spectrum from drag queen to trans woman. So they’re there; they’re part of society, they actually take a role, but they also seen as figures of comedy or whatever. But it seems that people from the time they are quite young can in fact occupy this space and they can be known. They may not have to come out in the same way, share a secret which I think coming-out implies, but it also means that they are still always occupying position somehow outside of normativity, outside of regular citizen.

JM: Your description of it makes me think of Mardi Gras in New Orleans and makes me think of Southern Decadence. New Orleans is this wonderful city that has all of these holidays — it’s one after the other — where you’re encouraged to dress up in drag, essentially.

RF: In Trinidad, Carnival is the same.

JM: Exactly, it is funny, maybe that’s the communality, the point of commonality, where there are these safe places and safe times when it is okay to do these things. And it does change the sort of secretive nature of it, but I mean it’s different in different context.

RF: I mean, I think the difference there too is that in the carnival, but in the particular point in the Trinidad Carnival, you dance from midnight until dawn of next day and that’s when a lot of crossdressing happens. And it is certainly a time in which people who are queer in a sense of generalized non-normative, heteronormative people can kind of become their own person, but a lot of the people who cross-dress occupy the space of normative men or women and they’re expected to go back to that…

JM: …when is done. Right! Next weekend, back into your pants!

RF: Exactly! So, there’s that kind of thing, too, but it also gives an alibi to people who want to express themselves that way in public a chance to do that. And that’s what great about Carnival. And I have to say that has been said that this is the reason why Trinidad and Tobago has less expressions of violent homophobia than say another country like Jamaica, which does not have the same kind of traditions and also has had to negotiate has less necessity to negotiate difference.

JM: And is that because it is less multicultural but also less present.

RF: Yes, and less fluid and visible …

JM: Less visible. Invisibility is big. That’s another one of these themes, visibility and invisibility.



JM: All right, so, inclusion is one thing that we can sort of think about for a moment. One of the ways we talk about inclusion at the Inclusive Design Research Centre is when we’re thinking about developing something whether it is a product or service or website or just some video or audio, we want to think of inclusively designing it, meaning considering the range of human uniqueness. And so in that, of course, gender is a part of that. So I wonder what it looks like to have this awareness like what your students have. Maybe that’s what they’re doing in the studio, you can talk about the making of gender there, but what does it look like to have that perspective and to produce something: a video, a piece of art, a product, something in the built environment.

RF: And Inclusiveness around questions of gender.

JM: Well, of gender, yeah, but also this broader inclusiveness. I think the Inclusive Design Research Centre, it’s beyond gender, but it includes gender, as well. And so, one way we may think about that is, have we made some binary assumption in this questionnaire? Have we given people the flexibility they need to represent themselves in this product? Have we made it pink and blue? Right! Those sorts of (I am over simplifying), but those sorts of levels of awareness. And what would look like to take a different approach where you are thinking of the much more fluid the continuum, the much more complex, and being inclusive about that.

RF: Those are the kinds of projects that students come up with in generally responding to kind of enforced binaries, etc.? I think where the challenge comes up is to raise those questions and critiques with students not explicitly dealing with questions of gender, where one can subversively ask those questions. But people are often so invested in gender in relation to their own identity, whether it is an attachment to masculinity and femininity, an attachment to maleness and femaleness (which is different from masculinity and femininity), or a lack of attachment, those things are so kind of close to how we think about ourselves, which is what Foucault was talking about, too, right?

JM: Right.

RF: It is so much about us. And one of the things that I was thinking just recently … at one point I was a sissy boy and I used to dress up in my mother’s or anybody’s dresses. Right? And someone took a photograph of me when I was six or seven with a big white skirt that was in a circle. I think I was wearing my sister’s dress. And I think at one point in my teens, I found that photograph and tore it up, because I didn’t want the evidence. Because it was also seen, even though I was joking … I suppose now that I think about it, it kind of an embrace of a joke, right?

JM: But it was an innocent moment, but you saw it as foretelling of something. 

RF: Or a kind of evidence of a secret, or it was also pointed when my family would giggle… it was sort of a butt of a joke. So I tore that up and now I wish I had that.

JM: I bet you do.

RF: Because there’s a point at which I’ve come, after all these decades of dealing with sexual politics, to a point at which I have loosened my attachment to a claimed-to-be.

JM: It is funny you said this because I have a very similar photograph. My mother found it just a couple of years ago and it is my favorite shirt: it was a boy shirt, it was a Snoopy baseball shirt, and I think it had been passed down from my sisters. And my mother was very wonderfully sort of fluid about gender, and I think it was born from her hatred of pink and purple and having three girls and trying to marry these two things. But I look at that picture now, and people look at that picture and they say “Wow, you know it is pretty obvious at age six there!”

RF: I am actually looking at, ah, I have to write a little catalogue essay for my friend Andil Gosine, who has pictures of himself also around that age and he is posing like a model and of course you can see it!

JM: You see all these videos on YouTube now, like of that kid who re-did Madonna’s Vogue video in the video booth and was Vogue-ing and doing such a great job in his little knee socks … and not to say that we know what that’s child’s gender would be, but that brings up this other point that you said you were a sissy boy and you were talking about your students and talking about the way they are self-identifying now. The other thing to realize and think about or maybe talk about for a moment is that these things have changed throughout our lives, like this is fluid as well. What I am today, I grant myself the ability to change at any moment.

RF: Yeah, so I think people change and people change their genders and I think people who become very invested in one gender can also change. There is a wonderful Danish film, I mean it’s very provocative, it’s called “The Regretters” and is actually two trans women … transitioned in the 60s and I did see the film few years ago, but they decided they didn’t want to be trans anymore. And so one re-transitioned back into maleness and the other one decided that they didn’t want to be gendered, really, and so kind of transcendent in a way of gender. The film stages as a conversation when they meet for the first time and so they share their stories. And one of them transitioned to a woman, I mean in the 60s, and then had a life in Britain as a woman and then got married and her husband kept wondering why she was not getting pregnant and then discovered that she was trans and beat her up and left.

JM: This is an interesting moment, too, and I think this is often depicted in film especially, is that moment of not passing and it’s often associated with violence. And I was just having this conversation yesterday with a friend. I went to a conference in Poland and I’ve traveled extensively in Europe, elsewhere as well, but hadn’t been to Poland and didn’t know how it would feel to be in Poland and to be a fairly masculine-presenting woman. And I pass in Poland, more often than not which is great and troubling, because it is at that moment where you are not passing in the moment you just described, where so much of film, so much of the stories are about the moment where the violence comes. Sometimes it is not violence though, too, and it is an interesting moment and it’s been interesting for me over the years to sort of change my own response to that moment. It used to be made somebody feel much better about the moment and take the responsibility off of them and say: ”Oh… that’s okay! … No problem!”, as if to say it was my fault that you thought I was something I wasn’t. And then it is interesting climate in Toronto as well, because there is much more fluidity, there is passing and there is sometimes even within the community or within my community (I don’t know how to say more properly), but there is a kind of respectfulness, because I had so many friends who are transitioning that some people are using ambiguous pronouns to show a sort of respect and an ambiguity and not knowing what’s that person story is and respecting that, as well!

RF: Well, I really like that “they” pronoun, actually. I like it in principle, sometimes I forget!

JM: Does this trouble you grammatically?

RF: Yes, because there is no plural and singular when you want to say more than one person who are not binary. So there is that and I do get tripped up in class sometimes it is hard to remember because I ask the students at the beginning of class, what is your preference for pronoun. And, sometimes, what is more interesting is that most of the students forget the other students’ pronouns, so I have to remind them, because I remember because I wrote them down beside students’ name, but they forget who is what because often it is not obvious.

JM: And do they default who “they” …

RF: No, they don’t default to “they”. They default what they think it is, and I find myself having to step in and say that well, and “they” …

JM: Interesting.

RF: Because it is default to whatever the person kind of looks like to them.

JM: Yeah.

JM: It would be great if we could all be “they” … like the way there used to be Mrs. and Miss and, we now all say Ms.

JM: It would make it easier in writing as well, this he/she or …

RF: Could be Mx., or I think Mx. was the one that was suggested.

JM: Oh, Mx. is nice!

RF: I think somebody proposed Mx a while ago … the proposed non-gender.


JM: But it is an interesting moment because in Toronto, I can’t tell if I am passing or somebody is being respectful because they are not sure and that’s wonderful that we’re sharing the moment.

RF: But often I can’t tell whether somebody is, if for example, a really butch lesbian: is that person being a “they” or are they a “she”? Like, are they identified as a woman-loving woman or are they somebody … and that can be an awkward moment in which you don’t know automatically! Some people want to be asked what their preferred pronoun is, but sometimes it can also be kind of really insulting if you don’t think that your presentation is ambiguous and then somebody asks you.

JM: But you what, we are even having this conversation about people pausing and wondering which pronoun to use, and maybe asking about it, we wouldn’t have this conversation just a few years ago.

RF: No, exactly!

JM: It’s amazing!

RF: So, I think that I see as a kind of really positive sort of development, because even around the gay thing, there was … and that’s where I am very interested to see bisexuality being spoken about again, because it was an investment: are you one of us or are you one of them, right? And people who are fluid in their sexuality, people who are (we may use a word “queer” in that context to describe people who may go back and forth). One of the things that were striking was the stories of my students who were saying things around their parents and their own bisexuality, saying like “You are female and you are going out with a male person now, does that mean you are no longer bisexual?”

JM: Right.

RF: And being somewhat offended by that because somehow it undermines their claim to bisexuality. And I was struck by couple of things: one of them being students having these conversations with their parents … these kinds of civilized conversations and that wouldn’t have happened generations ago, except in rather exceptional families.

JM: Right.

RF: And so, I think, one of the thing that is striking to me is — just getting back to the part about sexuality — is how the same-sex marriage debates created spaces for these conversations to happen.

JM: Exactly, I mean it’s all of these things coming together, isn’t it? And I mean just even on that topic, there are some great articles written about the discomfort of sorting out identity when you are a lesbian and your partner transitions and you still identify as a lesbian.

RF: I have lots of friends in that situation.

JM: Exactly, and I mean maybe this is where all these extra letters came in and created the space for you to be in that situation, for there to be … we are queer family.

RF: Exactly, I was at an event where somebody said “I used to be lesbian, but my partner transitioned, so I am not sure what to call myself now!” Right? It’s their word — I mean I guess that it’s a queer word. The word “Queer”, maybe! I was also at the women’s panel where Susan Gapka, who’s a very well known trans activist said, “You know, I’m not queer.”

JM: Right. And I was at a comedy performance last night where one of the comedians was very much on the binary and talking about things as binary. It is still a continuum; it isn’t that everybody is representing all things on the continuum. People still find a place that fits them and fits them at that moment.

RF: At that moment, that’s what is interesting.

JM: At that moment and at that context. When I am in Poland, I feel very different than when I am in Toronto. I don’t know the culture, I don’t know, Is it okay to present in this way that I am very comfortable presenting when I am in my own home?

RF: Years ago I saw film when this woman said (it is in Israel; it is a documentary) and she said, “All these people would come and ask me why are all the Israeli women lesbian? And I was saying, ‘No, we are just Kibbutzim.’” They don’t wear make-up. And again the markers of gender they do and don’t cross.

JM: It’s the Dr. Martens and the Birkenstocks. (laughter)

RF: … the markers and how do I identify. And I remember being, because I’ve also spent a lot of time in Latin America and, there, a lot of it is by eye.

JM: Yes.

RF: Like, does somebody look back at you if you stare them among gay men? But often the markers of queerness don’t…

JM: Yeah, I lived in West Africa for a year and again I think it takes a bit of time to figure out a culture, obviously. Had no idea how much being out there was going to work and I was there on professional capacity as volunteer. It’s an interesting moment to be out and then be in a situation where you are not sure if you are out. Sort of like, I used to be a lesbian, what I am now?

RF: And also the question of out? I mean quote-on-quote out. I’ve done public stuff. I’ve been on TV and radio as a gay person, but am I always out? Am I out when I go to the corner shop? Am I out when I go to do a particular thing? So, this idea of being out and being in as being this permanent condition to pass a threshold, as you say going to Poland even though you came out; it‘s changing all the time.

JM: As your context changes, right? You go to a different neighborhood even. I burned in my brain is what somebody said to me — an older gay man — when I first came out, he was probably one of the first five people I told. And he said, “That’s great! Welcome to a lifetime of coming-out!” And it hadn’t occurred to me that this actually going out be something that I keep doing.

RF: Right. One of the things you had mentioned before we started talking was Orlando and I am interested to know what your take on…?

JM: Well, I was mentioning the appropriation — the notion of appropriating a moment, the cultural appropriation. Orlando is really complicated. I think that over half of the victims were visiting from Puerto Rico. It’s a sort of a favourite vacation spot for Puerto Ricans, and for gay Puerto Ricans, to go and enjoy themselves in a place where they can sort of be more out, more open. Puerto Rico has a great gay culture, as well. And some strange things happened as happens when a horrible event like this happens. I think people start to feel very deeply affected by it. And some messages got sort of blurred in the process. That this was Latinex, for instance, and that these were –by and large –brown and Latino and Latina. And these people weren’t just our brothers and sisters, they were our brothers and sisters and they were unique individuals with very complex stories and very complex histories, as all of us are. And I think a little of that was lost. The appropriation of it … I always feel a little bit nervous about that. I never quite know what appropriation of that is and what respectfulness is for that. I think a lot of people reaching out and saying that they needed support, they needed comfort, and certainly that’s valid. Those are their feelings, but what does it mean to honour the victims and to honour their uniqueness and their complexity? What does it mean to honour them from the perspective of being LGBTQ and being sort of targeted? You know, this guy famously on TV is sitting there in an interview where it was like the All Lives Matter argument all over again. They were so focused on “This is terrorism”, they couldn’t focus on that this was targeted for this particular community. And they missed that story altogether. And so now it’s this checklist of all of these things: Are you a terrorist? What’s your religion? Right! What language do you speak? What gun were you using? Who are you targeting? And it becomes very, very complicated, obviously. What do you do with all that? How do you make sense of it and how do you make sense of how it affects you or doesn’t affect you? And it’s certainly relevant because this is Pride Month. I mean we’re going to all be — many of us — participating in events. I remembered when this happened, a feeling I had years and years ago: I was in New Orleans when Ellen DeGeneres had her coming-out episode. And I went to Charlene’s bar , which was one of the oldest lesbian bars in New Orleans. It’s where Ellen DeGeneres used to hang out when she was in New Orleans. She grew up in Louisiana. And I remember standing there watching that episode; it must’ve been a Tuesday or a Wednesday and it was prime-time television, 8 O’clock or something. And I’m standing in Charlene’s Bar. And, you know, it’s New Orleans and it is warm and so the windows are all open and I thought, You know, if somebody wants to take out a whole bunch of gays and lesbians right now, they just drive by and pop a little homemade cocktail bomb into the window. And I thought about that was a very fatalistic and dark thought. (laughter) I just contributed it to me being very fatalistic and dark in that moment and, you know, it was one of those things that flips into your head and flips out. And then this happened and I was thinking, Wow!

RF: Yes, it can happen anywhere!

JM: Anywhere, groups of people, and yet you need these safe places, right? I was at Buddies last night for a comedy event, having these places and having these safe places and these places for community are so important.

RF: Well, I mean, they are never completely safe. That’s the thing, right? Thinking through New Orleans, I think that one of the things I tried to think through is the stakes. What is at stake for various people in making particular kinds of claims when something like this happens? What does it legitimize? What does it mobilize to legitimize? And so, I was struck that within LGBT context, the Latinex identity is often erased. But since 1980s, I’ve been organizing — I started out organizing — Lesbian and Gay Asians, right? So I’ve been thinking about intersectionality for a long time. And what does it mean, right? And the more we know about the killer (the shooter), the more complex it becomes. And the reason that one of the things, I mean, that struck me was whatever the motive is, he apparently knew … there was at one point where we knew that he knew the bar. He had gone there for many years. And I was thinking that why did he choose Latin night? He chose it for a reason and I don’t know if you were following the press, but apparently he had a Puerto Rican partner and … oh, you haven’t read this!

JM: No. 

RF: This is the latest thing that he apparently had a Puerto Rican boyfriend for couple of months. And one of the things that the boyfriend said and of course these are all things that you never completely know, I just saying what is circulating now in the media. The boyfriend says that he was particularly attracted to the Latino men, but felt rejected by them. So, the way that the terrorism narrative — all of these narratives — the more we know become destabilized!

JM: Exactly!

RF: And I find that really interesting — how we become invested in a lot of these things. Yeah, for sure, I think the fact that 90 percent of people who were killed were Latinex. Many of the remaining victims who died were African-Americans. And it has to do with how Latinos are racialized in the United States — much more so than in Canada. And it has to do with specific historical reasons in the United States, but I was seeing that both from some mainstream media, but also looking at the websites or the Facebook pages of Latino colleagues of mine who were particularly Puerto Rican.

JM: And people want, they want a narrative so badly. It started out and it was: this is a terrorist and this is a terrible thing. And it progressed. And now he’s got an account on some of the gay dating websites and we say, Oh wait a minute! Maybe our narrative about him being a terrorist isn’t so strong after all?

RF: Or maybe our narrative about this being a heterosexual who was homophobic, because it’s more complicated and it becomes very complicated because of the idea of self-hating homosexual, right? But I think we have to face up to whatever it is and that becomes the challenge for us: that these things sometimes are not as easy as we might hope.

JM: Most things aren’t. I mean, this is the lesson, right? You want easy, you want binary, you want clear, but it’s rarely.


RF: But one of the things that somebody said quite early on is that part of the problem of narrating it as primarily just a homophobic murderer, homophobic incident, was that it then projects the idea that LGBT is always already white. And I see that playing out in Toronto, for example, in the apology by the police chief for the bath raid of 1981 yesterday. Two things; One is that he expressed regret on behalf of the services, police of Toronto services. He didn’t actually apologize; it was express regret. It was for 1981 bath raids, not for the 2000 bath raids against Pussy Palace in which male cops went into the women’s only space. So he apologizing only to gay men, actually, not to the lesbians, right? And then it is happening at the time — I just wrote a letter to the paper saying how long will we have to wait for an apology about carding, racial profiling, kettling, and the killing of people with mental health disabilities as a first response.

JM: Yeah.

RF: Right. And it is a time when there is a lot of focus and a lot of critique, Black Lives Matter (about anti-black racism), about lack of mental health training. And it is not just training; I should say it’s not just training, it is systemic. And it also goes through the system where you see the person, the one guy charged in the kettling incident got 30 days of vacation pay — that was his punishment — taken away. So, it is a rotten system and so when we’re getting all of these and then an apology – sorry, an expression of regret for an incident that happened 35 years ago with no one held accountable…

JM: Right.

RF: … like no one punished, no names even, right? So, again, the assumption is the collapse of LGBTQ, but it is actually only gay men. Because there are black gay men, too, who like my partner was saying, we should do this kind of parody where you will issue black gay men with a button that says “I’m gay” or “I’m really gay”, so maybe if they’re wearing that while driving or whatever as black, then police would say, “Oh no, we thought you were black, but really you’re just gay!” Right? So, that’s a problem when we don’t have an intersectional approach.

JM: Right.

RF: I mean it is great that all of these kind of human right issues being resolved and my sense are more so in Canada they seem and my hope is that they are permanent rather in United States that there is a lots of push back.

JM: Ya, you are wounded from California still as many are!

RF: Well no, I am thinking more of like what’s happening in North Carolina and how those things move forward and move back and I was thinking of Ireland and how they won same sex marriage through a referendum and that it has been gain through referendum rather than through legislation from the top which is really interesting because it is also about the strength of the catholic church and they are going through their quite revolution.



RF: having worked around the question of inclusion and diversity not so much in terms of inclusive design and what that means I think it is that the idea of inclusion is that the centre means the same and it just widened to include and having worked on question of racial and cultural equity one of the things that I always say is that not only you have to include but you also have to change, so the centre itself has to change by that inclusion. It is not just that add on and I think that has to change in terms of gender issue and gender even if you think of binary gender like not just include women for example but organization have to change in that inclusion they have to change the terms and I think those things are changing when you think even of the idea of paternity leave or not the assumption that women are the only care givers, but also consider the question of sexuality and…

JM: The parental leave

RF: Exactly, and both question of sexuality and the kind of non-binary moves that we are seeing around gender we have to change how we do things …

JM: It is exciting…

RF: “We” has to change, “We” has to be a different we.



Arezoo: we would like to hear your thought on this, so don’t hesitate to be in touch. You can find us at quantization.ca


Kaveh: next episode we have Richard Hunt in conversation with David Lepofsky on AODA. AODA stands for Accessibility for Ontarian with Disabilities Act.


Arezoo: we want to thanks all who support us in doing this podcast, you can check our advisory committee in our website.


Kaveh: and special thank to Marshall Bureau who compose all scores for our podcast.

[Music: Quantization (Theme)]


Transcript: Dee Tomlinson, Arezoo Talebzadeh

1 thought on “2. Signal Vol. 2, Gender”

  1. Wow! What a great podcast. I learned a lot – “lifetime of coming out”; “lesser than”, “homophobic murderer seen as a terrorist”, “the centre itself has to change by that inclusion” and much more.

    Please keep up the great work you are doing.


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