News and Interviews

On Writing, with Tim McCaskell

Tim McCaskell

Tim McCaskell drew on decades of experience as an activist to write Queer Progress: From Homophobia to Homonationalism (Between the Lines Books), which explores both the progress of LGBTQ activism and the impact shifting economic models had on that activism.

We're excited to welcome Tim to Open Book today for a conversation about how he wrote Queer Progress, which is a fascinating and unique book within the category of LGBTQ histories and narratives.

He tells us about how sexual minorities emerged as a market segment and what effect that had on the struggle for equality, how intersectionality factors into an economic narrative, and the emotional roller-coaster that writing this book involved. 

Open Book:

In Queer Progress, you examine the evolution of rights through an economic lens. How would you summarize the impact of economics on LGBTQ rights issues since the 1970s?

Tim McCaskell:

The forty years that has seen the development of “gay rights” also saw the shift from a society organized on Keynesian principals to neo-liberalism. That has involved not just economic, but corresponding social and demographic changes.

On the one hand, the rationality of developing neoliberalism helped produce a society where people are supposed to be judged by how successful they are in the market economy, rather than by factors such as race, gender or sexual orientation. This shift provided an opening for activists to construct a legal architecture around human rights that includes gay rights. 

But neoliberalism’s destruction of the redistributive role of the Keynesian state led to a much more socially unequal society with greater disparities of wealth and opportunity. The fault lines of these class disparities often fall along lines such as race, immigration status and gender. In the more socially equal, but less legally equal society of the 1970s, more homogenous lesbian and gay communities could be held together by the common experience of homophobia. In the more legally equal but less socially equal society of the 21st century, such communities are fragmented. Some queer people are more marginalized than ever, while others can fully access the full citizenship that is the promise of the new rights architecture. This produces acute political differences within the community in regards to state institutions. For example, for propertied queer folk, the participation of the police in Pride is a sign of progress. For those who still regularly face police harassment, it is an affront.

OB:

How does the idea of sexual minorities as a market segment play a role here? What positives and negatives does our current capitalist environment present in the fight for equal rights?

TM:

To be an important market segment, one must have disposable income. Those queers that can buy condos, the latest fashion accessories, have money to invest, etc. are a sought-after niche market. The poor, the racialized, the under educated are not. The sought-after sectors will have the resources, the connections and the skills to advance the rights architecture, but while this architecture theoretically helps protect everyone from overt discrimination, it cannot prevent the increasing marginalization of those whose major role in society has been reduced to precarious labour.

OB:

Many activists feel that intersectionality is essential to moving forward in the fight for minority rights and respect. How does intersectionality factor into the narrative and model you're examining in Queer Progress?

TM:

An intersectional analysis reminds us of the dangers of considering only one issue at a time. All of our lives are simultaneously shaped by our sexuality, class, race, gender, religion, immigration status, etc. The success of rights struggles that focus on one issue alone disproportionally benefit the most privileged sectors of a community, those who only face discrimination on that one issue, and tend to leave others behind. In Queer Progress I have tried to document the struggles within a predominantly single-issue social movement over the significance and practical implications of recognizing our struggles as intersectional.

OB:

Where did you do most of the writing for this book? Can you tell us a little bit about what a typical writing day consisted of for you during this project?

TM:

I have a little study in my home that doubles as a guest room, but most of the time is quiet and distraction free. There was no real typical writing day. Queer Progress was put together in fits and starts over four years or so, as different activist crises compelled me and pulled me away from the writing. I also spent months where I did nothing but research in the archives or on line, and then there would be a binge of writing involving seven or eight hours a day at the computer for weeks until I thought I had made sense of a particular period, and then back to more research. 

OB:

You drew on your decades-long experience as an activist for this book – what was that process of looking back like, emotionally? How do you feel about where the movement is now versus when you first got involved?

TM:

Writing Queer Progress was a bit of a roller-coaster. The first chapters were fun. I immersed myself in the excitement, enthusiasm, and optimism of those youthful early days. The hardest part were the sections on AIDS. I think I was always too busy to properly mourn what was happening at the time, and found myself breaking down at the computer several times as I relived the deaths of so many friends. Perhaps the most satisfying part was when I began to see patterns emerge through the thicket of events and finally began to develop a thesis of how and why our social movement was transformed.

Today I worry that “the movement” if you can still call it that, divided on class and race lines, is unprepared for the challenges of the future. Our leadership has become accustomed to state support, but as the economy and politics continues to spiral from one crisis to the next, who knows how long that will last? 

OB:

What will you be working on next?

TM:

I’ll be doing a lot of travelling this year since my partner is on sabbatical so there is nothing on the agenda for the near term. I have two manuscripts that I’ve been sitting on for years that I want to get back to. One is a series of vignettes about growing up in a small town in the 50s and 60s. When I started it, probably 25 years ago, I saw it as something that ESL students might read to understand the foundations of English Canadian culture. However, it now reflects on a period so long ago that I doubt it is relevant for that. The culture that sixty-year-old like myself grew up in has little to do with Canada today. But it still might be fun as an historical piece, a kind of mid 20th century Tom Brown’s School Days.

The second is about a fictional night at the baths in 1996 at the end of the worst of the AIDS crisis and the beginning of the Harris Common Sense Revolution, the shock therapy of neoliberal change in Ontario. I think of it as ethno-social pornography. I have to look at both of those and see if they are salvageable and see which one moves me to finish it off.

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From 1974 to 1986 Tim McCaskell was a member of the collective that ran The Body Politic, Canada’s iconic gay liberation journal. He was a founding member of AIDS ACTION NOW!, and a spokesperson for Queers Against Israeli Apartheid. He is the author of Race to Equity: Disrupting Educational Inequality.

Related reading

Queer Progress: From Homophobia to Homonationalism

How did a social movement evolve from a small group of young radicals to the incorporation of LGBTQ communities into full citizenship on the model of Canadian multiculturalism?

Tim McCaskell contextualizes his work in gay, queer, and AIDS activism in Toronto from 1974 to 2014 within the shift from the Keynesian welfare state of the 1970s to the neoliberal economy of the new millennium. A shift that saw sexuality —once tightly regulated by conservative institutions—become an economic driver of late capitalism, and sexual minorities celebrated as a niche market. But even as it promoted legal equality, this shift increased disparity and social inequality. Today, the glue of sexual identity strains to hold together a community ever more fractured along lines of class, race, ethnicity, and gender; the celebration of LGBTQ inclusion pinkwashes injustice at home and abroad.

Queer Progress tries to make sense of this transformation by narrating the complexities and contradictions of forty years of queer politics in Canada’s largest city.