Against Office Homonationalism

It’s the start of Pride season (heteros might call this ‘summer’) and in most Canadian communities rainbow flags are being strung up in front of our city halls and legislatures to celebrate. Thirty years ago, federal public servants could still be fired for being queer under the guise of protecting the nation: ensuring that those with ‘personal secrets’ that could be exploited by enemy spies were not at risk of being blackmailed. We were outright banned from the military until 1992 when the Supreme Court ruled that the policy was unconstitutional. Today LGBTQA2S+ public servants have legal protections in place intended to shield us from official discrimination. Some of us can choose to march in Pride parades under our employer’s logo and have access to internal Pride networks and communities. If we’re lucky, we even have a handful of out elected officials and senior management to inspire us.

The latest movement in supporting LGBTQA2S+ diversity in the public sector is “Positive Space” initiatives: in which public servants volunteer as internal ambassadors and divisional experts on queer and trans issues, managers post rainbow stickers on their office doors, HR offers online modules in not being a bigot, and Pride becomes another office holiday with kitschy decorations like St. Patrick’s Day. My floor went full on homonationalism this year and held a Canada Day/Pride potluck with Canadian flags decorated with rainbows, effectively smothering the historically political Pride with a colonialist celebration of the nation-state that erases Indigenous histories and Indigenous queers. Even in 2017, Pride is as much a protest march as it is a celebration of our identities and our communities.

I have been struggling to articulate exactly why this co-option frustrates me. The cupcakes and the rainbow flags are well-intentioned; this is the template for how white western office culture celebrates and welcome otherness. We eat their food and wave their flags and hopefully don’t veer too far into appropriation. Often these events are even organized by LGBTQA2S+ employees, usually cisgendered white gay men who can more safely be out at the office and whose queerness and gender presentation do not challenge the mainstream. As Haneen Maikey defines it, “homonationalism is the normalization and integration of certain “more acceptable” queers into the nationalist ideal” while excluding others.

At their best, positive space programs can help queer employees find community and allies, while doing good work to educate the broader organization. It raises awareness, but when it isn’t backed by policies and structural change, rainbow optimism can feel empty and hypocritical. And when you work for the government, employer-sponsored demonstrations of pride can feel like pink-washing, especially in jurisdictions whose policies and laws haven’t fully caught up with their public face.

When it comes down to it, I don’t care if my workplace is a “positive space” or if my employer “takes pride in our diversity”. I don’t need my straight coworkers to celebrate Pride with me or decorate our cubicles. I care about addressing the dozens of procedural and social microaggressions and stumbling blocks that prevent me and my colleagues from being safely and comfortably out at work. All the leftover red tape and heteronormativity from decades of discrimination that hasn’t been swept away because there’s no will or funding or enough of us in the system to bother.

I care that that our pronouns are respected in conversation and on forms and that we can access gender neutral washrooms. I care that my benefits system recognizes same sex partners and that my coworkers don’t assume my partners’ genders. I care that the veiled homophobia of gender policing (teasing men wearing a pink shirt or showing scorn for people who aren’t cisgendered dudes who wear suits) has no place in our offices. I care that, as with other minorities, we are tracking statistics on how many of us there are in the organization and monitoring if we are experiencing discrimination in hiring and promotion. I care that I am not the only queer on my office floor, and that I have out executive role models in my organization showing me that this isn’t going to be an impediment to my professional success.

And more importantly, I care that the government I work for treats queer and trans Canadians with dignity and respect. That it affirms the rights of queer people and trans people and protects and shields them from harm through both law and policy. That queer and trans people are not subject to police violence and intimidation and raids. That it is illegal to discriminate on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation. That queer and trans homeless youth have safe shelters and services. That trans people and queer people of colour don’t experience higher rates of violence and discrimination in the workplace and the housing market. That forms and official IDs have nonbinary and two-spirit options, that the process to change names and gender is easy and accessible, and that government services use clients’ preferred names. That gender reassignment and reconstruction surgery is fully covered by public health insurance. That my city councillors don’t try to defund the Pride Parade every few years in a fit of veiled homophobia and racism. That we can donate blood. That the families we build and cherish are treated equally to our straight neighbours. That queer and trans refugees are welcomed here.

This is the celebration we need most from out straight allies: concrete acknowledgement that we exist, that we have equal rights, that we are worth protecting from harm. Until our positive spaces are backed up by policies and office culture that actively dismantles the white cis-heteropartriachy Canadian governments were built on, until my siblings outside of the public service are equally protected and welcomed, the rainbow cupcakes and office pride floats will just be decoration.

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