Voting, Essentially

The limits of the identity lobby

by Ariel Troster

March/April 2006

I COULDN’T HELP BUT CRINGE when Jack Layton suggested during one of the election debates that electing more NDP women to Parliament would somehow civilize the raucous atmosphere of Question Period. There is no doubt that having more women in Parliament is a good and important thing. But the expectation that it’s women’s role to be a quieting, nurturing force, bringing manners into the male world of cursing and posturing, is a throwback to essentialist feminism—-the notion that by pure virtue of biology, men and women “naturally” exhibit different characteristics. You know the drill: women are peace-loving Earth Mothers. Men are vicious brutes who like to eat large chunks of meat and play with guns. It’s women’s role to temper the male beast—-especially in public life.

In her article “If Women Ruled the World…Nothing Would Be Different” (LiP Magazine, Summer 2005), Lisa Jervis, co-founder of Bitch magazine, argues that “it’s the obliteration of rigid gender categories themselves, not any kind of elevation of the feminine, that is our best hope for an end to gender discrimination.” Jervis challenges the notion that leadership by women is inherently different from leadership by men, pointing out that “the actual workings of power will not change with more chromosomal diversity among the powerful.”

By extension, essentialist theory applies to queer activism too—-particularly in the notion that just by identifying the gay and gay-friendly people on Parliament Hill, we will be able to advance our agenda through targeted lobbying and legislative change.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with lobbying when it is used as one tool among many in the queer or feminist activist “toolkit.” But when we limit our efforts to targeting our “allies” in power, rather than building a real social and political movement, we rely on an elitist “inside” strategy that doesn’t provide any democratic space to people who aren’t close to the halls of power.

And it assumes that by virtue of being female—-or queer—-politicians will naturally advance ideals intrinsic to their sexual orientation or gender identity. This approach is both shortsighted and mistaken, as any US anti-racist activist foolish enough to have expected great things from an administration including Colin Powell or Condoleezza Rice will tell you.

The exclusive focus on Parliamentary representation is also a code that politicians can use to their advantage. Liberals and Conservatives distinguished themselves from each other during the election by relying heavily on convenient buzzwords and feel-good phrases. “Pro-same sex marriage” equaled “progressive.” “Progressive” equaled “left.” That one issue became the litmus test by which people (generally lefties) were supposed to evaluate political candidates. Forget the candidates’ positions on taxation, crime, immigration�the real nuts and bolts issues that affect people’s day-to-day lives. If a politician was pro-gay and pro-“a woman’s right to choose” (which are very good things to be)—-that seemed to exonerate him or her from further analysis.

So what would be worse for our communities? A divisive return to the marriage debate or the decimation of our public health care system? Should queer people and feminists not care about cuts to social programs, because the issue isn’t specifically a “gay issue” or a “women’s issue?” And should we let politicians off the hook on other issues just because they proclaim support for our communities?

While no one would argue against the importance of working with a broad range of people to achieve our political goals, the mainstream feminist and queer movements should think beyond the essentialist notion that more women/gay people in power necessarily equals a more progressive government. Because what are we really achieving if our goal has been reduced to “add women and/or queer people and stir?” By focusing solely on issues that are seen as being exclusively “feminist” or “gay,” we run the risk of ignoring the issues that are fundamental to everyone—-fighting poverty and exclusion, maintaining our public universal health care system, pushing for a national childcare program, fighting the contracting out of our jobs, and speaking out against war and draconian security measures.

These kinds of issues cut across gender identity and sexual orientation and require an understanding of both the workings of power and the meaning of solidarity. And while I would hope that, whatever their party affiliations, women and gay Members of Parliament will push for positive change on all these issues, I’m not holding my breath.

Ariel Troster writes from Ottawa and blogs from

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