Straight Pride in Canada’s North: a Case Study of the Politics of Power and Privilege

It was the moment heterosexuals in Canada’s north had been waiting for. Yellowknife, N.W.T., was to have its first ever “Heterosexual Day”: on June 9, 2005. This was a direct reaction to the celebration of Gay Pride Day (which I think should be Queer Pride Day but that’s another story) planned for June 10. The latter event has been celebrated in Yellowknife since 1998.

The people who called for this “alternative” day to celebrate the contributions of heterosexuals to their community claimed that they should have as much right as homosexuals (and others unacknowledged queers) to be recognised. Many other people, including some heterosexual queer allies, feel that every day is Heterosexual Day, just like every day is a day of privilege for the members of various privileged groups within society (French and English Canadians, men, etc).

I have to say that I would have loved to do an ethnographic study of Heterosexual Day. However, there was a major constraint: I live in Montreal and, in spite of the fact that an ethnography of Canadian heterosexual pride written by a Canadian queer woman would be an interesting twist of the old insider-outsider dynamic that contemporary anthropologists still love to rehash every now and then, I was pretty sure that I would not find funding for a trip out to Yellowknife on such short notice without having the time to write up a really convincing grant application.

In the end, Heterosexual Day was “cancelled”:, causing another constraint to my evil scheme, but not before causing some bemusement in the town of Yellowknife as well as in some of Canada’s queer networks.

I think that a cultural analysis of this phenomenon is very interesting and that there are, in fact, many parallels with other movements where a “minority” group encounters resistance from the “majority”. At the same time though, it is a reminder of the sense of loss of identity that members of a “majority” group may feel within a society when they do not belong to any particular group that is allowed to feel pride in its heritage or shared identity.

So, in the spirit of this blog’s name and to establish myself as a true wild pansy to counter the fact that my anglophone colleagues here were the ones who informed me, a francophone, about the double entendre behind the name Pensée Sauvage, I thought that an attempt at a structuralist analysis of pride à la “Claude Lévi-Strauss”: would be great fun. I say “attempt” because I am out of practice with structuralism, not having done such an analysis since my undergrad course in Understanding Myths.

To start, let us look at the binary opposition between gay and straight. Although it appears straightforward, it is of course quite problematic as there are many behaviours and identities that fall in a grey zone between these two extremes. It might therefore appear more useful to draw an opposition between queer and straight. However, seeing as queer, “in the largest sense”:, includes heterosexuals with non-mainstream sexual practices, this is not so straightforward either (pun intended).

So how do we go about this? Let us look at an opposition between the sexual majority and the sexual minority. That should work . . .for the time being. It also allows for the above-mentioned parallels with other “majority/minority” oppositions such as anglophone/francophone (in a large part of Canada), francophone/anglophone (in Québec), Euro-Canadian/Aboriginal, male/female and so forth. To be clear, we are using the terms “majority” and “minority” here in the sense of relative power and privilege rather than of numerical proportions.

The next step, then, is to correlate this opposition with an opposition between two sorts of pride. Pride in the sense of lack of shame and struggle for rights in the face of a discriminatory society that has marginalised one’s group becomes associated with sexual, and other, minorities. On the other hand, pride in the sense of maintaining the power and dominance of one’s group at the expense of the well-being of others becomes associated with sexual, and other, majorities. The mediating factor in the set of oppositions may be protection: in the first case, protection against a return to previous times of overt discrimination and hostility and, in the other, protection against the loss of privilege.

In this scheme of things, it becomes very difficult to express pride in oneself or in one’s group without it being interpreted as the brand of pride that is, overtly or not, associated with one’s status as a member of the sexual majority or minority. I’m afraid that this is what may have happened to Councillor Alan Woytuik, the initiator of the Heterosexual Day idea. As quoted in the second article that is linked to above:

I am not anti-gay and I’m not advocating denial of anyone’s rights or promoting discrimination. In fact, my position is just the opposite. I fully support the fundamental principle of democracy that everyone should be treated equal. I feel many people have misinterpreted the intent behind my request. The proclamation was in response to Out North’s request for Gay Pride Day, but it was not intended as a protest against the ideals of Out North.

One of the questions with which my proposed ethnography of Heterosexual Day would have been concerned is whether Councillor Woytuik and other people promoting heterosexual pride were attempting, in fact, to express a sort of pride that was merely an expression of self-worth that is on par with the self-worth of “the other” rather than an attempt to maintain a power base relative to the latter group.

In the larger social scheme of things, this line of thinking lends itself to asking whether the various “majority”, or privilege-holding, groups in North American societies need to give up any expression of pride in order to avoid an appearance of an attempt at the continued marginalisation of “minorities”. In other words, can men be proud of their maleness without it being construed as misogyny or sexism? Can Québec francophones be proud of their French heritage without it being construed as anti-anglo sentiment?

This also makes me wonder to what extent “minority” groups, such as women, queers, Aboriginals and so forth, can express pride without it being construed as an attack on the corresponding majority groups. How much can women express female pride before it is taken by men as a sign of metaphorical castration? How much can Canadian Aboriginals express pride before Euro-Canadians begin to take it as a push to pack up and “go home” to Europe?

Now before someone gives me slack, I want to point out that all of the above analyses are based on interpretation of pride rather than on intent behind the expression of pride. I also want to point out that most of this works at the group level to the extent that members auto-identify as group members. The minute we try to bring this down to the individual level, the issues become much more complex. The main reason for this added complexity is that, for the most part, the individual transcends various societal groups and navigates between majority and minority status as s/he goes about her daily routines or travels through his life course.

Let me offer myself as an example: as a Canadian of Western European descent, I am part of the majority in certain contexts, namely the context of “Whites” versus Aboriginals and “visible minorities”. As a bilingual Canadian, or franglophone, I can be part of either the linguistic majority or minority in either Québec or the rest of Canada, depending on who I’m with and what mood I’m in at the time. As a woman, I’m a gendered minority (always in terms of relative power and privilege). As a queer, I’m part of a sexual minority. As a bisexual and gender queer, I’m part of a minority within a minority. As an individual who was raised as a Catholic and who could pass for one if I chose, I am part of a religious majority relative to Jews, Muslims and others. As an ex-Catholic following an alternative spiritual path, I am part of a religious minority. As someone from a working-class family of origin, I am part of a class minority. As someone who is now working for a publicly funded college and therefore supposedly “middle-class”, even though my salary doesn’t reflect it, I am part of a class majority.

If my own situation is quite complex and riddled with ins and outs and loci of power, I am sure that the identities many individuals are as complex if not more. Each individual experiences relative privilege or relative lack of privilege in the various interactions in which s/he engages. How, then, can expressions of pride be construed anthropologically in a way that can shed light on power relations and identity markers among the public? Given that individuals are hesitant to acknowledge their own sources of privilege, especially when the appearance of being attacked somehow can be advantageous to a given cause, this is a monumental task. It certainly calls into question many of the debates that have been happening on SM regarding theory, morality and practice in anthropology. It also dabbles in identity politics and polemics, societal power structures and all sorts of other lovelies.

As “Oneman”:/oneman/ might say: “Oy”.