Tim McCaskell is often referred to as a granddaddy of gay activism in Canada, though he’s suggested he prefers the term “dinosaur.” In his exhaustive history of LGBT politics in Toronto and beyond, McCaskell tracks the shifts and shake-ups that transformed the ferocious gay liberation and radical feminism of the 1970s into a mainstream gay politics of assimilation, normativity, and perverse nationalism.
From its beginning – a carefully written review of key concepts such as materialism, liberalism, Keynesian economics, and gay liberation – it’s clear that Queer Progress is in the business of analysis as much as it is about telling a crucial story. But the two aspects are thoughtfully intertwined, with McCaskell identifying examples of, say, left opportunism at work in the disruptions of gay conferences by revolutionary Marxist groups, or early rhetorical shifts toward respectability and away from sexual liberation.
The latter implies the book’s central question: where and how did a movement that vociferously defended sexual deviance, and that universally distrusted the state, get replaced by a politics that shies away from radical sexuality and unquestioningly lauds a wonky, government-approved vision of gay rights? A queer sort of “progress” indeed.
McCaskell’s accounts of The Body Politic newspaper, the Toronto bathhouse raids, the first days of the HIV/AIDS crisis, legalized marriage, and Queers Against Israeli Apartheid are woven together with clarity and a welcome sense of humour. He takes care to fairly represent as many of the different groups and political actors as possible, taking time to honour the different issues and approaches that divided (and united) gay men and – in particular – lesbians.
Careful not to overdo the book’s nostalgic aspect, and clearly aware of his position as a cis white man, McCaskell also recognizes the failings of many prominent activist groups regarding questions such as racial inclusion, gender equality, and class divisions. Even so, interviews with people from excluded groups, or those working intimately around these issues, feel a bit sparse.
McCaskell is somewhat apologetic for using his personal narrative to structure a book about a political history, writing “this is not to inflate my importance … but to make the account more vivid and accessible.” As someone who was, in fact, integral to many of the stories at hand, McCaskell’s memories and personal anecdotes not only make the 500-page tome inviting and easy to navigate, they also make it feel more complete. After all, having been there is the greatest insurance against missing important pieces of the story.
Still, the author is avid about citing primary sources, interviewing others, and using a defined and accessible leftist political language to explain myriad complex phenomena. While many of today’s queer intellectuals simply bandy about the term “homonationalism,” McCaskell looks closely at the mechanics and economics that have led to this phenomenon.
The length of the book is a testament to how complex and fraught these histories can be. But McCaskell’s personal experience, rigorous research, and acute analysis make Queer Progress an essential gift to the study of LGBT politics in Canada, and a critical tool for activists and community members today.