An emerging critical theoretical framework, queer liberation theory attempts to understand the relationship between queerness and capitalism, and more specifically, anti-capitalist movements. It seeks to update and reinvigorate the structural analysis of the earlier gay/queer liberation movement (1960s and 1970s) with the benefit of the insights of queer theory and empirical queer experiences of neoliberal capitalism. Queer liberation theory recognizes and celebrates diverse sexual orientations and gender identities or expression, including essentialist identities such as gay, lesbian, and trans. Within a realist, structural framework, queer liberation theory is interested in how social movements can move beyond identity formation to produce progressive, structural change. To date, three main tenets of the theory have been noted: anti-assimilationism, solidarity across social movements, and the political economy of queerness. The use of the word “queer” signals a progressive, critical, sex-positive, anti-assimilationist, liberationist perspective as opposed to an assimilationist perspective that strives for respectability, acceptance, prestige, and monetary success on capitalism’s terms. The second tenet, solidarity across movements, is an attempt to transcend to the divisiveness of single-issue politics without sacrificing intersectionality. For example, queer liberation theory seeks to recognize, expose, and dismantle social structures that oppress all communities, albeit in different ways. The political economy of queerness refers to a class analysis of structural inequalities. A genealogy of queer liberation theory’s development shows where it reflects, incorporates, or rejects aspects of various theories including a social constructionist perspective, with its debates about essentialism and identities; social movement theory, with its political tensions between recognition and redistribution; queer theory, with its focus on fluidity and ambiguity; materialism, with the strengths and shortcomings of its class analysis; and intersectionality with its focus on a matrix worldview of interlocking systems of oppression; and feminist political economy, with its focus on social reproduction, but adequate recognition of queer sexuality. Indeed, feminist political economy offers something of a pink road map to discover what aspects of the economy will be important for queer liberation theory to explore. Feminist political economy is helpful in the development of queer liberation theory because it has long claimed sexuality and identity as legitimate, as opposed to frivolous, sites of scholarship and political struggle. Feminist political economy, like queer liberation theory, seeks to understand oppression based on sexuality in everyday life. However, the feminist political economy road map takes us only so far, because the focus of the analysis can be seen as gendered, and often cisgendered, lives. Queer liberation theory attempts to draw from these theories to better understand the relationship between queerness and capitalism and provide a basis for political action.
The Canadian LGBT movement has had enormous success in gaining political and legal recognition for sexual minorities—as much as any of its sister movements in other countries. This is especially remarkable because the sexual repressiveness of the Canadian social and political climate remained largely in place until the 1990s. And although activist groups across the country have had challenges in marshalling resources, mobilizing beyond the regional level, and overcoming internal inequities, advocacy pressure has been effective enough to produce a political sea change with few precedents in other issue areas. Starting in the 1990s, Canada experienced a country-wide “takeoff” in the formal recognition of sexual diversity, most dramatically in the legal status given to same-sex relationships. Even if a vocal minority of the general public opposed such moves, the acceptance of sexual minorities as legitimate members of the Canadian mosaic has become politically normalized. Sexual diversity is far from being fully accepted, and those communities traditionally under-represented in the LGBT movement still face marginalization in a period of growing socioeconomic inequality. But the movement has made impressive gains, aided by social and institutional factors that have allowed activist leverage when the political winds blew in their favor. This success, however, presents new challenges, creating complacency within and beyond LGBT circles and increasing the difficulty of mobilizing people and resources. The decline of religiously conservative opposition to the public recognition of sexual diversity in Canada has also created room for the movement to become more fragmented than it has been in the past. And yet there is still much need for advocacy. Socially conservative politicians are still pandering to public anxiety about recognizing sexual diversity. Activist attention is still needed in areas such as schooling, policing, social service provision, and immigration. Trans people, “two-spirited” Indigenous people, and sexual minorities within Canada’s large ethnocultural and religious minorities are often on the margins of their own communities, the broader society, and the LGBT movement itself. From the early 1970s through the mid-2000s, the Canadian movement’s trajectory was similar to activism elsewhere. A “liberationist” period generated a long-lasting strand of radicalism alongside a slowly growing current focused on seeking rights through mainstream political channels (Adam, 1987, 1999). The analysis to follow first points to distinctive elements of the Canadian social and political context and then traces the evolution of what would become the LGBT movement from these early stages and into a period of legal and political “takeoff.” It points to strong commonalities in movement agendas, even across imposing regional lines, but also recognizes the challenges of mounting coherent movement responses to remaining inequities in a political environment so marked by activist success.