From evangelism to Black consciousness to a Marxist analysis of labour, and from Brazil to South Africa to China to the Caribbean, the faculty members and graduate students at the University of Toronto’s new Queer and Trans Research Lab (QTRL) are bringing a uniquely transnational perspective and inter-disciplinary approach to scholarship and activism.
The QTRL, part of the Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies, has set out to break down barriers between academic disciplines, between institutions and queer, trans, and BIPOC communities, and between artists, activists, and scholars.
“The lab definitely gives me a sense of optimism about what is possible in an institution, about what we might create,” says graduate student Mónica Espaillat Lizardo. “Spaces continue to be very violent for queer, trans and racialized folk, but it makes me very hopeful to see people working across disciplines, across mediums, across cities, and globally. It gives me hope to imagine the types of relationships we might create between folks imagining different freedoms.”
Espaillat Lizardo and the research team at the lab are using the opportunity to work on their dissertations or on books, while interacting with artists, activists, and leaders drawn from queer, trans, and BIPOC communities across the GTA.
The academic research team includes Martha LA McCain Faculty Research Fellows Andrea Allen and Jordache Ellapen; graduate students Mónica Espaillat Lizardo, Elliott Tilleczek and Ian Liujia Tian; and Research Associate Nikoli Attai, who serves as the QTRL Program Coordinator.
Andrea Allen says she has the United States Army to thank for her interest in the lives of LGBTQ Brazilians.
While an undergraduate at Northwestern University, Allen — who currently holds a joint appointment as assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology and the Centre for Diaspora and Transnational Studies — joined the Army Reserve.
“I was young,” explains Allen. “Some people join the circus, I joined the military.”
Allen was offered the chance to learn a language and was assigned Portuguese.
Learning the language sparked Allen’s interest in Brazil, where Portuguese is the main language. And the fact that she was working on a double major in Afro-American studies and religious studies led her to want to learn more about Afro-Brazilian life and religions like Candomblé, an African diasporic religion that developed in Brazil during the nineteenth century.
“Candomblé is seen as accepting of, and even celebrating to a degree, same-sex relationships,” says Allen. “It goes beyond gender binaries, and it consists of many different myths about deities in same-sex relationships.”
Allen’s interest led her to participate in a study abroad program in north-east Brazil during her undergraduate studies, where she interviewed a number of LGBTQ religious practitioners, work that continues to this day.
Her time in the US military, however, was much more short-lived. Allen came out to her unit in 2000 via a letter, and, in doing so, fell afoul of the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy in place at the time. She was discharged as a result in 2003.
“I told and was kicked out,” says Allen. “It was a hunt for queer people in the military. I had a lawyer, so I got an honourable discharge. I’m glad I had that experience, but my political leanings are not aligned with the US military’s interests, or with US interests in general. When you get older, you learn things.”
Allen went on to get a Master’s in theology at Harvard Divinity School and a PhD in anthropology from Harvard. Her first book, Violence and Desire in Brazilian Lesbian Relationships, came out in 2015. Allen is now working on her new book, Other Sheep Not of This Fold: LGBTQ Evangelicals in Brazil and the Brazilian Diaspora.
Having spent her own childhood in a Baptist evangelical church, Allen has long been interested in how queer people fit into religious structures. In Brazil, mainstream evangelical churches do not accept queer people, and evangelism is more closely aligned with national identity.
“Queer people are not accepted, are not seen as Christian,” she said. “They’re seen as sinful. Evangelicals in general do not accept LGBTQ people.”
The result, she says, is that queer people have started their own churches.
“The churches I visited in Brazil were led by gay people, the sermons were very similar to churches of my youth—liturgically similar, theologically similar. Everything except for sexuality,” she says. “When I was there, they didn’t really have a relationship between inclusive churches and mainstream churches. But that may be starting to change.”
Allen plans to continue her research among queer Brazilian evangelicals in Toronto and Lisbon. For now, she is also enjoying the opportunity to work with fellow QTRL members.
“Just getting to know the work of different people has been useful to me. It lets me ask, ‘How can I make my research more inclusive of different ideas that are rooted in communities?”
Growing up in South Africa as apartheid was being dismantled indelibly shaped Jordache Ellapen’s perceptions of race, particularly ideas of what constitute Blackness and Indianness in the country.
“South Africa became democratic in 1994, and it became known as the rainbow nation,” says Ellapen. “There was hope for a multicultural state, where everyone belongs to the nation on equal terms. One of the most liberal constitutions in the world was introduced in 1996, and it was one of the first to protect sexual minority rights.
“But ultimately what we have is a set of constitutional protections that do not always translate into reality. Queer people in South Africa are still subjected to very high levels of violence. And we still have a society that is very much separated along racial lines. But those early days of democracy shaped how I feel about Indo-African relations. I’ve seen how the notion of what constitutes Blackness has shifted. And I’m rethinking what it means to be Afro-Indian.”
In South Africa, the Indian community itself was used as a buffer between the black and white populations under apartheid, says Ellapen, and was falsely stereotyped as being completely successful economically.
“The Indian community in South Africa is not a homogenous community,” Ellapen said. “The colonial and apartheid states did not differentiate between trader and indentured classes.”
Ellapen — currently an assistant professor in the Department of Historical Studies at UTM — is using his time at the QTRL to continue work on his book Indenture Aesthetics: Afro-Indian Intimacies.
The book explores work by queer and feminist South African visual artists to examine the relationships between racialized communities that the apartheid regime often played off against each other.
“It curates aesthetic practices by Afro-Indian and Black South African artists, thinking about the relationships between communities historically racialized in opposition to each other,” says Ellapen. “I’m interested in speaking to how we retrain ourselves to see Indianness or Africaness or Blackness as categories that intersect and bleed into each other, and not as oppositional.
“The South African state, in articulating what constitutes genuine Blackness, excludes Black queer people from its construction of citizenship,” says Ellapen. “But some of the most profound critiques of the nation-state are from communities who have been historically marginalized. And queer, gender-non-conforming femmes and women are at the forefront of challenging how the nation-state determines who its proper subjects are.”
Ellapen turns to the murdered anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko’s idea of Black consciousness to try to further break down the ideas of race in South Africa.
“Biko understood blackness to be very capacious, not something restricted to skin colour,” says Ellapen. “Under the definition of Black consciousness, Indian, mixed-race, and Black people were all thought of as black. For Biko, the fight against apartheid needed to bring together all racialized communities to fight white supremacy.”
Ellapen welcomes the opportunity afforded by the QTRL to focus solely on his book. But he has also appreciated the chance to learn from others at the lab.
“Historically, the ways in which our communities have been studied has been from the outsider perspective of a white academic,” he says. “More and more of us who come from racialized, diasporic communities are engaging scholarship about our own communities from our own perspective.
“To think and work together and share in the way the lab encourages us to do is very generative for projects of this kind,” he says. “It’s always interesting when you bring together people from multi-disciplinary backgrounds. You see things you normally wouldn’t because you’re stuck in your own world. It reveals how important spaces like the QTRL are for the transmission of knowledge.”
Mónica Espaillat Lizardo
The University of Toronto gave Mónica Espaillat Lizardo the ability to understand all the difficult aspects of her life.
“In my first year of undergrad, I took a course in the Equity Studies department,” she says. “The course spoke about the processes of racial violence, colonial violence, diverse sexuality in a way I hadn’t heard before. I just remember being so absolutely excited and so tremendously angry. Growing up as an undocumented immigrant in the U.S. with parents of different races, it was very difficult. After I took this class, I remember calling my dad, feeling like I finally had words to explain the context of my own life.”
Espaillat Lizardo had received an undergraduate scholarship to the prestigious Smith College in Massachusetts, but was unable to show proof of citizenship. And, following a visit to her birthplace in the Dominican Republic, she was denied reentry to the U.S. Fortunately, she was accepted at the University of Toronto and was able to obtain a student visa to study in the history department. She is now a permanent resident in Canada and is able to visit her family in the U.S.
Espaillat Lizardo’s visits to the Dominican Republic — coupled with her work in the History Department and the Sexual Diversity Studies collaborative degree program— also led to her current PhD dissertation “Transversive Movements: A Critical Trans History of Hispaniola.”
“Questions of citizenship and belonging have been a part of my life ever since I can remember,” she explains. “I remember going back to the DR when I was 18, and finally feeling I was somewhere I felt I belong. I visited a small town while I was there and saw graffiti saying ‘Out to the Haitians.’ I had romantic ideas of going home, but I realized it was reliant on the exclusion of others, just like in the US.”
Espaillat Lizardo quickly learned that Haitians weren’t the only groups excluded from life in the DR.
“Gender and diversity in the DR are treated quietly, as if there is no sexual diversity, there is no gender diversity,” she says. “There’s this idea of an ethnic intruder, but also of gender and sexuality intruders. There are lots of mechanisms used to exclude legally and socially LGBTQ Dominicans.”
As an example, she points to the citizen ID card. Until 2013, the card had a racial category which served to stigmatize Dominicans of Haitian descent. The cards also require the holder to register under the gender assigned to them at birth, and government rules state that photos of “people who are dressed or in costume pretending to be another sex cannot be taken.”
But trans Dominicans continue to fight for their rights, and support sometimes comes from unexpected quarters.
“There is something so profoundly moving about the ways in which LGBTQ mobilizing has occurred in the DR,” she says. “One of the people I interview for my work, Anlly Rodriguez, was giving a talk in the capital city, and a teacher had brought her students all the way from a rural area to hear it. The teacher stood up and said, ‘I don’t have the right words, but we are affected the same way, we are in the same fight. I wanted my students to learn about your fight.’”
Despite what the University of Toronto has afforded her, Espaillat Lizardo says she still feels a lot of discomfort working within an academic institution because of the ways these institutions so often produce exclusions of their own. But, Espaillat Lizardo shares, the QTRL is helping to dispel some of that.
“To move beyond discomfort into resolution, that’s what I’m learning from the community activists at the QTRL. What can I do with my discomfort in more practical ways?”
After moving to the city to attend the University of Toronto 10 years ago from their hometown of Sudbury, it took Elliott Tilleczek a while to find their place. But as a graduate student at the QTRL, they feel like they belong.
“Growing up in Sudbury was weird,” they say. “There’s a small town feeling and there’s a sense of community. But as a queer kid, I always felt I was on the wrong side of that. I loved the idea of being that cliched small-town queer kid moving to the big city.”
Tilleczek lived in Toronto’s queer village. But at school, doing an undergraduate degree in English and anthropology — with a minor in visual arts — they found themselves seeking a more meaningful connection.
“It’s kind of isolating being a queer student at U of T,” they say. “There’s a lack of community, a lack of feeling like I could be myself, to be taken seriously and not as some sort of curiosity. In English and Art and Anthropology, I didn’t feel unwelcome, but I definitely felt a sense of otherness.”
But as Tilleczek’s academic life progressed, they began to find more acceptance.
“When I started taking anthropology of gender, I realized there was a space to bring the personal and the professional together, to find a throughline to the disparate parts of myself,” they say.
Tilleczek has their Master’s degree in Anthropology, and as a graduate student in Sociocultural Anthropology and Sexual Diversity Studies, is now working on their PhD dissertation on queer and trans digital activism.
The lab, they say, feels like where they should be.
“There’s a non-hierarchal approach,” they say. “There’s an openness, a supportiveness, with everybody standing on equal ground. The feeling and energy, everyone working on these really fascinating issues, it feels like the lab is building a very unique project. It’s like a dream job, everything I’ve wanted.”
Tilleczek’s own work involves looking at attempts by online activists to build that sort of dream world for everybody.
“I’m interested in how people who identify as queer or trans engage on Instagram or Twitter and are trying to build community through queer erotic activism,” they say. “I’m looking at influencer culture, consumer capitalism, and ways in which queer activists are changing the available platforms.
“I’m asking people if they consider what they do online to be activism and I am getting definitions that are sometimes at odds with each other. Simply existing as a queer person in heteronormative spaces online can be understood as activism. So looking at these very different engagements and understandings is changing what we can think of as activism in the first place.”
Tilleckzek has also taken on the role of multi-media content producer for the QTRL and sees a future as a professor.
“With the work I’m doing at the QTRL, I realize I don’t need to be a stuffy academic,” they say. “There’s a space for me in academia, which feels exciting.”
Ian Liujia Tian
Ian Liujia Tian’s first experiences of Toronto came as an undergrad at Shandong University in China when he would watch episodes of Queer as Folk and the sci-fi thriller Orphan Black, both filmed in the city.
When he came to Toronto in 2017 to obtain his Master’s in Social Justice Education at OISE, the reality was a little different from Orphan Black.
“Nobody is being cloned in Toronto!” he says.
He also initially found the city less welcoming than he had been led to think it would be.
“I found it a lot whiter than I had expected,” says Tian. “There were not as many racialized spaces as I had hoped. But when I started working with ACAS (Asian Community AIDS Services), I actually found queer and Asian spaces in the city.”
Tian also found working with queer groups in Toronto easier than in China. As an undergraduate at Shandong University, he had founded the first LGBTQ group on campus.
“It existed underground, not officially affiliated with anyone on campus,” he says. “We had professors who were supportive. We were able to book classrooms and get some material support. And outside of campus, there are lots of cafes happy to host film screenings, etc. We organized online and were able to fly under the radar.
“But yes, it put me in some danger.”
In China, Tian also worked with a group called Queer Workers, which provides help to migrant labourers.
These experiences led to his Master’s thesis on labour organizing in China, and to his current PhD thesis on “Queer Marxist Approaches to Labour and Social Reproduction in China.”
“My time with Queer Workers helped me start thinking about labour and sexual identities together,” says Tian. “The thesis comes from my experiences, rooted in people’s daily, material life, which itself comes from a Marxist understanding of labour. I’m looking at spaces where production happens, and looking at what happens after you finish work, at times of social reproduction such as having sex or cooking, washing dishes, socializing. I’m interested in how those aspects of life are tied to the productive aspects.”
Toward this end, Tian is examining the lives of queer workers in Guanzhou.
“I approach this not through a heteronormative lens, but through a queer lens,” he says. “I’m researching cruising sites in these spaces. I am looking at this through the lens of pleasure and how this relates to work. I want to find out how much of our pleasure is shaped by the productive aspects of our lives.”
Being part of the QTRL has helped Tian further develop his dissertation through work with Professor Daniel Grace, from the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, who is also a part of the QTRL. Together they are working on a paper about race, racism, and sexual practices during the Covid crisis.
“Working with Professor Grace is really helping me think through how pleasure is socially determined by race, and how for men who have sex with men, pleasure is always related to public health.”
Tian says he had difficulty finding a knowledgeable professor to supervise his dissertation. The University of Toronto recently hired a professor who works on queer issues in China, he says—assistant professor Shana Ye—but that shortage has convinced him to help fill that gap.
“I want to continue in academia for that reason,” he says. “There are not enough faculty members working on Asia in general.”
But he cautions, “Everything is very precarious in late-stage capitalism.”
The QTRL is making Chido Muchemwa contemplate how to talk about sexual and gender identities in her homeland of Zimbabwe.
“It’s helping me develop the language to talk about queerness,” says the graduate student in the School of Information Studies and Sexual Diversity Studies. “We tend to talk about it there as if it’s vulgar. I want to find a way to talk about it in everyday language.”
One of the ways Muchemwa is approaching that is through analysis of the country’s national archives, the subject of her PhD thesis: “Nation, Narrative, and Archive: Reading for Freedom in Zimbabwe.”
Muchemwa didn’t set out to explore how queer people were addressed in the archives.
“When I started my PhD, I was a pure archive person,” she says. “I just wanted to analyze the archives. But a year in, I just wanted to blow up the whole project. I felt I was getting nowhere. Then I ended up in a queer diaspora course and realized there’s this thing called queer theory. And I realized it would allow me to analyze the archives in a way no-one had before. I understood that the archives are not inclusive and that I was just helping to erase queer people. Instead, I’m re-imagining the national archives, thinking about displacing them as the ultimate source of history in Zimbabwe.”
Muchemwa is also exploring the country’s oral traditions, especially the “praise poems” clans and families use to tell their stories, and how queer voices can be incorporated into works that often perpetuate historic inequalities.
Muchemwa has a BA in creative writing and French literature from the University of North Texas and an MFA from the University of Wyoming. She uses her own writing – which can be found at www.chidomuchemwa.com – to explore those excluded voices. But she recognizes that achieving real-world change will be a challenge. The QTRL is helping to address those issues.
“People ask different questions when they’re not in academia,” she says. “People who are working with communities or are artists ask us to be more honest and fundamental. How do I make this project about more than my impact as a scholar? How do I make this have a positive impact on the communities I study?”
Muchemwa has found it especially helpful working with professor Jordache Ellapen as a research assistant. Ellapen is one of the faculty fellows at the QTRL whose focus is on South African queer artists.
“What are the odds?” asks Muchemwa. “Someone working in my neck of the woods, someone who understands the sexual politics of being queer in southern Africa. When you’re the only Black person in a course and everyone else is white, then for everyone else, it’s purely an academic exercise. Finding other scholars who are working on potentially sticky situations, that’s the best part.”
Muchemwa recognizes that change in Zimbabwe for queer people will not happen overnight. But she is optimistic.
“The last couple of years, there’s been a lot of people on social media, using accounts with real names advocating for real change,” she says. “Hopefully, we can legalize things that have no business being illegal. There’s a lot of potential here in the next few years. It’s going to be easier to find other people like me now.”
Nikoli Attai wants to change the stories about queer lives and human rights in the Caribbean.
“I’m interested in thinking about how queer human rights funding affects the kind of activism we see,” says Attai. “A lot of money is geared towards HIV and decriminalization of colonial sodomy laws, and there’s a focus on extreme violence, on transphobia, and homophobia. But we need to see what money could do for queer people actively negotiating their sense of belonging, who cannot or choose not to leave the region.
“People in authority need to listen to persons on the ground. They need to work with working-class trans people, many of whom are doing sex work. But instead of using funds for safe housing, or providing medication and food, they just want to do testing to find more HIV+ people to justify more funding. So what the funding is geared towards automatically influences the narrative, which means the funding can contribute to the violence and discrimination.”
To explore these issues, Attai — who has a PhD in Women and Gender Studies and Sexual Diversity Studies from the University of Toronto — is working on his first book Making Life: A Politics of Hope in the Queer Anglophone Caribbean.
“I’m looking at the hope found where people are creating community: in queer nightlife and co-opted spaces, and how they are claiming agency in these spaces, and creating forms of kinship, and the different kind of politics we find when centering mostly working-class groups and experiences away from formal activism.”
Attai got his BA from the University of the West Indies in Jamaica and his Master’s from the University of the West Indies in his homeland of Trinidad & Tobago. In Trinidad, Attai began his work with a project examining sexual culture, learning how people negotiate sex and gender in urban night spaces.
“There was so much to learn about queer and gender issues,” says Attai. “In Trinidad, there are a lot of queer people doing sex work. They have really interesting stories to tell, and I became more involved with this community.”
Attai has maintained close contact with Trinidad’s Coalition Advocating for Inclusion of Sexual Orientation (CAISO: Sex and Gender Justice), which advocates for queer communities and works with other communities affected by injustice. Attai is also working with fellow Trinidadians to archive Trinidad’s queer history through pictures, videos, and posters from the late ’80s to create a digital platform.
In Toronto, which has a large Caribbean diasporic population, he is documenting the experiences of queer people from the Anglophone Caribbean who have sought asylum in Canada.
But, Attai says, Canada and Toronto are not always as welcoming as promised.
“You hear stories from queer refugees about how they hear of Canada as a place where everybody finds their place. But when they’re here, they experience anti-black violence, and they’re highly sexualized even within the queer community. They can end up homeless and need to do sex work to survive.”
The QTRL, says Attai, is an example of how those stories and communities can be centered in research.
“This community engagement model works to ensure we’re accountable to our communities. We want to end the cycle of researchers exploiting communities,” he says. “To do this we must foster closer relationships with the communities that we write about.
“That’s what’s really cool about this model.”