Homophobia near and far

Among the most challenging tasks of activism (for me, at least) is persistence: having the energy to keep on keeping on. This is especially true in relation to battles that I thought were done (at least in relative terms). The anti-gay legislation in Russia -and, importantly, its violent effects- clearly illustrate that incomplete civil rights gains can be retracted and taken-for-granted social norms (navigating more or less thinly veiled homophobia) can shift dramatically. If you haven’t read Masha Gessen’s piece on this point, you should.

Russian anti gay laws

The situation is frightening, and the best thing I can say about the upcoming winter Olympics is that at least it is providing opportunities to draw attention to these laws and their effects.

Persisting in the face of hate speech is exhausting–it takes a physical, mental, and emotional toll. This is why there is, in my opinion, a place for equalities legislation and inclusivity policy. Yes, it will always be an incomplete project, and yes, it should be understood as a process rather than a product; still, these strategies have value. They are not enough, but they help to identify the kind of civil society we want to live in and help to hold people and governments accountable for their (in)ability to enact that vision.

So, in another part of the world (and one with which I am more intimately acquainted), in a very different context than the situation in Russia, I am watching with great interest the municipal response to a hate speech incident which targeted my colleagues-friends. The situation was widely broadcast in the local media and beyond: a Lethbridge, Alberta-based theatre received complaints from some neighbouring business owners that qualified as homophobic vitriol: “homosexual lifestyles, transsexual endorsement, child molestation, rape, indecent exposure and acquiring STDs from the building’s toilets”. The “concerns” were taken to City Hall, and the administrative response was a swift modification to the permitting process (the theatre company had moved and was in the midst of dealing with licensing). The result: the theatre could not re-open without City Council approval, and it was being re-framed by the City as an “adult theatre”.

Over the course of the past two days, the situation seems to have been resolved in a relatively neat fashion. The theatre company posted the following on their website today:

theatre outre commentary-11 2.12 PM 30 janI am heartened by the response that Theatre Outre received from supporters, their landlord, and some City Councillors. However, I think that the situation Theatre Outre faced indicates that there is much work to be done to confront homophobia within City government and among Lethbridge’s diverse communities. I addressed these concerns in my letter, pasted below and sent earlier today, to the mayor and City administrators.

30 January 2014


Dear Mayor Spearman and members of the City of Lethbridge administration,


I am writing in response to the issues surrounding Theatre Outré’s Bordello, and the City’s response to this controversy. Bordello is both an important theatre venue and an essential community resource in Lethbridge. Theatre Outré, which operates Bordello, is a theatre company that has been celebrated locally, nationally and internationally. It is strongly supported by local citizens and financially supported by the City of Lethbridge and the Alberta Foundation for the Arts. It is not an “adult space” and should not be treated as such by City administrative policy.


Bordello welcomes audiences from across the gender spectrum and tackles important social issues like social difference (whether in terms of gender, race, sexuality or other type of diversity) through an arts-based practice. This kind of resource is essential to any community, and it should be especially valued in a community like Lethbridge, which has made a commitment to developing a “healthy and diverse city” and a “culturally vibrant city” through its ICSP/MDP Corporate Strategic Plan and by signing onto the CMARD policy initiative. Supporting Bordello and making sure that this theatre can thrive in Lethbridge fit neatly within these strategies, which makes facilitating the re-opening of Bordello in the best interest of the City.


It appears that homophobic hate speech from some of the community’s business owners was able to trigger an administrative response by the City, to re-route Bordello from one type of licensing process to another (unwarranted) licensing process. This demonstrates a disconnect between the City’s social policy initiatives, which aim to support building a welcoming and inclusive community, and its business practices, which did the opposite in this case.


As a former member of the Lethbridge community, and as a person who conducts research on the life stories and experiences of exclusion (and being made to feel different) of Lethbridge’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans*, and queer (LGBTQ) communities, I am well-placed to comment on the effect that homophobia and uneducated hate speech has on those who call Lethbridge home. The type of defamation directed at Bordello feeds intolerant and violent attitudes and behaviours, which profoundly affect people’s understanding and experience of the place they call home. Thus, the City’s response matters tremendously: it can either facilitate further intolerance or shut such divisive behaviours down. I hope that the City chooses the latter route and shows leadership in educating the diverse population of Lethbridge that bullying one community has a immense negative impact on the community as a whole.


I look forward to learning how City leaders and administrators will respond to this issue. Please contact me if I can be of assistance by, for example, sharing the data that I have collected from the Lethbridge LGBTQ oral history project. I would be happy to do so for City leaders and for the community at large.




Tiffany Muller Myrdahl, PhD

Ruth Wynn Woodward Junior Chair

Simon Fraser University


Principle Investigator: The Lives of (Sexual) Others: Social difference and urban change in Lethbridge, Alberta

This is an ongoing SSHRC and University of Lethbridge funded research project



Garth Sherwin, City Manager, City of Lethbridge 

Bary Beck, Director of Community Services, City of Lethbridge 

Diane Randell, Community & Social Development Manager, City of Lethbridge 

Theatre Outre

Re-framing the story of the city through feminist urban futures

This is the keynote I gave at the Women Transforming Cities conference in May, along with the accompanying powerpoint that wasn’t captured in the video. The three main points:

  • Re-frame the story to shift the policy. Here, I focus on troublesome existing models of stakeholders interests and re-visit Ford’s “war on the car”.
  • Embracing, tweaking, and expanding the tools at our disposal. I discuss participatory process and other interventions (equity lens, tactical urbanism, collaborative art practices, etc) with a critical edge.
  • Addressing equity in cities means using an intersectional lens: our experiences of the city are marked and produced through multiple and intersecting power relations.

T Muller Myrdahl Interventions keynote

[Podcast] Making Cities Work for Women: Gender Equality and Social Inclusion in Urban Policy

the city


Dr. Sylvia Bashevkin and urban planner Prabha Khosla speak at the Women Transforming Cities National Conference convened on May 30, 2013. Dr. Bashevkin is Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto and author of Tales of Two Cities: Women and Municipal Restructuring in London and Toronto (UBC Press). Ms. Khosla is an urban planner who works on cities, equalities, and democratic local governance. She has worked on issues of women’s rights and gender equality, social inclusion, urban sustainability, urban environments, democratizing local governance, water and sanitation, and training and capacity building for close to twenty years. Her recent publications include A Training Package: Improving Gender Equality and Grassroots Participation through Good Land Governance and Gender in Local Government: A Sourcebook for Trainers.

Dr. Bashevkin’s speaks to the question – How do women transform cities? – and Ms. Khosla discusses gender equality and social inclusion in municipal policies and…

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Taking account of social change

How does substantive social change happen? There are myriad responses to this question, obviously. For some, meaningful change takes place through policy and in the courts. Others argue that the root of change happens in classrooms. And there are those who suggest that change only comes through on-the-streets activism. Certainly, #IdleNoMore and Occupy remind us that innovative uses of public space – and the claiming of public space – play a significant role in generating action that aims to change hearts, minds, laws, and policies.

To my mind, the answers to this question are not – indeed, cannot be – mutually exclusive. The legwork of social change happens on the streets, in the classroom, online, in the hallowed halls of government, in the less hallowed halls of not-for-profit agencies (NGOs), through the media, and so on. Indeed, having too narrow an imagination for social change strategies is a recipe for disappointment. At the same time, developing an over-reliance on one method or site of social change will inevitably fail to produce the kind of change that its proponents seek (assuming, of course, that proponents are aiming for fundamental social or policy shifts).

This is, perhaps, a less idealistic, more pragmatic view of strategizing for social change. It is one borne of privilege, certainly; being assigned and located within privileges based on certain race, class, and other markers of social position informs my outlook on working outside and inside systems of governance. Equally, this view stems from being/ having been situated in various activist and institutional contexts that approach social change very differently. Although I am currently located in academia, my NGO and policy school days are anything but a distant past: both continue to inform my outlook on social change strategies.

During my former NGO life, I worked in a variety of direct service and management capacities where I learned to balance the immediate needs demanded by service work with the organizational politics associated with NGO survival. This meant, among other things, needing to continuously demonstrate one’s value to funders. In the NGO where I primarily worked in my early 20s, the demand to showcase the worth of any given program functioned as a layer over and above internal strategies for program evaluation. And it involved crafting stories to concisely characterize the outcomes of our programs in a way that was quantifiable and legible to funders. This was no small task given that the mandate of our volunteer-driven programs was to provide supportive resources for women to improve their own lives. How one quantifies the needs met by, say, a coming out support group (to name one example), and does so while remaining accessible (as in, free to users), is tricky. Fee-for-service models or demonstrations of growth as a result of client demand – tactics suggested by funders and supported by some management staff – were not adequate measurements of our program delivery. So, we all did a dance that appears to be commonplace in the NGO sector: a precarious jig that keeps programs afloat in a way that serves the client-population, while somehow providing deliverables that meet the needs of funders.

From the NGO sector, I went to policy school, where I was trained to look at social change differently: although the approach was couched in the language of social change, it focused on deliverables and evaluatable outcomes, and deliverables were defined in part by the ease with which they were evaluated. I struggled with the prevailing logic there, which foregrounded program evaluation and left under-theorized the systemic violence that policies and programs are meant to address. Which is to say that I struggled with the tools that I was being taught to use to facilitate social change. Yet, it was also in policy school where I learned to look with critical eyes at the troublesome investments that we make by expecting institutions to engender widespread social and policy reform. In particular, I have Sally J. Kenney and the texts we read together (Bureaucracy and The Hollow Hope spring to mind) to thank for encouraging a thoughtful interrogation of the (dis)incentives that bureaucrats and institutions have to initiate substantive change.

As an academic, I have a privileged distance to the kind of program development and delivery I conducted as an NGO worker, and an equally privileged distance to the kind of policy development and implementation that many from my policy school cohort pursued. Since I sit on the board of two NGOs, I am not completely removed from grantwriting or program development and evaluation. However, my relationship to the way that social change strategies function within these sectors is qualitatively different now that I am situated as a participant-observer of sorts. Whatever challenges come with being located in the academy (and there are many), this position offers an opportunity to take a wider view: of political-economic context in which the demands for social change emerge; of the intended and unintended effects of social policy and participatory planning; and of the relationship of process to product.

My current academic position also allows me the opportunity to create forums to discuss questions like this one, about the tools we use to generate social change. The first of these forums, a Policy & A Pint event called “Engaging Diverse Communities”, will be held on February 7 at SFU Woodward’s. The panel, which includes a fantastic set of folks representing the City of Vancouver, the City’s Urban Aboriginal Peoples’ Advisory Committee, NGOs (Purple Thistle, PeerNet BC, and LOVE BC), and the Vancouver Foundation, will address how structures like funding streams create opportunities for diverse communities to develop programming and have access to policymakers, while at the same time pose a challenge in the way that they reproduce divisions across a diverse population. My goal will be to facilitate a dialogue – among panellists and with the audience – that will give people a forum to share the successes and constraints of existing social change structures, with the aim of generating some take-away lessons: perhaps a tangible practice that could inform the writing of granting guidelines or program development, or maybe a process-based approach that might influence the City’s ability to engage citizens in ways that reflect an intersectional reading of Vancouver’s diverse population. Or at least the dialogue may provide a starting point toward tangible outcomes.
Eventbrite - Policy & A Pint: Engaging Diverse Communities

The event is free and there will be light snacks and a cash bar. Please join us for what will certainly be a stimulating discussion! Click here to download the poster.

policy and pint ad final-rev

On Driskell et al

Two questions to get started:

What do the authors mean by “pedagogy of place”?

Context plays a tremendous role in this text: the authors spend a great deal of time providing a picture of the landscape, the history, and the players. Given that, how might you translate this text (its activities, its lessons) for use in another context?

On van Eijk

Two questions to get started:

More than anything else, van Eijk’s article reads to me as a treatise on the problem of separating the economic from the social: she wants a fuller recognition of the effects that social agendas have on urban policies. And social agendas do not exist outside of or alongside economic realities; rather, the social and the economic are inextricable. How does the author make this point?

How does community play out in this text?

On Bosco et al

Two questions to get started:

What are the most important points raised by the article?

The authors cite Yuval-Davies to argue that “It is through difference that equality is defined.” (p 160) What does this mean in the context of this article?

On Kern, Sex & the Revitalized City

As everyone read the Kern chapters, I will use this post to prompt some discussion.

First. There are many things that I appreciate about Kern’s book: among other things, I welcome her ability to explicitly link urban policy, the praxis of development, and the experiences of young women condo owners. I am left wondering about gender, however. In the text, gender works as something of a monolithic category. It is deployed but not necessarily examined. At the same time, there seems to be something of (at times, ever so slight) a re-fashioning of how gender is understood and performed for these middle-class women condo owners. Does gender get re-worked in this text, in your opinion?

Second. Kern’s discussion of community is an important challenge to the notion that communities necessarily emerge out of “shared” space, or that new developments in existing, well-established neighbourhoods will join in with similar kinds of community engagement. It’s actually a mystery to me why anyone would make these assumptions. Perhaps this is because I have also written about community in an effort to unsettle its romantic lure. Following Miranda Joseph and others, I interrogated the ways that my interviewees employed the term/idea, arguing that these women used “community” as a way to assert agency. Here’s a piece of my argument (from Muller 2007, “‘Lesbian Community’ in WNBA Spaces”, Social & Cultural Geography):

“MN Lynx [Women’s National Basketball Association] fans reveal that ‘lesbian community’ is invoked as a claim to agency when markers that previously signalled lesbian space have been rendered incoherent. In other words, ‘community’ discourse can be read as an assertion of empowerment in a time and place when lesbian spaces have been dissolved into the urban landscape, and when there is no clearly identifiable ‘lesbian space’.”

I raise this here as another example of how “community” is marked (and marketed). Just as my focus on WNBA fans highlighted the conflicted uses of “community” discourses, Kern’s discussion illustrates how “community” is both imposed (by developers’ visions of what condo living should look like) and adopted by some condo owners, just as it is impossible to operationalize (see p. 118). What are your thoughts about the way that community works in this book?