Profs launch book and film on gay and lesbian rights

The lesbian and gay movement in Canada and the US is a hot topic for York professors and longtime collaborators Nancy Nicol and Miriam Smith. The duo is presenting their latest work, a look at the state of queer politics in North America, at a book launch and film premiere next week.

The event will include a screening of Nicol’s documentary, One Summer in New Paltz, a cautionary tale (54 minutes, 2008), along with the launch of Smith’s book, Political Institutions and Lesbian and Gay Rights in the United States and Canada (Routledge, 2008) in the Gladstone Hotel’s North Ballroom, 1214 Queen St. W., Toronto, Wednesday, Sept 24., from 7 to 9pm.

Left: A still from One Summer in New Paltz. Jason West performs the first same-sex marriage in New Paltz in February 2004 between Jeffrey McGowan and Billiam van Roestenberg

Smith’s book examines how political institutions in Canada and the US have influenced the gay and lesbian movement and produced different policy outcomes in the two countries regarding the decriminalization of sodomy, anti-discrimination laws and same-sex marriage. Nicol’s film explores the rash of civil disobedience across America sparked by President George Bush’s call to enshrine a heterosexual definition of marriage in the US constitution. It also looks at how the same-sex marriage debate intersected with the war in Iraq, race, family, grassroots organization, straight/gay alliances and state repression.

“Nancy and I have worked together for many years. Essentially Nancy has covered the same ground in her film as I have in my books. So they go together, they play off one another,” says Smith. “It’s a unique collaboration and it’s definitely interdisciplinary.”

Smith is a professor with York’s School of Public Policy & Administration in the Atkinson Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies. Nicol is a York visual arts professor in the Faculty of Fine Arts.

Directed, edited, written and produced by Nicol with research collaboration by Smith, One Summer in New Paltz, a cautionary tale is set against the anti-LGBT policies of the Bush administration. Told as a fable, the film focuses on the heroics of small-town mayor Jason West, who defied the law by marrying same-sex couples on the steps of the New Paltz Village Hall in New York state. He was arrested a few days, later charged with 24 counts of solemnizing a marriage without a license. The marriages brought Fred Phelps, known as a right-wing extremist, to the town in protest.

“You have this young mayor in a town who dared to do the unthinkable,” says Nicol. “What happened in New Paltz sent waves of civil disobedience around the country. That didn’t happen in Canada where the battle was mostly fought in the courts.”

Faced with a possibility of two-dozen years in jail, West stopped performing the marriages. Two local ministers and later dozens of clergy from various faiths, however, came to New Paltz and continued marrying same-sex couples, despite opposition from the New York state governor and the religious right.

“The film is a kind of microcosm of a much larger story,” says Nicol.

Left: Fred Phelps, known for his right-wing extremist views, pickets against the same-sex marriages in New Paltz. A still from One Summer in New Paltz

But as Smith argues in Political Institutions and Lesbian and Gay Rights in the United States and Canada, it is the differences in the two countries’ political institutions, not political culture, that really drive the divergent outcomes. The beliefs of the people in the US and Canada are similar, but the structures of the political institutions are not. “I was always skeptical of political culture as the explanation for the differences between the two countries,” says Smith. “If you are an opponent to same-sex marriage in Canada, it’s very difficult to find an avenue to voice that in the political system.” In the US, dissention can be voiced through ballot initiatives. “Our political institutions don’t allow for those levers.”

Smith contends that if the structure of Canada’s political institutions were more like those of the US, the legality of same-sex marriage would vary from province to province. “So we wouldn’t have the current cohesion of same-sex marriage legal rights across the country.”

Marriage rights and criminal law fall under state jurisdiction in the US, but in Canada, they are under federal jurisdiction. The provinces have little say in those matters. “Political institutions,” says Smith, “are not just dry and legal institutions, they actually shape society. Political culture cannot account for differences between Canadian and American policies in this area," she argues.

Left: A still from Nicol’s film One Summer in New Paltz. Rev. Pat Bumgardner marries Michelle and Montel Cherry-Slack in New York City on the steps of City Hall in March 2004

Smith received a Standard Research Grant from the Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) (2005 to 2008) to write Political Institutions and Lesbian and Gay Rights in the United States and Canada, along with a Bora Laskin National Fellowship in Human Rights Research – a SSHRC special research fellowship, which she held from 2006 to 2007 – and the Fulbright Visiting Chair in Law and Society at New York University during the 2007 fall term.

The pair have already embarked on their next collaboration. Smith and Nicol are co-writing a book on the history of lesbian and gay rights in Canada from 1995 to 2005, bringing together various interviews they have both done in the process of their work. In addition, a jointly authored paper will be published in the Sexualities journal next year, titled “Legal Struggles and Political Resistance: Same Sex Marriage in Canada and the US”

Nicol is currently editing a film piece, titled The Queer 90s, and shooting another film, which follows the history of the decade-old Dykes Planning Tykes program in Toronto.

The two professors had collaborated on securing a three-year (2004 to 2007) SSHRC grant to examine the recent history of the struggle for equality by lesbians and gay men with respect to relationship recognition and same-sex parenting. The grant resulted in two award-winning feature films directed and produced by Nicol with Smith collaborating on the research, Politics of the Heart (2005) and The End of Second Class (2006), and covered the shooting of material for One Summer in New Paltz, a cautionary tale.

Right: A still from One Summer in New Paltz. Clergy read adeclaration of civil disobedience on the steps of City Hall in New York City prior to performing same-sex marriages in March 2004

Politics of the Heart won the Elle Flanders Award for Best Documentary at the Inside Out Toronto Lesbian and Gay Film and Video Festival in 2007 and the Audience Choice Award for Best Documentary at Le Festival International de Cinema LGBT de Montreal in 2006. The End of Second Class won the Elle Flanders Award for Best Documentary at the Inside Out Festival in 2006. Both films have toured film festivals and conferences around the world.

Some of Nicol’s earlier films include Stand Together (2002), on lesbian and gay activism in Ontario from 1967 to 1987; And That’s Why I’m Leaving (2000), on war and human rights in Northern Ireland; Migrante, Stories and Songs of Filipino Migrant Workers (1997); Gay Pride and Prejudice (1994); and A Choice for Irish Women (1992).

Smith is the author of A Civil Society? Collective Actors in Canadian Political Life (Broadview Press, 2005) and Lesbian and Gay Rights in Canada: Social Movements and Equality-Seeking, 1971-1995 (University of Toronto Press, 1999). She is also the editor and co-editor of several books, including Critical Policy Studies (UBC Press, 2007).

Political Institutions and Lesbian and Gay Rights in the United States and Canada will be available at a discounted price at the book launch. It can also be purchased through Routledge or Amazon.

The event is sponsored by the Atkinson Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies and Sexuality Studies at York.

For more information, contact Nancy Nicol at or Miriam Smith at

By Sandra McLean, YFile writer