Class of 2006 – HBA, Innis, CSI
Heralded as “Canada’s New Gay Voice”
Peter Knegt (HBA 2006) is an Innis College alumnus who has recently returned to the University as an advisory board member for the Centre of Sexuality and Diversity Studies. What’s most impressive about Peter is that upon receiving his Graduate degree from Concordia University, he was asked to write a succinct history of the Canadian queer rights movement for Fernwood Publishing’s About Canada series. Published this past September, Queer Rights explores how Canada has become one of the most progressive countries in the world for queer rights and how far we have to go.
Taking time out of his busy schedule as journalist, academic, and founder of Picton Picturefest (a film festival in rural Ontario), Peter sat down with the Innis Alumni Network to discuss his time as an Innis student, his book, and his thoughts on queer rights in Canada today.
Innis: Can you tell me a bit about your time as a University of Toronto student?
Peter Knegt: My time at the University of Toronto could not have been more influential to the years that would follow.
I lived at Innis Residence for 2 years, working at the front desk and utilizing its warmth to adjust to living in a big city after a severely small-town upbringing. It was within the walls of that building that I truly gained a sense of myself as a young adult. It wasgenuinely where I came of age. Some of the people I met there remain my closest friends and colleagues.
Innis: How do you think your time at the University has shaped your career as
Peter Knegt: I graduated from U of T in 2006 with a major in Cinema Studies and a double minor in Semiotics and Communication Theory and Sexual Diversity studies.
All three disciplines – which were largely introduced to me during my time at U of T – have carried forward into the half-decade of work I’ve pursued since. I’ve worked primarily in the film industry, both at film festivals and as a film journalist. My capabilities in doing so are largely indebted to the time I spent at the Cinema Studies Institute at Innis College where professors like Bart Testa left long-standing impressions.
But U of T’s remarkably interdisciplinary nature really made its mark as well. Michael Cobb – a professor in the English department (where I took a few courses outside my major and minors) – remains one of the most influential people I’ve ever met. He introduced me to great queer literature in one his courses and instilled in me a need to both read and tell the stories of queer people. Similarly, my time in the sexual diversity studies program taught me the cornerstones of the history I’d eventually come to write about in my book.
I’ve actually been spending time at U of T again since joining the Advisory Board for the Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies. It has really been amazing to come back to that program and see how unique and transgressive it really is. Sometimes when you’re in the midst of it you don’t really realize.
Innis: For future students wishing to pursue a career in writing, do you have any advice?
Peter Knegt: It sounds horribly cliché, but do not be scared of what you think you can’t do. One of my greatest struggles – and it continues to be – is refusing to take something on simply because I was too uncertain I was capable of handling it. We will never know what we are capable of until we do it. And even then there’s going to be many failed attempts. The thing is to treat the first decade or so of your adulthood as a sort of write-off. Treat those years as an opportunity to experiment with what you might be capable of and resist falling into professional traps that might seem comfortable but you know are not going to be fulfilling or progressive. It’s tough, but persistence results in success more than you’d think.
Innis: What inspired you to take up such a meticulous research in your book Queer Rights?
You’ve noted that the issues you raised in your book are just the beginning of matters related to queer rights in Canada. This seems a little prophetic given the recent news circulating around Canada. Do you have any comments on the legality of same-sex marriage under the Conservative government?
Peter Knegt: It was all a bit of a fluke, to be honest. I was finishing up grad school at Concordia and one of my peers had just taken a post-grad job as an editor at Fernwood, a publishing house that was looking for someone to write an introductory take on Canadian queer issues for a book series called About Canada. She had read a bit of my work, and asked me if it would be something I’d be interested in. I initially was a bit skeptical. The series basically explored a variety of “Canadian issues” and condensed them into relatively short, initiatory books (which was a fantastic idea). Even though I had an academic background in queer issues, most of my professional work centered on film and media – and was considerably more journalistic than academic.
The whole suggestion really caught me off guard, as it really wasn’t something I suspected I’d ever take on or at least not at that point in my life. But I knew it had the potential to be such a fascinating challenge and growth experience. I also just really appreciated the chance Fernwood was giving me to do something so considerable right out of school. So I decided to do whatever I could to make it work. They asked me to draw up a proposal and I just tried to lay my self-doubt aside and starting pushing into it. During that whole process I was pretty terrified, but when the proposal was approved I really became injected with this ambition to do this project justice. I knew that there were scores of Canadian queer people out there that were incredibly ignorant to their own histories and even the important issues today. I wanted this book to speak to them.
As for the current issues surrounding the legality of same-sex marriage under the Conservative government, I am hopeful if only in that regard. Look how quickly they made sure international folks who got married in Canada would indeed have their marriages recognized when that controversy broke out. I think the fear of a large public backlash to taking away a right so accepted by Canadian mainstream society will keep them from doing so. However, I fear for what [Stephen] Harper’s majority could do to in a lot of other regards.
Some issues that early Canadian queer activists did very much believe in — like sexual censorship and the decriminalization of many consensual sex acts — remain unresolved and there’s no way the Conservatives will aid in fixing that problem. And then of course look at homophobia and heterosexism. They remain dominant, both officially such as in the Canadian education and health systems and even more so unofficially. Canada is still very much an inherently homophobic and heterosexist society, as has been exemplified in everything from social conservative groups to violent queer bashers. These opponents of making Canada a truly queer positive place do not necessarily discriminate. Hate remains directed toward all queer people: urban and rural, black and white, rich and poor, young and old. It may be exponentially easier for the more privileged to avoid the situations and environments where this occurs, but that shouldn’t make them so complacent in coming together with all queer people to address the problems that should personally concern them.