PhD student Nadine Boulay says performing is a nice contrast to some of the structures of academic life (Photo by Lindsay Elliot).

Students, GSWS

Graduate Student Profile: Nadine Boulay, GSWS

September 19, 2017

Nadine Boulay, a PhD student in the Department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies, is a performer, community activist, and social movement historian. Her research uses oral history interviewing to document histories of queer activism through rural BC. In doing so, she brings together queer and feminist scholarship and community activism.

Originally from Manitoba, Boulay first came to SFU in 2012 to work on her master’s degree with Elise Chenier (History and GSWS), director of the Archives of Lesbian Oral Testimony  project. Boulay’s master’s thesis, Lesbian and Queer Generations in Vancouver, explored oral history interviewing as a pedagogical tool for preserving the histories of the lesbian feminist community in Vancouver.

It also revealed gaps in documented history: “I coordinated an intergenerational oral history project that brought together queer/bisexual women in their 20s and lesbian women who were active in social movements during the 1970s and 80s in Vancouver. I finished the project with more information that could fit in the purview of an MA. Through the interviews, I found many references to queer rural activism throughout B.C., but found little documentation of these radical histories of LGBTQ and Two-Spirit activists.” 

Accordingly, Boulay’s PhD dissertation will use oral history interviewing to document the histories of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and Two-Spirit peoples living rurally in British Columbia from 1965 to the present. Her research examines the ways in which participation in or identification with post-war social movement activism – such as women’s liberation, anti-war activism, anti-colonial and anti-racist activism, and the back-to-the-land movement – shaped the possibilities of what she calls “queer ruralities.”

Of these histories, Boulay says the “most fascinating and important to document” are those that have so often been excluded from traditional canons due to systemic forms of oppression such as racism, sexism, settler colonialism and queer/transphobia: “When people share their stories with me, it is a profound act of trust and I see that as a huge responsibility. Sitting down to interview activists, listening to their life stories, and ensuring that the recordings end up in places where they will never be lost – I find these facets of my work the most rewarding.”

Studying radical social history is important for Boulay, who says it allows us to see how ideas and institutions emerge and change: “often we follow the script that things get better as time passes – but history shows us that that isn’t always the case: Indigenous peoples and their lands still face state violence and control; women continue to experience sexism and misogyny; institutions like the police still target communities of people of colour; and queer and transgender people – particularly if they are not white – still experience societal oppression. My work has helped me to better understand systems of oppression as intimately connected, which I think we are seeing enacted in the myriad forms of resistance to injustice in the current political climate.”

Boulay contributes her knowledge through her work with the Gender Vectors of the Greater Vancouver Area project: she began as a research assistant in 2015 and has been project coordinator since September 2016. The project uses video-game technology to generate and mobilize knowledge relating to the vulnerability and resilience of, and safety nets for, transgender and gender nonconforming (T/GNC) children and youth in the greater Vancouver area. Boulay describes the game as a portal: “eventually, it will be shared as an open-source educational resource for youth, families, and service providers . . . the game will serve as a platform for mapping resources for T/GNC youth and their families such as health care networks, drop-in groups, and community organizations.”

Until recently, Boulay organized an intergenerational queer meeting group to help bridge existing knowledge across different groups within the community: “While I’ve moved on from organizing the group, I came to that work because I grew up with such a lack of queer role models and had no sense of myself as a historical subject. LGBTQ communities are so often segregated by age, so youth, adults, and seniors rarely interact- I wanted to help co-create spaces where intergenerational dialogue and connection could happen! And I am excited to see that there are groups still doing this work (Youth for a Change in Surrey and the Quirk-e’s in Vancouver).”

“I’ve been taught to believe that knowledge can be radical and liberatory – it is not something confined to or owned by the university. I am in the company of so many amazing scholars, activists, teachers, performers, and community organizers that I see doing really important work in so many contexts, working to make spaces safer, centering folks who are marginalized, and finding new ways to connect joy and resistance.”

Boulay also makes connections by performing in the popular queer drag show, Man Up, which she says she initially joined to meet new people after moving to Vancouver, and which now feels like a second home: “For over a half-century, bars, nightclubs, and drag shows have been central to building queer communities in North America. While in Vancouver gay and queer bars are no longer policed or underground to the same extent as they have been, these spaces are still very important. Man Up has evolved into a very purposefully politicized party space, one that works to center feminist, queer, anti-racist, and trans/non-binary ideas and bodies.”

“I really enjoy it. I perform with my partner and we like to incorporate campy, satirical representations of masculinity in our acts. I see drag as a way to interrogate gender norms, the gender binary, expectations of masculinity and femininity, and to articulate that queer spaces can and should be political. While that all sounds very serious, I like performing acts that are humorous and campy- it’s a nice contrast from some of the structures of academic life.”