Artist, scholar, activist, and filmmaker, Nancy Nicol (professor emerita, York University) has created a prodigious body of work over a lifetime career investigating movements for social change, equality and human rights; delving into unfair laws and persecution as well as the capacity of ordinary people to challenge injustice. Her portfolio serves as an enduring record of struggles against violence, bigotry and discrimination, spanning stories of immigrant workers, women’s reproductive freedom, LGBT and queer histories, and transnational stories of resistance and resilience. In particular, her work has made a unique and powerful contribution to the documentation of queer histories in Canada and internationally; a body of work that will become even more significant as the years pass. Her scholarship on LGBT rights and social justice has received wide recognition in scholarly and community-based forums and her documentary films have been distributed widely in national and international festivals, conferences and community-based organizations. Grounded in critical theory, Nancy has worked across difference, facilitating spaces for the unrepresented through a participatory documentary practice based in collaboration, community engagement, and advocacy.
Nancy’s interest in art began in her youth, when she participated in group visual arts exhibitions while still a teenager. In the late 1970s, her interests shifted from painting and graphics to film and video. Her first video, The Miniature Theatre, won first prize in the first ‘video open’, a national screening celebrating independent video (1979) and her second film, Sacrificial Burnings, premiered at the Festival of Festivals in Toronto, in 1981. Both works went on to screen at the International Feminist Film and Video conference (Amsterdam, 1981) and Kijkhuis (Germany, 1982). Nancy’s interest in political change and social justice grew during the late 1970s and early 80s, a period of significant activism including anti-racism, abortion rights, and solidarity with struggles internationally. One early expression of growing political awareness in her work was the agit-prop video Let Poland be Poland (1981), created in response to the suppression of the free trade union, Solidarnosc, in Poland. She became increasingly committed to documentary, often working with local community-based organizations, labour unions and women of colour groups. In 1982, she was a founding member of a feminist art collective, the Women's Media Alliance, and with other members of the collective created Our Choice, A Tape About Teen-Age Mothers (1983). In 1988, she co-directed with Phyllis Waugh Working for Piece Work Wages which followed the Immigrant Women's Health Centre Mobile unit into the garment factories of Toronto to examine garment workers’ working conditions and access to healthcare. In 1997, Nancy collaborated with Filipino migrant workers to create Migrante, stories and songs of migrant Filipino Workers, which examined efforts by Filipino migrant workers to improve their working conditions and access to citizenship and rights.
By the mid 1980s Nancy was active in a vital and growing pro-choice movement, joining the Ontario Coalition for Abortion Clinics (OCAC). Inspired by this, she launched a cross country filmic journey, on a shoe string budget, documenting women’s access to reproductive health, and the work of pro-choice activists from Smithers, BC, to Halifax, Nova Scotia. The result was a five-part documentary series entitled The Struggle for Choice (1987) that examined the pro-choice movement in Canada from ‘Abortion Caravan’ in 1970 to the Supreme Court ruling in 1987 that removed abortion from the Criminal Code of Canada, the first ruling of its kind under the newly adopted equality provisions of the Charter of Rights. The impact of the Charter and social movement organizing became a theme that Nancy would return to in her work on lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer (LGBTQ) rights organizing.
In the early 90s Nancy joined the Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights of Ontario (CLGRO). For the next three decades, she focused on LGBT and queer histories and struggles, first domestically, and later internationally. It was a pivotal time in the struggle for queer rights. After years of struggle, the Ontario Human Rights Code included non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in 1987, but recognition of LGBT and queer relationships and parenting rights faced bigotry and entrenched political opposition. In 1994, a bill to extend relationship recognition to same-sex partners went down to defeat in a hail of homophobic rhetoric in the Ontario legislature – in response, Nancy created Gay Pride and Prejudice (1994), juxtaposing queers in the street with the historic debate in the Ontario legislature. Later in the 1990s, CLGRO asked Nancy to create a documentary on their history to mark their 25th anniversary. In creating the work, Nancy became immersed in the fascinating but little documented history of gay liberation in Canada, interviewing activists and digging into personal collections and archives. Stand Together (2002) premiered at the Inside Out Film Festival to a standing ovation. The film examined CLGRO’s history and gay liberation in Canada more broadly, beginning with the investigations and arrests of homosexuals by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police National Security Campaign; and traced the growth of gay liberation groups, civil rights organizing, police surveillance of queer organizing and raids on gay steam baths, religious right opposition to gay rights, and the campaign for inclusion of nondiscrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in the Ontario Human Rights Code. Stand Together marked the beginning of a large body of work culminating in her award-winning series entitled From Criminality to Equality, completed in 2009. The series includes Stand Together (2002); The Queer Nineties (2009), which probed into struggles for legal and civil rights and the growing diversity of LGBT organizing during the 1990s; Politics of the Heart (2005), which focused on the Lesbian Mothers Association’s campaign to win parental and adoption rights for same-sex parents, making Quebec the first jurisdiction in the world to include such provisions; and The End of Second Class (2006), which examined the legal and social history of the battle for equal marriage in Canada. During this period, Nancy also created a large number of shorts, and the feature films Dykes Planning Tykes (co-directed with Mary Daniel, 2011), and One Summer in New Paltz, a Cautionary Tale (2008) on same-sex marriage civil disobedience in the USA during the Bush administration.
Seeking to expand on her contributions to social movement histories and legal consciousness in greater depth, Nancy turned to writing, publishing: “Politics of the Heart: recognition of homoparental families”, in Who’s Your Daddy? And Other Writings on Queer Parenting (ed. Rachel Epstein, 2009); “Legal Struggles and Political Resistance: Same-Sex Marriage in Canada and the U.S” (co-written with Miriam Smith, Sexualities, Sage, 2008); and “Politics of the Heart: recognition of homoparental families” (Florida Philosophical Review, 2008). In May 2011, Nancy was inducted into the National Portrait Collection of the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives in recognition of her work, with a portrait done by her life partner, Phyllis Waugh.
During this time, Nancy contributed to a growing list of international conferences. In 2006 she showed Politics of the Heart and the End of Second Class at the World Outgames International Conference in Montreal, where she met Monica Tabengwa, a lawyer and activist from Botswana and Phumi Mtetwa, from South Africa, and attended a panel on legal developments in India, presented in part by Arvind Narrain. In 2009, she presented a panel at the World Outgames in Copenhagen, and attended a panel on efforts in India which had resulted in the High Court of Delhi ruling to decriminalize homosexuality. By the 2000s Toronto was one of the most ethnically varied cities in the world, with a large number of diverse ethno-cultural LGBT community groups and social service agencies and a sophisticated resource of LGBT community leaders, legal experts and academics. These developments laid the basis for the next chapter in Nancy’s work. Between 2006 and 2010 Nancy began research and outreach and ultimately assembled a large international team; and in 2011, Envisioning Global LGBT Human Rights (Envisioning), was launched (funded by the Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada). The project was a partnership of mutual learning that brought together 31 international and community-based partners in Canada, India, Africa and the Caribbean www.envisioninglgbt.com
From 2011-2016, Nicol was the project’s Principal Investigator. In a period when the global LGBT movement faced some of its most extreme challenges, Envisioning brought together community leaders from across the world, to share knowledge, facilitate learning from each other, and to create outcomes that would advance knowledge and social justice, a visionary politics that inspired participants. Combining research, writing and participatory documentary video, Envisioning sought to examine the impact of laws that criminalize people on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity, the ways in which LGBT and human rights groups were organizing to resist criminalization and to advance LGBT rights, and flight from persecution and LGBT refugee issues in Canada.
As part of the Envisioning project, Nicol developed participatory video projects with partners based in the Caribbean, India and Africa. Outcomes include Sangini (2016), focusing on a lesbian shelter based in Delhi; And Still We Rise, (2015, co-directed with Sexual Minorities Uganda researcher, Richard Lusimbo), a moving documentary on resistance to the Anti-Homosexual Act in Uganda; No Easy Walk To Freedom (2014) on the struggle to decriminalize same-sex sex in India; The Time Has Come (2013, co-directed with Kim Vance and John Fisher), which features LGBT human rights defenders from around the world working to strategize on ways to strengthen protections under the historic United Nations resolution that recognized sexual orientation and gender identity as prohibited grounds for discrimination in 2011; and a large number of video shorts created through Envisioning participatory video projects, many of which were included in an exhibition Imaging Home: Migration, Resistance, Contradiction, at the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives during World Pride Toronto in 2014.
In 2018, Envisioning published an anthology, entitled Envisioning Global LGBT Human Rights: (Neo)colonialism, Neoliberalism, Resistance and Hope, edited by Nancy Nicol, Adrian Jjuuko, Richard Lusimbo, Nick J. Mulé, Susan Ursel, Amar Wahab and Phyllis Waugh, and published by the Human Rights Consortium, Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London, UK. The anthology received immediate international recognition, with downloads in over 80 countries within the first 3 months of publication; today it remains the second most downloaded publication in the history of the press. The chapters are bursting with invaluable first-hand insights from leading activists at the forefront of some of the most fiercely fought battlegrounds of contemporary sexual politics in India, the Caribbean and Africa. Nancy’s chapter on participatory documentary, Telling Our Stories: Envisioning participatory documentary, recounts the experiences and challenges of the video teams, working in conditions of repression and violence, and infused with courage and creativity.