Saturday, December 17, 1977
Gay in the Seventies
“I told her Tom is gay. She was shocked and remarked that he looks so normal”
In 1971 the Montreal Star ran an editorial entitled "Everybody's Lib." The editorial spoke up for the civil liberties of minorities. Among the people who responded to it was one of the Star's own reporters, Mark Wilson. Wilson's response was to go into the office of his boss, Editor-in-chief Frank Walker, and inform him that he was a homosexual. He was not ashamed of it, he said, "What would happen if he no longer took pains to conceal it?" The Editor-in-chief replied. "All I am interested in is how well you do your work. I can't answer for your colleagues." Wilson is still employed at the Star. His colleagues no less than his employer have responded to him without prejudice. "It's been a long time since I heard an anti-faggot joke," Wilson says. "Perhaps people have the respect not to make them in my presence. If I hear one I usually challenge them on it. I do the same when I hear an anti-woman joke or anti-French-Canadian joke."
Times have changed. Back in the l960s, before Pierre Trudeau took homosexuality out of the criminal code, the only time a homosexual was likely to be acknowledged as such was in a courtroom. Sexual deviation was an offence that could carry a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison. One Toronto magistrate, handing down a two-year sentence to two men for "indecent acts" in 1963, remarked that putting them into prison was "like putting two rats in a food storage plant." In Canada in the 1960s homosexuals were talked about but not with; homosexuality was at best an illness, at worst a monstrous depravity. If a person was exposed as a homosexual or even suspected of "being one," loss of job and social ruin were almost taken for granted. Thousands of Canadian boys and girls grew up thinking to themselves. "I'm the only one!" a fate I escaped by reading Plato, Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde. Contact with other gays was difficult and information about homosexuality was almost impossible to obtain. (As comedienne Lily Tomlin has said. "No one was gay then, just shy.") In the bigger cities Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver there were a few discreet meeting places or clubs where homosexuals could get together, often with difficulty.
I remember coming out as a high school student at Malvern Collegiate in Toronto in the early 1960s. As a teenager my sexual interest in other boys seemed to grow naturally out of my interest in them as friends and companions. I realized that I was supposed to he taking girls to dances, but I could muster not the slightest interest in either the girls or the dances. I never did attend a high school dance. My homosexuality emerged in my writing, which I showed to a sympathetic teacher. I was starting to write poems and prose pieces and I edited the school's yearbook. I started telling my friends that I was gay, that I was going to gay clubs. The reaction was one of disbelief. I did not fit people's narrow preconceptions of what it homosexua1 looked like. That saved me from many of the humiliations that more obvious homosexuals have had to endure. I told my parents about it after we all saw a BBC documentary on television about homosexuality. I told my father, then my mother. They were concerned at first and asked me if I wanted some sort of counseling. I said no. They put no pressure on me to change.
In 1969 the first gay activist organization in Canada was formed in Toronto. There were six at the group's first meeting. Among those present were Jearld Moldenhauer, now the proprietor of Glad Day Books, Toronto's gay bookstore, and Charles Hill, now a curator of Canadian art at the National Gallery in Ottawa. Later on we held meetings and dances at Hart House (founded as "a centre for men's activities"). Our gatherings were always publicly announced with leaflets and posters which were invariably torn down the same day. We distributed leaflets in the cafeterias; some students, their mouths full of sandwiches, spat abuse at us or crumpled the leaflets and threw them in our faces. Other student organizations were given meeting rooms of their own; we routinely applied every year, but never got one.
From that tiny group of activists the movement has grown to almost l00 organizations in cities across Canada; the latest is a group in Brandon, Manitoba. Homosexuals have become visible not just as peripheral social statistics but as individuals. Recent "come-outs" have included microbiologist Bill Lewis, Toronto chemical engineer Clarence Barnes, York University librarian Jim Quixley, Toronto librarian Sherrill Cheda and B.C. novelist Jane Rule. Though many are still afraid to declare themselves, those gays who have "come out" have radically changed the popular image of the homosexual. Most people now realize that anyone can be gay, even a pro football player like Dave Kopay (who was captain of the University of Washington's Rose Bowl Team in 1964) or a politician like Elaine Noble, a member of the Massachusetts state legislature.
The watershed, of course, was Pierre Trudeau's legislation, introduced when he was justice minister, legalizing homosexual acts in private between consenting adults. Trudeau said, 10 years ago next Thursday, "The state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation." The debate on Trudeau's legislation showed the prevailing attitudes of the day. One Conservative candidate blamed high unemployment under the Liberals for spreading sexual perversion: "Work keeps a man from vice." he said, Walter Dinsdale, a former Diefenbaker cabinet minister, said Trudeau's "bedrooms of the nation" remark was nonsense. "If a man were to commit murder in a bedroom, the state would move in fast enough." Such views received support in the press and from some of the churches. One fundamentalist religious magazine ran an article advocating the execution of all homosexuals: "The death penalty is the only solution."
Attitudes have changed considerably in the past decade. A number of church leaders have been outspoken in support of gay issues. The Ontario NDP has adopted as policy the legal reforms proposed by the Coalition for Gay Rights in Ontario, In the recent Ontario provincial election a Liberal candidate, Margaret Campbell, attributed her victory in the face of a Conservative sweep in her area to the ethnic vote "and the gay vote."
Labor unions, too, are changing in response to gay demands. Prompted by Don Hann, a Vancouver day-care worker active in gay liberation, the B.C. Social Services Employees Union has included non-discrimination clauses in all its contracts, agreeing with Hann that "one's sexual orientation is irrelevant in child-care work or in any other occupation." One great improvement in the situation of homosexuals has been the establishment of gay community centres for political action and counseling in a number of Canadian cities. Such services are vital in alleviating the loneliness and repression of many gays of all ages the feelings of isolation, frustration and often guilt felt by those who keep their sexuality a secret, "in the closet." The gay distress line in Hamilton receives dozens of calls each week, 40 percent of them from married men and women who are homosexual. In Montreal two mothers of young homosexuals are attempting to set up a discussion group for parents in order to dispel some of the myths and promote understanding for families. "It's very hard to encourage parents to come together to talk about a gay son or daughter," Joan Cardinal the group's founder, told the Montreal Star. "They are ashamed and guilty and want to keep the matter a secret." Delilah Green, mother of Tom Green, vice-president of L'Association Pour des Droits des Gai(e)s du Quebec, said. "You're given a child and you must accept him as he is. I met a friend this week who asked me when Tom was getting married. I told her that Tom is gay. She was shocked and remarked that he looks so normal."
Saskatoon now has an active gay group and a large, comfortable gay centre housed in a building shared with a native people's organization. "I feel as though I have found my home and my family at the centre," says one visitor. Mavis Carleton, a woman of 45, "I was very apprehensive when I answered that ad five years ago there seemed to be so few female homosexuals in those days."
In February l974 there was a national conference of lesbians in Montreal attended by 200 delegates; another conference the following year drew 400 from both the U.S and Canada. On Thanksgiving weekend in l976, 40 lesbians from across the nation met in Ottawa to develop strategies around lesbian issues and, more important, to help in the growth of lesbian organizations. In Vancouver there is now a lesbian caucus within the B.C. Federation of Women. Lesbians in St. John's have formed the Gay Organization of Women in Newfoundland (GOWN), The Atlantic Provinces Political Lesbians for Equality (APPLE) has its base in Halifax and distributes a newsletter called Lesbienne Canada Lesbian. In Toronto the Lesbian Organization of Toronto (LOOT) was formed after the conference in Ottawa.
Dr. Rosemary Barnes, a lesbian and a psychologist at Toronto General Hospital, says, "The women's movement, because it questions sex roles at every level, has produced a variety of alternatives for lesbians that were not available l0 years ago. For example, there is a rapidly developing culture of lesbian music, poetry and journalism as well as organizations that offer an alternative to bars where women can meet women."
Dr. Ben Schlesinger, a professor of social work at the University of Toronto and editor of the landmark study, Sexual Behavior in Canada, says the highest trend in sex research is the concept of the healthy homosexual. "We no longer consider homosexuality an illness," he says. "We don't know more about the etiology of the condition, what causes it, and frankly, we don't worry about that. We know it's not inherited it's acquired, learned and that's it. The helping professions haven't helped homosexuals much in the past. Only about a year ago I saw the first article in a social work journal about how to help the homosexual live with his problem."
Among recent plays and novels intended for a mass audience, several have dealt with homosexuality more openly than would have been possible at any other time in Canadian history. The runaway success of the Canadian film Outrageous is perhaps the best indicator of the current acceptance of homosexual themes of mass entertainment. It has appeal for heterosexuals and homosexuals alike.
The social progress made by gays over the last decade has been substantial. But this progress is precarious. Many people resent demands for equality from an outcast group. The resentment can show itself in many ways, from the denial of a social service announcement on a radio station to unprovoked violence on the street. Several of my friends have been assaulted one even in a private home. Last year Hamilton artist Philip Stone committed suicide after a beating by a local gang. CBC radio in Halifax refused to air a public service announcement publicizing a telephone information and counseling service for gays. A station representative explained that the CBC has a national policy against accepting such announcements. More recently Gay News and Views was abruptly dropped by a Toronto cable-TV company. The show was reinstated after the CRTC reminded the company of its obligation to provide a range of community programming. John Haines, programming director for Maclean-Hunter where the show is produced, said, "The gays are about the most organized and creative group to use the facility in a long time."
In an article published in l969, Toronto journalist Sidney Katz wrote that "the troubles of the homosexual are not going to end because of the recent introduction of the new Canadian law." Katz quoted Anthony Grey, then head of the British homosexual rights organization known as the Albany Trust, who contended that for real progress to be made gays must "come out" publicly and fight for their rights. And that is what has happened over the past 10 years.
Canada's gay population has come to realize that taking homosexuality out of the Criminal Code was only a first step toward full civil rights and social equality. Our provincial and federal Human Rights Codes still do not protect homosexuals as they do other minorities from arbitrary loss of employment or housing or from a denial of public services. There is still an arsenal of charges which although equally applicable to heterosexuals, can be used against gays, including "solicitation," "gross indecency," "indecent acts," "buggery" and "obscenity." The prosecution by the Ottawa police of the so-called "sex scandal" there in 1975-6 was criticized by legislators and civil rights advocates. A number of men charged with "gross indecency" had their names and addresses published along with police claims that were later shown to be exaggerated. As a result one man killed himself. At least two others pressed charges of assault against police officers. In another throwback to the old days, a number of gay bars in Montreal have been raided recently, and the patrons arrested for being "found-ins in a bawdy house." In a raid on October 21, 145 were arrested. The gay movement, in fighting these practices, has learned that no progress is permanent, that a reform one day can be taken away the next.
The refusal of an academic position to Doug Wilson by the University of Saskatchewan and the dismissal from the armed forces of Barbara Thornborrow and Gloria Cameron points up the need for job protection. They believe their firing was due to their homosexuality. "The Armed Forces couldn't care 1ess that I had top marks and did my job well." said Ms. Thornborrow.
Homosexuality is still a factor in child custody cases, affecting lesbian mothers in particular. Many parents are homosexual, but rarely have the courts awarded custody of a child to a gay parent. In a 1974 divorce, Case vs. Case, Mr. Justice MacPherson at the Saskatchewan Queen's Bench awarded custody to the father despite some evidence that he beat the children. "l greatly fear," he said. "that if these children are raised by the [lesbian] mother they will be too much in contact with people of abnormal tastes and proclivities.
In my case, my sexuality has never cost me a job or a place to live. But I am in a fortunate position. My writing and publishing arc not dependent on the goodwill of a particular employer. The house where I live in Toronto is owned by my parents, whose attitude toward my homosexuality lies somewhere between resignation and acceptance and who, unlike many parents of gays, have always been tolerant and supportive. New York, where I spend much of my time, has too many real problems and too many gays to worry very much about the sexual preferences of tenants. It is high rents my friends and I are concerned about, not bigotry. But for a gay man or woman who must live and find work in a small Canadian city or town the situation is much more difficult and to live openly and honestly is almost impossible.
Ian Young, © The Weekender, The Ottawa Journal, December 17, 1977.
Created: March 5, 2007
Last modified: March 7, 2007
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