In my childhood, “gay apparel” was what the folks donned in the Christmas carol “Deck the Halls” and “Pride” was a laundry soap.
I know now that I grew up with lesbian and gay people but, at the time, I had no clue. There was one narrative for how life unfolded. Boy meets girl. They fall in love. They marry. They have babies. And those babies do the same, when they grow up. And even though as a girl I adored figure skater Toller Cranston (among the first Canadian athletes to come out as gay) I really still had no clue.
My eyes slowly opened at university, where there was a gay-lesbian advocacy group supported by the student federation and where I took a psychology course on human sexuality. Picture the moment when I told my very Catholic mother I got 96 per cent on my sex-course midterm.
I got a crash course in the politics of advocating for equality for “homosexuals”, the usual label then, when as a religion reporter I covered the United Church debates about whether the church should change rules that said gay men and lesbian women could not become church ministers.
The United Church, as an aside for those reading this blog outside Canada, is a uniquely Canadian thing – it was created in 1925 by an Act of Parliament merging all Methodist, Congregational Union, some Presbyterian, and later Evangelical United Brethren churches into one Protestant fold. It remains Canada’s largest Protestant church and is a big tent under which you find both progressive and conservative thinkers.
I was astonished both by the passion of those gay and lesbian church members who, bravely in those days, stood up to be counted and the viciousness of some who opposed them – even I, just writing about it, got hate mail and was told in a long handwritten letter by a prominent London, Ontario United Church minister that I was condemned to hell for eternity.
The arguments made in favour of removing equality barriers for gays and lesbians instantly made sense to me, once I heard and understood them. I’d heard them all before, but from women seeking equal opportunity and status under the law.
And so I became “an ally” or “straight, but not narrow” as was a slogan of the time.
I went quickly from ally to camp follower. I became close friends in London, Ontario, with a gay man who defied every stereotype. He was (and is) tall, strong, deep voiced, in a scientific profession, a successful businessman. He and I went for long walks most Thursday evenings that we’d cap off with dancing at Lacey’s, a gay bar. I’ll never forget the night I saw one of my male newspaper colleagues in the place and he froze at the sight of me. Back then, few people revealed if they were anything other than “straight” in the workplace.
The words we use to describe the various hues on our sexuality rainbow have expanded over the year as people don’t see themselves reflected in terms that already exist: we’ve moved beyond Gay and Lesbian to add Bisexual, Transsexual, Transgendered, Questioning, Two-Spirited, Dykes, Twinks, Friends of Dorothy (as in, the Wizard of Oz, as in, he adores Judy Garland.) It’s difficult to keep up with the appropriately inclusive long laundry list of terms. As one of my gay pals often mutters, “I wish we could go back to everyone being ‘Queer’.”
In 2005, Canada became the fourth country in the world, and the first outside Europe, to make legal marriage between two people, regardless of their gender. This means same-sex couples get the same rights and benefits, and carry the same responsibilities, as opposite-sex couples do. There is some concern that this kind of “normalizing” of what it means to be gay or lesbian (or any of the rest) is too limiting: that you’re an OK queer if you marry and have children and mow your lawn but you’re not accepted for who you are if you don’t want to take that assimilation path.
Three Toronto actors and writers, Damien Atkin, Paul Dunn and Andrew Kushner (yes, I know them all) have explored what it was like to grow up gay in Canada and also uncover what they identify as their missing history in the both touching-and-hilarious Gay Heritage Project.
I saw it at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, which bills itself as the world’s “longest running and largest” queer theatres in the world. It doesn’t care that you can now buy “Mr. and Mr.” wedding cake toppers. As founding artistic director Sky Gilbert has said, “Buddies is not about assimilation and never has been about glossing over the differences between gays and straights. We are interested in life on the edge, the avant-garde, forbidden territory.”
You’ll see both the avant garde and the ordinary sides of queer life celebrated at Toronto’s annual Pride Parade. In 2016, my deep-voiced friend and I were there together to witness the first time a Canadian prime minister marched, wearing white jeans, a pink shirt, and waving a Canadian flag refashioned to have an inclusive-symbol rainbow on each side, rather than the standard red bands. My friend and I, when we met, would not have imagined that this would happen in our lifetimes. “Happy Pride!” people shouted at one another. Happy Pride, indeed.
Main photo: the sidewalk crossing at Church and Isabella streets, Toronto. Kelley Teahen.