4 min

25 years of Pink Triangle Services

A look back at the beginnings of Ottawa's queer social service umbrella group

It all began because gays wanted their money back. Or, more precisely, they wanted tax receipts.

On March 29, 1984, the Letters Patent were filed and Pink Triangle Services was born as a registered charity — the first gay organization in Canada to be recognised as such.

PTS began as a part of what was then Gays of Ottawa (GO), which was established in 1971. The goal of PTS was to take GO’s “charitable” and social service components and become a separate organization that could receive charitable status and government funding. GO would continue to house the city’s queer political advocacy, the organization’s social functions and its newspaper, GO Info.

Getting charitable status was the key to increasing donations, says Barry Deeprose. Deeprose was on the board of GO when it decided to spin off PTS. Deeprose later served as PTS’s secretary and eventually president from 1995 to 2001.

“Gays of Ottawa was always strapped for funds,” Deeprose says. “It had no sustaining grants at all, but sustained itself with monthly dances basically, and then we got it licensed and would have a bar on the weekends — Friday for men, Saturday for women, and that was a real community development piece for women.”

Deeprose recalls that in those days, there was very little in Ottawa for the queer community – a bar in the basement of the Lord Elgin hotel, which later moved to 166 B Laurier, and a few on-and-off bars in Hull, since their liquor laws were more relaxed than Ottawa’s at the time.

“There was nothing really helpful that was non-bar related, non-drinking related,” he says. “There were no youth groups, there was no discussion group — it was still kind of furtive.”

Which makes sense in a city full of civil servants still paranoid about security clearance after some five hundred men were fired in the ’60s for “security reasons” around their sexuality.

But, thanks to the folks at GO, things were changing. Spinning off PTS and getting charitable status for it was part of the formula.

That challenge was handled by founding board member Judy Girard, who recalls a visit she and fellow GO board member Marie Robertson made to Revenue Canada.

“We were frigging sneaky back then, but what the hell, it was all good fun,” Girard recalls with a laugh. “As you know, Marie is a lipstick lesbian, and she and I did a lot of rabble-rousing together, because at the time there were only a few women on the GO board. We had to go to Revenue Canada to discuss [this], so I thought, ‘I’m taking Marie with me.’ So we go down there, and I’m dressed in usual dyke attire — buttoned-down collar pin-stripe shirt, that kind of stuff, and Marie’s there with her fish-net nylons.

“So we’re talking to this guy, and he’s obviously freaking out because he’s got two lesbians talking to him. And there’s Marie looking hot as hell, legs crossed in the fishnet nylons, smoking away and this poor fucker — I mean, he just couldn’t keep his composure, as it were. He kept looking at her and looking at me. And I said ‘Okay, so what about our objectives here — do they look good to you?’ And he said, ‘Oh yeah, they look just fine,’ and the poor bugger didn’t hardly ask us anything. We formally submitted our application and it went through the first time.”

Girard also credits the group’s lawyer, who helped them to fit their objectives into the necessary terms, and ensured that GO’s political action was kept separate. Which isn’t to say that she didn’t revel in the theatre of that final visit.

With PTS now established, the group started taking on new roles and responsibilities aside from carrying on the work of the Gayline, the library and the discussion groups.

In 1989, PTS organized a training committee and send people out do anti-homophobia workshops. They held half-day workshops for the Ottawa Police, CSIS, the RCMP, Ottawa Public Health and the Red Cross. Deeprose recalls the work he did with the Ottawa Police.

“After the first one, which did not go well — they brought in their chaplain to make sure that their souls were not threatened by us — we got the police captain on our side, Tom Flanagan, and he would come and introduce us and say that this was important,” Deeprose recalls.

By September of 1995, GO had closed down due to debt. More bars had opened, and GO’s bar nights were seeing a decline in attendance. Capital Xtra had launched, diminishing the need for the volunteer-driven GO Info newspaper.

“Very quickly, the child outgrew the mother organization,” says Kerry Beckett, who was in charge of GO at that point, and who later joined the PTS board. “They were so much more organized, they had a clear mandate, they knew where they were going, they knew what they had to provide.”

As PTS grew, so did its library, largely under the stewardship of Tom Barnes, who first became involved with PTS with it’s Men’s Discussion Group in 1984.

“The library was originally just one shelf with a small number of books sitting in the office of PTS,” Barnes says.

As the collection started growing, so did the sense of how valuable it would be to have a place where people could access the material easily.

While the library functioned well enough using a home-grown classification system, it wasn’t until 1999 that a friend of Barnes offered to take a look at their system and bring it into line with that of other libraries. On Christmas Day of that year, Dr Kelly McGinnis passed away and Barnes was struck with an idea.

“I turned to a friend of mine and said we should do something really nice for Kelly — sort of put his name out publicly,” Barnes says. “We can do the scholarship thing at Ottawa U, that’s fine, but what says Kelly McGinnis every day, that people would actually see? Let’s rename the library in his honour.”

McGinnis’ family quickly agreed, and the Kelly McGinnis library was born. It soon becoming the largest queer lending library in the country.

While PTS has had its share of organizational challenges over the years, especially in the first part of this decade, president Michael Henschel believes that the organization is in a strong position, building on its 25-year history.

 “At no time did we ever lose sight of the people that we’re there to serve, and at no time did people not get the services they need because there was something else wrong — so that’s always job one,” says Henschel says.