18 min

35 years and counting

It’s August 1965. Everett George Klippert, a 39-year-old mechanic living in Pine Point, Northwest Territories volunteers to the RCMP, under questioning for another matter, that he had consensual sex with men on four occasions. He is charged with four counts of gross indecency. He is convicted and sentenced Aug 24 to three years on each of the four counts, to be served concurrently.

This outrage draws the attention of civil libertarians, and leads ultimately, in August 1969, to the Trudeau government amending the Criminal Code to legalize some sex acts between men.

Sending men to jail for three years for having consensual sex is not a common occurrence by 1965, though a century earlier it usually led to a hanging. But losing your job or being kicked out of your apartment, being denied a loan, being disowned by your family, even being raided while taking refuge in a bar from the nastiness of the world – all these are daily occurrences for Canadian lesbians, bisexuals and gays.

The same summer that Canada is considering Trudeau’s Bill C-150, a bunch of pissed-off people at a rundown New York bar decide they’d had enough police harassment. These bull dykes and femmes, boy hustlers and their daddies, and—as we all know from the movie—drag queens and prostitutes, lock the raiding cops in the bar and set fire to the building before rioting outside for 10 nights. Their action, which doesn’t even merit a mention in most New York newspapers—so determined was the establishment to keep queers invisible—starts a movement of Gay Pride around the world.

There’s an instructive aside here. Do the small number of out homosexual leaders in New York welcome the Stonewall riots? No, they do not. They warn that such confrontational behaviour will result in the loss of the infinitesimally small degree of access to the corridors of power achieved to that day. They warn of a backlash. They call on homosexuals to be model citizens. Luckily for all of us who have come after, the rioters ignore their so-called leaders and continue demonstrating, then founding political action groups, and newspapers, and going on to spread the good news about same-sex fucking. Stonewall is the first of many actions that show that our progress is made when we ignore those who tell us to be good, be nice, don’t cause waves, don’t risk offending people. Progress, we learn, comes from making waves and engineering positive confrontation.

New York homos aren’t the only ones being hassled by cops in the 1960s and ’70s.

In May 1971, Ron Burridge opens Club Private at 227 Laurier Ave W in Ottawa. A private club, it is open to men on Fridays and Saturdays, and to women on Thursdays and Sundays. Finally, there is a local gay-focussed place for dancing and conversation, and soon there are 500 members. On Dec 16, 1972, Ottawa’s morality squad raids Club Private and charges Burridge with operating without a liquor license.

But our community has already started to fight back. On Aug 28 1971, about 100 young lesbians, gay men and allies descend on Parliament to make public a brief called We Demand. At the same time, a larger group of some 150-200 people in Vancouver take to the courthouse steps to show support for the Ottawa event.

These are the first significant gay demonstrations in Canadian history. Charlie Hill, representing Toronto Gay Alliance, but recently moved to Ottawa, speaks at the Parliament event in the pouring rain. It is the second anniversary of Trudeau’s Bill C-150, and still there is no organized gay movement in the nation’s capital.

That all changes two weeks later. On Sep 14, 1971 a group of seven Ottawa residents, all of them men, meet to discuss forming a gay organization. Maurice Bélanger, Philip Bianco, Michael Black, Charlie Hill, Jacques Hoffman, Terrence Reichey, Reg Turcotte (later known as Reg Merrick) and met at Michael’s and Maurice’s home at 270 Somerset St W. We have our own Group of Seven.

They continue to meet in each other’s homes and, on Oct 13, adopt the name Gays of Ottawa/Gays d’Ottawa. GO has arrived, and the life of Ottawa homosexuals is about to take a long journey of transformation. Maurice and Paul Wise become the first co-chairs.

Another important date looms. On Oct 27, the first issue of Body Politic is sold. Meetings to create Canada’s most famous gay liberation newspaper began in early September in Toronto. The paper goes on to become a legend of gay publishing, establishing a strong reputation among the small cadre of gay activists around the world, and challenging even obscenity laws in Canada. Capital Xtra emerges from the same publisher, Pink Triangle Press, in 1993.

In April 1973, Charlie Hill succeeds Maurice as president of GO. GO soon is meeting twice monthly at St George’s Anglican Church at 152 Metcalfe St. In 1975, the French portion of the name changes to Gays d’Outaouais.

GO’s mandate: to lobby federal and provincial governments on behalf of gays and lesbians; to educate the public; and to act as a community organization in the Ottawa-Hull area. Soon, it is organizing dances, running a telephone information and counselling line out of Reg Merrick’s home, and producing the photocopied newsletter, GO Info.

The people who started this important work are young. Many are what was then known as “counter-culture.” GO activists of the time are able to colour outside the acceptable lines of the da—a key skill for anyone who wants to make substantial social change. In 1972-73, GO’s headquarters is the sixth floor of Pestalozzi College on Rideau Street, a sort of “People’s University,” which boasts lots of free love and good drugs. And that, predictably, scares the hell out of many local homosexuals of the day. Ottawa’s gay community of the day reflects the profoundly conservative personal politics of the community at large in this government town. And let’s remember that the federal government has, since the late 1950s, been actively hunting down gay and lesbian civil servants and purging them, going so far as to invent a device, the Fruit Machine, that is supposed to be able to detect a homosexual.

Undercover cops frequent our bars and blackmail gay bureaucrats into giving up the names of homosexual bosses. Hundreds of gay and lesbian government employees are fired and thousands have their names put on a list by the Mounties. Paranoia reigns and, if people at the time think that rocking the boat could bring no good, it is understandable if definitely incorrect.

In June 1972, about 100 people came to Ottawa’s first public gay dance, held at Pestalozzi. In May of 1973, the Political Action Collective of GO organizes the first inter-provincial conference of gay groups, which begins work on a federal election strategy—a Canadian first. That August, GO holds Ottawa’s first predecessor to Gay Pride Day. History is being made. These folks, who include Denis LeBlanc, John Duggan and David Garmaise, are not taking no for an answer.

At the same time that gays are organizing to change the world, women are, too. Feminism, another movement birthed in the 1960s, enters the ’70s strong and increasingly self-confident. But it doesn’t like out dykes participating in the front lines.

When Marie Robertson moves to Ottawa in 1975, she finds the Ottawa Women’s Centre is afraid of the word ‘lesbian.’ Marie, already a veteran of lesbian politics from fighting landlord discrimination in Kitchener, becomes one of the first female organizers at GO. And she co-founds Lesbians of Ottawa Now (LOON) in spring of 1976. It holds a national lesbian conference here that October, before folding into GO when the board adopts a policy of equal repres entation. Marie continues her involvement in Ottawa and then Toronto, and is now back in Ottawa and helping out with the queer community centre project and co-founding LIX.

Marie’s portrait hangs in the Portrait Collection of the National Lesbian and Gay Archives, along with portraits of other notable Ottawa queers Denis LeBlanc, Charlie Hill, John Duggan and Alex Munter. For the most part, lesbian issues—a combination of sexuality issues common with gay men, and gender issues common with straight women – remain less visible in Ottawa and across the country throughout the 1970s.

Progress is slow, but it accumulates. Gays afraid of GO organize a group called Male Homophiles Anonymous. Men are screened in a discreet meeting at a restaurant before being invited to Friday night meetings in the homes of members. We laugh now, of course, but the power of paranoia still reigns in the 1970s.

On the other hand, forced by gay and lesbian activists, society at large begins a long discussion of our rights. Social service agencies are targeted for sensitivity workshops. In 1975, two GO members are allowed to lay a pink triangle wreath at Canada’s official Remembrance Day ceremony, commemorating the murder of thousands of gays and lesbians in the Holocaust. A month later, Ottawa city hall bans discrimination based on sexual orientation, a first for Canada. Ottawa Knights is founded.

Police raid Club Baths in May 1976 and GO pickets police headquarters. Local media are picketed to protest their refusal to publish public service announcements about meetings of our groups. The year before, local newspapers publish names of men charged in a prostitution sting, something not done in the case of heterosexual prostitution. The result: one man jumps to his death from his apartment.

In 1977 the Immigration Act is amended to no longer deny entrance of homosexuals into Canada. It’s the first national gay-rights victory.

Social activities connected to GO increase. More people come out of the closet. GO itself moves a few times for reasons that include a fire at its Centre at 378 Elgin St on Feb 16, 1979. The next office is at 175 Lisgar. By 1981, GO’s Gayline is registering an average 110 calls a day. The GO centre has become a focus of the community, with a licensed bar, an office and meeting room, a library and counselling service. Now, they’re on the move!

A second generation of GO people emerge, most of them behind-the-scene types that make an organization work.

Peter Demski is treasurer of GO for four years, from 1979 to 1982, then chair of the finance committee until 1989. He also sets up the first set of books for PTS in 1983, as well as setting up books for the first Making Scenes festival a decade later. Just after he starts at GO in 1979, a fire burns down the headquarters at 378 Elgin at Gladstone. It is a baptism of fire, literally, trying to get a handle on the books after that, he recalls.

Lloyd Plunkett works on the Gayline, but his most significant contribution is taking GO Info from a newsletter to a newspaper. From 1979 to 1984, he organizes meetings of editorial people and does whatever is necessary to make it work, including staying up all night laying out the paper. And he sits on the board of GO and is at the meeting that decides to spin off a new organization, which becomes Pink Triangle Services.

He also is there for GO’s move to 115 Lisgar St at Elgin, a big space that allows for a lot more programming, an arts space and lesbian bar nights.

Gabriella Goliger edits GO Info from 1983 to 1990 as well as volunteering for the Gayline for many years. With a woman named Robbie, she starts the Women’s Coming Out Group and writes for Xtra in Toronto. Gabriella often hosts a team of volunteer writers and editors around her kitchen table. For many, the GO newspaper is the only source of what is going on in the gay and lesbian, bisexual and trans community. Gabriella goes on to publish a collection of short stories that wins the Upper Canada Writers Award. And her stories win the Journey Prize Award. She’s now working on a novel.

David Pepper begins contributing to our community by working on GO Info in 1986. He starts writing articles, then joins the editorial board after Gabriella leaves. GO Info, remembers David, “was a blend of high school yearbook club, community activism, and professional writers like Gabriella and Carroll Holland and [Ottawa Citizen reviewer] Burf Kay.” Contributors spend evenings at the GO Centre on Lisgar above a laundromat and production person Martin Hogarth pulls it all together with a primitive computer program.

By 1989, David, along with Pierre Beaulne and Kenneth Gallagher, is turning his attention to a gay and lesbian task force examining violence. That summer, a straight man, Alain Brosseau, is dropped off the Interprovincial Bridge because his attackers thought he was gay. This follows a series of gaybashings at Majors Hill Park.

The denial by the city and the police was “immeasurable,” remembers Pepper, and the community responds in a couple of ways. An outreach patrol teaches safety to gay parks cruisers. And activists demand changes in policing. David spearheads the movement, including helping with a report, Moving Toward a Distant Horizon, and working on a police liaison committee. By 1995, he has joined the force, pledging never to lose his activist edge.

By the mid 1980s, real diversity is emerging in our community. The Political Action Collective of GO is being de-emphasized, with much of the work transferred to CLGRO, the Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights in Ontario, a province-wide group that GO helps found. Queer-positive church groups are forming, bars are thriving, lesbian and gay arts organizations and events are emerging. The first sports group, Club Moustache, is formed. Many more people are out of the closet.

Human rights legislation is soon proclaimed by most provinces. AIDS takes its first local gay man, Peter Evans, on Jan 7, 1984 – and soon much of our community’s focus shifts to taking care of our sick and education efforts to slow the slaughter. Barry Deeprose, honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award last year, joins with others to do work they never imagined would become be their focus. The first fundraiser, the AIDS Walkathon is held on Oct 1, 1983.

Other issues also need attention. In 1983, Linda Wilson becomes the first woman president of GO. She is also among the first women working the Gayline and will go on to be on the founding board of the Abiwin Co-op, a queer-friendly housing co-op that results from a 1984 GO brainstorming session. Abiwin uses a non-traditional definition of family and has a lot of one-bedroom units. Linda also sits on the first board of directors of the new PTS. And she put lots of work into the Speakers Bureau in the final years before it folds.

Catherine Boucher cares passionately about people having a roof over their heads. For 27 years, Catherine has worked on housing issues, most especially as executive director of Centretown Citizens Ottawa Corporation. CCOC makes a particular effort to ensure that gays and lesbians know that they are welcome in their affordable quality units. Most CCOC housing is located, not coincidentally, in the residential core around the Rainbow Village. Catherine challenges racism and homophobia within her organization and the buildings it supervises, and CCOC is the first of what we hope is many residential organizations to welcome Capital Xtra to its lobbies. Catherine devotes much of her energy to challenging all three levels of government to put more money into affordable housing.

Also in 1983, Lambda social group for gay and lesbian professionals is formed. Focussed on self-improvement and networking, the group attracts mainly people on their way out or just out. It ceases in 1999, but Lambda Foundation continues to grow and establishes scholarships at Canadian universities and colleges. Foundation members Hugh Nelson and Gary Sealey begin Wilde About Sappho, a literary festival. After 15 years of celebrating queer talent, the festival has put Ottawa on the queer literary map.

By the mid 1980s, GO is encountering funding problems. Eventually, community leaders decide to split off a charitable wing, Pink Triangle Services, so named as a reminder of the badge that gay men had to wear in the Nazi concentration camps.

PTS gets its charitable incorporation in April 1984, thanks to the determination of Judy Girard and Marie Robertson. It’s Canada’s first gay organization to get charitable status. Those functions that can attract tax-deductible charitable donations go with PTS, including the library, Gayline, the Speakers Bureau, a training committee, and later, discussion groups. GO keeps the newspaper, the Political Action Collective and the social committee. GO is to be the landlord for PTS, its operations funded by rents paid. GO, and its sub-tenant PTS, move to 318 Lisgar, above a Laundromat in April 1985—where Breathless is now. Three months later, AIDS Committee of Ottawa is founded by Barry Deeprose and Bob Read as a sub-committee of PTS.

Soon, activists are founding social groups, discussion groups, and youth groups out of PTS. GO begins to wither. Men are going to some increasingly fun bars on weekends. Women have bar nights in the GO space Saturday nights, as well as visiting Coral Reef on Friday night.

Holly MacKay is helping out at Planned Parenthood when she joins the board of PTS. She facilitates the women’s discussion groups and coming out groups. And Holly is Ottawa’s predecessor to the funky folks who we now find at Venus Envy. Picture Holly holding safe and fun toy parties and workshops, providing a space for asking questions and buying toys. In recent years, Holly has turned her diplomatic and organizational talents to chairing the board of Women’s Voices Festival.

Cathy Collett returns to Ottawa from up north in 1985. She goes pretty much straight onto the board of PTS, where she stays for seven years. In 1991, the board establishes a group of gay professionals to look at geriatric issues in our community. As part of the research, Collett and the group head to New York to check out a new group called Sage. In 1992, 130 people show up for a presentation in Ottawa by the New York group and strike an advisory committee to start Sage. Cathy also hosts homophobia workshops. Cathy emerges a strong leader in our community. Today, she’s manager of primary and social services at Centretown Community Health Centre, bringing her queer perspective to bear.

In 1985, a most extraordinary thing happens, catching the community by surprise. After years of scrimping for money, PTS holds its first annual fundraiser, hoping to raise $12,000. Held at the Museum of Natural Sciences, the event attracts a lot of middle-class gays and lesbians, many of them new to community events.

Many civil servants show up that night in tuxedos – yes, the government employees are finally pouring out of the closet. PTS makes $24,000 in one night.

In 1985, Egale is founded in the living room of Jamie Robertson, with the aim of getting sexual orientation included in the Canadian Human Rights Act. That goal is achieved in 1996 and Egale keeps going.

In October 1989, Peter Zanette volunteers for a GO dance at Sandy Hill. He’s too scared to just go to it; volunteering seems like a way to slide into the gay community. Before you know it, he’s helping organize dances, including getting permits and licenses and hauling the booze in his truck. Starting in 1986, Peter volunteers for Go Info, chairing the paper in 1990-91. He comes onto the board of what is by then ALGO from 1987-90. In 1990, he’s off to Montreal to protest police raids of the bathhouses.

Today, Peter continues his involvement, sitting on the executive committee for the queer centre project and co-chairing Egale’s Intersections Committee. “My philosophy,” says Peter, “is if I’m going to a party, I don’t mind doing the dishes.”

In 1981, Lyle Borden moves to Ottawa and, responding to the frequent homophobic violence of the time, begins teaching self-defence classes to gay men through GO. Lyle goes on to volunteer with Egale, PTS, the Gay Bowling Group and Wilde About Sappho before sitting as an interim member of the board of directors for the AIDS Committee of Ottawa while the organization restructures.

But it is with the plans for a queer community centre that Lyle is most associated. He’s been there since the initial planning phases and most recently sat as vice-chair of the founding board of trustees until last month’s founding AGM. Lyle now co-chairs the communications committee for the centre.

Nicole Deschenes spends eight years in the late ’80s and early ’90s volunteering for the women’s fundraiser Out For The Night. She sits on the board of Women’s Place and is president from 1996-98. And then she heads over to Harmony House, spending most of 1999-2005 as president of the board. On retiring, they award her the Lifetime President Award. Her motto, in volunteering and in life is: Stop talking about it and just do it. It suits this woman who is always there when asked.

In 1993, Evelyn Hauer and her business partner, Laura, invite a group of women to a meeting. She presents a business plan and asks them to loan start-up money for a women’s bookstore, Mother Tongue Books. They do, they get their money back, and the community wins a vital institution. It’s a bookstore that sees itself as a space for community development, is eager to sponsor readings and other events, and even read manuscripts from writers. Evelyn is a mentor to a generation of women.

In 1988, the trans community in Ottawa takes a big jump in visibility with the founding of Gender Mosaic. Joanne Law soon becomes a strong and vibrant voice of the trans community, work that she continues to this day. Joanne was a Capital Xtra 2005 Lifetime Achievement recipient, and the same weekend won a Pioneers Award in Provincetown on behalf of the Canadian and US transgender movement. The trans community continues to grow, and organize and fill our community with events and challenge us to be inclusive. Last year, the community awarded Caitlyn Pascal, of Divergence, the Youth Hero of the Year Award for her amazing work, and this year she added to it with a film series and other emerging institutions within our community. And last year, Jessica Freedman was a finalist in the Community Activist of the Year Award.

During the late 1980s and into the 1990s, sports and choirs become increasingly popular in the community. Religious allies, to this day far fewer than our religious enemies, start to speak up.

Kathi Sansom gets involved in Dignity Ottawa for queer Catholics, keeping it afloat for some 15 years. That involvement leads to volunteering for PFLAG, Pride, Egale, PTS, Bruce House, Lambda, The Gay Men’s Chorus, and Capital Xtra events. No doubt, you’ve seen her, and her partner, Eileen Murphy, who won a Heroes Award in 2001, working the door of many an event. But Sage is where she’s made the biggest impact. Kathi makes sure queer seniors are visible at The Council on Aging, the Kanata Seniors Expo, and other events. We couldn’t imagine trying to put on our community events without Kathi and Eileen. Kathi is now in hospital, on dialysis and searching for a kidney donor.

The first officially sanctioned Gay PrideMarch in Ottawa is held on Jun 17, 1990. City hall proclaims it, then tries to take it away because the date falls on Father’s Day, but then it’s reinstated by court order. A year previous, the first of what would be an annual march, and later parade, is held. Pride has had its ups and downs since that time. It’s had repeated financial crunches and internal bickering and vicious fighting that had virtually the entire community blushing in embarrassment.

But it’s also, through all that, and despite all that, put on our best annual party, our annual opportunity to blow off steam and demand respect for who we are rather than what others want us to be. There’s no doubt it’s saved lives, continues to save the lives of deeply conflicted people of all ages who are drawn to it, and through it to our organizations and community.

And there have been times when Pride has been well organized and financially responsible. Like during the time of Yvon Vaillant. First, Yvon joins the Ottawa Knights and starts Mr Leather Ottawa in 1994, along with Luc Durochier. A professional project manager for Audit Canada, Yvon is approached to head up the Pride Committee when it hit problems. In 1996, he goes straight into the chair in February. Somehow, despite the late time, they pull off Pride with an excellent team working together.

Yvon chairs for three years and solves the financial crisis, leaving more than $40,000 in the bank account and having fixed the organization’s once tattered reputation. And he introduces some fun events, like the Rainbow Party and the huge Pride flag fundraiser.

After leaving the organization on less than happy terms, Yvon helps Bruce Bursey and others in their study to demonstrate a need for a community centre, and sits on the mayor’s diversity and equity committee in 2003. Today, Yvon spends six months of the year in Ottawa and then hops on a plane to Brazil, where he spends half the year with his partner Fonseca operating a B&B in Salvador.

“To those of you who are working now at building on what has been accomplished by your predecessors,” he says, “I wish courage and foresight. Never relent your dreams and vision of a better future for all of us. I know what my dream is now as I reach my senior years—we need a GBLTQ seniors residence and our Community Centre, so that I and others of my generation can enjoy our days as seniors being the same open and out individuals that we have been.

“I do not want to be pushed back in the closet as a senior. So I call upon all of you … to get involved and make these brick and mortar buildings appear in Ottawa. We need ‘A place to call our own.'”

Kevin Hatt moves to Ottawa in February 1996 and gets involved with Pride right away. He coordinates Pride outreach outside of the Ottawa region, understanding that it should become the goal of all queer Canadians to come spend at least one Pride in our nation’s capital city. Kevin also works on the AIDS Walk starting in 1999. In 2000, he comes down with encephalitis for three years. Still, in 2001, he coordinates North America’s first encephalitis conference, organizing it from his sick bed. Since 2002, he’s been a director at AIDS Committee of Ottawa and is now chair of the board.

Since 2003, he’s been on the board of CATIE as the Ottawa rep. And his latest project: sitting on the board of the queer centre committee.

Jay Koornstra comes to Ottawa in September 2000. He’d started volunteering, and then working, for HIV/AIDS groups in the early 1990s, first for AIDS Niagara and then Peel HIV/AIDS Network in Mississauga. From 1996 to 1999, he was co-chair of the Ontario AIDS Network and in 2000 treasurer of the Canadian AIDS Society. Jay has revitalized Bruce House in the six years since his arrival, a big enough accomplishment on its own. But he goes further. He’s chair of the city-appointed advisory group to the needle exchange program, sitting on provincial advisory committees on housing and gay men’s prevention strategy, and advising CATIE on how to incorporate treatment information into all AIDS programs. He’s become a citizen expert on treatment issues. And with this year’s board of Pride, Jay has volunteered to guide and advise them when needed. Equally important, Jay is a judge for the Mr Leather Ottawa contest, an honourary Ottawa Knight and sings in the Ottawa Gay Men’s Chorus.

In September 1995, GO is wrapped up. GO Info ceases publishing. There is a debt. But it is more than that. Ottawa has outgrown the organization. There are more than 50 community groups where once there were none. Capital Xtra comes along in 1993 with its emphasis on activist journalism and quality imagery and it has more resources to draw on than GO Info. Pink Triangle Services has grown and, though encountering cycles of difficulty, is working its way through to a new mission. Pride celebrations continue through the decades. The community centre project has an injection of new blood in 2005 that continues to move it forward. A Rainbow Village is emerging and will be fully recognized if we have the courage to carry it off in the next couple of years.

All these projects need your support. At the Oct 26 Community Achievement Awards, we thanked the people pictured above with Lifetime Achievement Awards. That night we celebrated the 35 years of gay and lesbian activism in Ottawa. We rejoiced at the past energy that delivered us to this moment and also paid homage to the latest generation of talented and determined activists (see sidebar). Our 35 years of history tells us many things, but most of all it is this: If everyone reading this feature does what they can, our community has almost unlimited potential to write ourselves our own future.