3 min

A little history repeating? Let’s avoid the spins

Maintaining our freedoms is about more than hanging on with our fingernails

The gay days have come crashing down around us.

Well, not now — or at least not yet. But read your history. The pattern? Heady days of homosexual revelry followed by moral panic and clampdown. Boom, bust.

Over 1600 years, it’s played out over and over again across Europe and North America — in New York, Philadelphia, Berlin, Paris, Rome.

Of course, gay rights in Canada are here to stay. As the title of Tom Warner’s history of queer activism in Canada asserts, we’re “never going back.” Canada, after all, is gay utopia.

It may well be, but I’m not so eager to lay down our arms. After all, how are we going to prevent it from happening again if no one will admit that it could happen again?

New exhibits at the National Gallery and the Canadian War Museum are, I think, invitations to remember how far the West has stooped in the none-too-distant past.

Let’s go back a bit. The big US cities at the end of the 19th Century boasted thriving gay subcultures: New York, Philadelphia, Chicago.

Gay and lesbian bars, drag shows, go-go boys, hustlers and trade were openly reported in the local gossip rags. Police were well aware of the establishments but did not shut them down. This, according to Yale history professor George Chauncey’s Gay New York.

Then the country’s tone changed. Police and politicians led moral crackdowns on the bars. Popular indignation sprang up and gays skittered underground. Discreet house parties replaced roaring drag balls and one of history’s bright gay lights went dark.

At the same time, Berlin was a heaving, sweaty haven for pervs of all kinds, people like Christopher Isherwood and Marlene Dietrich. Obviously, that did not last.

It’s a pattern that was iterated in Rome in 400 CE and France circa 1200, according to John Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality.

Without getting too arcane, what does Paris in 1200 have in common with Rome in 400 and Berlin and New York in 1930? Thriving gay cultures put down by increasingly draconian laws and police violence.

Sociologists attribute this to “generalized social trust.” That’s just a fancy way of saying that your neighbours are more likely to leave us alone during good times than bad. By good times, I mean economic prosperity and peace, not mardi gras. By bad times I mean foreign wars, recession and economic decline.

For the US, 1890 to 1930 was a boom time: economic growth, opportunity and openness. And between 1930 and 1940: economic crisis and global political instability.

Rome in 400, the same: economic stagnation and decay, combined with never-ending foreign wars.

This offends our sense of linear progress. We like to think that history is a unidirectional march toward liberal utopia — rather than a push-and-pull, with both progressive and repressive periods.

But not Canada, surely. Not in the age of the Charter.

Well, I’m not ringing the alarm bell just yet. However, global unrest and economic contraction — not to mention ecological instability — are on the horizon.

During hard times, politicians can feel really, really helpless. Strengthening the country during soft periods can seem hopelessly Sissyphean. Besides, programs for fostering economic growth and helping the jobless are expensive.

Meanwhile, hitting the moral panic button and whipping up anti-minority sentiment is easy.

And drafting new laws to crack down on “moral” problems comes with no immediate price tag for Parliament, whereas new social programs are pricey.

At the same time, hard times make average folks feel squeezed. Generalized social trust goes down, and suddenly people are more likely to agree with anti-minority, anti-immigrant legislation.

It’s a matter of scale. Are we going to see the widespread reversal of our hard-fought freedoms in the next decade? No. Could Canada become increasingly cool to our concerns? You bet.

The key, I think, is for gays and lesbians to spread the net. Let’s find our friends and make hay out of our commonalities: and I think our best bet (if I had to pick criteria) is Canadians whose sex lives are illegal or regulated in at least one US state.

The freedom to buttfuck and pussylick is about sexual freedom.

Same as the freedom to have premarital sex, the freedom to buy and watch porn, the freedom to use a vibrator, the freedom to have casual sex, abortions, threesomes. (Sex work, exhibitionism, public sex, rough sex, and polygamy must also fall inside that tent.) Gee, that includes a lot of Canadians these days, doesn’t it?

We’re in a good position right now to do that work and it ought to be high on our agenda. Because, looking at history, the cost of not putting out deep, wide roots is cultural vulnerability and the transience of our freedoms.