6 min

Gorgeous George

Hislop's our gay everyman

ENTREPRENEUR, SLUT, WIDOWER. George Hislop's made a mark. Credit: Joshua Meles

Ah, the reach and influence of George Hislop.

You may know him as a politician, activist, businessman and the grand marshal of this year’s Pride Parade, but others know a different Hislop, a secret Hislop, a Hislop with powers beyond our ken.

A few years ago a friend of mine took up a new post as the openly gay minister to a United Church congregation in north Toronto. The congregation was essentially cool with the gay thing but some folks had reservations about its effect on their fundraising and at least one elderly parishioner took it upon himself to consult outside experts. This turned out to be a good thing. As the 75-year-old doubter later told my friend, he’d been to see Toronto’s “head homosexual” and the head homosexual had assured him that everything would be all right.

No points for guessing who the head homosexual turned out to be.

At least since the early 1970s, when he was president and co-founder of one of the city’s earliest gay lib organizations, Hislop has been one of the city’s most visible and articulate gay men. His key accomplishments are public knowledge: cofounder and sole president of the Community Homophile Association Of Toronto (CHAT) in the ’70s, the first openly gay man to run for public office in the ’80s and pension plan activist in the 2000s.

But more than his actual accomplishments, which many in the community could equal or rival, is the fact of Hislop himself.

It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time, not so very long ago, when Hislop was seemingly the only middle-class mainstream homo in the country. In December 1972, Hislop and his lover Ronnie Shearer appeared in a Maclean’s feature story called “Couples” and for many people, both straight and gay, it was the first time they had seen homos in print. And not just any pair of homos, but homos who were, in the words of the story’s subtitle, “just plain folks.”

A businessman, an activist, a devoted “husband” and an accomplished slut, Hislop was the activist people who hated activists could identify with. At a time when gay discourse was dominated by fiery feminists and lefty intellectuals, good-natured Hislop seemed the embodiment of mainstream common sense.

Other individuals and groups may have had more influence on the drift of public policy, especially legal groups in the ’80s and ’90s and The Body Politic collective in the ’70s (the defunct magazine was published by Pink Triangle Press, Xtra’s parent). But few of them were as adept at managing their self-image. The Body Politic crowd was in fact notorious for the opposite.

Hislop, on the other hand, seemed to the media born.

“I could do a 30-second soundbite and that’s important to the media,” says Hislop, 77. “You learn not to be garrulous. Be short and sweet and you’ll get on the six o’clock news.”

Plus, he’s a genuinely likeable guy, open to talking to everyone and anyone, and apparently known to all simply as George. In the course of my interview with him, conducted in the middle of a not particularly busy afternoon at Statler’s on Church St, at least three strangers stop to say hello and one wants to know when he is going to write a book.

“When I learn to write,” says Hislop, but the truth is more that his life speaks for itself. He didn’t become an activist until his early 40s but in retrospect much of his early life seems but training for a career as the public embodiment of a heretofore very private community.

That training started early. “I spent my 21st birthday on the stage at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in a production of Die Fledermaus,” says Hislop. The opera division of the Royal Conservatory Of Music needed “spear carriers” and other odd bodies for a production of the Strauss operetta. Needless to say, Hislop, who was studying speech arts and drama at the conservatory, volunteered.

“The instructions were if you can sing, sing; if you can’t, don’t say anything. I flattered myself that I could sing, so I was allowed to yodel in the chorus.” That was in 1948.

Five years later in 1953, Hislop travelled to England, hoping to bolster his Canadian acting career with a few foreign credentials, but he wound up as the host of a gay bar called The Coronation, just off London’s Leicester Square. “I was in this bar every night drinking and finally they offered me a job and said, ‘How would you like to be the host? Just make sure everybody has a good time.’ I said, ‘I think I could do that.’ So from then on I was drinking for free.”

Back in Canada, he continued to exercise his winsome charm, most notably on the ferry to Hanlan’s Point on the August holiday weekend of 1958. Spotting a cute guy, Hislop grabbed the guy’s ass and the rest, as they say, is history. The cute guy turned out to be Shearer, an artist and designer whose firm would later provide the Eaton Centre’s first Christmas decorations.

They moved in together nine months later and stayed together for the next 28 years, until Shearer’s death of a stroke in 1986 at the age of 53.

Marriage, however, didn’t curtail Hislop’s erotic imagination. On a trip to San Francisco in the ’70s, he visited a bathhouse called the Barracks and thought, “Toronto could use something like this.” There had been a bathhouse on Widmer St in Toronto since 1924, but it was closed and was selling for next to nothing, so a group of men, including Hislop and Shearer, got together and bought it. This was in 1974, before the warehouse district turned into the entertainment district, and the Paramount Theatre complex rose on the opposite side of the street. “I think we paid $15,000 for it,” says Hislop.

Hislop continued his business career in 1978 when he joined businessman Rick Stenhouse and other investors in opening Buddy’s bar and Crispin’s restaurant in the space now occupied by the Bijou. One of the first major gay bars on Church St, Buddy’s also signalled a change in the community’s sense of itself. Not only gay-owned, it incorporated parts of the partners’ personalities.

“I actually named Buddy’s after a friend of ours who died of a drug overdose,” says Hislop, while Shearer designed most of the complex and came up with name for Crispin’s. The name alone set the complex apart from earlier gay bars on Yonge St. Suggesting “crisp and clean,” it put the bar-restaurant in a different class from legendary bars like the St Charles and the Parkside which were, to put it mildly, grotty.

Buddy’s was never limited to one type of clientele. As Rick Bébout notes in his on-line memoir, it was “practically a community centre.” But with its upscale menu (in Crispin’s), clean lighting and exposed brick walls, it assured a nascent gay middle class that it was all right to come out.

Hislop and Shearer’s relationship with Stenhouse eventually ended in a court battle but once again Hislop had made his mark. There have been other ups and downs along the way. Magazines started and abandoned, bars opened and closed. But through it all, Hislop has never failed to fight the good fight.

In 2001, at the age of 73, he embarked on yet another campaign, this one on behalf of gay widowers across the country. As the lead plaintiff in a class-action suit worth $400-million, he, his lawyers and fellow plaintiffs want the federal government to pay survivor benefits to gay men and women who lost their partners between 1985 and 1998. (When the government included same-sex widowers in 1999, it arbitrarily chose a 1998 cutoff, rather than backdating to 1985 when the Canadian Charter Of Rights And Freedoms came into effect.)

The case seemed all but won last December when the Ontario Supreme Court ruled in his favour. But the federal government appealed the decision and Hislop finds himself headed back to court. He’s not happy about it. In fact this is one of the few times when his default geniality gives way to open exasperation.

“I’m sick and tired of hearing this is going to cost the taxpayers. It’s not going to cost the taxpayers a damned cent, except for the money the government is spending on lawyers,” he says. The money would come out of the Canada Pension Plan, says Hislop. Besides, as he told a rightwing caller on a Hamilton call-in show, “It’s our money!”

Win or lose, Hislop isn’t likely to limit his community involvement. Despite heart problems, diabetes and a Parkinson’s-related balance problem that forces him to use a walker, he’s as sly, feisty and funny as ever. When he isn’t discussing the finer points of gay history and politics, he’s cruising the next generation.

“One of the hustlers once asked me if I was a ‘sugar,’ meaning a sugar daddy,” says Hislop. “I said, ‘No, honey, I’m just sweet and low.'”

Hislop’s birthday is Jun 3 which, if you stretch the point a bit, makes him a Pride baby. Happy birthday, George.

* George Hislop leads this year’s Pride Parade, along with the designated group the Lesbian And Gay Community Appeal. Parade starts at 2pm. For details, see the Ultimate Pride Guide tucked into this issue.