I began this column on Christmas Day wondering how to see in 2009.
Practically any other kind of columnist could have done a year in review, but that’s not really an option for someone who writes about history.
I could, I suppose, make a list of contemporary events I think will make it into the history books, but having seen Gus van Sant’s Milk the week before, I’m conscious of just how difficult it is to identify events that are history making, as they occur.
I was 23 years old when Harvey Milk was elected. I remember being only mildly impressed at the time: he was a municipal politician —not even the mayor —and not only was he in another city, but in another country as well.
I wanted a player in my own political landscape and I wanted one of greater political weight, if not of greater significance.
Then, Milk’s shocking murder seemed to me to constitute a greater indictment of his country’s gun laws than anything else, mitigated —if that is the right word —by Dan White’s own ultimately tragic narrative. The homophobia I took for granted, and the manslaughter verdict was not unexpected. The riots that followed, however, were a surprise and were history making.
Milk opens with a black and white sequence of a police raid on a gay bar. Men in chinos, sports jackets —and one poor, older fellow in a really unflattering pair of Bermuda shorts and knee high white stockings (what was he thinking?) —are shown being carted off in a paddy wagon, some attempting to protect their identities by shielding their faces with their hands from the harsh white flash of the police cameras.
As I sat there in the dark, I suddenly remembered my first police raid, and how it could have been historically significant had it netted the big fish the police and their political masters were trying to catch.
My brush with history took place in Montréal in 1976 in a bar on Stanley Street. Stanley Street was thought to have the best bars in the city: downtown and not in the East End like those in the gay village, more upscale (read Anglo) and less quétaine (kitschy) than their Francophone counterparts.
This particular bar was underneath the best disco in town. Grace Jones had performed there before anyone else in North America had ever heard of her, and the bar had gained a certain cachet because of this. You would willingly line up for an hour or two in the dead of a Montréal winter. And in the summertime, there was a park just on the other side of the street for those too impatient to queue.
With my best friend from art school, I’d shown up early that evening. We nursed our drinks and waited for the bar to fill up and the dance floor to get busy. It soon did, but in the middle of a hit song of the period the sound system suddenly cut out. The strobe lights as well. And everything seemed to be bathed in black and white slow motion as the lights’ revolutions began to decrease.
Then we saw the police.
No whistles, no clubs, just uniformed men moving quickly through the crowd, telling us to leave.
We ended up on the sidewalk where we milled for a while before calling it a night.
This raid did not rate a mention in the ‘papers the next day, nor the day after. But people were talking. There had been several raids across the city that night. They were looking for someone; someone in the new separatist government; a cabinet minister; a young cabinet minister. Eventually a name was whispered: Claude Charron.
Charron was the wonder boy of Québec politics. He was elected an MLA for a poor East End Montréal riding in 1970 at the age of 23, one of the first seven members of the Parti Québécois to be elected to office. He was hot headed, and got into fights with the leader of his party, René Lévesque.
When the latter won the 1976 provincial election —and the exodus of Anglophones from Québec began —Charron was named to the first Parti Québécois government as minister of state responsible for amateur sport, leisure and youth.
He was re-elected in 1981 only to crash and burn in a spectacular way a year later when, suffering from stress brought on by a sex video scandal involving juveniles —he was later cleared —he committed a Svend Robinson and was caught shoplifting.
He resigned from cabinet but kept his seat. He left politics for good a few months later when he was charged with drunk driving.
The raids, then, were designed to embarrass the new government by “revealing” its Minister for Youth as morally unfit, because, as Charron himself later wrote, “At that time, to be homosexual meant pedophile, mentally ill… ”
Who knows, it might even have worked. He might have been forced to resign and gone down in history as a gay man chased from office by homophobes.
Fortunately for him, I did not see history being made that night.