3 min

In search of a Canadian queer icon

Icons are a way to keep our accomplishments alive in the national psyche

It is a strange confluence of events that leads me to write about a Governor General this month.

I was listening to one of the Variations on Glenn Gould memorial concerts on CBC Radio 2 a few weeks ago. Along with Sony BMG Music, who keeps on repackaging and marketing Gould’s recorded legacy, our national broadcaster has been quite industrious in making sure that the eccentric Canadian pianist — whose 75th anniversary it would have been this year had he not died at the age of 50 — retains his position as a cultural icon, perhaps the cultural icon, of this country.

Had Gould been queer, would he have so easily ascended our national Olympus as the country’s greatest musician to rub elbows with the likes of Tommy Douglas, the father of Medicare, or Emily Pauline Johnson, the Mohawk princess of poetry?

A question worth asking because even today, one is hard pressed to name a gay icon, or a national lesbian as it were.

And we should have one, because icons are a way of keeping our individual and collective accomplishments alive in the national memory and psyche. It is a kind of shorthand: Margaret Atwood for Canadian literature; the Bluenose for our maritime heritage; Louis Riel for the Métis nation.

Incidentally, although icons do not have to be martyrs, one cannot deny that martyrdom does add a certain lustre. To use a British example, Oscar Wilde could have been just A Great Wit, but after his trial, he became The Great Victim of Heterosexual Oppression.

So, let us find a Canadian queer icon, a man or a woman who will embody the idea of homosexuality for the average Canadian.

Working our way backwards in time, past gay liberation, past Bill C-150, past WWII, we stop at John George Edward Henry Douglas Sutherland Campbell (Ian to his family), Marquess of Lorne and 9th Duke of Argyll. He was the youngest Governor General of Canada at 33, and son-in-law to Queen Victoria, whose fourth daughter, Princess Louise Caroline Alberta, he married in 1871.

Lorne was Governor General of Canada from 1878 to 1883. Although not rated one of the great ones, he was certainly a good one, travelling across the west meeting First Nations and Métis, wooing a sulking British Columbia and later publishing accounts of his time in the Dominion.

And, unlike many other vice regal couples, he and Princess Louise left a permanent mark on the country: the Royal Society of Canada, the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts and the National Gallery of Canada. That, and the name of the province of Alberta, and the unusual popularity in Canada of Lorne as a given name.

Lorne is a particularly promising candidate for icon status because of the rumours during his lifetime that he was gay.

His childless marriage to Louise was, according to the National Archives of Canada, a matter of immense interest to their peers: “A few years passed, but no children were in sight. Rumours began that have continued to the present day. Was there sexual ambiguity in Lorne? There were those who saw evidence of it in his literary and artistic tastes and talent, and in the fact that his uncle Lord Ronald Charles Sutherland-Gower was almost certainly homosexual.”

Online gay resource Andrej Koymasky states that “Princess Louise bricked up a window in Kensington Palace to stop Lorne’s nighttime ‘cruising’ for soldiers in the park,” while Wikipedia offers: “One of his [Lorne’s] close homosexual friends was the handsome but dissolute Frank Shackleton who was a key suspect in the theft of the Irish Crown Jewels. There is clear evidence that official investigation of the theft of the Crown Jewels was suppressed. It has been suggested that this is because authorities became aware of the Lorne connection to Shackleton.”

And, in an article about Oscar Wilde’s visit to Ottawa, Denis Armstrong writes: “Gov-Gen Marquis de Lorne… famously declared he wouldn’t be seen with Wilde in order to quash rumours that he himself was homosexual.”

Yet Lorne flourished, pursuing a successful political and literary career upon his return to England before dying in Kensington Palace in 1914.

Not an icon for the Liberated Homosexual then, but certainly one for Homosexuals Are Everywhere.