2 min

John Duggan is a gay pioneer

Early Ottawa activist honoured with portrait

Credit: (Shawn Scallen)

From the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, a young man named John Duggan poured himself into gay community activism in Ottawa, and helped to change the face of the city and the country as a whole.

This summer, the Canadian Lesbian And Gay Archives will induct Duggan into its National Portrait Collection, recognizing him for being, “undoubtedly, one of the most influential individuals in the early gay liberation movement in Canada.”

For Duggan, it’s an opportunity to reflect on a very intense period of personal involvement with the historically pivotal community organization Gays Of Ottawa (GO), and the fight against anti-gay prejudice.

“For those 10 years, Gays of Ottawa and the gay liberation movement were the main focus of my life,” says Duggan, who describes how he spent that decade between the ages of 25 and 35 fuelled by anger, a drive for social change and a commitment to gay lib.

“When you think of the times and how really oppressive it was for lesbians and gays – the prejudice was so deeply ingrained in the society. There was so much going on and so much to react to. There was so much to change.”

Duggan remembers how, as a GO volunteer, he kept his day job to pay the rent and buy food, but that his real energy went into activism – doing peer counselling in the early days of the Gayline, giving public education talks and helping to organize social activities like the monthly dances.

Though admittedly shy, Duggan became a very public figure through GO’s political action work at the local level, and at the national level as the coordinating office for the Canadian Lesbian And Gay Rights Coalition.

He and a small cadre of other willing queer folk started to take the fight into the media. Armed with press releases, letters to the editor and a willingness to be interviewed, they became a grassroots, media-savvy, rapid reaction force.

They faced off against Ottawa police over their handling of the Vice Ring Affair male prostitution arrests and the raid on the Club Baths. They fought to have sexual orientation included in the federal and provincial human rights codes. And they fended off organized anti-gay, rightwing religious campaigns like that of US-spawned Anita Bryant.

Duggan says it felt at times like they were given “30 seconds to give an answer to something that spoke to 5,000 years of prejudice.

“It took a lot of time and energy to challenge the social institutions – the police, the politicians. For a lot of them, they just didn’t realize the effect they had on the lives of gay people.

“It was very exciting, but it was also very exhausting.”

In 1982, Duggan was hired as GO’s first full-time employee, and proceeded to do some key community organizational work – helping plan and develop a strategic response to AIDS, creating Ottawa’s first registered queer charity – Pink Triangle Services – and founding the queer-friendly Abiwin Housing Co-op.

Then his energy for the battle started to wane, and, in his own words, he burnt out.

“I was at that point where I hated to turn on the news and I hated to open the newspaper because I knew there was going to be something and we’d have to go into high gear again and try to counter it.”

So Duggan distanced himself from the torch-carrier role he’d played for years, and hasn’t reimmersed himself since.

It would be hard to contest that he did more than his share, burning bright in his own quest for liberation, and clearing a path for his brothers and sisters at the same time.