“It was my first run. I wasn’t sure what to expect so I made it about fun,” says Kevin Romain about last year’s weekend-long competition the Round-Up Run. His partner Gene Harack encouraged him with some serious prodding and pushing to compete and was soon proved right – Romain won.
“I ended up having a blast,” says Romain. “I remember Saturday night, part of the show, backstage, my fellow contestants and I, drinking beer and laughing our heads off as we were about to go onstage. None of us knew what the fuck we were doing. It was a riot.
“I realized you get out of life what you put into it.”
On Labour Day, Romain will hand over the title of Mr Round-Up to his successor, an important highlight in the latest installment of a 35-year-old tradition. Somewhere up in the Haliburton Highlands, around 100 men will gather for a weekend of fun and games as the Spearhead Leather And Denim Social Club holds the 2005 version of its Round-Up Run. The run has taken place continuously since August of 1970, by far the longest running event in Canadian gay history; annual Mr Round-Ups have been chosen since ’71.
While this camp weekend features the usual round of sunbathing, swimming, games and other antics, Spearhead’s Round-Up Run exhibits a style sadly absent from similar summer entertainments. Opportunities to host glamorous woodland cocktail parties, to display all that favourite leatherwear at a formal dinner, or to watch or perform in the Saturday night show have kept members of the club and their friends coming back for 35 years.
The 70 or so current Spearhead club members are well known on the Toronto scene for their unrelenting celebrations and amusements. They organize the Leather Fantasy Ball in February, the March anniversary dinner, a midsummer island boat cruise, the just-passed Paint Your Burger barbeque, September’s Round-Up and various bar nights culminating in the Toys-For-Tots drive in December.
Spearhead has a long, proud history. Its members over the years have been determined to have a great time while raising tens of thousands of dollars for (mainly gay) charities.
Back in February of 1970, about 20 men met one evening in Cabbage-town. They decided to formally organize a new club. They dubbed it an “affiliation” and gave it the name of Spearhead. Its founding members were a fun-loving group interested in mutual support, doing good works, having a lot of fun and, of course, making out. A fairly high proportion of them, but by no means all, were active participants in the burgeoning leather/biker club movement that gave such an exciting jolt to the social and sexual lives of gay men throughout North America at that time.
While those who formed Spearhead saw it as a way of plugging into this brave new world of leather, travelling and sex, they were also very much concerned with using their new club to “spearhead’ some positive changes in Toronto.
The situation they faced was far different from today. Gay life in 1970 was extremely constrained. Criminal law restrictions had only very recently been relaxed; there was hostility from bar owners, harassment from police, unrelenting ridicule from every part of the media and hostile denigration from most members of the medical profession.
Don Lloyd joined Spearhead in ’71. Years later, he wrote about going to a gay space at the time. It meant being both brave and eager to make connections with other gay men. “How I heard about the August Club [above the Parkside Tavern on Yonge] I don’t remember. But I do remember trying to get in. After convincing the doorman that I knew it was a gay club and paying my fee, the magic buzzer went and the door was released. After being seated for a short time, my ego was inflated when I was asked to dance then deflated when I realized that I had passed the test – I was not a spy from that other world and could stay.”
Spearhead members have been founding supporters of a number of other long-time gay organizations during the past 35 years among them, the Community Homophile Association Of Toronto, Metropolitan Community Church Of Toronto, Out And Out Club, the Right To Privacy Committee and Mr Leatherman Toronto.
Spearhead even started Toronto’s first gay bowling league. Long-time member Bill Johnson, writing in Spearhead’s Phalia magazine, remembered its beginnings in the early ’70s. “What is now the World’s Biggest Bookstore building on Edward St was then the Olympia Bowling Alley where Spearhead and two offshoot clubs called the Lanyards and the Yorktown and some nonclub players called Independents formed a bowling group called SLY-I. On Wednesdays we all gathered to test our bowling skills at five pin bowling and drinking rye and 7UP. When the Olympia Bowl closed its doors in 1978, the Judy Garland Bowling League and later the Toronto Historical Bowling Society were formed.”
Phalia has the most enduring history of any gay publication in Canada, still being published regularly more than 35 years since its first issue was distributed to eager members in May 1970.
Peter Gernon was its flam-boyant founding editor. He later reminisced about its unusual name. “In the late ’60s and ’70s, any mention of what might be called porn was immediately seized on by the Vice Squad, by the Legion Of Decency or by the all-powerful Daughters Of The British Empire. I created the name Phalia – you could not use the word phallus or any other connotation that smelled of porn – as a combination of phallus and failure, on the good journalistic basis that the minute you put yourself down then the program is bound to succeed! My explanation to the Vice Squad became that if you could find the word in the dictionary they could sue us. They never found it – because it doesn’t exist – and we never had any trouble from them.”
For years, the club’s events played an important part in creating a new era of gay visibility in Toronto’s public spaces. Island boat cruises on the Mariposa Belle, Hanlan’s Point picnics and Paint Your Burger barbeques back in the ’70s involved between 200 and 300 gay men meeting in public together at a time when most others felt safe living invisibly in the background. Buoyed by such peer support, it wasn’t long before nervously hesitant men were encouraged enough to try out radical new concepts like gay Pride picnics and even eventually walking in gay Pride parades.
Of course, as with all things Spearhead, such new style politics resulted from the search for a good time. According to a Phalia reporter back in ’94, that particular year’s boat cruise had included, “some dancing, some funny smells out on deck, some sex in the tearoom, a nervous bartender and a lot of leather.” In ’76, another anonymous reporter wrote a review of an early Hanlan’s Point picnic held on what is now the clothing -optional beach. “As we crossed over on the ferry, some gin must have slipped into our lemonade, because everyone knows that it is illegal to drink alcohol on a beach in Toronto. Food was excellent, though it was difficult to keep the sand out of your cucumber.”
More recent members like Romain and Harack recognize that the club cannot exist on the warm memories of the past. They have recently undertaken a short survey of its members to help ensure its relevance. Assisted by an eager new generation of members, Spearhead certainly looks as if it will survive with the same sense of style for years to come.