Promotion
4 min

New book traces the growth of lesbian community in Canada

In the 1960s women began to come out, create community and love openly

Carolyn Gammon wields an axe at the Alaska Highway outside Whitehorse in the 1980s. Credit: Courtesy Helen Fallding

In 1915, Charlotte Whitton, the first woman to serve as a mayor of a major Canadian city, received this seductive missive from her lover Margaret Grier:

“I must confess I am deeply, head over heels in love with you and it expresses itself in an overpowering desire to devour you beginning at your throat of course . . . Lottie I am going to keep your letters tied up with ribbon with my lover letters.”

Seductive indeed, yet somewhat confusing. For, if Grier was in such a state as to want to feed on her lover (we’ve all been there Margaret!) then why is it that she seems to categorize the letters she received from Whitton as something other than “lover letters?” For so much of Canadian history, women-to-women love has been recorded in this perplexing fashion. In what amounts to mountains of letters, diaries and other writings, women expressed their feelings for each other in words and deeds suggestive of erotic love, while rarely confirming the existence of erotic acts. In short, suggestions, similes and flirtations abound, but the real thing is rarely ever there, on paper at least. The result has been a heyday for historians, who have literally built their careers arguing over the “true” nature of lesbian love in the past.

But all of this ambiguity would be swept aside beginning in the 1960s, according to University of Manitoba women’s studies professor Liz Millward. In her new book, Making a Scene: Lesbians and Community Across Canada, 1964-1984, Millward explores lesbian history. In the 1960s, women came out en masse and began to publicly identify as lesbians. They formed community organizations and developed support networks that exist to this day.

Daily Xtra recently caught up with Millward and asked her about how lesbians burst on to the scene in the 1960s and created community in the latter half of the 20th century.

The 1950s

The 1950s were dark days for Canadian lesbians.

The resurgence of the suburban housewife ideal in the postwar period led to very restricted options for women seeking female-only social spaces. Bars were one option, but at this time, women were not permitted to enter a bar without a man! This meant that women who wanted to get laid or meet other women were forced to find each other in the most marginal of social spaces, namely, seedy bars that flaunted the “she must enter with a man” laws.

These bars were, as Millward characterized it “the more run down bars, the bars run by criminals who were basically taking advantage of this group of women who had no place else to go.”

The 1960s

The 1960s represented a watershed moment for Canadian lesbians, where for the first time, a critical mass of women came out and began to form community associations. As Millward explained, “there’s a kind of zeitgeist in the 1960s and into the 1970s of social movements, possibility . . . you’d had the 1969 omnibus bill, where the government officially recognizes that lesbians and gay men exist, and so there’s this real sense of changes in the air . . . lesbians pick up on that energy and start to create their own community.”

Lesbians create their own space at Bell Bay Farm, Mayne Island, about 1977.
Courtesy Deb Thomas

A form of community unique to Canada at this time was the private member clubs created by lesbians in the Prairie provinces. Gays and lesbians in these provinces picked up on a tradition of co-operative organizing to create their own community spaces that hosted social events. Highly debaucherous activities like movie nights, card games and (gasp) dancing were often held in these spaces. Fun and wholesome activities like sleigh rides, picnics, motorcycle rallies and bowling were also organized by the clubs. Wholesome according to official history of course!

Although they served the crucial function of providing space for lesbians to meet, these spaces weren’t always pretty. One woman complained that many of the clubs were always in the “basement of some building” resembling a “dungeon.”

The 1970s

In the 1970s, lesbian conferences peaked. Starting with the Toronto’s Gay Women’s Festival in 1973, a series of conferences held across the country brought lesbians together to discuss their common issues. Out of these conferences, a larger sense of national community was birthed.

Conference hosting required a lot of “get up and go” on behalf of organizers. As Millward noted, this was a remarkable achievement when considered against the backdrop of circumscribed gender roles. Because women had to struggle to cast off the notion of passive femininity, in which they had been socialized, many of them developed fierce personalities resembling its exact inverse: a bold and take charge attitude. According to Millward, women in this era are

“excited to do things like chop wood, use axes, use power tools, drive trucks, they set up sound equipment . . . for women’s festivals and music events. And that great sense of pride, in that I can do this technical stuff, I can make it happen, I don’t have to rely on a man. The women are all immensely proud of learning these skills and not being intimidated into thinking they shouldn’t be able to do it, or they can’t do it.”

Millward noted that this same “take charge” attitude that emerged in lesbian communities in the 1970s is alive and well in the organizers of this year’s BOLDFest event in Vancouver.

The 1980s

In the 1980s lesbian women of colour began to create their own community organizations, partially out of frustration with white women who were dominating the movement. In 1988, a committee organized the Fifth International Lesbian and Gay People of Colour Conference in Toronto, which was open to “Lesbian and Gay People of Colour Only.” Topics at this conference included white racism in the gay community and explorations of interracial relationships.

BOLDFest

These decade-by-decade summaries are of course generalizations, but Millward will delve into the details when she speaks about her new book and runs an interactive workshop for women at BOLDFest’s Conference & Gathering of/by Older Lesbians in September 2016 in Vancouver.

Millward says BOLDFest fits perfectly with the book she has written about the creation of lesbian community in Canada. “I think BOLDFest is a straightforward continuation. It’s exactly the kind of community based space that the book discusses . . . you’ve got a space created by energetic women, set up to create visibility, meeting opportunities for older lesbians, workshop opportunities, music events and so forth.”

This year BOLDFest will also present the BOLD Woman Award to Janine Fuller, the longtime activist and former manager of Little Sister’s bookstore.