Ottawa
3 min

No fucking clue

Gay youth don't know our own history

We really have no fucking clue. When I interviewed Barry Deeprose, a long-time activist and chair of the Gay Men’s Wellness Initiative, he said that he came out in 1968. “So when I came out,” he told me, “I was coming out as a criminal.” In 1969, “buggery” was taken off the books in Canada, because it was thought of as a mental problem, not a crime.

The ’70s were a scary decade. Barry told me about the public service witch hunts, where Ottawa-area gay men and lesbians were fired for being “security risks.” You could be denied an apartment if a landlord knew you were gay, Judy Girard, another longtime activist, told me. Ottawa’s gay boat cruises were pelted with eggs by homophobes standing on bridges above the boat. And, of course, Ottawa has a history of even more significant homophobic violence. This was before sexual orientation was protected under the charter. The dominant modes of Ottawa’s gay culture were fear and self-loathing.

But I have no fucking clue what it was like.

That’s because Ottawa’s queer community was one of the first to organize. Gays Of Ottawa, or GO, was a pioneer association of lesbians and gays in Canada when it was established in 1971. Its spin-offs number nearly a dozen, including the current incarnation of Pink Triangle Services and Egale Canada.

When it came to protecting gays and lesbians from workplace discrimination, the City Of Ottawa was very progressive in the ’70s. When it came to fighting homophobia in the police force, Ottawa was miles ahead of most cities by the mid-’90s. And when it comes to electing openly gay city councillors, Ottawa remains ahead of the pack.

And it’s not because Ottawa has a progressive populace; it was because members of the queer community (and hardworking allies like Diane Holmes) fought tooth and nail to achieve their vision of an Ottawa they could be proud of.

Here’s what I do know: a generation of Ottawa’s queer activists fought so that we might be free. So that my generation would never know the intense burden they shouldered as young people. So that we would not have to hide. So that we would not be ashamed of who we are.

Not to say that acceptance of queer issues isn’t still a matter of class or that there isn’t a huge difference between urban and rural gay experiences. Not to belittle the self-hatred that many queers are saddled with, young and old alike. Not that we shouldn’t be diligent again, now that Conservabot 2000 is prime minister. But it used to be worse. Much worse.

We already know that Pride is a bit like Christmas. It’s certainly a lot like Halloween. I’d like to see a bit more of Remembrance Day. And Thanksgiving.

Speaking with Barry, who’s given talks to Pink Triangle Youth, and to Shaun Vollick of Carleton’s GLBT Centre, I get the impression that young people want to know their history. There’s a real hunger for storytelling among youth, and I think that it’s in everyone’s best interest that those stories get told.

So I’m adding another voice to the chorus of reasons that I’m going to Pride this year — as a way of remembering where we come from. Even the relatively brief history of Pride itself is full of exciting personalities, which makes for a worthy retelling.

I’ve been in touch with a couple of queer historians over the last few weeks who are quick to point out that gay culture pre-dates the 1970s, that to imagine queer lib as having leapt fully formed from the peace movement’s forehead in the late ’60s is a bit of mythmaking. While probably a valid point, we’re hardly the first culture to engage in mythmaking. And it was the generation spurred on by feminism, antiwar activism, and other liberation struggles that won us our freedoms, and that is a fact that we cannot ignore.

So it may be that my generation has no effing clue what it was like to be gay in the ’60s and ’70s. That was the idea; that’s what they were fighting for. Now the average urban youth comes out as a tween. Now youth can find a gay culture whose dominant mode isn’t shame.

And to all those people who fought for us, come find me at the parade or picnic. I’ll be wearing a T-shirt that says, “Thank you.”