On Thanksgiving Sunday I attended the most opulent wedding I’ve ever been to, gay or straight. It was gay and in, of all places, north Toronto. There were more than 300 people in attendance and another 40-odd involved in the actual service, including at least four ministers, several readers, an organist, a pianist, a soloist, a choir and a distinguished local judge who’d been among the first to rule in favour of same-sex marriage. People joked about the “royal wedding” but I thought it looked more like a papal investiture. The service was Protestant but the key ministers wore gold and white and half the service was conducted in French, which gave the affair the otherworldly air of a Catholic mass.
A catered cocktail reception followed and then about 140 people sat down to a three-course dinner in the church hall. I’m guessing the whole thing cost the hosts at least $30,000.
In short it was the sort of celebration where you were more aware of the structure than the content. Everything and anything that society uses to prop up the fragile ideal of the romantic couple was present in abundance – history, religion, tradition, law, pomp, ceremony and most of all, of course, money.
A few hours later, I was reminded of a rather different kind of relationship. When I got home, there was a message from a friend saying George Hislop had died.
After almost 40 years as a public figure, George was many things to many people — politician, activist, easygoing lech, bathhouse habitué and, of course, the gay boulevardier with charm to spare. For me, though, he was the guy with the interesting relationship. Ronnie Shearer was the great love of his life and his partner until Ronnie’s death in 1986.
I didn’t know either George or Ronnie well and I knew even less of their relationship, but as a couple they had a huge impact on my young gay self. By the time I met them in the late 1970s, they’d already been together almost 20 years and even to my untrained eye it was obvious that they had created an enviable bond. At a time when so many gay men were bitter, self-loathing and defensive — and often for very good reasons: the closet exacts many betrayals — George and Ronnie were quiet pillars of sanity.
They were both good-looking guys, but the appeal wasn’t superficial. It wasn’t about sex, wealth, wit or glamour. (Ronnie’s mustache was always immaculate but George retained that rumpled puppy look until the end of his days.) They radiated a kind of stability, both psychic and social. They looked comfortable with themselves, their friends and, most of all, each other. It can’t have been an easy coupling: extroverted George with his taste for a big public political life and quieter Ronnie with an equally determined taste for domestic life. But somehow they pulled it off.
Several times over the years, as I’ve attempted that exercise in frustration known as dating, I’ve run into people who wanted to define our relationship. “What’s going on?” they’d say. “What are you after?” I would cringe, because I knew we weren’t just talking different values, we were talking a different language. They were looking for a magic spell. I was for looking for an experience that could only be realized over time.
What I should have said, of course, was, “I want what George and Ronnie had.” Not the same rules, personalities, dynamics or lifestyles. Just that almost concrete sense of connection.
As late as last year, George told a TVOntario interviewer that he had no interest in marrying. Had he been born a generation later, though, I’m sure he would have. He was just that kind of guy. (An activist but not a revolutionary. More interested in reaping the spoils of the current society than in creating a new one.) But he wasn’t and he didn’t and that’s what made the relationship interesting for me. Whatever he and Ronnie had, they’d cobbled it together without benefit of church or state and it was all the more remarkable for its lack of official support. They had an open relationship and yet somehow it looked far more vibrant and trusting than most of the straight marriages I know. The lack of trappings exposed the true lineaments of the relationship.
Almost 30 years later, I still remember George and Ronnie sitting together at the Parkside Tavern in the late ’70s. At the time the Parkside (now the Breadalbane Burger King) was the centre of gay political life in Toronto and George always seemed to be there, holding forth at one of the many round tables while pot-bellied straight waiters in tiny black aprons carried trays of six-ounce draft from table to table. (You couldn’t carry your own drink; it was illegal.) Ronnie wasn’t there as often and when he was he wasn’t necessarily sitting anywhere near his mate. Like any good political spouse, he stayed at the edge of the spotlight. But even when they were 10 feet apart, you knew they were together. That bond was one of their greatest gifts to a nascent gay community and 30 years later, it’s one I still cherish.
Thanks, guys. You taught more than you knew.