One of the first Canadian gay groups was commemorated with a plaque on Nov 2 at the University of Toronto’s University College.
The University of Toronto Homophile Association (UTHA) was created in 1969 and was Canada’s first official gay university organization.
“The plaque we’re unveiling today is groundbreaking. It will stand as a testament to those who started the group and to those who still advocate,” said Maria Topalovich, from the Ontario Heritage Trust (OHT).
Officials from the university, the OHT and all three levels of government gathered to honour the group’s historical contribution and unveil the plaque, which will be placed on the east side of University College.
“It’s important to remember the hard work that went into the organization of these movements,” said Sam Wesley, the plaque program coordinator at OHT.
U of T’s gay activism began with an ad placed in the Oct 15, 1969, issue of The Varsity newspaper seeking “anyone interested in discussing the establishment of a student homophile association.” The UTHA was formed a couple weeks later.
The UTHA helped launch The Body Politic and foster the formation of similar advocacy groups at college and university campuses across Canada.
Activist Charles Hill, who was an influential member of the group and its first chair, spoke about the immense pressure on gay and lesbian youth, something he says has not changed since he helped form the UTHA.
Referring to the suicide of Ottawa teen Jamie Hubley on Oct 14, Hill tried to calm his shaky voice: “LGBT youth are the most endangered,” he said. “The fight to achieve self-identity can be very lonely.”
Although Canada has come a long way from when Hill advocated gay rights in the early ‘70s, he believes there is still a long way to go: “I used to say we need to make these issues important until they become unimportant.”
Nikki Thomas, from Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Trans People of the University of Toronto (LGBTOUT), says bullying is still rampant. “We’ve seen some great progress, but there’s still work that we need to do.”
Thomas says not one of the 1,800 students in her high school graduating class in 1999 was out of the closet.
She believes the concerns UTHA fought for in 1969 are still important in the Toronto gay community today.
“We have a mayor who refuses to attend the Pride parade on the grounds that ‘family comes first,’” she said.