5 min

Queer literary event marks 25 years of Lambda

How an apolitical queer social group took up the flag

Starting in the late ’70s, a group of queer Ottawa business and professional people started holding get-togethers to network and compare notes, and refer business back and forth. Dubbed the Lambda Business and Professional Network, this group slowly began organizing into a more coherent social group in the city.

“They were doing well in their careers,” says Gary Sealey of his fellow members. “They were great times, they were times of expansion. And yet there was something missing — they could not be themselves in public, they could not be themselves with their clients, with their bosses, and they felt a need to get together to help each other.”

“We would have speakers come in and talk to us about various things,” recalls George Hartsgrove, a member since the early ’80s. “During the real heydays of it, we used to meet at a restaurant on Somerset St called Panache, and we’d fill the place every time. It was quite nice — we’d do dinner, and then over coffee we’d have the speaker talk about whatever the subject might be.”

But as the need for networking began to diminish, the group’s membership decided they should be doing something more.

“Gradually they collected some small sums of money and felt that they would like to have a scholarship fund, which would give a boost to youth in the city and validate just being people, being … queer in mainstream society,” Sealey says. “They had the idea that they could build bridges of understanding through that.”

“Those were the times of wanting to become real people, of courage and commitment and living for a better world, and it was in those times that not just the Lambda Foundation began,” Sealey adds.

The Lambda Foundation was born in 1985 and has moved from being a local initiative to an organization with a national reach.

“It took years and years to become a foundation because of persistent homophobia in the charities division of Revenue Canada, but all that is in the past,” Sealey says. “The first scholarships were set up at the University of Ottawa and at Carleton, and they went so well that the people who were giving the money saw the opportunity to set up similar scholarships in their own alma maters, either in wills and bequests, or through personal gifts and donations, so that over the past 25 years, Lambda Foundation has grown so there is hundreds of thousands of dollars now endowed at universities from coast to coast, and there’s a national board.”

Not that a group like Lambda could have been very open in its early days.

“Certainly at the beginning, it was fairly closeted, but there were a number of people who were within the organization that were also people who were activists – although it wasn’t an activist organization and that wasn’t the intent,” Hartsgrove says. “But there was that energy within them to start saying, Hey, things aren’t right – we’ve got to make things different, and how can we go about doing that?”

At the time, there were few queer organizations in Ottawa — the Gays of Ottawa (GO) and their GO Info newsletter, a nascent PTS, and a sports group called Club Moustache. And while Lambda was less concerned about activism, built within its mandate was the desire to build bridges of understanding between the queer and mainstream communities — something that has carried forward to the Foundation.

“They wanted to be themselves — allowed to be themselves, but they also wanted to be part of society,” Sealey says of those founding members. “They were well-performing citizens with good businesses and professional careers, but they didn’t want to be locked into just a minority group — they wanted to be part of their country, their city, their society. And to do that, they had to be accepted as real people.”

The scholarship program now funds eight universities and one high school, and there are plans to increase that number to at least 20.

“These scholarships, awards and bursaries — they’re very diverse,” says Foundation secretary Pat McKenna. McKenna became involved with Lambda Foundation when she helped to establish the Candis Graham Writing Scholarship at the University of Victoria.

“They’re really cross-disciplinary, and it depends on the interests of those who are creating the scholarship,” McKenna says. While most of the university awards are scholastic-based, the Lambda Award for Human Rights at Gulf Islands Secondary School on Salt Spring Island is for students who are involved in the community.

“Lambda has a unique niche in Canada in terms of funding studies on queer issues, and to me, it’s very important, not just practically in terms of providing funding for students, but also symbolically,” says board member Stephen Brown, a political science professor at the University of Ottawa.

“In a way, it’s a legitimization of normalization of queer studies by making it seem like just any other topic or area that you can work on. It takes these issues away from the margin of academia where they usually are, and puts them at the centre.”

The Lambda Foundation is working with Memorial University to start a scholarship there and is finalizing an initiative with St Paul Hospital, the teaching hospital with the University of British Columbia.

“We’re attempting to set up a medical bursary there that would allow interns to do some travel if their research is involved with the community,” says McKenna. “That one is in the final stages, and hopefully disbursement will begin next year.”

Lambda had also become known for its premier literary events, called Wilde About Sappho, which began as a play-reading on the second floor of the Centretown Pub and eventually grew to fill the auditorium of the National Library, with queer authors reading from their works.

“John Barton — one of Canada’s eminent poets — came up with a name,” Sealey says. “We tried to maintain a high quality of original, creative and artistic works of excellence. Not all fiction, but including non-fiction, and many of the people coming to Wilde About Sappho had not been reading books, had never met a living author and were surprised by what they heard and saw.”

The time and effort involved in organizing the events became too much for the volunteer board, but they are revisiting the notion at this year’s Ottawa Pride with an event called Queer Generations, which features original Wilde About Sappho authors Gabriella Goliger and Blaine Marchand reading alongside newer writers Luna Alison and Sean Zio.

As for the Lambda Foundation, they are already looking for their next legacy projects.

“There are many more scholarships to be developed,” Sealey says. “There are a lot more opportunities for people to give, or to top up the value, or leave a scholarship in their name or in the name of a loved one to a university. But there’s also an opportunity to build on the success of Lambda Foundation and to work with many of the groups across the country – many of the populations across the country – and help them strengthen their capacity to do more, to build for the future, to sustain their leadership, to co-develop a legacy fund for the future, for education, for research, and to celebrate the achievements of each other.”

Queer Generations
Thursday, Aug 26th at 7pm
Ottawa City Hall