6 min

Remembering George Hislop

Jun 3, 1927 - Oct 8, 2005

POLITICS & PERSONALITY. George Hislop in 1980, with an eye on a city council seat.

On Jun 3, 1927 George Hislop was born in the Toronto suburb of Swansea. He was born into a world that would never be the same after he was done with it. Homosexuality was a criminal offence, a mental illness. Exposure could mean losing your home, your job, your family and your liberty.

George’s supportive family raised him to think well of himself. When he came out to his brothers they let him know that they were not surprised — they had known since he was 10. In George’s later years, his older brother would meet him for coffee some days at George’s principal residence, The Spa On Maitland.

His early years helped lay the foundation of his character. George was free of the baggage that dogged so many of his generation. He never suffered from low self-esteem. For that reason, when he became aware of his sexual orientation, George was outraged by the attitude of the world around him. It never dawned on him that there was anything wrong with him. It was the rest of the world that was wrong.

His early years were spent in preparation for the life to follow. He honed his political skills working to organize unions. He became an articulate and focussed public speaker as a result of his stage training. George spent several of his early years in England as an actor and, to pay the bills, a bartender. When he moved back to Toronto, George found most of his acting work with the CBC doing live television.

In 1958, while riding the Hanlan’s Point ferry George felt a hand on his ass. That’s how George met Ron Shearer, the love of his life. Like George, Ronnie was handsome, funny and articulate. Ronnie was a great counterpoint to George. Ronnie cared about things like grooming, housekeeping and cooking and spent a great deal of his time straightening George’s tie or brushing crumbs off his clothes. While Ronnie cooked elaborate, wonderful meals, George, when left to his own devices, liked to eat out. (George once admitted that he had only used his microwave twice, both times to make popcorn.) While George was always publicly in search of the latest new gloryhole, Ronnie kept his own sexual escapades to himself. I have never seen a couple so different, yet so in tune. Ronnie was a partner in Alderbrooke Industries, one of Canada’s largest suppliers of Christmas decorations, which gave George the freedom to pursue his politics full time. Ronnie’s death in 1986 left George devastated.

George’s contributions to the community were abundant and varied. One of his lifetime commitments was to Toronto’s Hassle Free Clinic, where he served as president from the clinic’s beginnings in 1973 until his death. George attempted to resign from the clinic a few years before his death — he was having difficulty holding a pen to sign paperwork — but the board and the clinic staff refused to allow it. Board members were given the necessary signing authority for George to remain president.

City Councillor Kyle Rae had George appointed to the city’s Planning Commission, and, when his term there expired, to the Committee Of Adjustment. George was not your typical political appointee; he went to all the meetings. When he became ill and began to miss some meetings he worried about it. Even in his last weeks, as he was lying in St Michael’s before being moved to Grace, he wanted to be released to attend a meeting.

In 1970, George founded the Community Homophile Association Of Toronto (CHAT), a spinoff of University Of Toronto Homophile Association. CHAT was formed as a meeting place for the community and it rode the wave of gay liberation following the Stonewall riots in New York in 1969. CHAT gave George a podium for his outspoken opinions, aimed at breaking down stereotypes and myths about homosexuality. His ability to speak clearly to the press made him a media favourite. He was passionate in his defence of John Damien, a racing steward who was fired in 1975 for his sexual orientation.

By the time the first bathhouse raids began in Toronto in 1978, George was already a force. Because he owned shares in the Barracks bathhouse he was charged in 1981 with conspiring to keep a common bawdy house.

George had other business involvements, leading people to erroneously believe he was wealthy. In fact, George and Ronnie had their life savings wiped out in one such business venture, Buddies and Crispins.

George took on his enemies, big and small. For example, some straight-owned gay bars, like the St Charles and the Parkside, had an arrangement with the police. The police were permitted to use peepholes in the bathrooms to arrest individuals and charge them with gross indecency. The Oak Leaf Steambath and the International Steambath allowed the police to arrest individuals in exchange for being allowed to stay in business. George threatened these places with a full boycott and raised awareness about these issues.

He was not reticent about attacking the police. Internalized homophobia had many of his contemporaries convinced that he would bring ruin down on their heads by provoking the mainstream to attack us. They hadn’t elected him. Who was George Hislop to be speaking for them? He would answer with a smile: “Give me your name and the next time I am speaking, I will let the everyone know I am not speaking for you.” He never had to follow through on that offer.

By 1980 George was easily the most identifiable gay face our community had to offer. George charmed even his worst enemies. It was his gift. The Toronto Sun’s Claire Hoy had a habit of calling us every dirty name in the book, but George still treated him with courtesy. On one occasion George was sitting in the audience at a City Council meeting, next to another Sun columnist of the day, John Downing. When Hoy came to ask George a few questions about the proceedings, it was necessary for Hoy to kneel down in front of George so as not to block the view of others. When Hoy left, George turned to Downing: “Now John, be sure to mention in your column tomorrow that you saw Claire Hoy on his knees in front of George Hislop today.”

Prior to the 1980 municipal elections, Club Baths founder Peter Maloney suggested to George that he run for office. George was nominated to represent the Ward 6 association, beating his closest competitor, a young politician named Jack Layton. Jack threw himself enthusiastically behind George and the two formed a friendship that would last until George’s death.

During that campaign I will never forget Maloney as George’s campaign manager, pulling his hair out because of George inability to refrain from cracking one of his magnificent lines. At one press conference George was asked about his position on the controversial issue of the Toronto Islands. George answered, “We’ve got Hanlan’s Point and we’re marching east!” He answered another question: “You know, when we started Gay Youth Toronto there was all kinds of concern that the kids would all be having sex in the stairwells and hallways. That was nonsense and it never happened… unfortunately.”

An antigay propaganda campaign sprung up and George was defeated by a narrow margin, as was his political ally John Sewell, who had run for mayor. The police union’s newspaper ran a cartoon that showed Sewell and George in a trashcan with the punch line, “Just taking out the trash.”

Immediately following the election, the police and Ontario politicians like Attorney General Roy McMurtry erroneously believed that the gay community was weak, a contributing factor of the infamous bath raids of 1981, where police arrested almost 300 gay men and smashed up the bathhouses.

Through the ’80s, the city tried to prevent new bathhouses from opening, so in 1990 when the proposal for the Spa On Maitland finally made it to court to compel the city of Toronto to issue a building permit, George was accepted by the court as an expert witness. His detailed knowledge of the history of the industry persuaded Judge Casimir N Herold to accept gay bathhouses as legal entities — if it weren’t for that case, Toronto would only have Club Toronto and the Oak Leaf. In his decision, Herold referred to George as “a habitué of gay bathhouses for the past four and a half decades.” George pretended to be outraged at this description.

George never really adapted to life after Ronnie. He maintained the apartment on Avenue Rd but only went home to take care of his dog Fudger. He spent more time at the Spa On Maitland where his money just wasn’t any good. Each night he held court in the lounge with his never-ending supply of funny jokes. He counselled on love affairs, listened to problems. He was given his own room, which he filled with his newspaper collection, much as he did every home he ever had. During his 10-year stay at the spa, he met Christopher Hudspeth, who became his closest friend and cared for George through the last years of his life.

Finally, of course, a physically weak and very ill George Hislop, won his last political battle for Canada Pension Plan benefits for same-sex widows. He was the face of the class-action lawsuit. The Liberal government appealed each time the widows won. George struggled by on his meagre income, a condition he described as “genteel poverty.” The Liberal government should know that George never got to spend the money when he finally got it. Weeks later he wound up in hospital for the last time and died on Oct 8.

George Hislop was a giant. He found the world he was born into intolerable and he changed it. Our community has lost what can never be replaced. The many of us who loved this man will never forget him. The community he served will always be indebted to him. I personally cannot imagine the world without him in it.