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Reviving the Ottawa gay scene

New blood, money and strategies needed

Credit: John Crossen

They chanted, “Two-four-six-eight! Gay is just as good as straight!” and their placards proclaimed, “Third-class citizens no more.” With an edge of political irony, they went on: “Support your local monarch: hire a queen.”

On Aug 28, 1971, gay activist Charles Hill addressed 100 gay and lesbian marchers on Parliament Hill for the first significant queer protest in Canada. Hill had a series of 10 demands to further legalize homosexuality, which had been partly decriminalized two years previously by the Trudeau Liberal government.

The next month, the same man, helped by peers, founded Gays Of Ottawa, which remained for many years the focal point of queer activism in the capital. Later renamed the Association of Lesbians And Gays Of Ottawa, it gave birth to several lasting projects, such as the AIDS Committee, Pink Triangle Services, and Abiwin Housing Coop.

From the 1970s to the 1990s, queer activism in Ottawa flourished. It is during those years that the many services and a variety of organizations emerged. Their offspring still help in many ways. Consider Bruce House, Lambda Foundation, Carleton and University of Ottawa’s GLBT centres, the Youth Services Bureau, the Kelly McGinnis Library, the Ottawa Wellness Survey, Pride Ottawa-Gatineau, Women’s Place, the Sexual Health Centre.

However, in recent years, Ottawa’s queer scene has experienced some troubles.

We lost Making Scenes queer film festival and Act Out Theatre in the last couple of years, for example.

Last summer, Pride was almost cancelled because of financial problems. This year, it was the same story until Capital Xtra jumped in.

What’s going on?

We still have challenges ahead, and we need our organizations in order to face them. This fall, same-sex marriage rights will be re-debated in Parliament. City hall recently rejected our community’s request for Pride funding. Is our forward momentum coming to an end?

A major rejuvenation and restructuring is needed in Ottawa queer circles, according to longtime gay activist Barry Deeprose. “Something new has to arrive to carry it further,” he says.

He says part of the problem is that our community’s local leaders have been around for decades. Although this is great for the experience they have, “we have to hear from young people,” says Deeprose. “For older gay people, (youth) are our kids.”

Ideally, young people come forward with ideas, and elder share their knowledge to help starting projects, he says.

Being queer in the 1970s is quite different from coming out in the 2000s, and youth obviously don’t face the same issues as the seniors.

Great amendments have been made to the law since 1969, and the openness towards queer culture is such that gays and lesbians now come out in their teens, and grow up flirting in chat rooms, watching Will & Grace, and downloading Queer As Folks, both British and American versions.

Sodomy is an archaic term; youth aren’t even sure of its meaning. They vaguely understand what a police raid involves, and the meaning of Pride is less protest and more party.

Of course, most have experienced being yelled at and are reluctant to hold hands and kiss in public, but having their throat slid open is not part of their experience of homophobia.

The world may be better for gays and lesbians, bisexuals and trans, but some of the old problems remain and others have arisen.

“Legislative changes have not solved the problems,” sums up Deeprose.

He says Ottawa organizations will need to change their vision to survive. For example, he says he regards Pink Triangle Services, an organization he helped found and on whose board he sat, as “outdated,” “lacking vitality,” and mired in “bureaucracy.”

“My own sense is that the organizations have moved away from the community,” he says.

Ottawa’s queer community is shaped and challenged by Montreal and Toronto, but duplicating those metropolises is the wrong approach, says Nathan Taylor, former chair of the queer centre’s steering committee.

He says Ottawa has to find its niche and build on its uniqueness, such as the outdoors, the two universities, and the civil service. “There’s a lot of intellect in this city,” he says.

He says it’s true that groups in Ottawa share the same old faces, but during the nine months he worked for the community centre, he noticed an increase of interest from the youth.

And perhaps the queer centre recent success is a model for our community. Suffering from indifference and inertia for years, some wondered if a queer community centre would ever materialize. After a decade of talking, its first stage could finally open as early as 2007. Perhaps the progress can be attributed to the composition of its interim board, a combination of young activists and wizened elders.

Other cities are experiencing an increase in active queer youth and young adults.

“There’s more [youth activists] now than there ever has been,” says David Rayside, director of the Centre For Sexual Diversity at the University of Toronto.

He says they’re just less visible because they’re away from the public eye.

“The shift is subtle. Activism has changed its location,” says Rayside. Groups like TEACH in Toronto, and GRIS in Quebec organize tours in schools and community centres to discuss homosexuality with students and spread their antihomophobia message.

Ottawa universities have centres serving gays and lesbians, bisexuals and trans. Some high schools have queer discussion groups.

But overall, Rayside says, queer activism is not at the scale it should be. “It’s true that lots of people are apathetic and don’t think there’s a lot to fight for.”

Current issues at stake include public acceptance of gay parenting. Queers can adopt, and lesbians procreate, but whether they can raise their kids well is still hotly debated in medical and religious circles.

Most Canadian school boards don’t recognize sexual diversity, and that is causing trouble for queer kids, and youth with gay parents.

Trans people don’t receive the same level of acceptance or legal recognition as gays and lesbians, and that leads to awkward and sometimes dangerous public interactions.

Elders face discrimination when receiving treatment from nurses and doctors, whether at home or in hospitals.

In the two decades since the 1970s, gay and lesbian organizations became larger, as did their volunteer and financial resources. Some organizations got access to government money for programming in the past decade. As discriminatory laws changed, and more and more people came out, a strange thing seemed to happen. Many queer groups found it harder to get skilled volunteers and financial resources from within our community.

And, while some local businesses did their bit to help causes, the Ottawa community’s expectations of what they could give may be overblown. Many local gay businesses struggle to stay afloat through the winter months and don’t have the cash flow to dig deep.

“It’s always been hard to raise money for groups in [queer] circles,” says Rayside. Others, like religious extremists and homophobic activists, have greater success.

Compare Egale and Vancouver-based Focus On The Family. In 2005, Focus On The Family received donations accounting for almost $7.5 million. This is 21 times more than Egale’s $350,000.

Clearly, our groups have got to do more with less. And figure out new ways of convincing people to donate time and money.

We won the same-sex marriage debate with less money than our enemies can marshall. But if gays and lesbians donate proportionately as much as Christian extremists, imagine how much more we could win.

As well as the work we need to do within our own local community, Ottawa queers also have the added responsibility of making changes through Parliament and the federal bureaucracy.

“We’ve got to do advocacy with policy makers,” Deeprose says. For that, we need creative strategies. Falling back on shouting ‘homophobia’ every time something doesn’t favour our community is a “tired strategy.”

He says a better approach is to help governments understand queers, so that we receive better services.

Whatever we do, we need to get beyond mere criticism. It’s not enough. “We should support rather than criticize,” Deeprose says.

It’s not by roaring about what others do wrong and sitting on our rears that things will happen. The best way is still to get involved and support your local queens.