They try to be polite, but resentful baby boomers really want to know, “Why don’t those ungrateful young queers thank us for working so hard to get the freedoms they take for granted?”
Sadly, a similar question has been posed by anxious gay liberationists for most of the last 35 years. Back in the 1970s when I was about the same age as today’s allegedly careless ingrates, I attended lots of activist meetings. At the top of the agenda at most was the perceived disconnect between gay politicos and the rest of the gay men of Toronto.
At these meetings and in the pages of The Body Politic, we worried about how to use political action in the cause of equality and liberation, while being bitterly disappointed in the apparent apathy of a majority who did not seem to offer us much support. The problem activists faced was that most gay men did not want to be united under our banners.
The dirty secret of activists was that many of them had very little in common with the community they hoped to serve. A toxic generation gap existed then just as big as today’s. An impatient younger generation could not see past class and political differences, sadly ignoring the progress already achieved in cities like Toronto. Many activists wished that everyone would stop wasting their time in bars, clubs and baths and instead help with organizing the liberationist nirvana that would then quickly arrive.
This impatience and dismissal of others is repeated in what is a generally accepted version of Toronto’s gay history. This version, represented for example by Fab magazine’s recent historical issue, continues to highlight the many efforts of journalistic and academic activists while ignoring an equally interesting and deeply political story – the story of what most other gay men were actually doing then and continue to do now. It’s an age-old bias that favours political and organizational histories over social and popular histories.
The prevailing historical account concentrates on a limited number of events such as the founding of The Body Politic, early student activism, the various fights for greater freedoms and legal parity and the bathhouse raids. The same level of interest is not shown in what gay folk were doing in their everyday lives to erase stigmas and destroy stereotypes. This side of the story is crucial in Toronto, precisely because it is in large cities that gay men and women benefited from a tremendous level of peer support. The social networks they created and that still flourish have encouraged people to be open about their lives and to recruit the support of straight friends, coworkers and neighbours in the legal and political battles.
Men and women have been out there helping to found, organize and support a myriad of clubs, sports leagues, services and support groups like Spearhead, the Metropolitan Community Church, bowling and curling leagues and softball competitions…. This small list represents just a few of the community organizations that have thrived for decades now and that represent the connection between thousands of gay people and organized gay life.
Their appearance and continued existence have been vitally important to gay men and lesbians throughout the last four decades and were crucial in the awakening and expression of their political and social expectations. They have served to give previously isolated individuals a sense of strength in numbers, of the power of organizing and of the direct connection between personal rights and general freedoms.
We shouldn’t forget the main reason that these organizations exist. They ensure that gay men and lesbians enjoy themselves, have fun, make friends and find partners. Gay liberation is not an end in itself; gay people have to feel that their lives are actually better for associating with other gay people. Groups like these continue to attract and serve large numbers of “nonpolitical” young queers, queers who might be more interested in reading a gay history if it included and honoured those groups and activities that still animate gay people’s lives, old and young, yesterday and today.