3 min

The charnel house of truth

Can participants in a moment accurately chronicle it?

Xtra's Still QQ columnist, Kevin Dale McKeown, wants to start a conversation about our shared identity. Credit: Xtra

We are a disputatious bunch, we old fags.

We often can’t seem to agree on much of anything in making our way through what Gore Vidal referred to as “the many chambers of the charnel house of truth.” Further evidence of this surfaced last month in the form of the “Is Pride really 35 this year?” controversy.

In a clumsy attempt to be funny, I titled my last column “QQ and the Trotskyites,” and the first responder to that was David Carrell MacKay, an early member of the Gay Alliance Toward Equality (GATE).

David’s main point was that there was no such thing as a Trotskyite, any more than there would be a Marxite or a Maoite, and why couldn’t I get my terminology right? Well, I always said that my preference in those days was for a good drag show followed by a night at the tubs, and obviously my radicalization hasn’t evolved.

Some time later I ran into West End realtor and onetime GATE mainstay Rob Joyce, who gently berated me for “getting it wrong” and pointed out that GATE may have consisted of members of many leftist leanings but that the hard-core Marxists and many Trotskyists would have nothing to do with the gay liberation movement because, to be honest, trade unionists and other movement members were stuck in the 1950s (if not the ’30s with the Stalinists) and were pretty uncomfortable with fags.

Due to some old grievances and personal distastes of his own, Rob declines to discuss anything on the record for publication in Xtra, so that’s about all I’ll get out of him on this.

But he did make a comment that I think reflects a major problem as we try to collate and document the days of our youth. “You can’t really write the history of GATE unless you were a member of GATE,” he stated.

I suspect that the exact opposite is closer to the truth. I suspect that you can’t really write an accurate history of any time, movement or event unless you weren’t there.

If you were there, you are invested in putting a certain face on things. To some degree, you are going to remember and interpret things in ways that make your side appear as the good guys and everyone else as the bad guys. And consciously or otherwise, you are going to tell a story that makes yourself look more central to the action than you may have been.

I know I do it, though I try to restrain myself and use frequent disclaimers just in case I’m caught out. I don’t think I’m unique in this.

In our early days together, I had a somewhat antagonistic relationship with the lower-case gay liberation movement in Vancouver in its many manifestations, including GATE and the Gay Liberation Front (GLF). The two items below probably sum things up.

From The Body Politic spring 1973 issue:

Insisting that one of Vancouver’s alternate newspapers, The Georgia Straight, is sexist in its coverage of women and gays, particularly gay women, about fifteen members of G.A.T.E. (Gay Alliance Toward Equality) and straight supporters (mostly women) maintained a rotating picket in front of the G.S. office for two days March 29 – 30. A leaflet was distributed demanding that 1) the G.S. cease its sexist depiction of gays and women, 2) that the paper cover gay events objectively, and 3) that the newspaper print a retraction of its assertion that G.A.T.E. was a Trotskyist front organization. According to a G.A.T.E. press release the Straight threatened to call the police as well as “laying out” the gays present when Maurice Flood (chairperson of G.A.T.E.) confronted a G.S. distributor regarding his anti-gay remarks. In the future, the Georgia Straight is to be ignored by G.A.T.E.

And my parting shot in “QQ’s Last Hurrah,” in the May 2, 1974, Georgia Straight:

Under Roedy’s leadership and under the later steerage of Maurice Flood, GATE rapidly degenerated into a tiny, ineffectual band of outraged queens, squawking about society’s injustices but completely unprepared to do anything positive to change them. They struck out loudly at government, numerous institutions and others gays and quickly alienated just about anyone who might have helped them progress.

Clearly, I am not one who should be attempting to write the definitive history of our contentious times. But perhaps with the help of others who were there, who have clearer, better or just different memories than I do, we can at least leave the next generation as well-organized a collection of facts, figures and recollections as possible.

So that some day a real historian, with no axes to grind or personal image to varnish, will be able to take a run at it.