3 min

The forgotten hero

Too gay for the horseracing business

In 1998, community activist Barry Deeprose gave an address at the opening of the Ottawa Pride campaign in which he made passing reference to the subject of this month’s column: “I continue to be inspired by the almost-forgotten example of John Damien. He was a racing steward in Toronto, a small, quiet man who loved his work. He was asked to resign in 1975… When he refused, he was immediately fired. John complained to the courts and fought for 10 years… John Damien was a hero, particularly in those days.”

In Hindsight quite agrees with Mr Deeprose that John Damien deserves better than to be forgotten, and thanks to journalist John Hofsess, the early days of his story are known to us in detail.

John Damien was a conservative Ontario racetrack official who was living the good life (a boyfriend Brian, a penthouse apartment, a late model car, custom-tailored suits, an $1,100 gold watch and two diamond rings worth $900 and $1,200 respectively) when on Feb 6, 1975, at 3 pm, that good life was taken away from him.

He was in the office of PC Williams, personal adviser for the Ministry of Consumer and Commercial Relations of Ontario, when Williams handed him a letter from the Ontario Racing Commission. The letter informed Damien that he would not be reappointed for the upcoming racing season. If he willingly resigned, Williams added, the Racing Commission would give him a letter of recommendation and the sum of $1,200.

When pressed by Damien, Williams stated that “The Ontario Jockey Club does not want you in the stands this year… We are concerned that you could be blackmailed… or that you could favour certain… people.”

Was it because he was a homosexual, asked Damien. “Yes. I am prepared to raise the financial settlement to $1,700,” was the reply.

Damien refused: “I won’t resign. I’ve done nothing wrong. Lots of gay people work for the government and sex doesn’t interfere with their work, or with mine… I will never resign.”

“Why don’t you sleep on it, John? Things may look different in the morning,” replied Williams.

They did not. With some reluctance, Damien contacted the Toronto Gay Alliance Towards Equality (GATE) to ask for help. He got it as GATE and the Coalition for Gay Rights in Ontario (CGRO) met with him to plot legal strategy. When negotiations with the Ontario government, represented by Williams, came to naught, Damien gave a press conference on Feb 14, where he announced that he was submitting his case to the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

That evening, the Globe and Mail ran a front-page story on his dismissal. The next day, Damien’s mother suffered a massive stroke.

“She told me many times,” Damien later said, “that the newspaper stories had nothing to do with it. But I know deep in my heart, there is a connection.” Damien too, suffered. He lost weight. He began to smoke 50 cigarettes a day. He developed a nervous twitch on the left side of his face.

Then, as he waited for the Ontario Human Rights Commission to hear his submission, his money ran out. He moved from his penthouse to a bachelor apartment, gave up his car and sold his jewelry and furniture. The problem was that the Human Rights Commission did not want to hear his case or, as a clerk put it to Damien, “You can’t complain. The code doesn’t cover you. Sex refers to gender, not sexual orientation.”

It took months, and the support of public figures such as June Callwood and Robert Fulford, before the Human Rights Commission would even agree to hear Damien’s submission. When it finally did, it concluded that it did not have the jurisdiction to hear the matter.

As various lawsuits made their way through the courts–and there were many appeals and countersuits–Damien sought employment in his field elsewhere in Canada and in the US, only to discover that no one would hire him for fear of antagonizing the powerful Ontario Racing Commission. Mounting legal debts forced him to file for bankruptcy in 1978, yet he persevered.

In 1985, he explained the tenacity with which he waged his legal battle: “I’m a racetracker, you know. Once you come out of the gate, you’d better go all the way or you get trampled.”

Resolution finally came in 1986: the Ontario Racing Commission agreed to pay $50,000 into a trust fund and the Ontario Government added sexual orientation to the provincial human rights code. But it was too late for Damien. He died of pancreatic cancer on Christmas Eve of that year.