Toronto
6 min

The upstarts

Young, er, activists are eager to separate themselves from the gay dinosaurs

HIS OWN AGENDA. Damian Mellin doesn't identify with ghetto fags. Credit: Paula Wilson

“I’m not interested in what the average ghetto gay guy is interested in. I think that’s why I do so much activism,” explains Damian Mellin, the 20-year-old internal director of the support group Lesbian, Gay And Bisexual Youth Of Toronto (LGBYT).



“My interests are more grassroots. I don’t go into the gay community, sit down and go, wow, this place is wonderful.”



It’s a common sentiment among young gay men who see themselves as substantially different from their boomer-aged forefathers who established Toronto’s modern gay community.



Not only is the new generation working to change a scene defined in the ’70s that doesn’t fit them anymore, they are also questioning the traditional means to create that change.



Tom Warner has been a stalwart activist for decades, today central in the Coalition For Lesbian And Gay Rights In Ontario (CLGRO) and the June 13 Committee, formed as a response to repeated police raids on The Bijou porn theatre last summer. He remembers the birth of the modern gay liberation movement when he became active at 18.



“It was early ’70s, the fall of ’71 in Saskatoon, and there wasn’t very much at all,” recalls Warner. Moving to Toronto, he met a more advanced but still emerging gay liberation movement forming around The Body Politic newspaper, the Gay Alliance For Equality and several student groups (most now disbanded).



“There was a much stronger need for visibility, just being out, being in the streets,” Warner says. “The whole emphasis was on demonstrations, pickets, getting into the media. There were always issues around policing, arrests in parks and washrooms, the use of entrapment by police.”



A new movement was forming in the face of very real oppression. Mob violence was condoned by the police outside the St Charles gay bar every Halloween with courageous queers assaulted annually. John Damian was fired from the Ontario Racing Commission after being outed at work.



These young activists grew up and fought against the bathhouse raids in ’81. The June 13 Committee draws from this radical activism – and from the same pool of community members.



By contrast, Mellin and his peers have a different agenda.



“When I heard about the raids on The Bijou – it totally didn’t interest me at all. That’s not to say I’m not supportive. I totally commend people working on the issue, but it’s not my fight. I think there are a fair number of people more educated about the issues surrounding bathhouses, for a longer time. It would almost be like jumping on their bandwagon. I conserve my energies for working on the queer youth perspective because right now in my life, that’s where I am.”



For Mellin, who came out at 16, this has meant being active in youth culture activities. He found a home at Central Toronto Youth Service’s Supporting Our Youth (SOY) project and went on to help design CTYS’s HIV risk reduction ‘zine, BoyVision.



As well, he helped host the queer youth arts event Fruit Loopz and founded a weekly writing group called Pink Ink. After a couple of years with LGBYT, Mellin became one of the group’s facilitators and internal director. He sees all of this as being a far cry from the work of Warner and the founders of the movement.



“When I think of activism, I think of someone trying to stand in the middle trying to oppose some rightwing fascist crowd or something. I just did things I wanted to do to meet people.”



Others would define Mellin’s work as representative of a new breed of activism.



“There’s a lot of arts movement stuff that’s happening now that’s really exciting,” says Janis Purdy, SOY staff person. “Art as activism. It looks different than the demonstrations of the ’70s and ’80s, but is more media savvy. Different ways to get the message out…. Just because they’re not using the tools that others used to use before, they’re still active.”



But even when the work is less artsy and more meat and potatoes, the younger generation still resists the “a” word.



“The activist label – you save it for people who have done some really good stuff,” says 19-year-old Brent Power from Coquitlam, BC. “Older people who have overturned laws and changed the world in big ways.”



Last year, following the tragic suicide of a gay friend, Power established one of Canada’s first gay/straight alliances in his suburban Vancouver high school. Only 19, he had already been active for several years, lobbying against book banning, giving deputations to school boards about harassment and changing district policy. He was later able to take advantage of the changes when he established his group.



“The group runs pretty much like a multicultural club for queer and straight people,” Power explains. “Nobody has to tell you their orientation. People just sort of sit around and chat, play board games and talk about gay and lesbian issues. The primary focus in on raising awareness and making friendships between straight kids and queer kids. So that if somebody’s walking down the hallway and they’re being picked on, one of their straight supporters can say, ‘Cut it out.'”



That many of the new generation of activists are focussed on youth concerns should be no surprise. The work of older activists has made it easier to come out at a younger age, making youth environments sites where a lot of the new work needs to be done. Thirty years ago the community had to fight for John Damian’s right to be out at work; 20 years ago it was a fight to be out in the bathhouses; today’s young activists are fighting for the right to be out at school and in the homes of their families.



“For my generation, the idea of being out in high school was virtually unheard of,” Warner says. “There were only a few brave people who would do that. Things like the gay/straight clubs that are forming in schools, they’re the new thing.


There is also a difference in the amount of militancy shown by came-out-in-the-’90s activists. They tend not to be so confrontational, which is a strategy that sets them apart from their predecessors – who were set apart from their predecessors, too.



“There’s not the same degree of politicization there was in the ’70s,” says Tom Warner. That era had a revolutionary tone. “You always had that, what should I call it, dichotomy. You had the younger people who were making the noise, organizing demonstrations, forming the political issues, tracking media coverage. And then you had the older people who felt all of that was unnecessary, was counter-productive, was just going to invite a backlash.”



Purdy remembers the anger that Queer Nation, a gay liberation group that was in-your-face to the point of throwing condoms in churches, fostered when she was a key organizer within the group in the early ’90s.



“It still shocks me that 30-somethings were looking at us, seeing our energy and power and being threatened. And trying to shut it up. What was that about?



“I’m 30-something now and when I go into a space where youth are asserting their power, I find it beautiful. I get excited by it.”



Purdy’s job is to harness and motivate that young anger and enthusiasm. She hopes not to repeat the pattern of elders scoffing at the new generation.



“It’s part of the life cycle,” Warner agrees. “It’s getting to that stage where the younger people are coming along with very different perspectives and raising different kinds of issues, and challenging some of the stuff that’s gone before. It’s inevitable.”



But sometimes the divide between the generations can seem daunting.



“When we were doing research in developing Supporting Our Youth,” says Purdy. “What we heard over and over is that there’s a generation divide. There’s probably a couple of divides. And that nobody likes this divide. The younger people don’t like it and the older people don’t like it. So how do we cross the divide? And you know what. It’s not really that hard if you don’t insist that the agenda be set by the boomers, the dominant bulge in our demographic as a community.”



The challenge in bridging the divide will be to make existing organizations and issues friendly to activist youth.



“It’s a total fallacy to assume that young people don’t go to bathhouses and don’t go to some bars where there is sexual activity,” says Warner. “They see that they do have an interest around policing and how the laws are selectively enforced.”



University Of Toronto student Bonte Minnema, named one of Toronto’s top activists by Now magazine last year, is one of the new generation that seems able to bridge the divide.



Minnema’s primary involvement today is with the Youthline and North America’s only queer Scouts group – two quintessential new generation activities. But he’s also organized a protest against former Liberal MP Roseanne Skoke about five years ago in his hometown of London. Now he’s active with the old-school June 13 Committee.



Minnema’s concerned that young activists such as himself and Mellin might drift away from their gay liberationist roots, which would be a loss for both.



“The attraction of activism is to be a part of a community,” says Minnema.



In their own way, youth find their history and build on it. In doing so, they demonstrate to the oldsters the many forms of the cause.