I missed out on Gay Liberation by five years, I reckon.
I was at college. Gay liberationists were university students or young workingmen engaged in politics in cities across Canada and the US.
By the time I could have joined their ranks, it was too late. Gay Liberation as such no longer existed, but its influence can be felt to this day. Thanks to David Myers’ contributions to the Queer History Project (www.queerhistoryproject.com), I now know what I missed out on had I lived in Vancouver in 1970.
Donald W McLeod’s invaluable Lesbian and Gay Liberation in Canada traces the origins of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) —an activist, communal collective to combat gay oppression —to weekly meetings at the Pink Cheeks commune on Carolina St.
GLF opened a drop-in centre at 509 Carrall St in Chinatown on Dec 11, 1970. Myers was a visitor. “You had to walk up a long, dark and decrepit inside staircase,” he recalls, “and we used to joke that the Men’s Benevolent Society door on the second story probably led to an opium den.
“The third floor centre had an outdoor balcony across the full front of that floor and some of us long-haired, hippy types used to hang out on that balcony, right next to our GLF banner, blatantly, but safely, kissing in public and blowing kisses and hollering out to people on the street below.”
Myers soon joined GLF. “I had heard that GLF was a leftist gay liberation organization and that suited me fine,” Myers notes, “considering my own experiences in the US as a leftist, anti-Viet Nam war, anti-draft, pro-civil rights, pro-women’s rights, draft counsellor and conscientious objector who had finally fled to Canada, after exhausting all legal recourses. I was 23 when I immigrated to Canada and 24 when I joined GLF.”
GLF held weekly meetings at which other Vancouver gay groups were present, including GATE, the Gay Alliance Towards Equality; CGAA, the Canadian Gay Activists Alliance; and SEARCH, the Society for Education, Action, Research and Counselling on Homosexuality.
Myers faithfully attended these meetings.
“I remember being favourably impressed by GATE because of their leftist activist approach, being turned off by CGAA because of their more conservative apologetic approach, and being inspired to hear about SEARCH’s gay counselling phone line, which it ran before merging with The Centre, which continued the phone services that still exist to this day.”
Any political movement is subject to internal stresses and disputes, and GLF was no exception, as David witnessed.
“Over the months, political divisions developed between the more radical and the more conservative elements of the organization,” he recounts.
“I remember having discussions where some argued that the gay and lesbian community should try to reform straight societies’ attitudes towards us by emphasizing how ‘normal’ we really were and by rejecting those persons projecting ‘non-normal’ images —such as drag queens, transsexuals, leather fetishists and supporters of an S & M life style.
“I remember arguing that we had no business trying to gain the acceptance of society by practicing discrimination ourselves and trying to draw the line of social approval just below us but above those ‘disapproved’ groups,” Myers says.
Eventually, the internal stresses became too great to manage and the more conservative members left for Dick Rulen’s CGAA.
“This schism helped erode financial support for GLF until it fell to the point that it was no longer possible for the organization to pay the rent on the premises,” Myers notes. Undaunted, he and some others persevered.
“In October of 1971, some of the remaining GLF members helped evolve the group into a coming out rap group that met weekly in the street front apartment above the little grocery store at 1833 W 4th Avenue, the home of John Allen and Grant Peterson,” he continues. “This coming out group (which, unlike the original organization, included both men and women, though mostly men) continued to meet weekly for the next 42 weeks before finally being disbanded. It didn’t really have a name other than GLF at first,” he adds, “and after the drop-in centre was closed, it was usually referred to as the rap group or the encounter group.
“The average attendance was around 20 people and we would all sit around in a circle on John and Grant’s living room floor,” Myers recollects. “There was usually a bunch of small pillows available for people to sit on as well as a few chairs. Various people would often bring cookies or brownies or some kind of treat to share and John would make tea, coffee or water available.
“It was at this ongoing coming out group that I first met my lover of the last thirty-six years, Bill Houghton,” Myers reveals.