Was former Ottawa mayor and child welfare advocate Charlotte Whitton a lesbian?
“The bottom line is that we don’t know for sure,” says Barbara Freeman, who covered Whitton’s funeral in 1975 for CBC Radio.
“We do know that they had an extremely passionate relationship that certainly could be called emotionally lesbian, whether or not they actually had sex,” says Freeman, a lesbian scholar and now associate professor of journalism at Carleton University.
“When she was alive, people might have suspected that she was a little queer.”
Freeman says the debate generated by the Citizen story shows how people are labelled. Patricia Rooke and Rodolph Schnell, authors of the 1987 Whitton biography No Bleeding Heart, have been particularly resistant to the claim that the mayor was lesbian.
“We were very anxious about what [young feminists] were going to do with [the book],” Rooke told the Citizen, because they really did want to turn [Whitton] into a lesbian…. There was a vulgarity there in some ways, simply a lack of experience, I suppose.”
Says Barbara Freeman: “People aren’t ready to call [Whitton] a lesbian unless they know [Whitton and Grier] had sex together. People are still assuming that the labels belong with sexual activity, whereas there are lots of people who are celibate, who are also gay.”
Queer historian Steven Maynard is familiar with this discussion.
“These are debates that have been playing within lesbian historiography for a long time,” says Maynard. “It’s a fairly central debate about whether there has to be evidence of sexual relations between two women in the past to qualify them as belonging to lesbian history – or do we also include that whole other gamut or range of – sometimes fairly intense – emotional relationships between two women without evidence of sexual relations.”
Maynard cautions that it isn’t a yes or no answer.
“Yes, we should claim her for lesbian history, but let’s be careful about it,” he says. “Let’s not be uncritical. She had some fairly contradictory political impulses; quite a few of them.”
While Whitton is known for her efforts as a child-welfare advocate, she fell behind contemporary social values, says Norman Dahl.
“She got out of step with child welfare and the social welfare movement because she was a very conservative person. She thought communities should look after their own, whereas we [in the 1950s and ’60s] were moving into a whole new philosophy of government social programs,” says Dahl.
Dahl worked as an information officer for the Canadian Council on Social Development, the forerunner to the agency Whitton led between 1922 and 1941. “I’m 70 years old and there are not many of us left who remember her legacy as a very important person in the field of child welfare,” says Dahl, who has lived in the Ottawa-area with his lover, George Wilkes, since the 1950s.
Dahl believes Whitton wanted to come out posthumously. “She wanted us to know all about this. I think it was a very beautiful thing to do.”
Dahl says it was important to Whitton that her letters become public given that – at the time – Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal government was decriminalizing gay sex.
“When she was living with Mardie [Grier] all those years, we were still illegal. You couldn’t talk about being gay in those days, certainly not [as] a public figure.”
Was Whitton’s relationship to Grier sexual?
“What’s wrong with thinking that this was a physical relationship? If it was, fine. If it wasn’t – it’s really none of our damn business,” he says, adding “I like to think it was.
“For goodness sake, I think the warmth of those letters is quite clear,” he says. “I like to think she had a wonderful relationship.”