Research

GAY is GOOD

Screen Shot 2014-09-17 at 2.56.14 PMby Nevena Ivanović

The University of Calgary Student Press, 1970-1980: From Anonymous Classified Ads to Gay Liberation Op-Eds to Gay Academic Union as a Part of Campus Life

 

Probably the first event to feature an official talk by a lesbian and gay rights activist at the University of Calgary – but also in Calgary – was the lecture held in February 1969 by Hal Call, a one-time president of the Mattachine Society, the founding organization of the gay civil rights movement in the United States (formed in 1950). His talk, focused on “Homosexuality [as a] Police Industry,” took place against the backdrop of evolving social attitudes in Canada on the subject of decriminalization of homosexuality: a few months later, in May 1969, the new federal government of Pierre Trudeau passed Criminal Code changes that decriminalized private same-sex acts between consenting adults. The changes, while long-planned and widely supported by professional associations such as those of lawyers and psychiatrists, for example, as well as by the Canadian Council of Churches, were nevertheless strongly contested in Parliament, where their leading opponents were federal MPs from the Social Credit party, at the time the long-standing ruling party in Alberta.

Criminal Code changes went into effect in August 1969, but the legal struggle against discrimination, for full civil and human rights of sexual minorities and for social and political change in Canada was only yet to come. The following decade – the 1970s – is often called a formative age of queer activism: a time of gay and lesbian liberation movements, changing mores about sexuality in general, of a forging of a more visible community of people identifying by their sexual orientation, building upon but moving away from underground queer subcultures (as discussed in our previous post on The Body Politic). Our researchers looked at over ten years (1969-1980) of the University of Calgary student newspaper, The Gauntlet, to deepen our understanding of Calgary’s gay and lesbian history during this turbulent decade, and explore the role that the University and its student press played, providing a space for debate, but also for reaching out, support and organizing around an emerging advocacy agenda.[1]

First steps outside of anonymity

Following the Call lecture (near the end of school year in 1969), the Gauntlet was actually shut down by the Student Council, due to what a later editorial staff described as its ‘confrontational’ and ‘ideological’ rhetoric of the left persuasion (while establishment contemporaries and many conservative students bemoaned the speaker invitations of Black Panther Party members and other US radicals of the time).

For the next year or so, the only mentions of LGBT persons or issues to be found were in pieces from other sources, such as the January 1971 article “Are you a Sex Criminal?,” which describes California’s oppressive Mentally Disordered Sex Offender Act and the deplorable treatment of homosexual “patients” [their quotes] with a mix of sensationalism and outrage, or exchanges marked by casual homophobia, including by Gauntlet editors, such as in the February 1971 exchange between the Gauntlet and the Calgary journalist veteran, Fred Kennedy (then writing for the Calgary Sun’s predecessor, The Albertan). Kennedy laments in his Albertan column (reprinted by The Gauntlet) the “breakdown of the moral code on the part of university students,” while also admitting that things were not that bad, since those “low-lifers” [i.e. the gay population] can be found anywhere, so not surprisingly also at the university. In response, the Gauntlet editor appeals to him to try to understand the “code of behavior of the homosexual,” preceding the appeal with “Although I am in no way advocating homosexuality…”

Amid this atmosphere an anonymous ad was placed in the classified section of the Gauntlet in December 1970 (below).

gay is good - classified ad_Dec 1970

After another classified ad was placed a few weeks later by a “gay dating association” from Toronto, asking for ‘handling money’ in return for sharing names of ‘gay boys and gay girls,’ the author of the first anonymous ad came forward – although with first name only, as Ramonn – in a letter to the editor. Warning that ads like that might come from organizations preying on ‘queer people’ [his words], he also describes the very real problem of isolation and loneliness of gay people in Calgary and at university, appealing to the gay students to contact him (“gay girls too”) (below is his new ad, from that same, March 1971 issue).

Straight is better

‘Gay is Good’

‘Gay is Good’ became a new motto of the times, signaling the significant shift that took place in gay rights activism in the US in 1969-70, and a year or two later in Canada; the shift that also led to the term “gay” ultimately superseding the term “homosexual”, the emergence of “coming out” as we understand it today, and made the reclaiming of the term “queer” possible. Although ‘Gay is Good,’ [2] of course, stands for the rejection of shame about one’s sexuality, it became a true rallying call of a movement with the advent of gay liberation.

Gay liberation was born in the encounter between the more establishment-friendly, conservative homophile movement and the radicalism of the New Left.[3]

The ‘homophile’ organizations of the 1950s and 1960s laid the foundation for future activism by organizing individuals around the idea that same-gender sexual orientation could serve as the basis for a minority group identity, and by doing the “cultural work involved in defining what would become a gay collective identity.” (Mattachine was the most prominent one in the US; the first in Canada was the Association for Social Knowledge, formed in Vancouver in 1964 “to help society to understand and accept variations from the sexual norm”). They also worked on top-down advocacy for legal and policy reform.

However, it was gay liberation that galvanized individuals, and achieved unprecedented levels of visibility, political action and organizational growth.[4] The New Left concern with alienation and the search for personal authenticity gave rise to the belief at the core of the gay liberation movement, a belief that demanded the rejection of privacy and secrecy about one’s sexual orientation (considered necessary and self-preserving by the homophile movement). The combination of two beliefs: that hiding your sexual identity was both personally, psychologically harmful and a betrayal of those like you, and that social change occurs bottom-up, through the performance of individual acts, led to the articulation of “coming out” as a key political strategy – the main task of social change, even – for gay liberationists.[5]

Many Canadian gay rights activists were influenced by the writings and reports of political action of radical gay liberation groups from the US, including those who advocated the fighting of all forms of oppression and solidarity with other oppressed groups. As the revolutionary fervor of the most radical gay liberation groups sizzled out, gay rights organizations started forming in both the US and Canada that embraced it all: politics organized around building a positive gay identity, high-visibility actions, and the human and civil rights agenda pursued by the previous generation. They embarked on what they saw as helping to achieve liberation – the struggle for the attainment of individual human rights.

“Move Over Brother, the Time has Come!”

More visibility of both gay issues and rights advocates in the UoC student paper starts in the school year 1972/73. In September 1972, the first meeting of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF)[6] was announced, and was soon followed by the publishing of a homophobic ‘spoof’ piece, authored by a Gauntlet staffer. That piece drew an angry response from Rick Sullivan, the first openly gay student to speak for and publish in the Gauntlet (and later referred to by The Gauntlet as the representative of GLF on campus). His piece, “Gauntlet Offends Campus Minority,” talks about the need for an end to oppression of gay people, who are part of the university community – through verbal abuse, jokes and insulting references, among which he includes “faggot,” “queer” (reflecting the times) and “homo.” Writing that the “homosexual […] has a moral right to live his homosexuality fully and openly, and to do so free of […] penalty, disability or disadvantage of any kind, public or private, official or unofficial for his nonconformity,” he ends on a passionate note: “We are human beings deeply committed to the transformation of society that to date has denied us the right to our freedom. We are angry and we are on the way up. Move over brother, the time has come!”

Sullivan maintained a presence on the pages of the Gauntlet for the next year or so. He has an op-ed, “Campus Gays an Oppressed Minority,” where he describes the path that gays can follow as two-fold: continuing to fight for legal reform “as well as develop gay as a revolutionary life form and make it viable.” He also gets quoted in staff articles, and publishes several book reviews (he reviews first non-fiction gay title ever produced by a mainstream publishing house in the country, A Not So Gay World: Homosexuality in Canada). At this stage, the paper may have still only reluctantly given space to gay voices (Sullivan was referred to by the paper variously as “gay militant,” “gay liberationist,” and “gay Calgarian”), and often employed homophobic or sexist language or editorial choices (at the same time as being attacked by representatives from the homophobic campus community for its permissiveness), but making this space and – however scant – information available, on ‘what it means to be gay’ and ‘what gay liberation wants’, nevertheless marks the beginning of a new era.

“The Other Side Might Surprise You”

Around this time the People’s Liberation Coalition (PLC), one of the first Calgary activist groups, was formed and established a phone line, which offered information and counseling for lesbians and gays. Both PLC and their successor, Gay Information and Resources Calgary (GIRC) (formed in 1975), regularly advertised their support services in the Gauntlet. In late 1973, a seemingly short-lived student Lesbian-Feminist group formed on campus. The contact person for that group, My Lipton, appeared with Rick Sullivan as a guest speaker in the Human Sexuality course in late 1973, the first such course to be offered at the University, at the Faculty of Social Work (by instructor Larry McKillop, who had studied at the Kinsey Institute). The Gauntlet reviewer of the course described it as a “personal education experience” and noted that the opportunity to hear Lipton and Sullivan was for many students the “first exposure to this aspect of human sexuality.” (However, the next year’s report from the Lipton-Sullivan talk as part of the Human Sexuality course suggests that their talk also exposed students to an expression of gay and lesbian political demands. According to the Gauntlet report, Sullivan called the legal system unfair, attacked the ‘supposedly progressive left for avoiding the issue of gay liberation’ and complained that gay groups did not get funding to demonstrate that discrimination on the basis of category of ‘sexual orientation’ existed in society; while My Lipton called for women’s freedom to have control over their bodies and to ‘engage in whatever sexual activities they prefer,’and stated that the ‘greatest threat to the male role is solidarity among women, and lesbianism epitomized that solidarity.’) In later years, Human Sexuality Week was organized at the University, featuring talks on gay sexuality, bisexuality and “transsexualism,” sometimes with speakers from the gay community outside Calgary. In the spring of 1973, the University also hosted Sir John Wolfenden in its Distinguished Lecturers series, author of the Wolfenden Report (1957), which served as an important impetus for the subsequent decriminalization of same-sex acts in England and Wales (in 1967).

In the second half of the 1970s, the Gauntlet continued to chronicle – although not in any systematic manner – the local and national lesbian and gay activism and evolving legal battles, as well as to make small contributions to the education of the campus audience on gay and lesbian issues and emerging queer culture and community building. In the summer of 1975, for example, it published an ambivalent review of the short-lived Calgary run (at University Theatre) of Michel Tremblay’s play Hosanna, now considered a Canadian classic and a “milestone in the history of gay theatre.”[7] In 1977, a sympathetic staff reviewer of Homosexuals in History: A Study of Ambivalence in Society, Literature and the Arts, recognizes the author’s attempt to legitimize the study of homosexuality, but states that he “does not, and could not be expected to, understand the recent development of “gay,” rather than merely homosexual identity. Homosexuality helps define the nature of one’s homosexual orientation, whole “gayness” implies its acceptance, its acknowledgement, and its positive incorporation into the self-image and esteem of an individual […].” In 1978, as part of a Human Rights supplement, the paper published a feature on existing gay groups in Calgary and their activities, interviewing the president of GIRC, and mentioning Club Carousel, Gay Dignity (an association for gay Christians and Church-gay dialogue) and the Gay Academic Union; and appeals to the students to try to learn and be more open, by contacting either the author of the article, or gay organizations – “the other side might surprise you.”

The Gauntlet also mentioned a few of the struggles for legal equality, which begin to be framed as human rights complaints to provincial bodies based on existing protections of categories like ‘sex,’ and later continue as appeals to include ‘sexual orientation’ as a protected category in provincial and federal human rights legislation. The paper reported on a brief submitted to the Provincial Assembly by the representative of an Edmonton group Gay Alliance Toward Equality (GATE – there were other GATE groups across Canada), requesting that sexual orientation be included in the proposed anti-discrimination legislation Bill 2, The Individual’s Rights Protection Act (the author is described as a “crusader for homosexual rights”). In 1975, it reprinted a news story of a gay Saskatoon education student denied placement as a teacher supervisor, whose complaint of discrimination to the provincial Human Rights Commission was among the first of its kind in Canada. Although this and the more widely know Damien complaint, both based on ‘sex’, were lost, as the courts crafted a new, entirely unprotected category of ‘sexual orientation’, to deny sexual minorities their legal rights, the cases were very important nationally, prompting and energizing the struggle for recognition of that category in human tights legislation.[8] In 1978, the Human Rights supplement stressed the discrimination faced by ‘homosexuals’ and mentioned the petition for including ‘sexual preference’ as protected under the federal Human Rights Act; and in 1979, a somewhat light-hearted news story reported that the Quebec Association of Santa Clauses, after a complaint to the human rights commission, had to reverse its position on gay Santa Clauses being banned from the job. (Quebec was the first jurisdiction to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation by adding a clause to its Charter in 1977. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982) included only open-ended language that allowed for ‘reading-in’ of sexual orientation, and it took over a decade of court and political battles for the Canadian Human Rights Act to be amended in 1996 to include it as a prohibited ground of discrimination. In the case of Alberta, sexual orientation was ‘read-in’ as a protected category since 1998, while it became explicitly included as protected only in 2008.)

In 1977, the Gauntlet printed several articles on the issue related to a CBC’s affiliate’s refusal to broadcast public service announcements (PSAs) for a gay group from Halifax (the CBC policy consisted of not accepting PSAs that “deal with controversial subjects”). The group brought the case to the Canadian Telecommunications Commission, asking for the local CBC’s license not to be renewed, while the recently formed first nation-wide association of lesbian and gay groups, the National Gay Right Coalition (Calgary’s GIRC was a member), organized protests in several Canadian cities around the issue (but not Calgary) (“Gays picket against CBC radio stations,” March 1977). The paper also reported on the expression of solidarity on this issue by the Canadian University Press news service (the source of most of the Gauntlet’s coverage of national events), which decided to boycott CBC in response to their policy. In Calgary, gay PSAs (such as GIRC ads for their information and counseling services) were refused by the Herald, as well as the local CBC, while the Albertan published them (PSA-based fights with the Herald were to continue for years later).

In 1978, as part of a Human Rights supplement, the Gauntlet published what was probably their most comprehensive feature on gay and lesbian groups and clubs and their activities in Calgary, along with other materials and stories (they also reprinted the controversial Body Politic piece on relationships between men and boys, which brought obscenity charges against its publishers, later dismissed in a legal landmark case). That same piece introduced the Gay Academic Union (GAU) as a new club on campus.

GAU groups started forming in mid-70s in the East, and Calgary’s was formed in 1977, as a “contact point for gays on campus, offering support and an opportunity to share problems and information.” In addition to this, as can be seen in paper’s calendar and classifieds section, GAU served as organizer of a regular series of talks that must have greatly expanded the debate on gay, lesbian and transgender issues on campus. The talks were on: gay life in Calgary, ‘parents and gays’, gay and religion, sexual identity, on ‘the politics of deviance’, coming out (“The Closet Door is Heavy”). An early 1980 feature of GAU in the section “Clubs and Societies” suggests that GAU played an important role in rallying the gay and lesbian community on campus (students as well as staff and faculty), and providing support, specifically for coming out (that being the purpose of their occasional drop-ins, held at MacEwan Hall).

Despite the Gauntlet’s uneven editorial tone and often flawed reporting, sometimes irregular publishing rhythm and many omissions of landmark moments in gay and lesbian activism of the 1970s, a look at its writing from this decade still reveals important aspects of gay and lesbian history in the city. Moreover, it testifies to the role that the University of Calgary played as a public space, where debate on some of the defining national gay and lesbian issues of the decade, as well as early gay activism took place.

{NI}

[1] Tom Warner, Never Going Back: A History of Queer Activism in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002.

[2] ‘Reportedly coined in 1968, by a US activist whose influence spans several decades, Frank Kameny; an army war veteran, founder of a local chapter of the above-mentioned Mattachine society, and an author of the first gay-rights legal brief ever filed anywhere. “How Frank Kameny changed the face of America,” interview by Will O’Bryan. Oct 4, 2006. Metro Daily, Washington DC. http://www.metroweekly.com/2006/10/gay-is-good/, retrieved Jan 31, 2015.

[3] Elizabeth A. Armstrong, Forging Gay Identities: Organizing Sexuality in San Francisco, 1950-1994. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002., p. 80.

[4] Ibid, pp. 56-7.

[5] The homophile movement, importantly, did not have a name for this public revelation of one’s sexual identity, but this strategy was consistent with their goal of building and serving a constituency. Ibid, pp. 67, 75.

[6] This group is not mentioned in the most authoritative annotated chronology of lesbian and gay activism in Canada to date, by Douglas McLeod.

[7] Warner, p. 93.

[8] Kathleen Lahey, Are We Persons Yet? Law and Sexuality in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999., p. 13.

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