How students, faculty, staff and alumni brought queer activism to the University of Toronto and changed the campus forever
On October 7, 1974, thirteen students gathered in a U of T classroom for the first night of a new course.
“New Perspectives on the Gay Experience” – the first gay studies class to be taught at a Canadian university – soon became the subject of a public controversy. The Toronto Star planned to run a story about the course, but the editors changed their minds and dropped the article. Instead, in mid-October, they published an editorial stating that the paper didn’t ban news about homosexuals so long as the editors were “satisfied that they are not seeking converts to their practices.”
The publicity created a problem for the university. And it created a problem for Michael Lynch, an English professor at St. Michael’s College who was teaching the continuing education course.
St. Mike’s asked Lynch not to teach any more gay-studies courses and to refrain from making public statements about homosexuality. New Perspectives went ahead as planned, but at the end of the term, Lynch faced a difficult decision: keep quiet or risk losing his job. He eventually agreed to a transfer to Erindale College.
But he didn’t stop fighting.
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Lynch spearheaded several local activist groups, including Gay Fathers of Toronto and the AIDS Committee of Toronto. In 1988, he founded the Toronto Centre for Lesbian and Gay Studies. Its mandate: to foster academic and community-based queer research. Two years later, the centre established the Michael Lynch Grant in Lesbian and Gay History to support research in the field. Deeply mistrustful of U of T, Lynch requested that the fund remain outside of the university. He died in July 1991, at the age of 46.
How the endowment named in Lynch’s honour eventually took up residence within U of T, at one of the largest university programs for sexual diversity studies in the world, is one chapter in a storied evolution that couples noisy demonstrations with quiet reflection, community activism with intellectual study, and fear and timidity with anger and courage.
The story begins, effectively, in 1969.
“I wanted to change things,” says Ian Young, reflecting on his student days at U of T in the mid-1960s. “People were in the closet, hiding or pretending. I knew it was wrong.”
Young wanted to be a teacher. “But in those days, you couldn’t be openly gay and teach at any level,” says Young. So he left his studies at Victoria College and headed to New York, where he immersed himself in the city’s literary scene. There, he met like-minded souls such as Allen Ginsberg, prowled bookstores in search of gay literature, and developed a politically unapologetic stance on homosexuality.
In the late ’60s, Young returned to U of T, took a job as a microfilm technician and helped run a campus coffee house. Through his association with the coffee house and Student Christian Movement, Young tried to organize a discussion group on sexuality and gay issues, similar to the homophile associations he knew existed on American campuses. “But with very few exceptions, gays and lesbians were too scared to risk even showing up for a meeting,” he says.
Then in 1969, two catalytic events occurred. In New York City, gay men and women took to the streets in violent protest against police raids on the Stonewall Inn and other Greenwich Village bars. And in Canada, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau amended the criminal code to decriminalize homosexuality.
That same year, Jearld (pronounced “Jerald”) Moldenhauer landed a job in U of T’s physiology department. Moldenhauer, a graduate of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, had founded a homophile association at his alma mater. When he crossed paths with Young at U of T, they talked about creating a similar group on the St. George campus.
Moldenhauer placed an ad in The Varsity to ask if anyone was “interested in discussing the establishment of a student homophile association.”
“I am,” thought Charles Hill, an art history graduate student. Within days, a handful of men and one woman had founded the University of Toronto Homophile Association.
It was the first gay student group at a Canadian university and, arguably, the first gay liberation organization in the country. The association’s first meeting, on October 24, 1969, drew 16 people. The group needed a student leader, so Hill – the only student willing to go public – became president.
Recently, I asked Hill (MA 1969), now a curator for the National Gallery of Canada and member of the Order of Canada, how he mustered the courage to be the first leader of the homophile association. “Anger and irritation,” he replied. Hill had been charged with an indecent act in Montreal for dancing in a gay club, and, although he was acquitted, the charge left him feeling fed up with the rampant discrimination against gays and lesbians. “Prejudice was everywhere,” he says. “We were an invisible minority and as long as we were invisible, people could create their own theories about us.”
The U of T Homophile Association set up a weekly information table at Sidney Smith Hall to increase the group’s visibility on campus, and the members hoped their presence would challenge discrimination. “Many people either stared or walked by very fast,” recalls Hill. Others showed up “ostensibly to do research,” says Young.
Posters publicizing homophile events, such as dances at Hart House, were routinely torn down. As a countermeasure, the group invented lunchtime “blitzes,” in which members rushed through cafeterias handing out flyers. Many students crumpled their flyers and threw them back. But word spread, and within months the group had grown almost too big for its Graduate Students’ Union meeting room.
By the early 1970s, lesbians and gay men and their supporters had begun to publicly challenge the still widely held notions that homosexuality was criminal, sinful or sick. At Canada’s first large-scale gay demonstration on Parliament Hill in 1971, Hill was called on to read from “We Demand,” a short text co-written by U of T graduate student Herb Spiers (PhD 1979). The manifesto’s 10 demands included equal rights for homosexuals to employment at all levels of government, the right to serve in the Canadian Forces, and a uniform age of consent for homosexuals and heterosexuals.
Public reaction was swift and condemning. Dick Smyth, news editor for CHUM radio in Toronto, described the demonstration as a march “by militant alcoholics, militant lepers or militant lunatics.” Not surprisingly, the creation of a homophile association at U of T had also come under attack. A letter in the Globe and Mail published a few months after the association had formed criticized the university for recognizing the group, stating, “It is imperative that our young people not be misled as to the nature of this pathological condition.”
In response to the letter, Moldenhauer wrote the Globe to defend the association. “If the homophile represents a challenge to society, it is only in that he promotes an increased freedom of expression between human beings.” Within days of his letter being published, U of T fired Moldenhauer. Reflecting on the dismissal now, Moldenhauer says, “Somehow I don’t expect to receive an apology after 40 years, but it would be nice.”
One winter day in 1978, Dan Healey, a second-year student in Russian Language and Literature, was strolling along Sussex Avenue when a young man whizzed past him on a bicycle. “He was wearing a Russian fur hat,” says Healey, “and I thought, ‘Hmm, not bad!’” A few days later, Healey spotted the same young man in the Innis College cafeteria and introduced himself. The man, Tom Suddon, in turn, introduced Healey to Gays at U of T, the group that succeeded the U of T Homophile Association.
In 1980, when Healey took the helm of Gays at U of T, most gay students and faculty remained in the closet. But acceptance on campus appeared to be spreading. “We confronted hostility periodically, but mostly we pushed against a relatively open door,” says Healey (BA 1981 Trinity, MA 1993, PhD 1998). A charismatic leader, Healey often used humour to leaven the fight against homophobia and spoke out – angrily on occasion – for political change. He renamed the semi-regular, same-sex dances on campus “Homo Hops” and became the prime force behind the parodic Homophiles of Trinity (HOT), a group best known for drinking sherry at lunch and modelling academic gowns.
Gays at U of T, though, did more than “dance and drink and shag,” says Healey. They held meetings at the International Student Centre to provide a supportive place for people wanting to “come out.” Members also organized the first campus-wide Gay Awareness Week, which included Gay Jeans Day. Posters around campus encouraged everyone to “Wear your jeans in support of gay rights!” The week’s activities included lectures, films, a Homo Hop and a daily table in the Sid Smith lobby that Healey says it took some nerve to stand at. “The occasional egg was thrown at the table, but people generally were polite.”
That first Gay Awareness Week helped raise the profile of gays and lesbians at U of T, but it was important for another reason. Two weeks earlier, on February 5, 1981, police raided four of Toronto’s five bathhouses, smashing doors with crowbars and sledgehammers and taking 266 men into custody on charges of prostitution or indecency. In the wake of the raids, thousands of protesters – gay and straight – took to the streets. Two more raids occurred in June, with an additional 21 men charged, and again, demonstrators rose in protest.
Healey was asked to speak at one of the rallies. In response to a police statement that the raids had been scheduled so as not to “aggravate” the gay community, Healey shouted to a cheering and defiant crowd of 2,000 demonstrators, “We’re not aggravated. We’re fucking angry!”
At the height of the tensions, Trinity students Brian Pronger and Craig Patterson came up with what was a scandalous idea for the time. They enlisted five couples from Gays at U of T to attend the Trinity College formal. “The night was incredibly charged,” remembers writer James Bartley (BA 1975). “Dan brought a white towel and cut it into tiny swatches, which we added to our boutonnieres in an elegant expression of outrage.” Pairs of men dressed in tuxedoes waltzed in circles in the presence of Ontario’s attorney general, Roy McMurtry (BA 1954 Trinity, LLD 1998, DLitt Sac Hon. 2007).
If women were less visible than men in the early days of queer activism, it was because they were fighting on two fronts. For many women, gay rights included the struggle for women’s rights. Luanne Karn (BA 1982, BEd 2004) recalls fighting for reproductive rights and for an end to violence and discrimination against women and gays and lesbians. Karn was one of a politically active group of women who published a radical feminist newspaper called OtherWise “on new 64K personal computers that we had just learned to use.” The paper published lesbian content, and the OtherWise collective distributed the publication across campus. “We were ready to change the world and change our lives and change the university while we were at it,” says Karn.
Despite these few out and proud voices, the atmosphere on campus encouraged silence. “The ’80s were a conservative time and in most circles it was perfectly acceptable to make homophobic comments,” recalls Margaret Webb (BA 1985 UC), a former editor of The Varsity. “I learned, many years later, that I was actually among a coterie of gay and lesbian undergrads who had attained leadership positions on campus – we had led The Varsity, student government, athletic teams. But we were isolated from each other. None of us were out at the time.”
Heterosexism on campus received relatively little official attention until 1989, when political science professor David Rayside established an ad hoc committee on homophobia at U of T. With the backing of the university administration, Rayside’s committee aimed to identify and challenge examples of heterosexism, recognize links between homophobia and other forms of discrimination, and promote academic research and courses in gay, lesbian and bisexual studies.
One of the committee’s first projects was surveying students living in residence. At University College, 38 of the 42 residents polled reported witnessing incidents of homophobic behaviour; some considered this perfectly acceptable. “I can sympathize with ‘gay-bashing’ because those faggots teach children their own perverse habits,” said one resident. Isobel Heathcote, University College’s dean of women, wrote to the residence deans saying, “I was smug enough to be sure that our residences were pretty free from prejudice. I simply was not prepared.”
Rayside’s committee began applying pressure to administrators as well as faculty and student groups to officially recognize sexual diversity. The lobbying paid off, and early in 1991 the university extended benefits to same-sex partners of employees. Borrowing an idea from Gays at U of T, the committee also declared January 30, 1991, “Jeans Day.” On this day, hundreds of people wore jeans and gathered at Convocation Hall to hear more than 50 U of T community leaders, including President Robert Prichard, declare their support for Lesbian and Gay Awareness Week.
In 1995, Professor Rona Abramovitch, the newly appointed Status of Women Officer, was having lunch with Rayside. They were trying to come up with innovative ideas for confronting homophobia. “How about stickers?” said one to the other. And what began as a simple idea – stickers with a rainbow triangle and the words “lesbian and gay positive space” – soon transformed the campus. By putting up a sticker, every faculty, staff member, teaching assistant and student could declare his or her space “safe” for lesbians and gays. The sticker became a powerful tool of self-expression, and over the years, in many buildings across campus, stigma became attached to not displaying the emblem.
The Positive Space campaign coincided with a surge of student activism, led by the now more inclusively named Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Trans People of the U of T (LGBT-OUT). In March 1999, the group waged a well publicized referendum campaign for a 75¢ student ancillary fee to support a resource centre for sexual minority students. When it was announced that the majority of voters had cast a ballot against the centre, some students cheered and made homophobic remarks. An analysis of the results revealed that a group of students had led a campaign to reject the levy.
Defeated yet still determined, LGBTOUT staged same-sex kiss-ins on the steps of Sidney Smith Hall, and Bonte Minnema (BA 2000) convinced the Students’ Administrative Council to name him Homecoming Queen. Minnema put a new twist on an old tradition when he arrived at a Varsity Blues football game in September 1999 in colourful drag and joined the Lady Godiva Memorial Band on field at halftime. Many cheered but not all of the football players were game for a photo op.
LGBTOUT had initially approached the university’s equity and student services office to explore the idea of creating a permanent university-wide office to address heterosexism and homophobia. The proposal hadn’t gone very far when a horrifying incident in the U.S. underscored the importance of maintaining vigilance. In October 1998, two young men savagely beat Matthew Shepard, a student at the University of Wyoming, tied him to a roadside fence and left him to die – all because he was homosexual. News of his murder played and replayed in the media, and united the gay community in anger. In July 1999, the university established the office of LGBTQ Resources & Programs (“Q” stands for “queer”), a first for a post-secondary institution in Canada.
Today on campus, sexual diversity groups cross all faiths, faculties and ethnicities. They include the LGBTQ Jewish student group Kulanu, Queers of Colour, Out in Law, Diversity in Medicine and Rainbow Trinity.
Matthew Gray, who recently finished his first year in the Faculty of Arts and Science, says he finds U of T to be “very welcoming” for LGBTQ students. Gray, who came out during his final year at a conservative Toronto high school, says he’s impressed with the LGBTOUT drop-in centre and the university’s resource and programs office. He also praises the “queer orientation” that introduces new students to the resources available to U of T’s LGBTQ community.
In the last decade or so, the university has also become significantly more welcoming for LGBTQ staff and faculty. In 2001, U of T amended its employment equity statement, included with all job descriptions, to include sexual minorities. Five years later, Governing Council unanimously approved a similar statement on diversity that explicitly supports equal opportunities and fairness for sexual minorities. Canada’s Top 100 Employers has recognized U of T as one of the country’s top 35 diversity employers for the past two years.
When you add it all up, the university has “taken a lot of proactive steps,” says Jude Tate (MSW 1999), the LGBTQ Resources & Programs coordinator. Compared to a generation ago, “many more students, faculty and staff are out.” But today’s students come from a greater variety of cultural and religious backgrounds, some of which are socially conservative. Many still wrestle with coming out, fearing that their family and friends will reject them. Occasionally, staff and faculty hear hostile comments on campus. “It’s tempting to say that things are better, and in many ways they are,” says Tate. “But the lived experience of LGBTQ people is uneven. Many are out and accepted; some are not – they live very careful lives in order to avoid discrimination.”
No doubt subsequent generations will ensure that U of T continues to be an incubator and a catalyst for the visibility, liberation and celebration of sexual diversity. As for the many activists over the past 40 years who stood their ground and demanded change, they can be proud of what they accomplished.
It’s a tough act to follow.
Anne Perdue is a writer in Toronto.