Carrying Sisyphus’ Stone: Operation Outreach and the Mobilization of Queer Communities in Northern Ontario

This past March, I had the pleasure to be invited by the Société historique du nouvel-Ontario (SHNO) to give a research talk. Although at first I had the intention to talk about my research on lesbian and gay rights and unions in northern Ontario, because my research deals so little with this region, and because I was busy in the lead-up to the CUPE 3903 strike at York University, I decided instead to focus my talk on a campaign in 1980 to mobilize queer communities in northern Ontario, called Operation Outreach. Below is a translation of the talk I gave in Sudbury (with a few minor changes). The talk was originally titled “Au travail et dans la communauté : les droits des gais et lesbiennes, les syndicats et les communautés nord-ontariennes,” but given the focus on Operation Outreach, I am presenting it here with a new title.

la version originale en français est disponible ici

Hello. Tonight I had initially planned to give two mini presentations: one about my research on unions, and the other about a series of events held in northern Ontario in 1980 and organized by the gay rights activist Robin Hardy. Although this was my intention, when I began to write out my presentation, I quickly realized that I had a lot more to say about the subject of the tour that Hardy had organized in northern Ontario. So, instead of telling you about the labour movement, my talk tonight will be about Hardy’s tour of several northern Ontarian communities, and about these communities in general in the 1970s and 1980s.

Lesbian and Gay Organizing in the 1970s

Before talking about Hardy’s 1980 tour of northern Ontario, I want to briefly talk about the lesbian and gay rights movements in the 1970s. The organized lesbian and gay movement in Ontario can be traced back to late 1969 when the province’s first homophile group was formed in Toronto. The first meeting of the University of Toronto Homophile Association, or UTHA, was held in October 1969. The group immediately set out to educate the public about the realities of homosexuality and homosexuals. The use of the word ‘homophile’ was very important. Although it had been decriminalized a few months earlier, homosexuality was still very misunderstood, and those who identified, or were even suspected of being gay or lesbian, could be fired or evicted with little recourse. Because the term ‘homophile’ was simply meant to indicate one’s interest in the question of homosexuality rather than their sexual orientation, its use was a means of protecting oneself against homophobic discrimination. But in reality, the members of these groups were more often than not gay or lesbian.

Almost as soon as the UTHA was formed, other groups began to appear elsewhere in Toronto and across the province. By the end of 1971, a number of lesbian and gay groups in at least seven cities had been formed, including in Toronto, London, Waterloo, Guelph, Hamilton, Ottawa, and Windsor. A single homophile group had grown into a gay and lesbian liberation movement.

This movement was still interested in educating the public about homosexuality, but its first priority quickly shifted to combatting homophobic discrimination. Education was very important, but rather than focus solely on public education events, they began to also organize public demonstrations. The first of these public demonstrations took place in Ottawa and Vancouver in August 1971. This protest, which we now refer to as the We Demand protest, named after the title of the manifesto that was read aloud during the demonstration.

We Demand  Protest. August  28, 1971 (Ottawa)

We Demand Protest. August 28, 1971 (Ottawa)

The protest in Ottawa saw almost 200 people gather under the rain on Parliament Hill where they read out a list of ten demands, the majority of which demanded that the government take action to end discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Following the protest, the movement’s attention turned towards the struggle against discrimination, specifically the absence of any legal protection from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. They launched a campaign to convince the government to include sexual orientation as a protected category in the Ontario Human Rights Code, a goal that was accomplished more than a decade later in 1986.

Throughout the 1970s, the lesbian and gay movements in Ontario celebrated victories and mourned defeats, but they persisted and were able to establish a presence in several towns and cities. Despite this, the movement had virtually no presence in the northern part of the province. Although the Coalition for Gay Rights in Ontario, later renamed the Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights in Ontario, or CLGRO, an umbrella organization for most of the province’s gay and lesbian organizations, had a number of individual members in the north, the movement still lacked any strong public presence in the north.

There had, however, been attempts to create lesbian and gay organizations in Ontario’s northern centres. In 1972 or 1973, a group of friends came together to form the Gay Alliance of Sudbury. The group had an office and attempted to open a community centre, but had to put an end to their efforts after a short while. Tom Warner argues in his study of queer activism in Canada, Never Going Back: A History of Queer Activism in Canada, that their efforts came to an end as a result of a lack of interest among younger lesbian and gay sudburians. There had also been important activity in Thunder Bay where, in 1974, the Lakehead Gay Liberation organization was formed following a visit by Toronto-based gay liberation activist and founding member of the UTHA, Jearld Moldenhauer. The group unfortunately had a very short life, and ceased to exist the following year when a number of its members graduated from Lakehead University and moved to Toronto. This migration of lesbian and gay youth towards larger urban centres was not unique to Thunder Bay or the north. Rather, it’s a phenomenon that continues to this day, motivated in large part by a desire to break through isolation and find communities of other queer individuals, something that is often easier to do in larger urban centres.

This was not Thunder Bay’s queer community’s only attempt to organize. In 1974 or 1975, the Backstreet Athletic Club opened and served as a meeting space for the city’s lesbians and gay men. In fact, in 1979, a group called the Backstreet Auxiliary Club was formed, at held its meetings at the club.

Operation Outreach

Despite these efforts, by the end of the 1970s, the lesbian and gay movement’s presence in northern Ontario was very small. In an effort to change this, CLGRO took it upon itself to organize a tour of some of the region’s larger centres. To this end, they sent one of their own members, Robin Hardy, on the road to visit northern Ontario.

Robin Hardy (source: http://www.rbebout.com/)

Robin Hardy (source: http://www.rbebout.com/)

Although Hardy was originally from Halifax, he had grown up in Winnipeg before eventually making his way to Toronto, where he became involved with the gay liberation movement. He wrote for the gay liberation newspaper, The Body Politic. He also served as CLGRO’s first paid employee. In 1984, he left Toronto for New York where he became involved in the publishing industry. While there, he wrote a number of books, but only one was ever written under his own name: a horror novel titled Call of the Wendigo. In 1993, he moved to Tucson, Arizona, where he was unfortunately killed in an accident two years later.

The tour, which CLGRO named Operation Outreach, brought Hardy to at least three cities: Thunder Bay, Sault Ste Marie, and Sudbury. Hardy has also attempted, but was ultimately unable to visit North Bay and Hearst. Although his reasons for not visiting Hearts were logistical (these will be discussed below), his reasons for not visiting North Bay are a bit unclear. However, it is possible that, given its proximity to Sudbury, that he was able to meet with people from North Bay while in Sudbury.

The purpose of Operation Outreach was to send Hardy to cities and towns throughout northern Ontario in order to organize meetings and parties, which would be used to make connections, share movement literature, as well as determine how CLGRO could help in the formation of local gay and lesbian groups in Ontario’s north. In other words, Hardy’s goal was to help local gays and lesbians to form their own organizations, thereby giving the wider provincial movement a presence in northern Ontario.

Upon his return to Toronto, Hardy word a series of extensive reports about his travels, his impressions of the cities and of the people he visited. His reports are a very interesting and valuable source of not only queer life in northern Ontario in the early 1980s, but also of a southern Ontarian gay activist’s impressions of the northern half of the province.

After reading Hardy’s reports, I couldn’t help but be reminded of letters written long ago by a missionary sent to spread the gospel in a foreign land. He wrote in his reports that his time in the north reminded him of two stories.

Sisyphus

Sisyphus

The first of these was the Greek myth of Sisyphus, the king condemned to an eternity of having to push a boulder uphill, only to see it roll back down every time. The second story mentioned was a science fiction tale that Hardy had read in his youth. The story in question took place on a planet on which the speed of the passing of time varied on depending on the planet’s latitude. On this planet, a person could spend twenty years visiting a particular region, only to then return home and found that they had only been gone for two weeks.

These images don’t necessarily leave the readers of Hardy’s reports with a particularly positive impression of northern Ontario. To Hardy, his work in the north felt like that of Sisyphus: condemned to an eternity of pointless labour, struggling to move a boulder uphill, only to see it roll back down every time. As in the planet where time passed at varying speeds, Hardy felt that visiting the north was like visiting an era before the decriminalization of homosexuality, when gay men and lesbians were isolated, hidden, and fragmented.

Overall, Hardy’s reports did not paint a positive picture of northern Ontario. But despite his impressions, his reports reveal details of queer communities that existed at their own pace and in their own way. They were certainly different from those of Toronto, but they existed nonetheless. It is this aspect of northern Ontario’s queer life that I’d like to talk about a bit more. Specifically, I’ll talk about what Hardy’s reports can teach us about gay and lesbian life in northern Ontario in the late 1970s and early 1980s. That is, the way in which gay men and lesbians organized their private, public, professional, and sexual lives. And of course, I also want to talk a bit about the work that Hardy did while in Sudbury.

Queer Social and Sexual Spaces

As I mentioned earlier on, the gay and lesbian movement had a very minimal presence in northern Ontario in 1980. Despite this absence, the north was home to active queer communities. People who identified as gay, lesbian, and bisexual knew how to find each other, and they knew how to build their own social networks. One of the spaces in which they did so was in bars and hotels.

Bars in both larger and smaller urban centres often served as social centres for queer communities. Those in northern Ontario were no exceptions. Some, like the Mona Lisa in Thunder Bay, tended to serve a more exclusively gay and lesbian clientele, while others, such as Sudbury’s Nickel Range Hotel, tended to attract all sorts of marginalized communities, including gay, lesbian, and trans clients, as well as drug dealers and motorcycle gangs.

Nickel Range Hotel, Sudbury (source: https://www.flickr.com)

Nickel Range Hotel, Sudbury (source: https://www.flickr.com)

Hotel bars could be especially useful as sites for meeting other queer individuals, sometimes more so than regular bars, and Hardy mentioned in his reports having visited several hotels, particularly Holiday Inns. One of the reasons for this being that people travelling through town, often for work, could take advantage of the opportunity offered by hotel bars to meet and have sexual encounters that might not have been possible to have at home, either because they were married or feared the consequences of being recognized. Hotels and hotel bars in other towns offered a greater degree of anonymity and protection, and therefore allowed individuals to have sexual encounters without fearing for their jobs or their reputation. Even if they did not serve a uniquely queer clientele, hotel bars, as well as bars in general, could serve as useful spaces for people seeking same-sex social and sexual encounters.

Regardless, it’s important to remember that bars were still relatively public spaces. For many people, being recognized in a queer space could lead to a loss of employment, of housing, as well as a severing of relationships with friends and family. This was especially the case before 1986, the year that the government of Ontario added sexual orientation to the provincial human rights code. For these individuals, seeking social and sexual encounters in bars was not always an option. In these cases, they could either visit a bar in another town, which was possible but not always practical, or they could form their own, more private social networks.

For those with the means of doing so, hosting friends at their house for a private evening could allow them to socialize in a much safer environment than bars could provide. This was a popular strategy among federal public servants in Ottawa where, as of the 1950s, the RCMP conducted surveillance on bars in hopes of identifying and firing queer civil servants. As a result of their greater need for security, these networks were often very private and much more difficult to gain access to.

These private networks could also pose a problem for activists hoping to build a public gay and lesbian movement. In fact, the closed nature of these types of networks was the reason for which Hardy failed to organize a meeting in Hearst during his trip up north. Before leaving Toronto, Hardy and CLGRO succeeded in contacting someone in Hearst. Hardy asked him to contact other gay and lesbian people in the city who might be interested in attending a meeting and a social event. These efforts failed however, as Hardy’s contact in Hearst was unable to locate anyone interested in attending. According his contact, there were other gay and lesbian people in Hearst, but he had until then been unable to gain access to their private social circle. So we can see at what point that these types of social circles could serve as an obstacle for activists looking to organize queer communities.

Nevertheless, these networks could also be useful to activists. For example, Hardy spoke in his reports of having met people Sault Ste Marie while in Sudbury. He learned that, the lack of a bar or formal organization in Sault Ste Marie meant that the city’s queer social life was centred around private parties organized by one man, Bob Goderre, better known as Mother Goderre. Goderre’s parties were so well known in an around Sault Ste Marie that they often attracted Americans who crossed the border solely to attend his parties. In this case, Goderre’s social circle was a bit more open, but it was nevertheless important in helping Hardy make contacts in Sault Ste Marie’s queer community.

Organizing in Sudbury

One of Hardy’s first cities visited by Hardy in the spring of 1980 was Sudbury. Hardy didn’t have too much difficulty making contacts, especially at Laurentian University, as one of his colleagues from the Toronto gay and lesbian movement, Chris Bearchell, was employed as a lecturer in the university’s Women’s Studies department. Bearchell, with another member of ther department, was key to organizing’s Hardy’s visit to Sudbury. In addition to organizing and inviting people to one of his meetings, Bearchell managed to secure radio and television interviews for Hardy, as well as invite him to speak in classes at the university. Sudbury proved to be a very welcoming city for Hardy.

Despite his warm reception at the university, mobilizing people within the city’s larger queer community was a greater challenge. Sudbury didn’t have a social or political gay or lesbian group on which Hardy could rely to mobilize the city’s queer communities, so Hardy had to find them on his own.

One of his contacts from Laurentian University put Hardy in touch with two men, one of which worked at the Inco mine, while the other worked in a retail store. His reports don’t contain much information about the identity of these two men, but what they do reveal is nevertheless interesting and revealing about the nature of gay and lesbian life in Sudbury at that time.

Hardy wrote that the man who worked at Inco was also the owner of a women’s clothing boutique. He was out at work and to his co-workers. In fact, he had given himself the responsibility of organizing Christmas parties for his co-workers because, as he put it, his co-workers were too “butch” and macho to know how to organize a good party. Hardy also mentioned a story related to him by this man, of how two men had been caught having sex in the mine. Fortunately, neither of them had been fired. Rather, the only discipline they faced was to be assigned to different shifts in order to prevent them from working together in the future.

As for the man that worked in a retail store, Hardy didn’t specify if he was out at work or not, but he did note that he seemed to be popular among, as men would frequently come meet and speak with him while he was at work. Hardy hints that this may have been a result of the fact that this man worked near the store’s public washroom, which was a popular cruising spot for men.

Like bars, certain public spaces tended to offer sexual opportunities to people seeking same-sex sexual encounters (and the people seeking these public encounters were almost always men). These spaces could play an important role in queer communities and the lives of its members, as they could provide a space in which individuals could explore their sexual desires and develop their sexual identities. In this sense, these spaces were important to the gay liberation movement because they offered a space for people to explore their sexuality. Having sex in public spaces was also very illegal and dangerous.

Like bars and private parties, public washrooms could be a space of gay socialization. Just like the bars and private parties, Hardy made sure to include public washrooms in his strategies to recruit people in the cities he visited. The only public washroom he discussed in detail was in Sudbury.

Hardy described his strategy surrounding public washrooms, and it was fairly simple. It consisted of hanging out in a public space, such as a shopping centre, near a public washroom, and make himself appear seductive. Once he succeeded in attracting another man’s attention, Hardy would take him aside and whisper in his ear “I’ll see you at the meeting tomorrow.”

The only specific instance of cruising a public washroom discussed in Hardy’s report took place in Sudbury. Hardy wrote that, while cruising a washroom, he ran into a seventeen year-old man who, according to Hardy, had been cruising public washroom since the age of thirteen. Hardy showed him some of the pamphlets he had with him, and gave him a copy of The Body Politic.

The Body Politic, March 1980 (source: http://www.uwo.ca/pridelib/)

The Body Politic, March 1980 (source: http://www.uwo.ca/pridelib/)

Coincidentally, the March 1980 issue of The Body Politic, which was the most recent issue at the time that Hardy was in Sudbury, was a special issue on arrests in public washrooms. Regardless, the young man was impressed by the pamphlets and was overjoyed by the discovery that there were organized gay and lesbian groups in Toronto.

Hardy wrote that he was bothered by the way in which the young man reacted. After having a look at the pamphlet and the newspaper, he turned to Hardy and asked if they knew the cause of homosexuality, and whether they had found a way to cure it. For Hardy, this was a difficult moment, but one that also reminded him of the importance of his work. He wrote that the ultimate goal of the gay liberation movement was the creation of a world in which people were liberated from sexual stereotypes. In order to achieve this, they would have to make sure that people were given the opportunity to explore and develop their sexuality within a positive environment. Although this young man had found a way of exploring and developing his own sexuality, even if it wasn’t in the most positive environment, the fact that his first reaction to the pamphlets was to want to know if there was a way to cure him of his sexual desires was proof positive for Hardy that there was still a lot of work to be done, not only in Sudbury, but in cities everywhere.

In the end, only four people attended the meeting Hardy had organized at the university, but he still recorded it as a success. He wasn’t able to witness the formation of a new organization during his stay in Sudbury, but he left the city with at least six contacts that he could use to build on in the future, and which could serve a launching point for the formation of a group in Sudbury. He left feeling that Sudbury was ready to have its own gay and lesbian organization, but that its queer community lacked the initiative needed to start one.

This wasn’t Hardy’s only visit to Sudbury. Before leaving, he made sure to reserve a local theatre, La Slague, where he planned on hosting a film screening a month or two later. However, when he returned in May or June of that same year, the screening he had planned was not held as an isolated event. Rather, it took place within the context of a larger gay festival organized by a group of queer Sudburians. It wasn’t clear exactly who organized the festival, but an article in the September 1980 issue of The Body Politic mentioned that a group named the Gay Association of Sudbury was founded not long after Hardy’s initial visit to the city. It is therefore possible that this group was responsible for the organization of the festival. Obviously, Sudbury had managed to find the initiative and leadership that Hardy felt it lacked.

Sudbury was not the only city to organize in the weeks following Hardy’s visit. Thunder Bay queers organized within the Gays of Thunder Bay almost the day after Hardy’s meeting and party in that city. Gays of Thunder Bay continued to exist for several years, before it folded in 1993.

Closer to Sudbury, groups were also eventually formed in North Bay. In 1988, the city saw the formation and the transformation of groups such as Chanby (the Caring Homosexual Association of North Bay), the Gay and Lesbian Fellowship of North Bay, and finally a group named Gay Nipissing. Gay Nipissing was particularly active, organizing and hosting meeting, film screenings, a newsletter, and a gay help line.

Conclusion

What can be made of all of this? At the end of the 1970s, there was very little in terms of organization or resources for northern Ontario’s queer communities. When Hardy returned to Toronto following his trip, he felt pessimistic about the possibility organizing a visible presence for the gay and lesbian movement in Ontario’s northern half.

He imagined himself as Sisyphus, condemned to an eternity of having to push a boulder uphill, only to see it roll back down every time. But in the end, cities like Thunder Bay and Sudbury, and eventually North Bay weren’t the lost causes that Hardy deemed them to be. These cities had their own queer communities, with their own institutions and cultures. To expand on the comparison made by Hardy, Sisyphus may have been condemned to push the boulder uphill, but he only had to do it once, because once he made it to the top of the hill, there were people there ready to take it from him and hold it in place.

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