POSTER: “A Union Issue: A Look at Gay and Lesbian Rights in the Labour Movement in Ontario”

This past week, I presented a poster at the Canadian Historical Association’s (CHA) 2014 meeting. The experience of presenting my research through a poster rather than an oral presentation was certainly an interesting one. Although preparing a visual medium through which I could present my research was definitely a challenge, having the opportunity to interact more closely with an interested public made the experience a rewarding one. In many ways, I think I preferred the experience to an oral presentation. Whereas presenting on a panel might usually allow three or four presenters to share fifteen minutes of questions and answers, a two hour poster presentation provided me with the opportunity to have much more in-depth and detailed discussions about my research with the people in attendance. Although I have always appreciated the questions and feedback I’ve received at panel presentations in the past, I found that the quality and depth of the feedback I received at the poster presentation was much greater, which made it an overall more worthwhile exercise. The poster presentations are relatively new to the CHA, and I applaud them for integrating this medium into their annual meeting.

From the moment my poster was accepted into the conference, my intention had always been to make it accessible to the public through this website. I’ve included it below in three formats. The image you see below is a JPG (click to enlarge). Also included below is a PDF version of the poster, as well as a Word document containing the text from the poster, which I handed out at the session.

A Union Issue: A Look at Gay and Lesbian Rights in the Labour Movement in Ontario

A Union Issue: A Look at Gay and Lesbian Rights in the Labour Movement in Ontario

(Click here for PDF version of the poster)
(Click here for Microsoft Word version of text from the poster)


Dallas Buyers Club, HIV/AIDS, and Harm Reduction

Dallas Buyers Club. Advertisement. 2013.

Dallas Buyers Club. Advertisement. 2013.

I had initially posted this next entry as a longer than expected comment on facebook. As it turns out, a few friends and friends-of-friends ended up sharing it, which is more than I expected to happen with an early morning rambling. Because it seems to have gotten a bit of interest, and because it was informed by my research, I decided to put it up here as well (with a few minor changes).

I watched Dallas Buyers Club last night (a bit late to the game, I know). It got me to thinking about a three-hour interview I did for my dissertation. It was with a gay activist who has been involved in gay activism since the early 1970s. Even though he’s lived through a lot of stuff, he stayed pretty positive throughout our entire discussion. The one time when he got visibly upset was when we talked about AIDS. I knew that a lot of people had died, but I didn’t really get a sense of the pain and anger that some of the people who lived through went through. An eye-opening moment was when he told that in one year, 1987, he went to 26 funerals of friends that had died as a result of AIDS. That’s one funeral every two weeks. I don’t think any of us can relate to what losing 26 friends in the space of one year can do to us.

It also reminded me of another interview I did with an AIDS activist. I asked her if she remembered people losing their jobs as a result of being diagnosed as HIV positive. She answered by saying that “when I started doing AIDS work, people who were in hospitals were not even being fed.” Some doctors and nurses refused to be in the same room as people with AIDS, for fear that they would get sick themselves. So when friends and activists would visit the hospital, they would have to do everything for their friends: feed them, fix their sheets, clean them, and even change diapers that had been soiled for hours because nurses and doctors refused to help. “So, yeah” she said, “Lose your job? How about you’d almost die in the hospital from lack of care.”

I knew that it was bad. People got sick. People died. A lot of people got sick and died. However, before speaking to people that survived a plague (to borrow a phrase by AIDS activists), I had no idea exactly what it was like. How could I? When I was a kid, HIV and AIDS were just things that made you wear a condom. HIV and AIDS were what made me ask my mom what a condom was and why you had to wear one (which is the question that led to “The Talk”). It was something that people I didn’t know died from. It was an abstract. Meeting people who lived through it and watched as dozens of their friends died while governments either ignored them or messed around with potentially life-saving drugs because, who cares if a bunch of fags and junkies die, right?

I was also reminded of the kind of discourse that is used today against harm reduction initiatives, such as safe injection sites, as well as needle and crack pipe distribution services. Studies conducted on the impacts of these types of services have proven, time and time again, that they save lives. Despite these results, people and government still oppose them because the people they serve are drug addicts. Like the communities afflicted by HIV/AIDS, they’re often deemed to be less than worthy of support and help that has already saved hundreds, if not thousands of lives by preventing overdoses and transmission of infections. Yes, drug users deserve access to safe, free, and adequate detox programs, but anybody who knows anything (and I don’t, but I’m going on what people who do have already said), people can’t really be forced to kick their addictions, and that it doesn’t always hold, that can people slip and go back a few times. In the meantime, and when they do slip, harm reduction services are there to make sure they don’t overdose or get infected by sharing needles or pipes. When people say they oppose harm reduction services, this is what they’re opposing. Don’t give them potentially life-saving goods and services because, who cares if a junkie gets sick and dies, right? They brought it on themselves. Opponents of harm reduction services rarely stop to consider that, as the California punk band Fifteen in their song My Congressman, “there’s needle users sleeping with your children, with your daughters, with your sons and with your husbands.” Drug users are members of our communities, whether some people like it or not, and if we want to keep our communities safe and healthy, then we need to provide services and resources to make sure that these members of our communities are can stay free from infection and protected from overdoses until they are able to enter rehabilitation programs to help them to kick their addiction.

When people in the 1980s went around the law to make sure that people who were dying could have access to life-saving medication, the government went after them. Today, as people are working to provide drug users with access to life-saving and harm-reducing services and resources, the government is still going after them. Luckily, this time the Supreme Court of Canada had enough sense to listen to the numbers and saw that these services save lives, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes, people are denied access to life-saving drugs and services. Then that happens, those who deny them that access become responsible for the deaths of those whose lives were lost as a result of their refusal to provide life-saving services and medication.

No Longer Dependents: Unions, Benefits, and Relationship Recognition

Last week, CBC reported the story of Della Wolf, a BC child whose birth certificate lists three parents: her two mothers and their male friend. The story of Della’s birth certificate made the news because hers was the first birth certificate in British Columbia to list more than two parents, something made possible by the province’s new Family Law Act, which allows up to four parents to be listed on a child’s birth certificate.

This news story got me to thinking about something that I came across in my research. In 1990, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) published a series of reports titled Employment Benefits for Lesbian and Gay Workers and Their Families. The reports outlined a number of potential measures that the labour movement could adopt to help with efforts being made by lesbian and gay activists to obtain greater recognition for same-sex relationships. The reports dealt with issues such as bargaining, insurance policies, legal decision, and discrimination. Although they could at times make for some dry reading, some of the arguments made within the reports provide a fascinating insight into a time when the fight for relationship recognition was beginning to heat up.

One particular section in the report about ending discrimination stood out. The section dealt with the manner in which eligibility for benefits was determined by employers and insurance carriers. The report argued that, although the term “dependent” was often used to describe those who could be included on a worker’s benefit plan, actual dependence had very little to do with it. As the report stated, a “dependent” was not defined by actual dependency, but by their relationship with the worker. More specifically, someone was defined as a dependent one if they were a child or spouse of the recipient of a benefits package. In other words, someone could only be a dependent and therefore eligible to access a worker’s workplace benefits, if they were that worker’s child or spouse. The report continued by pointing out an obvious flaw in this manner of determining eligibility, stating that using biological and spousal relationships as the determining criteria did very little to meet the needs of many workers, gay or straight. Rather, it argued, this system was “devised to answer the needs of the traditional, one-income nuclear family.” In other words, it was tailored to meet the needs of a very particular family model, one in which one adult, usually the man, worked outside of the home, while his wife and children (dependents) stayed at home. The system, the report argued, was therefore not designed to meet the needs of a majority of workers, regardless of their sexual orientation, whose families and intimate relationships did not fit this model.

(Our Times, December 1989)

Despite these flaws, CUPE nevertheless admitted that the “most immediately attainable” approach to obtaining recognition of same-sex relationships and expanding benefits to same-sex partners was to simply expand on the current definitions of ‘dependent’ to have them include same-sex partners. Although there was recognition by the report’s authors that the current method of determining eligibility was limited, and that there was a desire to challenge these limits, they nevertheless recognized that doing so would be an uphill battle. The decision to move forward by redefining spouse to include a same-sex partner instead of attempting to challenge the limits inherent in this model of sharing workplace benefits and insurance coverage was therefore a deliberate strategic decision.

What does this have to do with the recent story of Della and her three parents? When I read the story, it reminded me of CUPE’s report and their criticism of the system of eligibility used by employers and insurance carriers, often with the consent of unions, to grant coverage based on criteria rooted in familial relationships.* Despite the advances made in the areas of women’s rights, as well as lesbian and gay rights, many of the benefits outlined in collective agreements still rely on an outdated system of criteria and use language, such as ‘dependent,’ that do not reflect the reality and relationships of an increasing number of people. This is the case with my own employer and union, whose insurance provider continues to define a “dependent” as a spouse or child.

Almost a quarter of a century has passed since CUPE issued the report critiquing this model of granting benefits. With the legal recognition that families often assume different shapes, it would be to the labour movement’s benefit to push for benefits packages and insurance coverage that also reflected this. One way of doing this, as suggested by CUPE’s report, would be to allow workers to designate one or more people as recipients of their coverage, regardless of the nature of their relationship, or what the report referred to as a “designated beneficiary” system.

In addition to allowing the labour movement to provide greater recognition of different relationship and family models, a designated beneficiary system would also provide those who are not married or in a common-law relationship to grant coverage to other members of their communities who may be in need of greater health care. This was something that was brought up by a number of people I interviewed for my research. One interviewee stated that he currently cares for a neighbour dealing with hepatitis C. The interviewee does not have any children, nor is he in married or in a common-law relationship, yet he would like nothing more than to be able to provide his neighbour, with whom he has a close friendship, with the type of coverage that could greatly improve his access to health care. A similar argument was made by another interviewee who stated that his inability to include friends who had been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS in his insurance plan meant that he was unable to help and care for them as much as he otherwise would have liked to.

So, while redefining the definition of ‘dependent’ to include same-sex relationships was a much needed and important step forward in terms of allowing lesbian and gay couples access the same benefits as their straight counterparts, doing so under the same set of criteria that relied on parental or spousal relationships to determine eligibility to employer insurance programs and union benefit packages unfortunately perpetuated the exclusion of certain workers whose relationships did not fit the mold of the nuclear family model. Unions are in a position to lead the charge on this. If the province of British Columbia can recognize that families come in various shapes and sizes, surely organized labour can help workers whose relationship models currently exclude them from accessing and providing the benefits to their own loved ones, however they may be defined.

*Those familial relationships that are recognized by most insurance providers are limited, as parents, siblings, and extended relatives are often excluded from insurance coverage and benefit plans.

Locating the Past through Images

In recent years, a number of projects have appeared with the intention of allowing the people to link their present-day surroundings with the past through the use of photographs and other images to track the evolution of landscapes and cityscapes over time. Whether it’s because we like to feel nostalgic or have a deeper fascination with the ways that our neighbourhoods and communities have evolved over time, the explosion of websites are an indication that the public has a much deeper interest in history than most of us might suspect.

As someone who spends more time on the internet than I should, I’ve always gotten a kick out of websites such as and facebook pages like Vintage Toronto (which, at the time I am writing this, has over 50,000 followers) for the simple reason that I love to see how the neighbourhoods I know today looked like in the past. I’ve sometimes even felt a bit envious of those who, in the course of their research, get to work with images of the communities and cities they study. Although I do come across some interesting images in the course of my research, none have ever really provided me with the opportunity to explore the evolution of space. So, when I came across a picture of a group of lesbian activists picketing outside of a convenience store in London, Ontario in 1978, I decided to try and locate that store. While I have spent a bit of time in London, I wouldn’t say that I’m very familiar with the city. All I had to go on was the name of the convenience store (Master Variety) and the road on which it was located (Central avenue). No address. Luckily, Central avenue isn’t a very long street and I was able to find the building in only a few minutes.

london variety store

Master Variety in 1978 (photo credit: Heather Ramsay and Body Politic) and Victory Variety today (photo from Google Maps). Click to enlarge.

On the left is a picture of members of the London-based Gay Activist Group for Equality and London Lesbian Collective picketing what was then Master Variety. They had gathered to protest the recent firing of Lyn MacDonald, a former employee of the store who was fired when her employer discovered she was a lesbian. On the right is a look at what the store looks like today. While the comparison doesn’t really reveal anything too interesting, other than that it seems the owners decided to add some windows and move the door, I still thought it was pretty cool to finally be able to find the location where this picket took place.

(I should add that the current owners of Victory Variety probably aren’t the same people who fired Lyn MacDonald 35 years ago, so there’s no reason to hold it against them. If you’re in London, try stopping by. I’m sure they’re friendly people. Plus, buying from local shops is always better than buying from the big ones.)

I don’t expect to be using any of this in my dissertation, but this kind of work is something that is fun and relatively easy to do. It’s also given me pause to consider that there might be some potential for integrating this type of work into the ways in which we teach history. I have no doubt that asking students to locate current sites of historical events or buildings through the use of images could make the prospect of writing an essay a much more interesting one for a number of students. As I move forward in my teaching, it’s something that I’ll definitely have to keep in mind.

EDIT: As a recent comment left on this site from someone identifying herself as the former owner of Master Variety points out, the owners disputed Lyn MacDonald’s claim and stated that she was fired for reasons other than that she was a lesbian. My goal in writing this post was not to side with either party. Rather, it was simply to highlight some of the potential uses of images in the researching and teaching of history.

Hockey, Homophobia and the Limits of Collective Bargaining

I should preface this by saying that I’m not a big sports fan. I love to watch the occasional game with friends and can get into it when I do watch it, but if I were to name five players from the Ottawa Senators (hometown hockey team), I’d probably include a bunch that have been traded or retired years ago. So, keep in mind that everything I say here is coming from someone who knows very little about the sport.

In the little bit of sports news that I do read, I know that a number of events over the last few years have forced the world of professional sports to address the question of having openly gay players (by professional sports, I’m referring to male leagues which attract much more media attention than do female professional sports leagues). Whether it be as a result of the homophobic rants of former professional basketball players, witty defenses of same-sex marriage from NFL players or professional soccer players coming out publicly, the world of professional sports has had to deal with the question of whether it is ready to have openly gay athletes. Some athletes have come out only after their retirement, but with the exception of Robbie Rogers, there are very few openly gay male professional athletes.

I came across an article recently in which Wade Davis, an openly gay former NFL player, stated that he expects the NHL to be the first league to have an openly gay player. While Robbie Rogers’ decision to come out last week put an end to the NHL’s chance to be the first league, Davis’ argument makes sense. As the article points out, the NHL has been very active in their efforts to promote gay rights in professional sports. Former Toronto Maple Leafs’ General Manager Brian Burke’s and his son Patrick have spearheaded this effort through the You Can Play Project, a campaign encouraging athletes to create environments respectful of all players regardless of their sexual orientation. These sorts of efforts to promote respect and equality among players are to be commended and, I believe, could go a long way. However, despite Wade Davis’ prediction, the NHL has yet to have a single openly gay player.

Brian Burke in the 2011 Toronto Pride Parade (photo credit: Ping Foo)

Brian Burke in the 2011 Toronto Pride Parade (photo credit: Ping Foo)

While I can’t view this issue through the eyes of a sports fan, I do look at it through the eyes of a union member and an historian of gay and lesbian rights in the workplace. Being a professional hockey player is a career. For professional hockey players, the arena and the locker room are workplaces. Like many other workers, NHL players have a union and a collective agreement. One day, out of curiosity, I decided to look up a copy of the agreement between the NHL and the players’ association, the NHLPA (the most recent contract doesn’t seem to be available online). Like many other unions, the NHLPA’s contract includes a clause protecting its members from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. While human rights legislation in Canada has made these sorts of clauses standard, this was not always the case. In Ontario, gay and lesbian union members began to push for the inclusion of anti-discrimination language into their collective agreements in the early 1970s. They did so in large part because, at that time, gay and lesbian workers were frequently harassed and dismissed from their jobs solely on the basis of their sexual orientation. They hoped that providing lesbian and gay workers with legal protection from discrimination would encourage more of them to come out of the closet.

While the presence of an anti-discrimination clause in the NHLPA’s collective agreement demonstrates the extent to which gay and lesbian union members were successful, the fact that the NHL has yet to have a single openly gay player despite the existence of this clause demonstrates just how limited of a victory this was. Although the players are all legally protected from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, not one single player has come out. The reason for this is simple: these clauses protect workers (or in this case, players) from discrimination at the hands of their employers, but do very little to protect gay and lesbian workers from homophobic co-workers (or in this case, teammates). While collective agreements can provide workers from their employers, they do very little to address problematic workplace cultures. This is likely one of the main reasons that some workplaces, including professional sports leagues, have so few openly gay workers.

The further along I get in my research, the clearer this point becomes. Collective agreements don’t change workplace cultures, and workplace cultures don’t change overnight. This is why I would argue that, in a profession that seems to be behind the times in terms of inclusion of queer workers, efforts such as the You Can Play Project seem to be a step in the right direction. Although they are often initiatives of straight allies in the sports world (a fact that perhaps speaks to the importance of their work), they are nevertheless carrying the fight into areas beyond the reach of anti-discrimination clauses.

The Canadian Auto Workers, Social Unionism and the Abortion Debate

CAW pro-choice protest

CAW pro-choice protest (photo credit: CBC)

While there have been a number of labour related subjects in the news today, from the Elliot Lake tragedy to the Ontario Progressive Conservatives’ White Paper policy on unions, one article in particular caught my interest. It was about the recent efforts of the Canadian Auto Workers union (CAW) to organize a number of demonstrations in support of continued access to safe, legal and accessible abortion. That this has turned out to be a controversial campaign did not come as a surprise, but I was interested in some of the comments made by a number of the readers of the article. Aside from being surprised at the small number of comments, especially on the issue of abortion (14 comments as of the time of my writing this), I couldn’t help but notice the surprise in some of the comments that the CAW would show an interest in, let alone take a position on, the question of abortion.

While adopting a pro-choice position on such a controversial issue might be considered by some to be a risky decision given the current anti-labour climate, the fact that the CAW did so should come as no surprise. This isn’t the first time that the CAW has publicly taken a position on a controversial issue indirectly related to the workplace. For example, the CAW/UAW has a history of supporting the rights of queer workers that goes back to the mid-1970s. In 1974, the Human Rights Committee of Local 195 of the UAW, located in Windsor, sent a memo directing its bargaining teams to negotiate for the inclusion of a non-discrimination clause that protected workers from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. While this was not achieved until a later date, their decision to address gay and lesbian civil rights in the workplace marked the beginning of a trend that would see a number of locals across the country recognize the importance of fighting for the rights of their gay and lesbian members. More recently, in 2004, Local 222 of the CAW in Oshawa spoke publicly in support of Marc Hall, a Catholic high school student who was denied the right to bring his partner to his prom. In this case, the aid provided by the CAW helped bring Hall’s fight all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, where he was ultimately successful.

While the relationship between abortion rights, or even the right of a gay high school student to bring his boyfriend to prom, and the everyday bread and butter issues affecting CAW members might not always be clear, the CAW’s adoption of the social unionism model has led it to embrace the view that workplace issues do not begin and end at the factory gates. Our private lives affect our working lives just as much as our wages affect our ability to support ourselves and our communities. Denying working-class women access to safe and legal abortion and family planning services affects working-class communities. As a result, this makes the abortion debate a union issue.

As one of the readers, Old Gregg, put it: “It seems obvious to me that CAW would weigh in on this debate. Women’s safety is workers’ safety.”

Active History: “Looking Back on Pride”

I finally bit the bullet and decided to dip my toe into the Active History pool by submitting a short post about Rob Ford’s decision not to attend Toronto Pride. I’ve only just begun my research, but a number of the collections I’ve examined at the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives contain some references to the city’s earliest Pride events. Although my research doesn’t focus on Pride events, this is the first time I’ve been able to put my doctoral research to good use. I’m especially happy to have shared it with Active History, as I admire their efforts to connect historians and the work we do with the public.

Looking Back on Pride

Gay Picnic picture (Part of the first Pride Week events): Canadian Lesbian & Gay Archives, Toronto Gay Action, Vertical File (c. 1972).

The relationship between the City of Toronto and the city’s queer communities has been a popular topic of discussion in Toronto over the past few weeks. Prompted by Mayor Rob Ford’s decision to forego Pride Week’s festivities in exchange for time at his family cottage, many, critics and supporters alike, have expressed disappointment in the mayor’s decision to forego the 16-year tradition of Toronto’s mayor’s marching in the Pride Parade. While it is true that attending Pride events is not an official duty of the mayor, it certainly is a sign of goodwill from the city’s highest elected office. Since 1995, Toronto mayors have made it a point of attending Pride. To many, this was a sign that the City, which has not always acted in the best interests of the city’s queer communities, was willing to work with them to make Toronto as inclusive as possible and celebrate sexual diversity rather than suppress it. We need to consider Rob Ford’s decision in this context.

Read more