My father died on September 3, 2012. He was 74 years old and a gay man. The following June, my sister, my daughter and I spent a weekend going through my dad’s belongings. As we decided what to do with his leather pants and cap I thought about the queer community and how it has changed since my father came out in the 1970s. Back then, it wasn’t easy to be a gay man or a gay father but it was possible — barely. It had only been legal to participate in consensual homosexual acts in Canada since 1969, although George Klippert was arrested in the Northwest Territories just before the law changed as “incurably homosexual” and a dangerous sexual offender for admitting to having consensual homosexual sex with four separate adult men. He was not released from Canadian jail until June 1971. I was six years old at the time and had no idea how brave my father was to publicly be who he was.
Through my father I learned there were alternative lifestyles to explore as the mainstream didn’t seem to fit either of us well. We both liked to party and as we discovered when he lived in Vancouver in the early 80s, we made a great team! We would start a night out at the Luv-A-Fair on Seymour Street. I danced to punk music while my dad warmed up with a few drinks. One night a young man tried, unsuccessfully, to hit on me. He turned to my father and asked, “Why is she with you old man?” My father replied slowly with his warm smile, “Because I’ve got the money, honey!” We both chuckled and left for John Barley’s in Gastown. The club was packed to the rafters with sweaty, muscle bound men (and a few women) dancing to loud disco and my father knew most of them. I lost myself on the dance floor, once in a while finding my dad with my eyes and a smile.
The late 80s were a very intense time as many of his friends began to die from AIDS related illnesses. It was scary and heart wrenching and the air was full of fear and lies. My father refused to get tested. He hated illness of any kind and spent hours at the gym to stay in shape and socialize. He remained steadfast in his decision until the late 90s when antiretroviral treatments became available in Canada. One day he called me out of the blue to share his test results. He got lucky and they were negative. Many weren’t so fortunate: in 1994 there were 32,995 Canadians living with HIV.
Pride Toronto became a family event for my dad and me after he returned to Toronto and the Village Green high-rises in the heart of the village. We adored the beer gardens, prancing up a storm. One year his crew did a float for the parade. My father was Cleopatra with a harem of frond waving slaves. I was so proud of him. I didn’t know anyone with a gay parent and it empowered me to have a place to openly celebrate us and queer culture. He led by example, teaching me to be kind and accepting to all people, even those with differing morals without giving up my beliefs. It isn’t always easy.
One night, returning from a dinner party, my father was brutally gay bashed while walking the pathway between the high-rise buildings on Maitland and Alexander (the area is now fenced in and locked). He was hospitalized and shaken to his core, often waking suddenly from reoccurring dreams of revenge on the three young men who stole his sense of safety. Soon after his physical recovery, he bought a house in Crystal Beach, Ontario with two of his oldest friends. A small town with an active queer community in which they could retire gracefully — and the YMCA was still only a bike ride away!
Storytelling becomes a political action. It is important to hear these stories, understand and celebrate how they affect our lives of both within and outside of the queer community. Years ago all the sidewalks in Toronto had curbs and did not slope down onto the roads at crossings as they do now. Disability activists lobbied for sloping curbs, or curb cuts, and now we all take these for granted, enjoying easier movement through the city. Looking back through generations of queer activism I realize how positively queers have affected human rights for everyone. We have a lot to be thankful for. Thank you. I am grateful the conversation continues.
Lisa Deanne Smith, curator, Generations of Queer