Sunday, June 24, 2007

Gay Day

Today is Gay Day ... that's what gay guys called it for years, especially after it became such a long name it was essentially impossible to remember the order of the honored. Nowadays people seem to call it Pride, and it's officially the 37th Annual San Francisco LGBT Pride Celebration. I thought I would write about my past in the gay movement on this day that does, indeed, fill me with pride. The pride is not so much for being gay ... that is no particular accomplishment though it is certainly a joy ... it is for being openly gay, and for what we gay people have done in the course of the last four decades. We went from unmentionable and reviled, and criminal and sick, to accepted, notwithstanding that we are the one minority that it is still acceptable to openly hate in America today. We are the authors of our own freedom, and that is what makes me proud.

The photo is of me in ca 1975 or 76 ... I include it because I cannot locate the photos I intended to use. The photo is a self-portrait ... I took it immediately after I finished painting the pillar beside me which my good friend Robin Simpson gave me ... Robin is gone, alas.

I was always gay ... I just didn't know the word for it until I was 14. Learning the name for it was not a pleasant experience ... I classically thought I was the only one, and that life would be hell. I wondered if people could read my thoughts. I remember fantasizing about being grown up and happily gay, living in an apartment in Vancouver ... I was in high school in Winnipeg at the time ... and it is strange how true my teenage vision turned out to be.

I came out in December of 1972. I was only 19, but I thought at the time that it far overdue. I remember walking the length of College Avenue in Toronto one day because I knew that there was some sort of meeting of gay youth at U of T. But I bumped into somebody I knew, and that was excuse enough not to go all the way. So I ended up moving to Windsor, Ontario, and helped to organize a gay liberation group there before I had been in a gay bar ... indeed, before I met more than a handful of gay people, and when I was, shall we say, only once removed (and clumsily at that) from virginity.

That gay liberation group was Windsor Gay Unity. It replaced a pre-existing group that was called, I think, the Windsor Homophile Society, but it was not really a functional group. In those days, gay was replacing homophile, and that says a lot about the affect of the young gay liberationists. Many of the oldsters of the era resented and feared us. We ... and by we I mean in the broadest sense the gay men and women who comprised the movement ... took a lesson from the black movement's slogan "Black is Beautiful" and created our own slogan: "Gay is Good." No matter how long gay liberation has gone on, no matter how many years, no matter how comfortable we have become, that slogan remains the core of our movement and our freedom. It is the simple truth with which we changed the world, and if we have pride it should be pride in the fact that we have proven that gay is good.

The most vivid memory of Windsor Gay Unity was the aftermath of our first dance at the University of Windsor ... gay lib groups then often held public dances as a way of being out of the closet. A bunch of thugs attacked us, so I wrote a leaflet entitled "Dare to Struggle, Dare to Win" ... we distributed in the bars around town frequented by our straight young peers. We stated that we would defend ourselves, and that thugs would not force us back into the closet. At the next dance, a couple of guys from Ann Arbor who were karate types dressed in drag and paraded around in front of the event, daring a challenge. But there was none, and we held our dance in peace.

I attended the first national gay rights coalition in Quebec City in the summer of 1973, and subsequently played a role in Saskatoon in 1974, Ottawa in 1975 (at which time I came out to my parents who never hesitated a millisecond in their love and support), and Toronto in 1976. I gave the keynote address at the 1976 Gay Rights March in Toronto, and there is a clip of that in a recent documentary about the struggle for gay civil rights in Ontario ... if I ever get a copy of it, I will put a clip on YouTube.

Those were the days when gay liberation was a tiny band of stalwarts, believers, lovers, and friends. It was overwhelmingly male, but that was because the women by and large refused involvement ... I remember all the arguments about how they had to choose between women's liberation and gay liberation, and it was certainly true that the women's movment of the 70s was profoundly homophobic. I once addressed a rally of the Canadian Abortion Rights Action Coalition (CARAL) on behalf of the Gay Alliance Toward Equality (GATE) in Vancouver .. they tried to prevent us from speaking by talking us to death underneath the dais, so I just marched on to the stage in between speakers. You could have heard a pin drop, but I used some of the same verbiage from that 1976 Toronto march and I got a great cheer. I gotta say that was one of the best moments in my life.

But before that, in 1974, I left Windsor. I only told two of my army of comrades there that I would never return. I pretty much snuck out and went cross-country by train ... Toronto ... Winnipeg where I stayed with a gay couple who had a monkey, and I cut off my pony tail ... Saskatoon where there was a conference, and where I briefly considered stopping to try to become a student ... Edmonton where I stayed with a gay activist who was a Slavic scholar and on whom I had a crush ... and ended up in Vancouver where I started out by crashing with Maurice Flood and Bob Cook who were two-fourths of the central core of GATE. The third fourth was Michael Merrill who moved back to the States a few months later but remained a best friend till his death in 1989. The fourth fourth was Ian Mackenzie who is still my best friend 33 years later.

I'll write about Maurice on some other occasion ... when I refer to him nowadays I call him my-friend-turned-enemy-now-deceased, but as time has passed, I don't like to think of the enmity phase. He was a truly single-minded man, and brusque and hard to a fault. But he had a single-minded vision that gay liberation was about civil rights first and foremost, and he fought the ultralefts and the compromisers with equal force and venom. He would roll over in his grave to read this, but I think it was Maurice who taught me that the truth is generally in the middle.

In the six years that I lived in Vancouver, my life was the gay movement. We took a gay rights case to the Supreme Court of Canada, and lost! I was at various time the chairman of GATE and the editor of Gay Tide, our regular publication. We used to sell it in the bars for a quarter, and the bars were aligned with a compromiser organization called SEARCH (I think that was the Society for Education, Action, Research and something on Homosexuality) ... it was basically a tool of the bar owners. I was this scrawny, pushy little activist ... I remember one time a SEARCH dude whose name I will not mention since he later became a bit of a saint in another context ... he too is gone ... tried to prevent me from selling Gay Tide by chasing me around the tables in a bar.

I went to my first San Francisco Gay Day parade in 1978 ... pretty sure it was 78, the year when the parade famously started with banners of Hitler, Stalin, Idi Amin, and Anita Bryant! It was my second visit to San Francisco, but I had conceived the notion that it was here I needed to be. I landed a job that sponsored me for a green card, and I moved here on January 1, 1981. Gay Liberation in San Francisco was on the verge of leaving the "heroic" period of purity and activism, but we had one last shot of it in a brief and ill-fated group called Solidarity, bizarrely named after the Polish workers' movement of the time. I never understood that. The group had a meltdown after less than a year, and I was a former activist for the first time in my life. It was a hard adjustment ... took me years. Of course, along came AIDS and that changed everything.

But on Gay Day I can say that I am inordinately proud of what I did in the 70s, of the role that I played in the gay movement. But far more so I am proud of our movement because, to repeat myself, we are the authors of our own freedom. Young gay men and women should never forget, they should never take it for granted. Because the frothing bigots are still there, and they would slaughter us as guiltlessly as they would lie about their savior. As we live our lives of comfort and satisfaction, we should not forget that the battles we fought and won are still being fought and unwon in places like Iran and Russia and Poland and China, not to mention Alabama and Colorado Springs and the Vatican.

Gay is good.

Photo by Arod, self-portrait, ca 1976.

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