By: Donald W. McLeod
A gay “kiss-in” demonstration, Yonge and Bloor streets, Toronto, July 17, 1976. Left to right: David Foreman, Tim McCaskell, Ed Jackson, Merv Walker, David Gibson, Michael Riordon. Credit: Gerald Hannon, CLGA, accession 1986-032/08P(35).
I have worked as a volunteer at the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives (CLGA) in Toronto for more than thirty years. During that time I’ve had the opportunity to examine many documents, magazines, and photographs relating to the quest for LGBTQ liberation in this country. On occasion, a stunning image presents itself, one that so embodies a particular era or feeling that it cries out for further study.
Homosexual acts between two consenting adults in private were not decriminalized in Canada until 1969. During the 1970s, although LGBTQ communities and individuals gained visibility in Canada, it was still extremely difficult to be openly gay under most circumstances without encountering disapproval. Same-sex acts of public affection, such as kissing, were particularly discouraged.
On February 9, 1976, gay activists Tom Field and Bill Holloway were arrested at the corner of Yonge and Bloor streets in Toronto for kissing in public. They were charged with obstructing the sidewalk and committing an indecent act. Ironically, the men had been posing for photographs for an article on homophobia to be published in the now-defunct newspaper Alternative to Alienation.
Toronto was already a hotbed of gay liberation activism. Groups such as Gay Alliance toward Equality (GATE) organized protests against inequality and homophobia while the Body Politic newspaper acted as the official chronicler of the movement.
Field and Holloway were found guilty of committing an indecent act by Judge Charles Drukarsh on July 13, 1976, and were each fined $50. The ruling infuriated GATE, the Body Politic, and members of the community. The need for protest was in the air, but only a very special kind of protest would do. A few days later, on July 17, GATE and the Body Politic sponsored a kiss-in to support the right for gay people to publicly show affection. About twenty people paraded in same-sex couples at Yonge and Bloor streets, kissing as they walked. Policemen watched from the sidelines, but did not intervene. The protesters had made their point.(1)
During my studies I have read of many other unusual direct-action protests used by LGBTQ activists to get their point across. For example, a “mince-in” was held at the Ontario Legislature in Toronto on October 29, 1979, during which seven gay activists dressed in suits acted out in all their campy, limp-wristed glory to draw attention to government inaction on human rights for lesbians and gays. The group was evicted from the visitors’ gallery for holding hands, hugging, kissing, and blowing kisses at Premier Bill Davis. The event garnered much media publicity—and government action. The next day, Attorney-General Roy McMurtry agreed to meet in his office at a later date with a small group of gay representatives to discuss community concerns. On March 31, 1980, Chris Bearchell, Rev. Brent Hawkes, George Hislop, John Alan Lee, and Peter Maloney met with McMurtry and two assistants to discuss police entrapment, street violence against gays, police surveillance of the gay community, the issue of civilian review of complaints against police, and other topics.(2)
Individual protesters were sometimes gripped by sublime theatricality. On October 6, 1980, gay activist David Ramsden, the self-confessed ringleader of the Committee against Racism and Tackiness (CARAT), went on trial in Peterborough, Ontario, before Provincial Court Judge George Inrig on charges of theft. CARAT was known for “liberating” tacky lawn ornaments. On April 29, 1980, they had stolen four flamingos, two Black jockeys, a Black lantern holder, two gnomes, a grey rabbit, three swans, and Snow White and all seven dwarves from area lawns. On January 12, 1981, Judge Inrig found Ramsden guilty of possessing stolen property, fined him $200, and placed him on probation for two years.(3)
Demonstrations by LGBTQ activists were not always fun and games, though. People could get hurt, and sometimes did. One only has to recall the events of October 22-23, 1977, in Montréal. More than fifty policemen, some wearing bulletproof vests and armed with machine guns, raided the Truxx and La Mystique bars (1424-26, rue Stanley), and arrested 146 men, charging them with being found-ins in a common bawdy house. All of the men were taken to police headquarters, held without bail for fifteen hours, and subjected to compulsory VD testing. The next evening, about two thousand people protested what many saw as outrageous, and ongoing, police harassment of the community. A riotous crowd blocked Stanley and Ste-Catherine streets, forming the largest and most militant gay demonstration held in Canada to that time. Policemen on motorcycles (with sidecars) attacked the protesters, attempting to clear the street by driving into the crowd at high speed. Several demonstrators were run down; others were hit in indiscriminate billy-club attacks. The demonstrators retaliated by throwing bottles and glasses at the passing motorcycles and policemen, and by singing and dancing in the streets. These events were widely covered in local radio, television, and print media.(4)
The quest for LGBTQ equality in Canada was sometimes a battle. Equality was earned, not given. A series of sustained public demonstrations and lobbying by individuals and organizations led to incremental visibility and change, and finally a tipping point in Canadian law and public opinion. It is sometimes difficult to fathom how quickly this came to pass. By 2005, less than thirty years after the “kiss-in,” it was possible not only for two men to kiss at the corner of Yonge and Bloor streets, but also to be legally married there.
About the author: Donald W. McLeod is the head of book and serials acquisitions at the University of Toronto Library. He has authored or co-authored several books on gay history in Canada, including Lesbian and Gay Liberation in Canada: A Selected Annotated Chronology, 1964–1975 (1996), Challenging the Conspiracy of Silence: My Life as a Canadian Gay Activist (with Jim Egan, 1998), and A Brief History of Gay, Canada’s First Gay Tabloid, 1964–1966 (2003). He edits the Devil’s Artisan (DA): A Journal of the Printing Arts, and serves as the secretary of the Champlain Society and chair of its publications committee.
1. “Gay Kissers Fined,” Gay Rising, Summer 1976, p. 6; Gerald Hannon, “Kiss-in Protests Conviction of Kissers,” Body Politic, no. 26 (1976), p. 3; “Toronto Kiss-in,” Gay Tide, 3, no. 3 (August 1976), p. 7; Robert Trow, “Two Arrested for Kissing,” Body Politic, no. 23 (1976), p. 7; Ken Wyman, “‘Indecent Act’ Charged after Kiss,” Varsity (Univ. of Toronto), 27 February 1976, p. 1.
2. “Gay Group Minces for Rights,” Globe and Mail, metro ed., 30 October 1979, p. 4; Gerald Hannon, “Legislature Mince-in Gets Action from AG,” Body Politic, no. 59 (1979–80), p. 11; Claire Hoy, “Mince-in Was Sad, Not Gay” (column), Toronto Sun, 30 October 1979, p. 8; “Kiss-and-Tell Protesters Startle MPPs,” Toronto Star, four star ed., 30 October 1979, p. A2; “Liaison Discussed at McMurtry Meet,” Body Politic, no. 63 (1980), p. 11.
3. “Anti-tackiness Raid Lands Leader in Court,” Body Politic, no. 67 (1980), p. 16; Robin Hardy, “The Man Who Kidnapped Snow White,” Today Magazine, 21 February 1981, pp. 6-8; Val Ross, “Freeing Rastuses and Honky Dwarfs,” Maclean’s, 20 October 1980, pp. 28-29.
4. “Arrests Follow Gay Protest,” Montreal Star, final ed., 24 October 1977, p. A3; Christopher Bain and Steve Kowch, “City Homosexuals Protest Police Machine-gun Raid,” Montreal Gazette, final ed., 24 October 1977, p. 1; B. Desjardins, “1,500 homosexuels se déchaînent!” Journal de Montréal, 24 October 1977, pp. 2-3; John Fitzgerald, “Clout: What Police Raid Means to Homosexuals,” Montreal Gazette, final ed., 17 November 1977, p. 41; “Heavy-handed Raid on Homosexuals” (editorial), Montreal Gazette, final ed., 26 October 1977, p. 6; Ross Higgins, De la clandestinité à l’affirmation: Pour une historie de la communauté gaie montréalaise (Montréal: Comeau & Nadeau, 1999), pp. 129-33; “Les homos et la police: C’est la guerre” (photograph), Journal de Montréal, 24 October 1977, p. 1; “Homosexuals Protest Montreal Bar Raid,” Toronto Star, four star ed., 24 October 1977, p. C19; Richard Low, “Gays ‘Enraged’ Over Harassment after Raid Ruckus,” Montreal Star, final ed., 25 October 1977, p. A3; Guy Roy, “Les homosexuels se disent victimes de discrimination,” Journal de Montréal, 25 October 1977, p. 21; Joel Ruimy, “Homosexuals Fighting Back after Raid,” Montreal Gazette, final ed., 27 October 1977, p. 3; Stuart Russell, “Thousands Take to the Streets in Protest: Police Raid Truxx, 146 Arrested,” Body Politic, no. 39 (1977–78), pp. 1, 5.
Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives website: www.clga.ca
Gary Kinsman, The Regulation of Desire: Homo and Hetero Sexualities, second ed., rev. (Montréal: Black Rose Books, 1996).
Gary Kinsman and Patrizia Gentile, The Canadian War on Queers: National Security as Sexual Regulation (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010).
Donald W. McLeod, Lesbian and Gay Liberation in Canada: A Selected Annotated Chronology, 1964–1975 (Toronto: ECW Press and Homewood Books, 1996).
Tom Warner, Never Going Back: A History of Queer Activism in Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002).