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Holiday Cheer In The Face Of Homophobic Fear

12/21/2015 03:52 EST | Updated 12/21/2016 05:12 EST

Prior to the 1970s, house parties were an essential element of the homosexual social scene. Stepping out in public to fratenize with peers -- a basic human need -- was dicey business for gays and lesbians who risked arrest because of their sexuality. Forced out of the public sphere, they relied on domestic get-togethers. These events provided safe haven from a disapproving public and a legal system that was eager to punish those who yearned for the company and affections of their own sex.

Photographs of these private affairs are rare. The few that are available in archival collections memorialize a history of forced seclusion. At the same time, they provide a testament to the courage and grace with which these people faced overwhelming oppression to build supportive communities. I can think of no better time to honour this history than during the holiday season, which is about to reach its annual crescendo of celebration involving family and friends.

In each photograph, everyone is smiling and appears happy but one wonders what emotional hardships awaited them when they stepped out the front door.

One of the most tantalizing photographs I've come across in my research of Canadian LGBT history is of a trio of men attending a Christmas party in 1956. Standing in front of a decorated tree, a young man with a then-stylish pompadour delights in opening his gift while another man, who has his arm around him and another gentleman, looks on. There is no record of who these people are. However, this image is part of a collection of men-only party snap shots that was donated to the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives, which strongly suggests that these subjects are gay. In each photograph, everyone is smiling and appears happy but one wonders what emotional hardships awaited them when they stepped out the front door.

In fact, staying indoors was no guarantee of safety. There are records of police raiding private events. They would demand to know the names, addresses, and places of employment of guests who often faced subsequent dismissal. At times, constables assaulted and harassed the partiers and whenever possible laid charges. [1] When the tabloid press caught wind of these events, they often had a field day. Consider the following piece of journalistic prose from 1950. The article ran under the screaming headline "Cops Burst in on Mass Carnival of Homo Lust! Simpering Creatures Dress Like Girls; Lipstick Too!" and provided the following colourful account:

"An unparalleled saturnalia of inverted sex, heavily larded with somber tones of lavender, recently rocked staid old Quebec City [where] seventeen males (you should pardon the expression!) danced, pranced, capered and gyrated around the floor [...]. When the gendarmes finally burst into this cozy little nest of queers [they] were slapped into the cooler without bail!" [2]

As an interesting aside, this quote makes use of a term that has since fallen out of favour. "Sexual inversion" was used by sexologists, primarily in the late 19th and early 20th century, to refer to homosexuality. [3] Sexual inversion was believed to be an inborn reversal of gender traits: male inverts were inclined to traditionally female pursuits and dress, and vice versa. [4]

Sex between consenting adult men was illegal, even if it happened in private.

In another memorable account of a fête fated to end badly, readers were regaled with an account of police descending on a large garden party, or as they referred to it, "an immense, gay jamboree." Under the frightful title "Huge Army of Queers Invade Hamilton!" we learn that this 1964 event, described as a "limp-wrist demonstration," was shut down ostensibly due to concerns from neighbours about noise. Under the watchful eye of the men in blue, attendees are said to have "gathered up their figurative skirts and departed." [5]

Law enforcement's punishing tentacles reached even further into the private sphere to apprehend people in their bedroom. Sex between consenting adult men was illegal, even if it happened in private. The law thus provided police with an open invitation to break into homes if homosexual acts were suspected. In the following case one of the men arrested subsequently received a one-year jail term:

"Police busted into [a] cellar lair recently and caught the nude loverboys red-handed after a woman resident in the same building overheard their bestial lovemaking. [She] heard kissing sounds coming through a ventilator, and, she testified in court [...] also heard both perverts breathing heavily and moving about on the bed."[6]

A society that not only condemned gays and lesbians but chased them down in such a fashion exacted a heavy emotional toll, so much so that Toronto's Clarke Institute of Psychiatry had a predominantly gay ward. It's telling that the first gay organization in Ontario to receive a charter as a non-profit group in 1973 made it a point to provide Christmas parcels to these men who self-admitted because they found it difficult to live in a homophobic society. [7] The group was called ANIK, which means "brotherhood" in Inuktitut. How appropriate a name for a group that tried to encourage holiday cheer in the face of -- if you will excuse the double negative -- homophobic fear.

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2015-12-21-1450718685-5783763-2013351956ChristmasPartyv2.jpg

Photo credit: Photographer unknown. Reference: Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives, Accession 2013-035

2015-12-21-1450718712-1266078-QueersInvadeHamiltonFlashJuly251964coverv2.jpg

Photo credit: Ron Levy. Reference: Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives, Tab, July 25 1964, "Huge Army of Queers Invade Hamilton." p. 1.

References:

[1] Warner, Tom. Never Going Back: A History of Queer Activism in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002, p. 38

[2] Flash, December 11, 1950, "Cops Burst in on Mass Carnival of Homo Lust! Simpering Creatures Dress Like Girls; Lipstick Too!" p. 5

[3] Ellis, Havelock. Studies in the Psychology of Sex Volume II: Sexual Inversion. 3rd Ed. Project Gutenberg, 1927, p. 1

[4] Doan, Laura. Fashioning Sapphism: The Origins of a Modern English Lesbian Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001, p. 26

[5] Tab, July 25 1964, "Huge Army of Queers Invade Hamilton." p. 1

[6] Flash, February 5, 1955, "Lavendar Love Jails Partner." pp. 1, 11

[7] McLeod, Donald W. Lesbian and gay liberation in Canada: a selected annotated chronology, 1964-1975, p. 118

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