Ep#1 of People’s History Podcast:
The Fight for City pride in Kingston
(Written in 2019 by Samara L, edited by Finn H, 2022. This transcript does not completely follow the podcast recording 1:1, as the podcast had missed certain details.)
This podcast episode contains explicit homophobic and transphobic language, listener’s discretion is advised. This podcast is recorded at CFRC, which is located on the Queens University campus, situated on traditional Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee territory. At OPIRG we are deeply committed to all efforts of decolonization on Queens, in Kingston, and all throughout Turtle Island.
[Music plays until the fifth minute mark, the song is “I’m Coming Out” by Diana Ross.]
Hello everyone, welcome to the first official episode of the People’s History Podcast.
We are OPIRG Kingston, we are a student run group with a focus on research, education, and action on everything related to social and environmental justice. The People’s History Podcast (PHP) aka what you are listening to right now, aims to recognize and preserve the important roles that Kingstonians and Queens students have played in many social movements throughout the years. The stories of people who participated in struggles for social and environmental justice – queer, Indigenous, Black, anti-racist, feminist, among many others – often go untold in “official” histories.
The PHP seeks to engage with these stories by making accessible the rich history of social movements and resistance in Katarokwi/Kingston. So if you’ve ever been curious about how Kingston as we know it came to be, you are listening to the right podcast.
The beginnings of Kingston Pride
June was pride month, and today we are kicking off the podcast with a nod to Kingston Pride. Here in Kingston, there are plenty of different celebrations to attend, ranging from parties, movie screenings, coffee nights, and art shows, like the annual Reelout Video and Film Festival which just celebrated its 20th anniversary (in 2019). And of course, the parade itself.
But in Kingston, it’s not like LGBT+ pride ends after June. There are always regular events going on in the Kingston community, and you can follow us on facebook and instagram at OPIRGKingston to stay updated.
Pride has come a long way, and the LGBT+ community sure has a lot to celebrate. But of course, celebration rarely comes without struggle. Kingston Pride hasn’t always been this way, and today we are talking about the struggle to bring the first official Pride day to Kingston.
The Queens Homophile Association was founded in 1973, still quite a few years before Kingston actually had its first official gay pride. The group’s members were at the forefront of the battle for Kingston to have a city wide pride event. Kingston and the Queen’s community weren’t always such a friendly place to live for members of the LGBT+ community. The Queens Homophile Association was founded (in 1973) after a homophobic article was published in the satire Queens magazine Golden Words (0).
In 1984, Francois Lechance, a member of QHA, submitted a request to the city council to have a publicly recognized pride day. This request would soon become the first of many (1). Not only did the city not approve the request, they chose to ignore it entirely, by filing it away.
A few brave members of the municipal council attempted to revive the motion (2), to at least give it a fair hearing, but were met with silence from the rest of the council. The city simply did not want to acknowledge its gay community. Members of the Kingston community, and supporters of gay and lesbian Kingstonians fighting for recognition were concerned about the councils rejection of the bill and stance on the issue. An article was published in the Whig Standard by Ann Lukits (3) where she called the council “tight lipped and sanctimonious” and “a miserable bunch of two faced wretches.”
(0) On September 26, 1973, Golden Words published a homophobic article entitled “Fred Fudpucker”, which acted as the catalyst for the establishment of the Queens Homophile Association. In response, “Three Campus Homophiles” wrote a letter to the editor of the Queen’s Journal condemning the “naked intolerance and antagonism” within the column and expressing the need for a homophile organization. Until such a group could be formed, they felt that they would have to continue to hide their sexuality for the sake of security. Given their reference to a student being physically assaulted that very summer, it is not surprising that these “three homophiles” were reluctant to identify themselves by name. On November 2, 1973, a letter to the editor appeared in both Golden Words and the Journal announcing the formation of a campus homophile association. Terry Watson, a gender neutral pseudonym that could be used by members to preserve their anonymity, signed the letter. They invited anyone on campus that was interested in joining or learning more about the group to contact them confidentially by phone. Within a year, the Queen’s Homophile Association had produced a constitution to recieve formal recognition from the Alma Mater Society, held several meeting and parties and had a fully functioning Rap Line.
(1) He reassured the council that it would not be an endorsement of the “gay lifestyle” but rather an affirmation of all citizens’ right to participate in the democratic process. It had to be framed this way because of their vehement refusal to take LGBT+ lives seriously or respectfully.
(2) The non-action of ‘filing’ the proposal was suggested by George Webb. Aldermen Helen Cooper and Bill Knapp attempted to revive the motion to give it a fair hearing but were again met with silence from the council.
(3) Lukits, Ann. “Council’s snub of gay request threatens rights of all groups “. The Whig Standard. 19 June 1984. Print
Lukits argues that the issue of gay pride should have been handled similarly and expresses concern for the implications to the democratic process in Kingston: “Council didn’t have to agree with the motion. It could have refused the request or dealt with it in the same silent dignified manner than it considered the motion from VITA [abortion group]. By filing the request however, city council set a dangerous precedent. Because of its own discomfort with a sensitive issue, it arbitrarily denied a group of Kingston people their basic right to be heard in our community. This subtle act of aggression threatens not only the gay community but all Kingston residents.”
She (Lukits) also brought up the hypocrisy (4), one week earlier the council had approved a “Respect for Life Week” in Kingston, in support of the anti-abortion group VITA (5).
Many members of the community took the Queens Homophile Association’s side, and were concerned about how this inaction would affect the democratic process for all Kingston residents.
Later another request was put forward by the Queens Homophile Association in 1985. Francois Lachance again led the motion to encourage the council to at the very least discuss it, as gay rights were “part of the political agenda of the 1980s and must be dealt with” (6).
This motion was defeated eleven to one, with council member Helen Cooper as the only supporter. One member (Alderman George Webb) said he had never heard of any discrimination cases against LGBT people in Kingston, so the movement was unnecessary (7).
After it was discovered that the movement was discussed by council, there was a public outcry, with many homophobes in the community voicing their objections.
One Whig reader wrote in, “I was very surprised to see such filth suggested as a day to celebrate the lesbian and gay. They are nothing to be proud of. There is only one natural way of sex… homosexuality is a very bad case of sickness of the mind. I feel very sorry for those who do not know any better.” (8)
Many Kingstonians were angry that such an issue had even mentioned by the city, showing the extent of the discrimination and intolerance faced by gay and lesbian members of the community at this time.
In early 1986, gay activists in Kingston attempted to better the relations with the city council by publically inviting them to a friendly game of hockey against the “Gay Blades” team (9) . This sporting invitation did not go well, with the council with members dismissing it a “ridiculous publicity ploy”. Council member Alderman George Webb went on the record stating that he was “not interested in playing any kind of games with this organization” and that he intended to “not only decline but ignore such invitations.”
Mayor John Gerretsen said that he was bothered by the press release, which he saw as “an obvious attempt to gain some sort of publicity.”
Lachance defended the press release saying that it was intended to make the invitation open and public so the council would not be able to “shunt it off” as they had done in the past (10).
Later that year (about 6 months later) activists again reached out to the city council for pride day, and again they were ignored, as well as the year after that (11).
In 1988 during the mayoral elections (12) , successful candidate Helen Cooper, who had previously voted yes for a pride week, changed her mind and said in an interview that if the issue were to come up again she would vote no, as her previous vote for pride week put her under a lot of public scrutiny (13).
- (9) “Gay blades’ challenge council to hockey game”. The Whig Standard. 3 Jan 1986. Print
- (10) Messerschmidt, Lynn. “City council decides to pass on gay, lesbian awareness “. The Whig Standard. 25 June 1986. Print.
Upon receiving a petition with 115 signatures requesting that the council declare a Lesbian and Gay Awareness Week, the assembled politicians chose to remain silent. Joe Hawkins twice asked the members of council for a motion regarding the issue, but there was no response. So, again, the request was only ‘filed’. At the end of the meeting, the city council unanimously adopted a motion of “no action.”
- (11) In 1987, pride organizers chose not to file a request with city council and instead focused their energies on that year’s Lesbian and Gay Awareness Week. The following year again no request was filed, but several mayoral candidates publicly stated their stance on the matter at an all-candidates meeting preceding the fall election. During the question and answer period, a Kingston resident pressed the candidates on how they voted when the issue of a lesbian and gay pride day came to city council in 1986, as well as how they would vote if the issue came up again in the future. All three candidates voted against it and stated they would again if it ever came before council again.
- (12) Podcast said 1998 but the date was written/read wrong, it was supposed to be 1988. Cooper was elected mayor in the November election, winning by a 3,000 vote margin over Joe Hawkins. (“Helen Cooper (politician).” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Kingston Whig-Standard, 21 August 1992. Print
- (13) Apparently dozens of Kingstonians had called in to say that she could hold whatever beliefs she wanted to, but she shouldn’t foist them on others, and it was for that reason she would vote no in the future. Several attendees of the meeting told journalists they changed their vote based on the candidates anti-gay positions and suggested that other community members would likely do the same.
(Ross, Alec. “Candidates’ stands on gay pride week take spotlight in St Lawrence ward”. The Whig Standard. 27 Oct 1988. Print)
For the next few years, gay activists chose not to file a request for the city council. Instead they focused their energy on creating pride celebrations of their own (14). The pride committee continued to plan their pride events year after year despite the lack of support from the city council, and despite her lack of official support, mayor Helen Cooper sent a letter to the pride committee commending them for the work that they were doing (15).
In 1990 activists were still trying to get city recognition for their community and events, saying “You can spend your energy banging your head against the wall, or you can spend it elsewhere.” (16)
Although gay rights activists in Kingston pushed on in the face of city councils silence, organizers never lost sight of what city support would mean to LGBT+ residents. In an article titled, “Reflections on Pride Week” activist Nancy Tatham wrote:
“It takes a lot of vigilance and energy to stay in the closet: at work, with family, with neighbors, your physician, even with yourself. A lesbian or gay man cannot enjoy the freedom of the speech and of association that are taken for granted by the heterosexual majority. And should you “come out”, you could lose your family, your job, and even your life. Fags are thrown off bridges, dykes are stalked and shot, our meeting places are bombed… In the face of all this, those of us who take steps to counter the system try to do so with compassion, creativity, and courage. The system disregards and denigrates lesbians and gay men? OK, then let’s support and take care of each other, let’s look for ways to get our issues addressed. Let’s create sports teams, meeting places, political fora, art and media that represent us. To do any or all of these things we’ve got to risk our livelihoods, our housing, and our personal safety, but we do it. Take a look at Webster’s definition [of pride] again: what’s hard to understand.” (17)
In 1991, pride organizers presented the city with a 400-signature petition to declare June 22nd Lesbian and Gay Pride Day. The motion was yet again defeated 9-4, with council members (12 councilors and 1 mayor) citing various reasons for their ‘no’ vote, including the fear of “condoning a certain lifestyle” as Alderman Don Rodgers states (18). Journalist Anne Kershaw also critiques this political response (19).
- (14) Including dances, film screenings, book displays, gay rights workshops, and a trip to Ottawa to view the AIDS quilt.
- (15) She was impressed with the variety and content of the proposed celebrations. She also acknowledged that dialogue is necessary to address homophobia in Kingston, saying: “The issues concerning the rights of the homosexual to be able to live and work in our communities with freedom from harassment and prejudice are very critical at this time. A great deal of forthright and open discussion amongst us all is required in order that we may come to terms with this very complex issue and in that process ensure that we are not committing a grave injustice to a significant number of people.” (Cooper, Helen. To Nancy Tatham and the Pride Council. 9 June 1989 MS)
- (16) Pride organizer Nancy Tatham actually meant that they had stopped attempting to get city recognition for their community and events, viewing it as a waste of resources; most activists at the time were instead focusing on creating celebrations outside of the city’s decisions. Tatham also attested to the vitality and life in the June celebrations despite the stonewalling (no pun intended) from the council, “Just because they don’t proclaim it doesn’t mean it isn’t going on.”
- (17) Tatham, Nancy. “Reflections on Pride Week”. Between the Lines. 21 June 1990. Print
- (18) Parpart, Lee Ann. “City council votes against gay pride day “. The Whig Standard. 12 June 1991. Print
- (19) Journalist Anne Kershaw condemned the council for “sending mixed messages” to the gay and lesbian community, first voting to strengthen anti-discrimination bylaws that dictate that organizations must comply with the Ontario human rights code which prohibits discrimination based on several factors, including sexual orientation, then voting against a lesbian and gay pride day the next month. Leaving no question about the spineless nature of the council’s actions, she wrote “We look to our council for leadership and displays of courage, tolerance and respect. Tuesday night’s decision was about cowardice, fear, contempt, institutionalized hatred and political expediency.” (Kershaw, Anne. “Gay pride and prejudice “. The Whig Standard. 13 June 1991. Print)
Flash forward two months, Kingston hosts the Buskers Rendezvous, Mayor Helen Cooper attended, and at one performance, the mayor overheard a conversation where she heard a man tell his young son “there’s a bunch of queers here… I’m going to have to teach you how to queer bash.”
A quick listeners’ note, the term queer bashing refers to the act of beating up any male known to be gay (20).
When Mayor Helen Cooper heard this conversation, she had a change of heart about her vote to not support city pride. Hearing this conversation between father and son opened her eyes to the realities of homophobia. In a later interview Cooper admitted that she was aware of reports of violence against the gay community in Kingston, but she wasnt able to realize the extent of it until she experienced it (21).
In 1992, Mayor Helen Cooper directly approved the proposal for a city wide Pride, without sending it to council for debate. On June 20th, the pride parade reached the steps of City Hall and the proclamation was read out loud to the excited crowds that had spent decades fighting for the city’s support. The decision was not without protest, from both council and community members, but Mayor Cooper stood firm on her decision, approving the request again the following year.
The first pride parade in Kingston started out with eleven people, and now the parade regularly attracts up to a thousand. Thanks to the persistence of LGBT+ activists, decades later Kingston still boasts a growing variety of annual pride events every June.
In 2010, Mayor Mark Gerretsen became the first Kingston mayor to walk the Pride parade, and as of 2019 he is the only Kingston mayor to have done this (22).
Nevertheless, this historical struggle isn’t typically acknowledged in today’s pride celebrations. There’s a lack of knowledge about just what it took to get here, as well as how the LGBT+ community is not a monolith. For example, racialized and poor people from the LGBT+ community experience forms of violence and oppression that are often invisible to the public.
Part of this is due to the fact that pride parades and celebrations in Kingston have increasingly become opportunities for companies and state institutions to rebrand themselves as queer friendly even as their actions contradict this, for example, by donating to vehemently anti LGBT+ politicians. This phenomenon is often referred to as pinkwashing, a variety of marketing and political strategies aimed at promoting products, countries, public figures/ people, or other entities as an appeal to gay friendlyness, in order to be percieved as progressive, modern and tolerant.
Similarly, as we invite repressive institutions like police and military to march at pride, we obscure the fact that members of the LGBT+ community are disproportionately targeted by police violence. This has left many LGBT+ activists disillusioned by the contemporary state of pride.
As one anonymous local activist told us, “I’ve never felt welcome at any mainstream pride event, because of the ways in which police, the military, corporations, banks, and the state have been given powerful platforms to use LGBT+ rights advancements for self promotion and to sell stuff. I feel like pride is about white middle class parties, at the cost of building community and supporting queer and trans people that are struggling with material barriers, oppression, violence, and serious mental health issues.”
We respect the historical and ongoing struggle for justice, around Kingston pride, for LGBT+ people as well as all oppressed peoples. We also believe it is important to acknowledge the critiques of pinkwashing at pride, as well as the phenomenon of rainbow capitalism. At the same time however, we celebrate the bravery of LGBT+ people who continue to openly celebrate at Kingston pride, particularly in light of the rise of homophobic and transphobic white supremacy movements in Canada, for example, the recent violent queer bashing that happened during Hamilton pride.
At OPIRG Kingston, we have been, and will continue to be in solidarity with the LGBT+ community, and all oppressed peoples, and will continue to fight any injustice in our community. If you would like to get involved or learn more about OPIRG Kingston’s different events and initiatives, follow us on facebook and instagram on OPIRGKingston. Thank you for listening to OPIRGKingston’s first podcast, stay tuned for more.
[Music plays until the end, “I’m Coming Out” by Diana Ross]