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social sciences

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Social Circles

It is ironic, then, that an early exponent of freedom of sexual expression was a woman, feminist Flora MacDonald Denison. An admirer of the poetry of Walt Whitman, Denison bought a house in Bon Echo, Ontario in 1910 and established a spiritual community devoted to the poet. Six years later she founded the Walt Whitman Club, whose magazine, The Sunset at Bon Echo (1916-1920), celebrated male friendship.

When Denison died in 1921 the Whitmanite Fellowship of Toronto arranged her funeral and the Canadian Theosophical Society declared in its journal that "no one in the present generation of Canadians has done more for the 'institution of the dear love of Comrades' than Flora MacDonald Denison."

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Also in the 1910s Elsa Gidlow and her friend Roswell George Miller--lesbian and gay, respectively--created a social and artistic circle devoted to the study of the works of writers such as Sappho and Oscar Wilde and those of social scientists including Havelock Ellis and Edward Carpenter. Other circles emerged in the French-speaking community in the 1930s among admirers of Marcel Proust and André Gide.

World War II and Afterwards

During the years of World War II the number of men and women in the Canadian armed forces grew dramatically. Gay men and lesbians were considered "unfit for service." It is not known how many Canadians were rejected on the basis of their sexual orientation. Homosexuality was still classified as a "psychiatric disorder," and recruits turned down on that ground were grouped together with people who actually had mental illnesses.

Soldiers discovered to be gay or lesbian were subject to "blue discharges," which deprived them of pensions and other benefits enjoyed by veterans. In addition, since such a discharge was specifically due to the individual's sexual orientation, those who received them might experience discrimination upon returning to civilian life. Nevertheless, in the largely homosocial atmosphere of military units, gay men were able to form romantic relationships and networks of friends. Little is known about the experiences of their lesbian counterparts.

After the war, gay and, to a lesser extent, lesbian networks existed in large Canadian cities such as Toronto and Montreal. In a 1954 thesis, The Homosexual in Urban Society, Maurice Leznoff explored the culture of gay men in Montreal. The study emphasized the importance of the social circles that the men had created.

Leznoff divided his interview subjects into categories of "overt"--men who were relatively open about their sexuality and tended to spend much of their time within the gay community--and "covert"--men who concealed their sexual orientation in their daily lives, often for fear of losing their jobs.

In the post-war years the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) formed a special unit, the A-3, charged with identifying gay men and lesbians on their force and in government jobs on the grounds that they were vulnerable to blackmail, presumably by communists.

The RCMP persisted in characterizing gay men and lesbians as "security risks" and denying them employment until 1986, when the federal government declared that equal rights recognized under the national charter included freedom from discrimination based on sexual orientation.

The political climate of the post-war era also led to calls for changes in immigration laws. A 1948 proposal would have barred both gay men and lesbians from moving to Canada, but in 1951 the word "lesbians" was removed. The bill passed in 1952. The discriminatory provisions were repealed only in 1977.

Emergence of Gay Communities and Political Organizing

In Toronto established cruising spots for gay men had existed since at least the 1920s and there had been gay bathhouses since the 1940s, but in the 1960s gay bars began to appear--and attract the attention of the police. Employees and patrons of the Melody Room, which featured drag shows, and other popular gay venues were the targets of frequent harassment. A similar situation obtained in Montreal, where police made a number of mass arrests at gay businesses in the early 1960s.

Although Montreal and Toronto had social gathering places in the 1960s, there was virtually no concomitant political organizing in those cities. The first significant Canadian glbtq rights groups was the Association for Social Knowledge (ASK), founded in Vancouver, British Columbia in 1964.

Originally composed only of gay men, ASK quickly reached out to include lesbians and also encouraged heterosexual allies to become members. The organization established a community center and fitfully published a newsletter that discussed the Wolfenden Report, the studies of Alfred Kinsey, and initiatives for legal reform, as well as the writings of Jane Rule, Donald Webster Cory (i.e., Edward Sagarin), and John Rechy.

ASK sought recognition as a non-profit educational organization but was denied in the courts. The association disbanded in early 1969, shortly before an amendment to the Canadian Criminal Code decriminalized homosexuality.

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