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Champ-de-Mars

Photo: The Champ-de-Mars in 2016.  A photo from 1866 shows the park barely changed, though lined on both sides with trees and without the old city wall exposed.

Study the history of gay and bisexual men long enough, and sooner or later you will have to broach the topic of cruising grounds.

It’s something of an uncomfortable topic for many gay men these days, but beginning at some point in the middle ages, every city of any real size in the West gives rise to a public area – very often a park or forest – where men met men for anonymous sexual encounters.

This formula does not seem to universal to all societies, or even necessarily exists in the West’s ancient past. Ancient Greece and Rome had their gyms and bath houses where men met men to flirt and even have sex, but the anonymity – the silence – of the cruising grounds was something different altogether. Part of the advantage of these areas was that the men knew nothing about one another. Each put the other at minimal risk.

It’s no accident that most gay neighbourhoods arise close to cruising grounds, and that the cruising grounds usually come first. There seems to be a kind of organic process that can be observed in Western cities, in which the cruising ground produces the gay community around it.

It’s not difficult to imagine why. Men who use cruising grounds sometimes move close to it, especially for those men for whom it becomes a major part of their lives. Those men can invite men into their homes instead of staying at the park, where conversation is possible as well as sex. They will frequent business nearby, and may even own them. They will become familiar with the other regulars of the park.

This inevitably creates informal networks and connections outside of the cruising ground, which in turn leads to the sharing of experiences, the creation of art, and the development of shared political and cultural views and values. Eventually the neighbourhood develops a reputation, which attracts gay and bisexual men who would not have joined the cruising scene given a choice. Luckily for them, an alternative then exists.

Still, this crystallization of a community on the edge of a cruising ground can only happen if the larger society around it is willing to grant at least a grudging tolerance – or if not tolerance, then to not consider its destruction a priority. Such a community will not form so long as the police and the neighbours are committed to its extermination.

And when a society decides to withdraw a permission it had previously granted – to make breaking that community a priority again – then the community will usually break or be forced to move. This happened to the British “Molly Houses” in the eighteenth century, and to Montreal’s twin gay districts in the 1970s.

Cruising grounds are harder to destroy. They have no institutions to target, no central figures to get at. They have to be attacked one man at a time. A concerted, constant effort will force them to change locations, but they will simply spring up in another park or public washroom. They are the lowest common denominator of a gay community, emanating from a simple mathematics of population. They are merely the result of gay and bisexual men having nowhere else to go.

Legend has it that “Molly Wood’s Bush” was used in Toronto since the 1830s, but the earliest solid corroborating evidence for a cruising ground exists for the Champ-de-Mars beginning in 1869, a three-block stretch of park in Montreal behind its decorative city hall and its silver-domed law court.

“Champ de Mars” (“Field of the God of War”) is an old French military term for a place where troops were trained and put on display. The original one for Montreal was located outside the city wall. After the British conquered Montreal and the wall was torn down, the park behind city hall was renamed in its honour.

In 1869, most of the island of Montreal was still farmland, but the section of city close to what we now call Old Montreal was heavily urban, cramped, and overpopulated. At some point before June of 1869, men from the rapidly growing city began frequenting the little patch of green space to cruise for sex. It was inevitable that sooner or later, they would attract the notice of the police.

Moïse Tellier’s Cake and Apples Shop

On any short article of LGBT history in Quebec or Canada sooner or later you’ll inevitably reach a curious reference to Moïse Tellier’s cake and apples shop. The version most often published is that the shop was a supposed notorious hangout for homosexual men in Montreal, raided by the police in 1869.

Hardly any of these lists go into any significant detail of the event, and none put it into any context. Indeed, there is enough evidence to suggest that the version almost universally given is wrong.

Almost everything we know about the shop and the raid comes from a single newspaper article in the long-defunct Montreal Star newspaper, in their June 8, 1869 edition:

Yesterday morning, an old man of 60 named Moise Tellier was brought before was brought before the Recorder charged with indecent assault on a Constable. Tellier lives at 477 Craig Street, the same premises occupied by James Butler of the Britannia Saloon, Dr. Perrault and several other respectable citizens. Tellier’s business is nominally to keep a small shop for apples, cakes and similar trifles. But the business is only a cloak for the commission of crimes that rival Sodom and Gomorrah. A house of prostitution were indeed decent compared to this den. It has been watched for sometime past by the police, and we regret, for the credit of our city and humanity, to say that several respectable citizens have been found frequenting it and evidently practising abominations.

The police apparently set up a sting operation, and one complicated by Moise Tellier’s connections:

A special policeman was sent there, and after a brief acquaintanceship, Tellier made ouvertures to him of a nature too abominable to be described. The policeman knocked him down and brought him to the station. We are sorry to say that Mr. Bourgouine was found to defend him. It appears that Mr. Bourgouine is counsel for the revenue department, that a son of Tellier’s is a whisky detective, and that most of the expeditions [police raids] against shebeens [unlicensed bars] are organized at Tellier’s house – certainly a respectable rendezvous. The miserable wretch fell on his knees and implore pardon of the court, withdrew his plea of not guilty, and threw himself on the mercy of the Recorder [Municipal Court Judge], promising to quit the practice and leave the place. The Recorder said he regretted he could not send him to the penitentiary. The law provided no imprisonment, but he would fine him $20, the highest prescribed amount.

The trial was mentioned in a blurb in the major French-language daily La Minerve the same day, but that newspaper went into no details other than to state the name of the accused, the crime he was convicted of, and the the fine. No other newspaper saw fit to mention it, and while some papers (such as The Montreal Herald) only published a small selection of local crime news, in others it is conspicuously absent. Both The Montreal Witness (a Protestant religious paper) and the L’Ordre (a Catholic religious paper) both routinely reported on local crime, but excluded Moïse Tellier’s arrest.

(This is especially glaring in the case of The Witness, which reported on prostitution, murder, theft, beatings, public drunkenness, and countless other crimes, but would apparently not report on homosexuality.)

The story is presented in modern lists of the gay history of Montreal as the first gay bar or secret club. It tends to be described variously as some kind of early speakeasy, and Tellier as some kind of patron and centre of an early gay community. I’ve seen it called North America’s first gay bar.

Yet it seems as though no one has ever previously made a serious effort to research Moïse Tellier and his life. There is enough information to sketch out some aspects of the man and his store, but what we know raises more questions than it answers.

The article in The Star, unsurprisingly, got his age wrong. At the time of the trial, Tellier was 53 years old. Eight years before he had moved to the address on Craig Street, we get a glimpse of his life in the 1861 census. He had lived on Sanguinet Street nearby, in a two-storey brick building with a wife, an elderly, never-married Cyrill Tellier, and six children – Georginie, Joseph, Josephine, Narcisse, Louise, and Philomine.

As for the son who was on the police force – assuming that that was not another mistake on the part of The Star – only Joseph could conceivably be old enough in 1869. It is possible Tellier had another adult son who was not living with him, but there are no police detectives named Tellier listed with the city police force in 1869 or 1870.

His wife’s name is completely illegible due to the enumerator’s poor handwriting and the condition of the document, but a Canadian government archivist’s best guess of “Emilie” seems plausible. There is a “D” in front of her name. Tellier is listed as “widowed” and “married.” The census at the time included the recently deceased along with some kind of indication of their status, and the “D” most likely stands for “défunt” – dead.

(The archivist who transcribed that page of the census interpreted the “D” before her name as “Dr.,” though this is six years before Emily Stowe became famous as the first woman to practise medicine in Canada. That is only one of many reasons why this is highly unlikely.)

The family moved almost every year, though there is nothing out of the ordinary for the time – nineteenth century Montrealers were very nomadic. There is no record of them before 1854, but given the poor record-keeping of the time and the many records destroyed by accident and violence, this is not surprising. It is also possible the family came out of rural Quebec before 1854, as so many had.

We have absolutely no idea how Tellier saw his own sexuality. The words “homosexual” and “bisexual” did not exist in English at this point. Contrary to what some historians believe, men did wrestle with what their sexuality meant, did form identities around it, did reach conclusions about the origin of their desires, and did categorize themselves and others before the words we use existed; but the authorities were completely uninterested in such things. They rarely recorded these identities, or if they did it was done to illustrate how unrepentant these men were.

So if Moïse Tellier had reached any conclusions about his own sexuality, we will never know it.

If the Moïse Tellier who moved into the storefront on Craig Street sometime in 1868 or 1869 looks nothing like gay community leader he’s sometimes made out to be, the idea that his store was some kind of secret gay bar or speakeasy seems just as unlikely. The shop was a small storefront crammed in beside a bar and a doctor’s office, and pressed up against a much larger house where a single family was apparently running a law office and a dental practice out of their home.

The fruit shop (as it is generally listed in guides) was narrow, and probably not long. It was brick, and in the one surviving photo that includes it, it looks to be only two storeys. At least five of Moise Tellier’s children lived with him, probably in living quarters on the second floor. It was small, humble even, and most likely very crowded.

As for what happened in June 8th, the facts generally agreed upon are that a) something of a homosexual nature was going on, b) Tellier was involved and implied to be for some time, and c) on June 8th he had sexually propositioned a constable. Tellier offered a not-particularly-sincere plea that he would repent and change his ways, and the judge was not convinced.

What was going on in the shop? Most of the assumptions about it are based on The Star’s ludicrous language that it was the site of “the commission of crimes that rival Sodom and Gomorrah” and that “A house of prostitution were indeed decent compared to this den.” Also, there was the accusation that prominent citizens were visiting it.

Leaving aside The Star‘s unreliability – in their effort to fulminate, they forgot to fact-check such basic details as Tellier’s age – I think what most people who’ve looked at the Tellier case have failed to grasp is that the kind of language that the paper used was simply how newspapers at the time talked about homosexuality (when they deigned to talk about it at all).

So The Star would have used the same language whether Tellier was hosting all-male orgies, or if he was one half of a discreet, monogamous gay couple.

As if to hit this point home, reporting three days later on a man named Joseph Gagnon who was bringing soldiers home with him for sex, they said he was “quite a match for Tellier.” This would be a strange comparison if Tellier was running a secret club while Gagnon was just bringing men back to his place.

By far the most likely possibility is that the widowed father of at least six was quietly taking men home from the Champ-de-Mars cruising ground across the street, most likely at night when his shop was closed and his children were asleep. Any “prominent citizens” frequenting it would have likely been his partners, though it’s not impossible he let others use his back room.

Anything more than this would have been pretty much impossible, given the homophobia of the times and the nature of the space he lived in. As disappointing as it might sound, Tellier was most likely just using his shop as a safer and warmer alternative to having sex in the Champ-de-Mars park, which was already being noticed by the police and by that new phenomenon – attested to in newspapers for the first time a month after the Tellier trial – the gaybasher.

There is one last mystery with regards to Tellier, and that is we don’t know what he was actually convicted of. Both The Star and Le Minerve claimed it was “indecent assault,” and Tellier admitted to homosexual acts.

But the judge lamented that he could only sentence he could give Tellier was a $20 fine, and there has never been a point in the history of Canada when same-sex sexual assault was so lightly punished.

To be fair, it was a confusing time in Canadian law. A new, consolidated criminal code was coming into effect the month after Tellier’s trial. But the original law had provided the death penalty for same-sex sexual assault (or attempted assault). The new law specified that any man convicted of “indecent assault” against another male was “liable to be imprisoned in the Penitentiary for any term not exceeding ten years, and not less than two years,” or a sentence up to two years in an ordinary jail.

The Recorder’s Court, ironically, kept very poor records, but what we do have seems to concur that Tellier was not charged with “indecent assault” – there was no such crime before the court that year, and no such crime remanded to the higher court of the Quarter Sessions.

All we have is a tally of each crime committed, and he was most likely one of the 86 people charged with the “assault or resist [of] any Officer” statute in the city bylaws, which was so broadly defined as to give the arresting officer wide powers.  Given how specific “attempted sodomy” was in its definition, it was probably all they could have charged Tellier with.

Twenty dollars was worth a lot more in 1869, but the law said that the penalty should have been far worse.  It would have been an appropriate penalty for “assault or resist” though.

The Guards at the Gate

I began this article by reflecting on the relationship of cruising grounds to the large community. The cruising ground is not just a steam-release valve for gay and bisexual men in a homophobic culture – from a social history perspective, it’s a larger community in embryo.

For a cruising ground to grow into a complex community, the rest of the world has to be willing to leave it alone. If the larger, homophobic culture perpetually polices the borders places like the Champ-de-Mars (or Molly Wood’s Bush, or Stanley Park) and harasses the men that use it, the seed it represents will never germinate.

The reason Moïse Tellier’s supposed gay bar has achieved a kind of mythic status without any real evidence that it existed is simply because people want it to be true. LGBT folk want to believe that someone carved out a space for themselves in a world that so viciously hostile. Montrealers want to believe that their city has always been a place where anything goes. Canadians want to believe that the country is more tolerant and compassionate than its neighbours, and always has been.

The reality is a lot more ugly. As short as Canada falls from its own ideals today, the late 19th and early 20th century was an especially intolerant age. Montreal was no exception to the rule, and in the 1860s violent religious bigotry was especially on display here. The Canadian Illustrated News opened its first issue of the year 1869 with a picture of churches burning in Montreal. Catholics and Protestants murdered one another in street riots.

And the competition between Catholics and Protestants had the side effect of spurring both on toward greater heights of moralism and fanaticism. Compared with Britain’s much more relaxed attitude toward religion and post-Revolutionary France’s anti-clericalism, Canada was medieval in its approach to the various branches of the Christian religion and the absolutism with which it applied them.

It is important to see Tellier’s arrest in this context. Since the days of the first European colonies, things had never been good for LGBT people here. Now society was rapidly becoming more racist, more fundamentalist, more bigoted – and more convinced that it had to root out corruption of any kind.

To see it another way, the Montreal police force was only five years old, had only a handful of officers, and had to police a city of more than a 100,000 people that was rapidly growing. They were underfunded, underpaid, and stretched thin. If they set up a sting operation, made two arrests, and almost made a third of men cruising the Champs-de-Mars in a single month (and they did) it was because they considered targeting the park a serious priority for their scant resources.

The Champs-de-Mars was frequented for at least a decade and a half, if a La Presse article from 1883 is any indication. It is telling that it never produced a gay neighbourhood around it. At some point the cruising grounds moved to the much larger Mont-Royal park, where a series of trails had been built in the 1870s, and where it was easier for men to meet each other without attracting police attention.

When Montreal finally got its gay neighbourhoods – two parallel ones, in fact – it is not at all surprising that one was at the foot of the mountain. The other was in a “tolerance zone” where the police avoided making arrests for vice crimes so that they could keep all that “vice” in one place.

That’s a story for another day. Before we move on to other topics though I would like to take a further look at the persecutions of 1869, to the case of Joseph Gagnon and at the beginning of gaybashing in Montreal.

Sources: My first sources were the series of Montreal Star articles – dated June 8th, June 11th, and July 17th, 1869. I checked a half-dozen other newspapers, but only Le Minerve even mentioned the Tellier case. I used the census for the years of 1861 and 1871, and Lovell’s directories over a period of 20 years – there only seemed to have been one person by Tellier’s name in the city at the time. I checked detailed city plans of the house. There were the usual sources – legal codes for the era. I used Starke’s Pocket Almanac for 1869 and 1870 for details about the police, as well as Constabulary: The Rise of Police Institutions in Britain by Hereward Senior. I hunted through archival photos and maps for details on the house itself, but only one photo included even a corner of the building. The block where the building was has been demolished to make way for the Ville-Marie Expressway, though in a photo from 1927, it appears that a factory-like building had already replaced it.

After a hiatus of more than three years – and a computer crash that eliminated most of my research notes – I’d like to continue where I left off, exploring the first community that Elsa Gidlow illuminates for us.

Last time we looked at the women in her circle, the small community she created around herself and around Roswell George Mills of LGB people and sympathetic heterosexuals. I’d like now to turn to the men.

Lucien Lacouture and Henri Lamy

At some point in the 1910s, Gidlow ran into Mills and coming out of a priest’s home on Dorchester Street. The priest was one of Mills’ lovers. As he was leaving, two friends of Mills’ – Henri Lacouture and Henri Lamy were coming to visit the priest, whom Gidlow never names. According to Mills:

…these two young men, and others were welcomed visitors. The priests offered themselves as lovers, treated the young men royally, serving the gifts brought in by their devout parishioners. They, of course, were sworn to poverty and had no money of their own to buy such luxuries.

Mills also related how on a police raid, the officers had found the priests with some very young lovers all dressed as women. This fascinated Gidlow, who wondered why. Mills answered, “Did you ever stop to consider that priests, monks, the entire ecclesiastical hierarchy, spend their life in drag?”

It had been through the church that Lacouture had discovered he was gay. He had been a seminary student, and quite devout. He had always believed he was going to become a priest. But he became tormented when he fell in love with another seminary student, a boy named Jean, who was in Gidlow’s words, “filling his mind and heart to the exclusion of meditation on God and the saints” and who “appeared more beautiful (heresy!) than any saint with his intense eyes and merry mouth.”

Lacouture went, tortured by his feelings, to confession. He cried, confessed it all, and waited for his punishment. He expected excommunication, or at least to be excluded from his vocation in the priesthood. Instead, the priest – a Father Francis – told him to meet him at the parish house, for what would be Lacouture’s first sexual experience.

He left his career in the church after that.

Lacouture became very much a part of Mills’ circle, and a friend of Gidlow’s. According to Gidlow, after he gave up on the religious life, Lacouture became (appropriately given his name) a fashion designer. He had a plan to live in New York for two years to learn his art, and then return to Montreal. After his return, said Gidlow, he designed clothes for wealthy women.

A dictionary of Quebec fashion flushes out a few details, mentioning “The little we know about this designer permits us to know that he was noteworthy in the Montreal of the 1920s and 1930s.” Lacouture was born in 1895. When Gidlow was in New York, he was making regular trips there to purchase fabrics he couldn’t get in Montreal.

And Gidlow was very right that he was a designer to the rich. His clients included Saidye Bronfman, the matriarch of the Bronfman liquor empire and one of the wealthiest families in Canada.

He died astonishingly young in 1934 of a brain tumour. He was not yet forty. His apprentice, a woman named Hernance Ferland was taken up by Marie-Paule Nolin, founder of what would become Canada’s greatest fashion house of the 1950s and 1960s. Ferland’s talents – and the clients of Lacouture’s she brought with her – help make Nolin’s empire what it was.

Lacouture stayed with Henri Lamy whenever Lacouture was in New York. Lamy was also an expatriate Montreal. He and Lacouture had been lovers, and remained close friends throughout their lives.

Lamy was not as close to Gidlow, and left fewer records to trace. Gidlow said he had gone to New York to get training as a singer. According to Gidlow, “Teachers had promised him that his rich tenor voice could qualify him for grand opera if he would overcome his laziness and work.” He moved onto West 44th Street, where his apartment became the kind of base of operations for expatriate Montrealers.

He does not appear to have ever made it. I’ve never found his name in connection with the opera. When Gidlow made return trips to Montreal to visit friends and family, he was there again.

Harcourt Farmer

Harcourt Farmer was a stage actor and a writer. Gidlow does not appear to have been fan of either his work or him personally. She was jealous by her own admission, and she “hated him” for his sexual relationship with Estelle Cox, with whom Gidlow herself was in love. Her description of him – the only one we have – should be taken in that context:

Harcourt had a dark, slightly sullen, dissipated face, the plastic face of an actor, handsome at times, and a thin, nervous body he handled gracefully. The few times I had been alone with him he had appeared lonely and had not hesitated to let me know he would have liked to make love with me. My lack of interest and response let our relationship settle into a pleasantly casual friendship.

Farmer was interested in both men and women. While he an Gidlow were often rivals for the same woman, he also had for a lover a young war veteran named Charles McDonnell – who we’ll return to in a moment. His philosophy on love seemed to have been – as Gidlow quotes him – “A lover in bed is worth two in the offing.”

Farmer is one of the few of Gidlow’s circle I have been able to find in primary sources. His school of elocution – undoubtedly how he made a living as a struggling actor – was on McGill College Street.

His writing show up from time to time as well. He wrote frequently for journals on culture in and outside Canada. He produced one piece for The Canadian Bookman (April 1919), asking if Canada would ever develop its own theatre tradition. He was doubtful it would. In June of 1920 he penned an article predicting the death of jazz in Musical America. “But every fad has its day,” he wrote, “and ‘Jazz music’ is no exception to the rule.”

(One wonders what he might have made of the Montreal Jazz Festival. The world’s largest jazz fesitval, now nearly a hundred after he’d predicted its end, is centred a few blocks from Roswell George Mills home!)

As an actor, he does not seem to have ever made the transition to film. He performed Shakespeare at Stevenson Hall in 1919, to a mixed review in The Gazette. After 1920, he fell entirely off the radar. Entirely. He does not appear in the phone book, he writes no articles, and does not perform onstage. Elsa never mentions him again, and I’ve found no frther mention of him anywhere.

About his love life, Elsa is rarely specific, and details mostly his relationships with women, particularly with Estelle. She does mention that he’d been the lover of a Charles McDonnell, a soldier in the war.

Charles McDonnell

Most of the gay and bisexual men who met at Roswell Mills’ home in Montreal seem to have made a life for themselves, in spite of the challenges facing LGB individuals in the 1910s and 1920s. Charles McDonnell was the one true tragedy.

That tragedy was in great part due to the war. McDonnell had been deeply traumatized by his experiences on the front line. He did not find anyone particularly sympathetic. He was lovers with Harcourt Farmer for a time, but though he was “young, good looking, passionate, [and] loved and wrote poetry,” Farmer dumped him saying “I can’t keep coddling him…He’s always in the bloody dumps reciting Housman [a gay poet who wrote very often about death], talking about corpses.”

McDonnell followed Gidlow and Mills to New York. He tried to get some of his poetry published by the magazine Gidlow worked for, but she rejected it – too “sentimental [and] derivative of Housman.” He became involved with Roswell George Mills, but Mills couldn’t handle his constant talk of the horrors of war.

Gidlow quotes McDonnell:

You haven’t seen them. Ten million corpses. Ten million of them! They were young like us. They ate. They drank. They were even merry. I loved them. I made love with one of them. There in the trenches where he became a corpse.

The military was uninterested in helping him, and no one in his circle of friends was equipped to. It was before post-traumatic stress disorder even had a name. Mills dropped him, and McDonnell committed suicide soon after.

I’ve tried to add to McDonnell’s story.  I’ve been able to locate two Charles McDonnells from Montreal who served overseas, plus a Francis Charles McDonnell from Montreal, and a fourth I’ve been able to find nothing about at all.  One, an  English-born printer who lived on Milton Street, seems a little older than Gidlow’s description.  Another was married, and also seems a little old.  She described McDonnell as very young, and both would have been older than her and in their 30s when McDonnell died.

That leaves Francis Charles McDonnell, who lived on Saint-Antoine Street likely not far from Roswell, and would have been just 20 when he enlisted in 1916.   He lived with his mother Catherine and was a clerk.  His physical description mentions him as thin, five-foot-two, blond-haired, blue-eyed, and of clear complexion, which of all of them seems to match Gidlow’s description of “that beautiful young man” by the standards of the age.

This McDonnell sailed to England with 199th Battalion Duchess of Connaught’s Own Irish Rangers.  They trained there, and it seems as though they were sent to the front line as reinforcements for units that had lost infantry.  Since he survived the war, his service record is sealed, and I have not been able to find anything else about him to match him to Gidlow’s description.

Phyllis Gidlow

Gidlow devotes even less time to exploring the situation of her sibling, Phyllis. Phyllis Gidlow, she tells us was “mad,” and she documents Phyllis’s slow deterioration over the years. Her sibling refused to eat, and was “raving in tongues,” before the family decided to institutionalize her. Conditions were poor in the institution, Gidlow writes, and Phyllis died.

Gidlow adds one curious detail in her description of Phyllis: “She insisted on wearing boys’ clothes and said she was a boy.”

Gidlow gives us very little to go on. Given her dismissiveness toward other trans people – she was downright mocking when describing trans folk she met in Germany at Magnus Hirschfeld’s institute – it’s safe to assume she’s giving us a very skewed picture of Phyllis Gidlow. And given what we know of the ways in which a transphobic culture causes or worsens psychological problems for trans people, it’s not unreasonable at all to suggest a whole alternative narrative.

What is Phyllis Gidlow was actually trans? And her psychological problems stemmed from being in a culture – and a family – whose most bohemian members had no compassion whatsoever for her situation?

It’s only a theory, and given what little Gidlow gives us to go on, simply speculation. But if Gidlow’s sibling is trans, he would be the first trans person in Canada we can put a name to.

Sadly, I’ve been able to find nothing about Phyllis Gidlow, except a date of death (May 6, 1930). Gidlow mentions that Phyllis was committed to the Protestant Verdun Insane Asylum, which is now the Douglas Hospital in Verdun. Their brother Eric was also there. If those records are kept anywhere, I would not be able to access them.

Gidlow’s Circle

Else Gidlow’s circle – the one that coalesced around her and Roswell Mills – gives us something that rarely see in any country, and which is even more lacking in the Canadian context: an intimate portrait of the LGBT community before the liberation movement. It’s the first such view we have. Every other glimpse of that community has been through the eyes of authorities – through the police, and medical authorities, journalists, and official records.

The rare times there’s been a hint of the voice of the people themselves, it’s been muffled and vague: a bit of poetry, or a line of testimony in someone else’s record. With Gidlow, we finally see how LGBT people of the time lived, loved, and saw themselves.

Of course, there had to be countless other stories, lost to us – there were communities in all the larger cities, and circles of friends who knew each other in other places. Also, there was the war that had so destroyed Charles McDonnell, and defined the end of one era and the beginning of another for Western history generally. It had no small impact on the course of LGB history in the course of the 20th century, and in a strange way forged LGB communities of its own.

It’s to the War to End All Wars that we turn next.

Sources: My primary source, as for the last few entries, has been Elsa: I Come With My Songs by Elsa Gidlow. There was very little to flush it out with, though over my years of hiatus I researched everything from old phone books to dictionaries, to biographical materials.

For Lucien Lacouture’s life, I only had Dicomode: dictionnaire de la mode au Québec de 1900 à nos jours by Gérald Baril available to flesh out what Gidlow tells us. I searched several works on Quebec Opera for Lamy, and found nothing.

Harcourt Farmer does turn up from time to time. The phone book provides the address of his “school for elocution,” over the course of several years. Most of the pieces I’ve cited in the text above, while the mixed review in The Gazette comes from the May 28, 1919 issue. His unusual name should make him easy to trace, but he vanishes rather suddenly in the 1920s, with no clue from Gidlow where he might have gone. Given how eager he was to take centre-stage and how happy he was to have a public forum for his opinions, his disappearance is rather odd.

Charles McDonnell’s records, what little I was able to find, are from the Library and Archives Canada’s online research pages.  It has six entries for that name, three of them from Montreal and one unknown.  Two of them are older – one married, and one from England with bad teeth.  It seems unlikely either is Gidlow’s “beautiful, young man” from Montreal.  His regiment number was 919021.  I’m continuing research into the subject.

Phyllis Gidlow’s records, if any exist, will be sealed at the Douglas Hospital. As far as I know, there’s no way for a member of the public to access them, so the story of Elsa Gidlow’s sibling will have to remain incomplete. It’s unclear whether the doctors of the time would have understood what it meant to be trans, and it’s entirely possible they’d have come to the same conclusions Elsa Gidlow did. Gender identity at a concept in psychology had only been studied by those doctors on the cutting edge of psychology, such as those whose research interested Magnus Hirschfeld. It was only later the year that Phyllis Gidlow died that the first publicized sex-reassignment surgery was performed, and the reality of trans people brought to wider public attention. Thus, the truth of Phyllis Gidlow’s indentity is likely lost to us.

I’ve been on hiatus for years, with little time and no energy for the research involved. I’m looking to get back into it.

For tonight, I just wanted to mention that today is the 43rd anniversary of the final rubber stamp on the Omnibus Bill that made me not automatically illegal for having a relationship in my country.

Tomorrow, we in the LGBT communities will be inundated with Stonewall retrospectives as we always are on June 28th, and Canadians will talk about Stonewall as the start of the movement. But our movement up here was alive, well, and had achieved its first major victory. It got royal assent the night before Stonewall – something in the air, clearly.

No disrespect to Americans who have every reason to celebrate tomorrow, but it isn’t right to forget our own history, and discard the memory of the work of tireless activists up here who made it happen.

As I mentioned previously, Gidlow’s is the first portrait by an insider of the lesbian gay community in Canada. Because of this, I’d like to take the time to present in some detail the individuals she who had been part of that community – to put a more human face on what might otherwise be an abstraction.

We’ll begin with the women Gidlow met who were part of the bohemian subculture who had gathered around her friend Roswell George Mills.

The Women at Mills’ Parties

When Gidlow found “her people” in Mills’ small social circle, she was somewhat disappointed. There were only two among the frequent guests at Mills’ home – Marguerite Desmarais and Estelle Cox. Neither was exactly available.

But love must not be explained. One loves. That’s all.
— Marguerite Desmarais

Marguerite Desmarais was a pianist, described by Gidlow as a woman “of great charm.” Mills described her as “the most female creature I have ever met.” Gidlow depicted her similarly: “entirely Woman – strong, with the power of water, yet in no way dependent.” Desmarais arrived at Mills’ for a party one night on the arm of a music teacher named Adelard Brunet, and quickly worked her way into Gidlow’s life.

Mills encouraged Gidlow to go after her, though Gidlow was more focused on a woman named Estelle Cox. She didn’t even see Desmarais as a romantic possibility, believing her to be heterosexual. So no one was more surprised than she was when Desmarais made the first move.

They spent a weekend at a cabin in the Laurentian mountains – arranged by Mills – and Gidlow was often at the mansion Desmarais shared with an elderly mother in a state of advanced dementia. Her home was a shrine to great painters and great composers. It made quite an impression on Gidlow – “every object in the room,” she said, “seemed a projection of her – sharp, shining, alive.” Caring for her mother put a great strain on Desmarais – she devoted herself to art and beauty as a means of preventing her life’s difficulties from, as she put it, “corroding her heart.”

Desmarais was happy to be with Gidlow, though she was primarily focused on men. The possibility of a relationship with a woman did not seem to occur to her. Gidlow once said to her, “But you will not cease to love men. I could no more keep you for my own than hold an armful of moonlight.” To this, Desmarais said, “We cannot hold moonlight because it does not need to be held. We have it now. Isn’t that enough?”

For Gidlow it wasn’t enough, though. Soon Desmarais began to see an older man, but still wanted to be with her. She asked if the boyfriend wouldn’t have a problem with that. Desmarais said that he knew, and, “He finds it amusing.” He didn’t take their relationship seriously enough to feel threatened. Gidlow wondered if all she was for Desmarais was an amusement. She never went back to Desmarais’s home.

Gidlow had lost her heart anyway to a woman named Estelle Cox – almost love at first sight, cemented when Cox gave her a surprise kiss in Mills’ bedroom the night they met. She “felt stabbed” when she discovered Cox was married. Cox’s husband was a lithographer – likely Edwin Cox, whose engraving work was quite famous in book circles in Montreal.

It was not a happy marriage. According to Gidlow’s account, he was sexually demanding of her, and very jealous though he had a mistress of his own. She writes that Cox hated him, but didn’t feel that she could separate from him because she didn’t want to leave her 13-year-old daughter in his care. She called their home “The Morgue.”

Cox and Gidlow kissed a few more times, but Cox was afraid to go further. Gidlow wondered whether she was just terrified of her husband, or not really interested in women. She decided it was the latter when she walked in Cox and another friend, Harcourt Farmer. Yet Cox continued to flirt with her.

With Desmarais, she had the physical, but no possibility of love. With Cox, she only had platonic desire. Neither option pleased her. Her situation was made worse by the knowledge that there had been other lesbians in Mills’ circle, and she’d missed them – they had all left the city.

The first of these had been Muriel Symington. Symington had been born in Canada. She moved to New York in her late twenties or early thirties and took care of her mother and little sister in a house in Greenwich Village. Gidlow described her first impression of her as “a tall, slim, fair woman of thirty or so wearing a tailored tweed suit, silk blouse, and low-heeled oxfords of well-polished leather.”

Symington’s life focused on art, poetry, and music. She had wanted to be a violinist, but had had to give up that dream in order to support her family. She wrote copy for an advertising agency instead. At home she preferred to speak French – she reserved English only for practical things. She was fiercely proud of her Irish heritage, and so she had learnt Gaelic also.

Symington became Gidlow’s first girlfriend soon after they met in New York. Gidlow described their time together, saying that with her, “The most ordinary details of life were haloed. Food tasted divine. I was not merely eating, but savouring nuances of complementary or contrasting flavours.”

They met at Symington’s house. They were able to keep their relationship secret from Symington’s mother – lesbianism was so far out of her experience that the two women could spend hours alone in their room without raising suspicion.

Symington was much more conservative in her politics than Gidlow was. When Gidlow went to work for a left-wing magazine, Symington worried she’d be at risk from anti-communist sentiment. Their relationship came to an end when Gidlow moved in with Mills. They’d had to tell the landlord the unlikely lie that they were married. That made Symington – whose last girlfriend had left her for a respectable life of marriage – very uncomfortable.

Symington vanished for decades. She is likely the same Muriel Symington who emerges in the 1950s as a minor player in a Red Scare drama. Her close friend Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was arrested for violating the Smith Act, the anti-communist act. Symington wrote letters in Flynn’s defence, and tried to get fellow communist Helen Keller to send Flynn a letter of support. By this point, Symington’s politics seemed to have become much more radical. She argued for equal rights for black Americans, and wrote left-wing, anti-Catholic satires for the early underground political newspaper, The Realist.

There is no way of knowing how she experienced this political conversion, if indeed they are the same peron. But Elizabeth Gurley Flynn lived years with Marie Equi, a lesbian, and is generally believed to have been lesbian herself. They were part of that community. And Symington told Helen Keller that she and Flynn were close. She’d even helped prepare Flynn’s autobiography for print.

Tommy

Vincit qui patitur – They conquer, who endure
— inscription on Tomy’s wedding ring to Elsa

Gidlow’s next girlfriend was more conventional. Violet Winifred Leslie Henry-Anderson – known to her friends as “Tommy” – did have a small measure of fame herself, but that was entirely in the world of amateur sports.

Henry-Anderson was born in Scotland, 1884. She was one of the early women golfers. She had been involved in golfing in her native country before she’d come to Canada.

Women’s professional golf was relatively new in the 1910s. It had existed here since the founding of the Canadian Ladies’ Golf Union at Montreal in 1893. Men resisted it, and men’s golfing organisations tried repeatedly to get the women’s associations under their control.

Not surprisingly, more than a few traditionalists were quick to complain that women golfers weren’t very feminine. Journalists described them as “muscle molls” – “moll” being a slang term for a prostitute or a gangster’s girlfriend. Polite Edwardian and Georgian society women saw such women as unfeminine and degenerate.

Some even accused these women of being secretly intersexed, a possibility inevitably portrayed as being deceitful and unfair to the women who weren’t. In 1935, Czechoslovakian Olympic athlete Zdenek Koubkov announced that he was intersexed, and now identified as male – in spite of having competed as a woman. He had surgery so that his outer reality better reflected his inner one.

This shocked one Canadian journalist named Alexandrine Gibb. Gibb was among the first to call for sex testing in sports. Worse, she raised the spectre of intersexed and trans folk competing in women’s sports. She portrayed intersexuality and gender variance as a kind of cheating, arguing such people could take advantage of some unfair superiority over the Canadian “dainty girl runners.”

Oddly, in all this obsession over gender and sports, lesbianism was not on the radar – that came later. A historian of women’s sports in Canada named Margaret Ann Hall suggests that it started to emerge in the 1930s:

Not once, during this period, have I found a single reference connecting athleticism and lesbianism. Susan Cahn argues that the stereotype of the lesbian athlete did not emerge ‘full blown’ until after World War II, although certainly by the 1930s, ‘female athletic mannishness began to connote heterosexual failure,’ usually couched in terms of unattractiveness to men, but also suggesting the possible absence of heterosexual interest.

The stereotype might have developed later, but as Henry-Anderson explained to Gidlow the reality had been established long before the straight world had noticed. She was well enmeshed in that world. She had come from an affluent family in Edinburgh, and had had the leisure time to devote to sports. She had even been a runner-up in a round of women’s amateur golf championships in Britain.

Then her father abandoned the family and took his fortune with him, and she and her siblings were suddenly thrown out into the world to earn their livings alone. The family broke up and settled in different cities. Henry-Anderson and two of her brothers decided to try Canada, though her money wouldn’t take her any further than Montreal. She likely lived with a brother, an E.R.A Henry-Anderson, who sold movie film, cameras, and projectors for a company called Pathescope. She could knit, and made and sold knitted ties that were then popular with upper-class men. The knitting put her through secretarial school.

She soon found a job much more suited to her education, working as a legal secretary. Gidlow tells us how “In our day she would have become a lawyer” but “At the beginning of the century, such a step was unheard of.”

Henry-Anderson had been a part of lesbian circles in Edinburgh from a very early age. Gidlow writes that she and her first girlfriend had been lovers “as girls.” And she provided Gidlow (and us) with a small window onto the Scottish lesbian community at the dawn of the 20th century:

Tommy was able to tell me more than I had ever suspected of women’s passionate, romantic involvement with one another. In Edinburgh upper classes and among her golfing associates, there were many such liaisons, she said.

‘Did they make love?’

‘Of course – those who did not get married, and even those who did for economic or family reasons. An heir was needed. Or they did not like being “old maids.” Once married, they were freer anyway. The men went off to posts in India, Africa, or the Colonies.’

It was not just Scotland. She found British Columbia to be similarly open:

Tommy had not had trouble as a lesbian, even in western Canada. Friends in Vancouver all knew that she and Mona were together and had lived so for years. The couple did not conceal their affection or commitment. If Tommy arrived alone at a gathering or sports event, Sir George Bury, an executive on the Canadian Pacific Railway, would unfailingly ask in railroad language, ‘Where’s the second section?’ Everyone would laugh. It was all done in a friendly, jocular way like one referring to the member of a married couple.

However, a story appeared in the Vancouver newspaper about an individual presumed to be a man, but who was found to be a woman working at a man’s job, with a ‘wife.’ Discovery had come when she had a heart attack and died in the hospital. Vancouver was scandalized and indignant. Tommy remarked, ‘If she hadn’t died I suppose she could have been put in prison. According to the news report, many people knew she was a woman masquerading as a man, but as long as there was no publicity they didn’t care.

Henry-Anderson eventually found her way to Roswell George Mills’ circle, and met a young actress named Mona Shelley. They became lovers. Shortly before Gidlow found Mills, Henry-Anderson and Shelley picked up and moved to Vancouver. Gidlow regretted having missed them. “They were a legend by then,” she writes, “lingering in my thoughts wistfully as the only living lesbians anyone I knew had known.”

In Vancouver, Henry-Anderson resumed her golfing career. In 1922, she took second place in the Pacific Northwest amateur championships, losing to a former English champion named Vera Hutchings who now lived in Winnipeg.

Shelley still wanted to be an actress, though, and in the 1920s she couldn’t imagine making a career in Vancouver. She decamped for New York, where Mills and Gidlow had already set down roots. Henry-Anderson followed her

It soon became clear that the couple was about to break up. Shelley had fallen in love with a teacher whom Gidlow only refers to as “Miss Jonas.” Jonas was apparently in love with Shelley, but uncomfortable with the idea of sex. For that, Shelley stayed with Henry-Anderson. Henry-Anderson was willing to share her girlfriend’s body with another woman – their relationship was open that way – but not her heart. The divorce was inevitable.

After that, Henry-Anderson and Gidlow became close. Then one day, she slipped a ring onto Gidlow’s finger, and said, “Marry me for tonight.” They became lovers, and wives in every way but legally. For thirteen years they were only apart when Gidlow visited family, and during her tour of Europe. They travelled together, moved together to San Francisco, and stayed with each other until, as Gidlow puts it, “death did us part.”

Gidlow’s Tommy died in a San Francisco hospital in 1935, of lung cancer. She had been a lifelong smoker in an age when the dangers were only just beginning to be studied, and smoking had become a symbol of independence and rebellion for women. It is likely that she died without ever knowing the seriousness of her condition. It was not common for doctors to inform patients then that they were dying – it was believed that the shock could kill the patient instantly. Gidlow knew, but was sworn to secrecy.

She was at her wife’s bedside every evening after work until her death. She described the loss as “like an amputation of a part of myself.”

As for Mona Shelley, my best efforts so far have turned up virtually nothing beyond Gidlow’s brief description:

She was a cuddly, puppy-like young thing, maybe a few years older than me, outgoing and physically energetic. Except for her good voice, I could not see her as an actress. She was convinced there were parts she could take and was haunting managers, producers, and casting agents. Roswell and Mona went to plays together, and she was frequently at the studio.

Shelley falls out of Gidlow’s story after she and Henry-Anderson break up. I’ve been looking for evidence that she made it onto the New York stage. So far there are hints that she had parts in some minor productions, but I have no firm proof as of yet. It’s also unlikely she made a break into film.

It is of course possible that she used a pseudonym or that Mona Shelley was a pseudonym – the practice of actors taking one was very common at that time. If so, the rest of Shelley’s story might be lost to us for good.

In my next instalment, I’m going to continue with this series of profiles the people in Gidlow’s and Mills’ social circle in Montreal, moving on to the gay and bi men who were part of that community in the 1910s.

Sources: By far my main source was Elsa Gidlow’s autobiography, Elsa: I Come With My Songs. I was able to find Edwin Cox’s name in Lowell’s Directory of Montreal, which also supplied me with details of Henry-Anderson’s brother. Although I cannot be certain he was her brother, his unusual name appears at the same moment she and her brothers arrive in Canada. I believe that she lived with him because she herself does not have an entry in this rather exhaustive directory, and women living alone were listed under their own names. Her golf tournament in BC is mentioned in Golf Illustrated, the July 1922 issue. I am almost certain that Muriel Symington the communist is the same as Elsa Gidlow’s Muriel Symington. It seems unlikely that that there were two women of that age, by that name, in lesbian circles in New York at that time. On the other hand, there seems to have been at least a half-dozen Mona Shelleys, which was my one main barrier to researching her. I read a fair bit on the history of golf for this article, but the only useful source was The Girl and the Game by Margaret Ann Hall. An excellent study of the subject, and highly recommended. Symington’s satires can be found in The Realist, available online – for example her “Conference in the Hereafter” is in the April 1959 edition of that underground paper. Her letter to Helen Keller is also widely reproduced online. Henry-Anderson’s close friend Sir George Bury is a famous figure in his own right, in part for his life on the railroad, and for his much-read, first-person account of the Russian Revolution of 1917. Mount Bury on the northern tip of Vancouver Island is named for him

At the eye of the hurricane, love and music become the only verities.
— Roswell George Mills, in 1917

There had been glimpses into the gay and lesbian community before Elsa Gidlow. A letter between Alexander Wood and George Herchmer Markland suggests they knew about each other. A La Presse article from 1885 detailed a cruising zone right behind Montreal’s city hall. A social club for gay men in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu was targeted by a secret police sting operation.

It is not until Elsa Gidlow’s memoirs, though, that we get a look into that community through the eyes of one of its members. Gidlow gives us our first rich account of one gay circle in Montreal in the 1910s.

In this article and the next we’ll be turning to that community and exploring it in depth. And we’re beginning with Roswell George Mills, Gidlow closest friend in Montreal and the man who introduced her to the community she’d been searching for.

Roswell George Mills (1896-1966)

Roswell George Mills was a man few people forgot. Gidlow described him as an “astonishing, elegant being … a beautiful willowy blond.” Gidlow and Mills met at the first meeting of her poetry club:

I thought Roswell was the most ambiguously beautiful being I knew, with his metallic blond hair and pale, perfect features, his languid, intelligent eyes, and soft, slim body. He was almost a hothouse beauty, a living flower that appeared artificial.

Mills was so obviously gay that – even in an age less likely to think in such terms – people seemed instantly aware of it. A man in a lieutenant’s uniform who’d joined the poetry club was repulsed when Mills first entered the room. The soldier said, “God made him for a man so let him pass as such.” The lieutenant was apparently too bothered by Mills’ appearance to show up at the club’s second meeting.

Mills wrote for The Montreal Star. He worked on the financial page, and he wrote a column on the women’s page of The Star under a female pseudonym – most likely “Jessie Roberts,” which was the byline of “What Girls May Do.” This column offered women in business advice on working in male-dominated fields, and on how to find and keep a job. It also made frequent references to businesswomen who sound suspiciously like Elsa Gidlow herself, and another woman in Mills’ circle named Violet “Tommy” Henry-Anderson.

Mills also wrote reviewed opera and theatre for The Star. He somehow found time to give piano lessons – he wrote his own music for the piano – and contribute stories to magazines. He authored a short piece of theatre – very orientalist – that depicted a pair of lesbian lovers eloping in China. This was dedicated to Gidlow.

At about 21, he was exceptionally well-read, particularly of those authors most likely to make straight society nervous: Oscar Wilde (imprisoned for “gross indecency”), Paul Verlaine (lover of Arthur Rimbaud), Charles Baudelaire (who wrote openly of lesbians). He was also well-supplied by a doctor friend with books that detailed the latest scientific opinions on homosexuality.

He went to work “scrubbed and in tweeds,” but otherwise walked around in public in full fairy fashion – “delicately made up and elegantly dressed, wearing exotic jewellery and as colourful clothes as he dared.” At home he wore “a bronze green robe of heavy silk.” He lived with his mother, Mabel, and designed her dresses. They shared cosmetics, and a mutual hatred of his alcoholic father.

He was quite open about his attraction to men – astonishing a half-century before legalization. His “personal crusade” was to make people “understand that it was beautiful, not evil, to love others of one’s own sex and make love with them.” Unlike so many other gay men of the period who’ve told their stories, Mills seemed to suffer neither guilt nor regret – except that his total lack of interest in women precluded having children. “We’re going to be lonely when we’re old,” he once told Gidlow.

Ken Faig Jr, an American historian of amateur journalism, gives us the most detailed account of Mills’ background in a journal called The Fossil. Mills’ family was American, originally out of Connecticut. They had very deep roots in that country. His father’s family had been part of the first Dutch colonies in North America.

After the war had ended, Mills and Gidlow decided to put out a short magazine called Coal From Hades, which was soon changed to Les Mouches Fantastiques. This was a combination bohemian poetry collection, anti-war manifesto, and Canada’s first gay magazine. Copies were sent to friends, and to members of the amateur journalist’s association which Gidlow had briefly led. They published it on a friend’s mimeograph machine from Mills’ home at 27 McGill College Avenue.

Only four copies are known to have survived – and only one remains in Canada, a March 1920 issue at the Archives gaies du Québec. Mills had three poems in that issue, one free verse and two prose. Mills was quite open about his sexuality in Les Mouches – in the free-verse work he (somewhat torturedly) asks, “shall my gift [of love] be good when one I love/These days finds it not good in sight of him?” He was also quite open about his dislike of the traditional, Calvinist conception of a judging God that was used to justify homophobia – Mills (a theosophist) was not a fan of traditional Christianity, as a prose work in Les Mouches Fantastiques called “God Amuses Himself” makes abundantly clear:

In a vast shadowy place pierced by sharp stabs of sunlight an old man sits. His face droops low over his withered hands, and the long end of his dusky garment winds interminably through space. It trails across a world, and on it gleam innumerable eyes, as stars. And as He sits, wrapped in silence, His ministers whose names are Pleasure and Pain and Love and Suffering and Despair, catch in a huge net myriad birds and lay them fluttering before Him. And He, with His slender fingers, that seem like claws, so long have the nails grown, slowly, feather by feather, plucks the struggling things and strews the feathers about Him riotously. When they are nude and dumb with agony, He flings them along the length of His garment, to become a star perhaps. I have been told that they become stars.

Les Mouches Fantastiques made them minor celebrities in amateur journalism circles, though much of the response was negative. But Mills made one fan – an American Episcopal priest named Graeme Davis. Davis took leave from his duties South Dakota and made the trip by train to Montreal just to meet Mills. They became lovers, briefly.

Leaving Canada

In the 1920, it was unimaginable that Canada would one day be more socially progressive than the United States. The country was divided between puritanical Protestantism and conservative Catholicism. Even the left in this country was deeply Christian, and very moral in matters of sex. The United States wasn’t France, but the metropolis of New York offered a kind of freedom that Montreal didn’t possess.

Shortly after Gidlow moved to New York in 1920, Mills left Canada to follow her. They lived together in a group house in Greenwich Village, and then later in a curtained-off apartment. Mills got a job in the financial section of a publication with the exciting name of Oil, Paint, and Drug Reporter. He introduced Gidlow to her first two long-term lovers – both women who had left Canada and come to New York.

Mills fell in love with an Indian immigrant – an engineer named Khagendrenath Ghose. He ended his relationship with Davis, and moved in with Ghose. At that point, he largely vanishes from Gidlow’s story, and so the details we have become somewhat sketchy.

They met again in Paris, in 1928, where Roswell had an apartment with his young Berliner boyfriend, Jurgen. Jurgen was studying architecture in France. Gidlow and Mills ate together often at a restaurant named L’Allonette in the Latin Quarter, where Roswell was living.

In late 1928 or early 1929, Jurgen invited Mills home to meet his parents. Gidlow followed them to Berlin. Four years before the Nazis’ rise to power, Berlin was still something of a paradise for gay men. Homosexuality was illegal there, but the police tolerated the gay cabarets and cafés.

Gidlow described in detail an “invert” café they went to called The Silhouette, full of drag queens and a few women in tuxedoes – as well as gay men who otherwise blended easily in with mainstream German society. An actress friend of Gidlow’s also brought her and Mills to Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute of Sexual Research – Hirschfeld had started the world’s first gay-rights organization, and was the most important figure in gay and lesbian rights in the world at that time, as well as being one of the first advocates of trans rights. They had the honour of a tour of the institute.

After that, Mills and Gidlow parted, maybe forever. They kept in touch by letters for decades– an astonishing feat, considering how frequently the two picked up and moved with no certain future address.

At this point, our information on Mills becomes even more fragmentary. Gidlow came back to America just in time for the Stock Market Crash. Mills remained in Europe – whether he was still in Germany when the Nazis came to power or not is not something I’ve yet been able to trace.

He was back in New York in 1943, though, when he had to register for the draft. He was working at The Brooklyn Eagle at the time, a newspaper that Walt Whitman had once been editor of. At the same time, he was taking care of his elderly mother. Most of his letters from the time talk about how difficult his life had become.

In 1961, we find him living in Florida. He died just before his 70th birthday, in Florida in 1966.

Mills’ Legacy

Mills looms large in gay and lesbian history in the country in part simply because he is the first homosexual man whose complete story we have. Nicholas Daussy de Saint-Michel, George Herchmer Markland, Alexander Wood, Samuel Moore and Patrick Kelly, the men at the Champs de Mars cruising zone, the men at the private club in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu – we know about their loves, their sexuality, and their community only through the cold lens of court documents, and the jaundiced lens of sensationalist journalism.

Roswell George Mills is the first gay men whom we see at home – the first we see in love, and in desire. He is the first whose story is told by a sympathetic friend, and the first whose own voice we hear. He is also the first gay man we know of to have publicly claimed his identity in this country.

Undoubtedly there were others like him – he mentioned men before him who’d taught him things. But he is the first whose story is retrievable, and that in itself makes him important. And the publication of Les Mouches Fantastiques makes him effectively the first gay male activist in Canada, just as Elsa Gidlow is the first lesbian one.

It wouldn’t be right to end this profile without some of Mills’ verse poetry. He was first and foremost a poet, after all. Here’s a piece of his more mature poetry – “Roses” – from the 1927 edition of The Vagrant:

I wished to send you flowers,
Symbols of our long dead hours,
Red roses like the breath of song.

I bound the crimson offerings,
Knotted them with silver strings,
Red roses like love dead.

The knots came all unfastened,
Knots I made of silver thread;
Red roses blowing out to sea.

The sea was stained with crimson,
Red petals like our passion,
Red roses meant for you.

From Roswell George Mills we now turn to the other players in Gidlow’s life about whom we know less – “Tommy” Henry-Anderson, Harcourt Farmer, Ivy Gidlow, Marguerite Desmarais, among others.


Sources: By far my best source is Elsa: I Come With My Songs by Elsa Gidlow. There’s no more complete record of Mills life, and indeed it would be unlikely anyone would ever have researched Mills without it. Beyond Elsa, my best source is the July 2006 issue of The Fossil, which details his life from the point of view of the amateur journalists’ association he belonged to, but also provides a lot of background detail Gidlow does not include. The April 2007 edition of The Fossil provided the poem “Roses.” I learned about Mills’ piano lessons and confirmed his address from an ad he put in the Canadian Jewish Chronicle for March 26, 1920. There is a huge body of letters from Mills in Gidlow’s archived collection in California, but I have no way of accessing it. I’ve had to rely on the impressions from other readers. The detail about Walt Whitman is the only fact here from Wikipedia. It took me months to narrow down Mills authorship of “What Girls May Do” under the name “Jessie Roberts,” and it’s still not absolutely certain. Only four columns on The Star’s women’s page had female bylines. The AGQ originally identified Mills as Margaret Currie, who wrote an information and advice column. However, they no longer believe this to be the case – Margaret Currie was the pseudonym of Irene Currie Love, a major figure in the history of women journalists in Canada. Indeed, when Love collected her articles in Margaret Currie: Her Book, she had some scathing words to say about the “artistic temperament” that Mills loved exalted and typified. In a page one could almost see aimed at her co-worker Mills, she called “the artistic temperament” a “disease of the nerves” in need of a cure. Of the other candidates, Margaret Lloyd’s conservative advice to mothers seems unlikely. That leaves Jessie Roberts and May Manton. Manton wrote a syndicated fashion column that was mostly an ad for her patterns. But Manton seems to have been a real person – you can still find her patterns on Google. Jessie Roberts is untraceable because her first and last names were too common for the period to properly distinguish her, but I’ve never encountered one linked to The Montreal Star outside the columns themselves. She doesn’t appear in the histories of women journalists in Canada that I’ve found either. The fact that “she” was often talking to women of Gidlow’s and Henry-Anderson’s descriptions seems to clinch it, along with the fact that it was a business column and Mills was primarily a business reporter. I’ll admit to selecting the poems based on quality – his free verse from Les Mouches Fantastiques was pretty awful. The slight clipping I did include here is so tortured in syntax as to be nearly unreadable. And something from Les Mouches had to be here, so I went with the prose poem. I also used a much later, mature poem for the same reason. They don’t quite fit with the theme of this entry, but Mills was a hit-and-miss poet in his early days, and tends to be “miss” when he’s at his most autobiographical.

I wanted to apologize again for the lateness. The other week, I discovered that four months of research had been four months chasing a red herring – the pseudonym I’d been pursuing turned out not to belong to the person I’d believed it had.

I’m still researching, and I didn’t quite have to start from scratch. I hope to have something in the next few weeks on the first known queer community in Montreal – the circle around Elsa Gidlow.

Still Here

I just wanted to apologize for the long hiatus. I am still working on the site, but my current project – researching the people in Elsa Gidlow’s circle – has taken much more time than I expected.

I expect to have something up in the next two weeks.

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