Archive for the ‘gay/bi men’s history’ Category

A mere three days after the Moïse Tellier trial, The Montreal Star reported on another queer case:

Joseph Gagnon, the same party who was charged at the Police Court a few days ago with having stolen about $415, but who was [set free] for want of evidence, was brought [this] morning before the Recorder’s Court having been found drunk in company with a soldier last night. Detective Lafon testified that the prisoner was one of the most abominable wretches in town — quite a match for Tellier and Dufaux — being a Sodomite; his house on St. Mary street being frequented by soldiers and most depraved characters. He accosted respectable parties on the street and made most abominable proposals to them. The Recorder inflicted a fine on him of $10 or two months in jail.

This one short article is all we have to go on about the case. About this Joseph Gagnon himself, he has proven impossible to track. The somewhat ironically named Recorder’s Court – the old name for Montreal’s municipal court – was actually very poor at keeping records, and left us nothing about the case.

There were more than a dozen Joseph Gagnons in Montreal in 1869, but most of them were children, and apparently none of them lived on St. Mary’s Street (which has long since merged with Notre-Dame Est).

The most likely candidate (and this is very unsure) was a medical student in his early 20s. Another was a furniture-maker, also in his early 20s. There was also Joseph Gagné, who was at least once misindentified as Joseph Gagnon in records. Gagné was a tailor in his early thirties, and he lived on Notre-Dame where it merged into St. Mary’s – an address that put him two blocks from the Champs-Mars and puts the Montreal garrison barracks practically in his backyard.

These three lived alone. There were three other adult Joseph Gagnons as well, mostly in other districts and with families. It’s also possible there was another Joseph Gagnon in the area who was simply missed by official record-keepers.

The other names in the story are easier to track. Vincent Lafon was one of Montreal’s three police detectives. The France-born detective appears frequently in the crime pages of Montreal’s newspapers. “Dufaux” is a mangling of Pierre Dufault’s name. Dufault was convicted for a second time of bestiality earlier that same week, another example of the longstanding association in the minds of homophobic authorities of homosexuality with bestiality (they were in fact in the same section of the legal code).

Still, for all the gaps in the story, with a little bit of background knowledge the article says more than it seems to.

The first thing we can note is the crime Gagnon (or Gagné) was charged with. He was, notably, not charged with sodomy or attempted sodomy, which means that none of the soldiers or “depraved characters” he was bringing home ever charged him with rape or attempted rape. He also seems to have had a known reputation, and was astonishingly open about his intentions. Anyone going home with him knew what he wanted.

Indeed, the article hints at a third party who found him and the soldier, but clearly did not catch them in the act. Was this in public, maybe in the park? Or was it in his home? If he was not caught in the act, why arrest him at all? The law gave the police broad powers to arrest people for drunkenness, but they usually had to be doing something crude or offensive to public morals (though not necessarily illegal) in order to be charged.

It seems likely that whoever arrested him knew who he was, and why he was with that soldier. If this happened in his home, it would almost certainly have to be a police officer who walked in on them. And the police were clearly keeping tabs on him. Detective Lafon considered him “notorious,” and the best guess is that they had his apartment under surveillance.

Moïse Tellier had been followed home by a police detective. Could Lafon or another detective have followed Gagnon home, hoping to catch him in the act? That seems the most likely scenario. After all, The Star mentions he was bringing soldiers and “depraved characters” there.

In short, it seems that we are looking at another primitive sting operation conducted by the police – again, a police force that was new, hobbled by extreme underfunding, and far too few to deal with the serious crimes of a quickly growing Montreal. In other words, it was devoting resources to following, gathering evidence, and arresting homosexuals, and it considered this a priority on par with such things as robbery and assault.

Why? There was certainly no shortage of homophobia, either in its older, religious form or its modern “scientific” form that hinged on degeneration theory. Yet there were plenty of police forces of the era who barely had homosexuality on their radar, and by all accounts the Montreal police at the time had much more important things to worry about.

What seems even stranger at first – but which might explain things – was that Lafon had come from France. For all that France was romanticized for generations of gay men as a haven and a place of safety because it was the only place in the West where homosexuality was legal, things were not quite as welcoming as the rest of the world believed.

France had legalized homosexuality in a revolutionary fervour under Napoleon, but sexual minorities of the France of the late 19th century had suffered a seriously backlash. Theories of “degeneration” had taken firm hold of the nation, and brought with them modern versions of the Sodom myth: nations could be destroyed by perversions that could be spread. While homophobia is typically seen as religious in nature, the new wave of “scientific” homophobia breathed new life into the mania to contain, control, and generally persecute homosexuals.

The police stepped into the breach to quell public panic. France’s police did everything in their power to make the lives of lesbian, gay, and bisexual citizens miserable. Gay neighbourhoods were under surveillance. If gay men could not be arrested for the simple fact of homosexuality, then they could be arrested for a host of other things, from “public solicitation” to a host of other minor crimes.

We know very little about Lafon’s life or when he came to Canada, or if he was actually trained in France, but this kind of a sting would be in character with the work of French police. The goal would have been to catch him in the act, but when that failed he was given the “drunk and disorderly” charge. The purpose of the this would have been both to punish Gagnon, but more importantly to strike fear into the community around him.

The Star seems to have been a happy partner with the police in this. In the article, they are working to present Gagnon in the worst possible light. The robbery they allude to was not even mentioned in any earlier issue of their paper, or any other paper I have found. As he was judged “not guilty,” it would have been libellous for a paper to suggest he had committed the theft, and yet the article clearly does that. The implication is that Gagnon was a threat beyond simply his homosexuality, and that somehow being a “degenerate” conversely proved retroactively that he was guilty of the other crime.

Given the hatred of homosexuality among the general public at the time, one has to wonder why the paper would need to bother implying he was a thief. Reading between the lines, there is a possible answer to this – for as much as The Star wants Gagnon to be hated, there is no real indication that he was harming anyone. None of his lovers accused him of anything. Folks knew what he was, and yet it probably took a zealous police detective to try (and fail) to entrap him.

The Star was clearly trying to implicate him in some other criminal element, so that anyone insufficiently horrified by his apparently consensual homosexual acts will at least come to see him as a threat for other reasons. And while it is entirely possible that Gagnon needed to steal to survive – men who were more or less “out” tended to lead very marginal lives in a society that hated them – there is no way that The Star could know whether Gagnon was actually guilty. They need him to be guilty however, to make him seem like more of a threat than he actually was.

In the end, The Star really did not need to push homophobia. A new, uglier form of it had already taken root. Within a month, a vicious new era had dawned in Canada – mere weeks after the death penalty was officially removed for homosexuality, private citizens had begun to take up the effort of vigilante “justice” against homosexuals.

In the next article, we’ll look at the first recorded gaybashing in Canada, which happened in July of that same year.

Sources: My primary source is The Montreal Star article “Another Wretch” dated June 11, 1869. The information on Dufault was a few days earlier in the same paper. I searched for Gagnon in Census data, and in Lovell’s Directories for the years around 1869, but the first and last name are too common. There is no Joseph Gagnon on Saint Mary’s that year (which is now Notre-Dame Est). Some of the addresses are missing from Lovell’s, however, so it is possible authorities simply missed him. Saint Mary’s ended two blocks from the Champ-Mars, a location that put it right near the Montreal barracks, where the city’s soldiers lived. Census data and Starke’s Pocket Almanacfor 1869 and 1870, as well as ages spent pouring over newspaper crime reporting from that year, filled me on Detective Lafon. My information on LGBT life in France at the time comes from a series of books I’ve been reading in preparation for an article on World War I, though Queer Lives – a set of 19th-century French gay men’s biographies edited and put in context by William A. Peniston – has proved particularly enlightening.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Elsa Gidlow did not like Canada when she moved with her family here from Hull, England, at the age of six. It was too cold, and even at an early age, she saw it was too Victorian.

We’re lucky she came here, though. Gidlow gives us our first look at Canada’s queer community from an insider’s perspective.

The Goddess of Tétreaultville

Elfie Gidlow was born in 1898, to a poor-but-educated father and a mother whom she adored. While she was still small, her father moved the family to Tétreaultville, a village on the Island of Montreal that’s since been swallowed by the city.

She became very attached to the trees and river there – and claimed to have had a vision of a goddess by the riverside. But she was less sure of the people, or at least their way of life. Roles for women in that very strict Catholic community were limited to wife and mother. Gidlow resolved never to marry a man. She also decided at an early age that she wanted to be a poet, and began sending her work to The Montreal Star.

She didn’t get along with her father. But he had liberal ideas when it came to women’s education and working women, and she was his favourite of his seven children, so he took her under his wing. She came with him on his job teaching first-aid to people working on the railroad, and learnt secretarial and clerical skills – still thought of as men’s work in the 1910s.

She spent six months at business college. Then when she was sixteen, her father helped her get her first job. She did clerical work in the office of Angus Works, which manufactured and serviced parts for the Canadian Pacific Railway. This was 1915, and with so many men fighting the war in Europe, Angus Works was forced to hire more women in spite of its chief clerk’s reluctance.

Around this time, Gidlow developed a crush on a woman named Frances. She had met her at business college. Gidlow didn’t realize it was love until later, though, by which point Frances had a boyfriend.

Things began to fall into place for her a little later, when a co-worker of Gidlow’s named Rebecca Stuart met a “friend” of hers at work. Gidlow picked up that there was something about their gestures and expressions that suggested they were lovers and not friends. She wasn’t the only one who noticed. One of her co-workers called Stuart something that sounded to Gidlow like “mofredite” through his thick Scottish brogue.

A year later, looking through a book of Greek sculpture, Gidlow came across the word “hermaphrodite” – a word that had been used to mean “homosexual” since the Renaissance, and which was then better known than “lesbian.” She realized then that that’s what she was. In her diary soon after, she wrote, “I am going to get a room of my own. I am going to find my kind of people.”

Gidlow didn’t know how to go about the second task, and her job wouldn’t pay a woman enough for the first. Instead, she went about trying to become a poet instead. She created a poetry group, and sent a fake letter to The Montreal Star to drum up interest. It worked, and she attracted a small crowd of would-be poets and people who were simply curious.

In the crowd was an effeminate, beautiful young man whose mere appearance seemed to upset a couple of older men in the crowd. One of them was so repulsed that he left early. The young man was Roswell George Mills, a 19-year-old editorial assistant at The Montreal Star’s financial page. The Star also let him write an advice column for businesswomen under the female pseudonym of “Jessie Roberts.”

Mills introduced Gidlow to another world. He brought her attention to a series of writers whose bookds were a kind of iniation into his circle – Oscar Wilde, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, and Charles Baudelaire. They read Plato’s Symposium and Havelock Ellis’s Psychology of Sex and Edward Carpenter’s The Intermediate Sex. In short, they all the books available to them that were sympathetic to homosexuals. Mills in turn had been introduced to them by some of the older men in his life – hints of a community or network that some believe had been in Canada since at least the days of Alexander Wood.

Roswell Mills had a “personal crusade.” Gidlow writes:

He wanted people to understand that it was beautiful, not evil, to love others of one’s own sex and to make love with them. Roswell had divined my lesbian temperament, and was happy to proselytize; the veil of self-ignorance began to lift.

It was 1918, and Gidlow was only nineteen. She came from a household where sex was never discussed. All this was revolutionary to her, and she was deeply grateful to Mills. She hated her name Elfie, and he nicknamed her “Sappho,” a name used among her friends all her life. She later began using “Elsie” and then “Elsa” as her professional name, but “Sappho” stuck and friends were still using it at the end of her life.

Mills introduced her to a circle of gay and bisexual people, and to a culture and literature she hadn’t known existed. As happy as she was to find this world, there was one serious problem – there were no lesbians. Mills’ friends had known exactly two lesbians – Violet “Tommy” Henry-Anderson and Mona Shelley – but both had left Montreal years before and settled in Vancouver.

Mills’ circle included a Marguerite Desmarais, who was mostly interested in men but happy to experiment with Gidlow, and an older woman named Estelle Cox. Gidlow fell in love with Cox immediately, but Cox seemed unsure of her feelings for Gidlow. In the end, nothing happened between them.

Les Mouches Fantastiques

Lacking any real romantic possibilities, Gidlow threw her energies into her poetry and journalism. She was active in an association called the United Amateur Press Association of America (UAPAA). This was a major American association that allowed young journalists and poets to publish their works. In spite of its name, a great deal of their work published was as good or better than what was in the newspapers. Amateur journalism functioned as the paper equivalent of the blogosphere in the 1910s, and the UAPAA was one the two biggest players in this business.

The group was divided, though. A schism in 1912 over a disputed election meant that the UAPAA had two presidents, each recognized by half the organization. For the 1917-1918 year, Gidlow was the president for her faction, and may have hosted a UAPAA convention at Montreal. The president of the rival faction was none other than Howard Phillips Lovecraft, who would go on to be one of the world’s most influential horror writers.

Not surprisingly, Lovecraft loathed Gidlow. Details of the power struggle between them are vague. But after Gidlow, Mills, and a few of their friends collaborated on a literary journal, Lovecraft launched a nasty, homophobic attack on Gidlow likely as an extension of their rivalry.

This journal was originally called Coal from Hades, but later renamed Les Mouches Fantastiques (Fantastic Flies). Les Mouches Fantastiques was part literary collection, part bohemian manifesto attacking the middle class.

And a large component of both the poetry and the politics was an argument for the acceptance of homosexuals. In fact, there was so much queer content in it, that could be counted as the country’s first gay journal, five decades before the magazines that usually get that title. In Gidlow’s words:

Besides our poetry, [Mills] contributed translations from Verlaine, articles on ‘the intermediate sex,’ and one-act plays sympathetically presenting love between young men. My poetry was obviously addressed to women.

Les Mouches was never widely available. Its creators mimeographed a hundred copies, and sent it out to friends and organizations like the UAPAA.

Lovecraft shot back. He described Les Mouches in his own publication The Conservative as “artistic chaos characteristic of the late Oscar Wilde of none too fragrant memory.” Gidlow wrote a review of Lovecraft in return in American Amateur, describing him as “Mr. Lovecraft with his morbid imitations of artists he seems not even able to understand.” Lovecraft answered that “Perhaps Mistress Elsie-Elsa would prefer that the amateurs follow her own example, and perpetuate morbid imitations of morbid artists whom nobody outside the asylum is able to understand.”

(“Morbid” at the time still could mean “degenerate,” and Lovecraft was probably referring to the homosexuality in Les Mouches.)

The whole affair left a bad taste in Elsa’s mouth. She confessed in 1920 to be haunted by “the indignant ghosts” of her time in the UAPAA, and by the “the wraiths of the abused Les Mouches Fantastiques.” She does not even mention her presidency or the UAPAA her autobiography. Still, she continued to contribute to UAPPA journals, and in 1927 published “Phoebus to Narcissus” – a poem deeply infused with male homoeroticism – in a UAPAA magazine called The Vagrant.

Gidlow began to think about leaving Montreal. She considered leaving for New York, where she would have more possibilities to publish as a poet. She also hoped she would be able to meet lesbians there. As strange as it may seem to someone on our side of the same-sex marriage debate, Canada was then seen as hopelessly Victorian, while the United States was imagined as a place of freedom for the marginalized.

Thus in 1920, she packed and left Montreal, returning to Canada only for occasional visits to her family, and to a retreat on Hay Island in Quebec.

Later Life and Legacy

Most short biographies of Gidlow focus on her life after Canada. Some do not even mention her childhood or her accomplishments here. Since the rest of her life is easier to track, I’ll only touch on it in slight detail.

Gidlow spent six years in New York. Mills came to join her there. She found some lesbians there, though not quite the community she was looking for. She met a woman named Muriel, but their relationship didn’t last.

Then Tommy Henry-Anderson came to New York. After she’d broken up with Mona Shelley, Henry-Anderson and Gidlow became a couple, and lived as wives until Henry-Anderson’s death of lung cancer in 1935, at the age of fifty-one. They moved to San Francisco together, and were always together except during Gidlow’s visits to Montreal, and a year she spent in France, Germany, and Britain.

Even in a relationship, Gidlow never stopped looking for “her kind.” She was invited to Germany by Roswell Mills, who was living there with a boyfriend. There, she encountered Magnus Hirschfeld, who in 1897 founded the first organization to advocate for rights for the “third sex” – a category that included homosexuals, trans individuals, and intersexed people. She found Hirschfeld’s views on sexuality to be too coldly rational.

She was equally dissatisfied with meeting Radcliffe Hall, author of the first lesbian novel in English, The Well of Loneliness. Gidlow found Hall to be snobbish and condescending, and too in love with fine jewellery.

After Henry-Anderson’s death, Gidlow bought a parcel of land outside of San Francisco that she called Madrona. She lived there with her partner of the time, Isabel Quallo. The two of them traded up to a larger and more remote piece of land she named Druid Heights.

In 1960s, Druid Heights became a place of pilgrimage for artists, people interested in Taoism and Neo-Paganism, and for young lesbians who now regarded Gidlow as a kind of elder – a role she wasn’t always comfortable with. She lived at Druid Heights until her death in 1986.

She never stopped writing poetry. Editors urged her to write a novel, which would be more profitable. She did, but never enjoyed prose. She made her living mostly through freelance journalism, and some editorial work.

She continued to publish her poetry as well. Her first collection of poetry was On a Grey Thread, which came out in while she was in New York in 1923. She was still publishing at the end of her life – her last volume of poetry came out in 1982, and included recent work.

Gidlow was at the forefront of much what came to be thought of as lesbian culture in the 1970s. She was interested in goddess worship since her vision at the age of six in Tétreaultville, and later developed an interest in Guan Yin or Kannon, the Merciful Goddess of Buddhism and Taoism. This was later supplanted or supplemented by Wicca and Neo-Druidic concepts of the earth as Mother Goddess. She was anti-war as far back as World War I, and interested and supportive of trade unions in the days when “union” was still a dirty word. She was an anarchist, anti-capitalist, and egalitarian.

And Druid Heights was an early experiment in communal living, as well as a point of ferment for artistic and intellectual creativity. It drew feminists as diverse as Catharine MacKinnon and Margo St. James, spiritual leaders from American Taoist Alan Watts to Irish Neo-Druid Ella Young, and musicians from Dizzy Gillespie to Neil Young.

And naturally, it also drew lesbians and gay men. Young women came to find out what it was like to be a lesbian before the age of Gay Liberation. Major figures in the movement for lesbian equality – people like Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon – were in her circle of friends as well. Gidlow no longer needed to wander the world to find “her kind.” She’d created a place where they could come to her.

Gidlow thought of herself before anything else as a poet. So in closing, we’ll leave Gidlow with part of a poem she wrote when she was nineteen, and still was still in Montreal, “To The Unknown Goddess”:

There is pain here, and tears,
Bitter, terrible tears;
But the joys have warm mouths, and madness
Dances downward with the years.

Come to me at the top of the world,
O Mine. The valley is deep.
The valley is overfull of the dying
And those who sleep.

But here Heaven’s winds blow
And the pines sing
one song:
Come to me at the top of the world,
Come soon. I have waited too long.

In my next entry, we’ll be turning to Roswell George Mills, and the community he was at the centre of.

Sources: By far my best source is Elsa Gidlow’s own very detailed autobiography, Elsa Gidlow: I Come With My Songs. I also used her final volume of poetry, Sapphic Songs: Eighteen to Eighty. A few details were drawn from the website of Les Archives gaies du Quebec, which holds what might be the last surviving copy of Les Mouches Fantastiques. I drew a couple of minor details from Wikipedia and Who’s Who in Gay & Lesbian History (eds. Robert Aldrich and Garry Wotherspoon). I perhaps consecrated a little too much space to the battle with Lovecraft. However, I’d never seen it mentioned anywhere else – even Gidlow doesn’t include it in her autobiography – and it amused me because in spite of his views, I have a soft spot for Lovecraft’s stories. It’s also intriguing because even during his own lifetime, Lovecraft was often seen as gay – to the point where his friends have had to defend his heterosexuality by trotting out a quote from his ex-wife that during their brief, unhappy marriage, he was “adequately excellent” in bed. Anyone “defending” Lovecraft from “charges” of homosexuality have also used another quote, in which Lovecraft says he knew about homosexuality among the “ancient nations,” but hadn’t realized homosexuality still existed until he was more than thirty. Since he writes with revulsion about homosexuality and Oscar Wilde here at the age of 27, this is clearly not true. The details of her battle with Lovecraft come from the April 2007 issue of The Fossil, a publication devoted to the history of amateur journalism, and from H. P. Lovecraft’s own Collected Essays, Volume 1: Amateur Journalism

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In John Barton’s introduction to Seminal: The Anthology of Canada’s Gay Male Poets, he describes what he calls “a gaydar moment.” For Canada’s earliest poets, we can only speculate on their sexuality – educated guesses based on their work, their lives, and the context of their times.

The few openly gay literary critics working on Canada’s poets know that we have to be conservative.

Still, Barton and Billeh Nickerson are able to give us two poets whose work was published before the end of World War I, and who may have been gay. Frank Oliver Call (1878-1956) was an Anglophone poet from Quebec’s Eastern Townships who’s thought of as a bridge between traditional and modern poetry in Canada. Émile Nelligan (1879-1941) was one of Quebec’s greatest poets and famous tragic figure.

Meanwhile, another early poet, Elsa Gidlow is the first individual we know about to identify as “homosexual” in the country. She gives us both our first poetry openly about same-sex love, and our first descriptions of Montreal’s queer community. She deserves her own article, and I’ll be devoting the next few entries to her life and the circles she travelled in.

As for Nelligan and Call, neither were “out” publicly – and neither of them are on this list without controversy. Still, their work seems to include what some of us see as a “gay sensibility.” Elements of gay life or gay aesthetic haunt the edges of it. Neither were married, or otherwise connected romantically to any woman. Call incorporated homosexuality clearly into his writing, though in Nelligan’s work there are only suggestive hints. We’ll deal with Nelligan first.

Émile Nelligan

In the bookstore a block from my home, there’s a large photo of Émile Nelligan in the window. It’s the same photo used on every book about Nelligan’s life. And there are many books. While English Canada has largely forgotten its 19th-century poets, Nelligan still looms large in French Canada, as much for the myth of his life as for his work.

Émile Nelligan was born in 1879 to a French-Canadian mother and an Irish immigrant father. He famously didn’t get along with the father. Nelligan was a child prodigy in poetry and knew he wanted to be a poet from an early age. David Nelligan wanted his son to enter a better-paid profession.

Nelligan was first published at age sixteen. He wrote prolifically throughout his teenage years, published (much of it under pseudonyms), gave readings, and was part of the Montreal literary scene.

Then in 1899 – before his 20th birthday – he had a breakdown that is now believed to have been the onset of schizophrenia. He was hospitalized, and never left the hospital. He died in 1941, having spent two-thirds of his life in an asylum. He only became famous after his complete works were published in 1903, and though he had visitors in the hospital, it’s said he never knew that he came to be considered one of French Canada’s greatest poets.

The brief spark of genius followed by more than forty years of insanity meant that Nelligan’s life leant itself easily to myth. The most famous of these myths was that his breakdown was caused by his having an anglophone father and a francophone mother, and could not reconcile the two cultures – an object lesson for nationalists on the danger of mixing cultures, and a metaphor for Quebec in Canada.

Few of Nelligan’s biographers take this theory seriously now. But these days they have to increasingly address another theory – that Émile Nelligan was gay.

Nelligan literary critic Émile J. Talbot summarizes the debate, and provides his own opinion in a discussion of the tension between sexuality and religion in Nelligan’s work:

Armand Laroche, in his play Nelligan blanc (1981), suggested that Nelligan was a homosexual, a condition that, if true, would be sure to heighten his anxiety in matters sexual. This suggestion has since been repeated by others, notably by Aude Nantais and Jean-Joseph Tremblay in their play Nelligan déchiré. There is, however, no textual, biographical, or historical evidence for such a hypothesis, and it has not been endorsed by any scholar of Nelligan. Since homosexuality would not have been a subject of discourse in nineteenth-century Quebec, the absence of evidence itself is not, in itself, proof of the absence of the fact.

Talbot goes on to say, with refreshing honesty, that he will assume Nelligan is straight unless there is evidence to the contrary. He is far from the only scholar to adopt an “innocent until proven gay” position when it comes to understanding historical figures, but he is one of the very few to admit it clearly.

To his credit, he also admits that nothing is known about Nelligan’s sex life, if any. Some of his biographers tell us that he claimed to be celibate, either because he was married to the muse of poetry or because he was a devout Catholic, but there’s no real proof even for this.

I disagree with Talbot that we should assume the heterosexuality of Nelligan without any hard evidence either way. It suggests that queer people were rare birds among Montreal’s poetry scene – and when we get to the next entry, we’ll see that that’s simply not the case.

When academics look at the things that influence a poet’s work, they tend to go to the books they were reading, especially other poets.
All that is good – and supports my point given that those authors for Nelligan were Rimbaud, Verlaine, and Baudelaire. But sometimes it’s worthwhile just to walk in the poet’s footsteps and see what they saw.

Nelligan began going out of long walks at night in the last two years of his life. Nobody knows where he went. And I hope the reader will bear with me as we walk through this literary mystery.

Émile Nelligan’s neighbourhood is remarkably well-preserved. The old greystone attached houses with their carved porches maybe beautiful to those of us raised on glass and concrete, but to Nelligan they were part of an urban jungle that the speakers in his poems always seemed to want to escape. And north, east, and south, it’s old grey stone as far as the eye can see.

If you walk a quarter of a block to the Rue Napoléon, though, and walk a few minutes west, you come to the eastern slope of Mount Royal – the city’s largest park, and a paradise for anyone wanting to get away from the city. There the maple trees and birches that line the streets give way to the trees that fill Nelligan’s poems: yews, cypresses, white poplars. You’ll also see other objects, like statues, that seem to fill what could be called his “park at night” poetry.

Reading Nelligan’s work and walking the park, it feels impossible not to conclude that you’re looking at the places in the park poems – and very likely that Nelligan spent at least part of those long nights wandering the forest that was practically his own backyard. But by the time you get to the trees on that eastern slope, you’ve already entered a place long known to Montrealers in the know as “The Jungle.”

No one knows how old “The Jungle” is. The men who cruise there tend not to write memoirs about it. It looms large in gay fiction in Quebec, and as early as 1954, there was an official study of it. Historian Luther A. Allen tells us that “It is plausible in fact that well before the 1930s, gay cruising had established itself on the trails.”

How much earlier? Parc Mont-Royal’s sister park – Central Park in New York – became a cruising spot almost instantly after it had opened, and Mount Royal in the 1890s was close to the nascent gay neighbourhood in the red-light district on Saint-Laurent, “The Sodom of North America” where there had already been a bust of a brothel of male prostitutes (more on this in a future article). Montreal already had a cruising area on the Champs-Mars behind city hall, but the public had begun to notice it, and the mountain was closer to the red-light district. So it would be very, very surprising if there wasn’t already gay cruising there in the 1890s.

If there was a gay cruising spot on the mountain, and Nelligan was there, did he notice it? For evidence of that, we turn to his poetry. There are frequent references to public sex in parks at night in his poems – the “large parks where Love plays under the trees” (“Rhythms of the Night”). In these places,

The languorous, beautiful yews, and the white poplars that become sad,
Cast shadows over the green nests of love. (“Dream of Fantasy”)

Similar imagery is also called up in “Night Seeds Love”:

The night seeds love, and the Fertility Festival [rogations]
Gets down on its knees with Dream.

Then there’s “Force Back the Dirt Path”:

Force back the trail
Almost being reborn
To our passing shadow.

Speak there
With all that
Which was from the villa

Among hushed voices
Old statues
Are here and there knocked over.

In the dead park
Where roams a perfume
Of white night in brown night.”

In another poem –“Under the Satyrs” – he personifies his pain as a person he has clasped to him in “cloistered in the back of old, close pavilions” under “under the darkness of rustic/Trees that emit an opiate perfume.” In a poem from his asylum days, he writes, “On the side of the mountain a spring [of water] sings/A spring of love and of beautiful youth.”

Why all this imagery of parks and darkness and “green nests of love”? Much of this poetry comes out of that period of Nelligan’s life when I suspect he was wandering the mountain behind his house.

Almost all critics have seemed to have assumed that the “green nests of love” were full of heterosexual couples. This strikes a false note with me. Even today – post-sexual-revolution, post-pill, in an age where the parks are better lit and better policed – most women would think twice about following a man onto trails into Parc Mont-Royal at night. Women in Nelligan’s time were even more vulnerable.

Meanwhile, most of the prostitution at the time seemed to be going on in indoors, in the semi-tolerated (heterosexual) brothels in the red-light district. Most arrests for heterosexual prostitution I’ve found in this period in my research took place in “disorderly houses.”

At the same time, most arrests I’ve found for gay sex took place in public. It was tolerated nowhere, so the safest option was the parks and other dark places outdoors – far from everyone.

This concatenation of possibilities doesn’t actually prove anything. But none of these possibilities are farfetched. I’d even argue that it was likely that Nelligan spent at least some of his night walks wandering the mountain behind his house, and the cruising likely already going on up there was mentioned in his poetry – mentions that seem to include him implicitly.

One of the things Nelligan biographers have to wrestle with are the bizarre contradictions in his personality. Several of his biographers tell us that Nelligan was a Catholic so devout he gave up on romance with women, but also a bohemian whose favourite authors were the most irreligious crowd: Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Verlaine, and Charles Baudelaire. Réal Bertrand, tells us, “He wanted, more than anything, to imitate Rimbaud.”

These are extremely odd choices for a devout Catholic. Rimbaud, Verlaine, and Baudelaire were enormous critics of the Catholic Church.

There’s another connection between these authors. Rimbaud and Verlaine male lovers who went into exile, and fill the same place in France’s mythology of homosexuality that Oscar Wilde fills for Britain’s. Baudelaire, meanwhile, wrote frankly and openly about lesbianism. All three were required reading for anyone entering Montreal’s gay community just twenty years later, as the next few entries will show.

Then there’s the near-total lack of women in his life – only three or four in his circles of friends, and none of them seem to have been lovers. There’s a Gretchen mentioned in his poetry –a beautiful immigrant from Westphalia in Germany – but no one has ever connected her to a real person, and it’s as likely she’s as much a fiction as the perfect shepherds and beautiful salons in his other poems.

Sometimes, the fact that he wrote about being in love with women in his poems is taken as proof of his heterosexuality. But of course, it was a pretty common strategy for gay men from Marcel Proust to Oscar Wilde to disguise real-life same-sex relationships as heterosexual ones in fiction, and this held true for gay writers well into the 20th century. And even twenty years later, Elsa Gidlow would agonize over whether she should talk openly of her relationships in poetry, when lesbianism wasn’t technically illegal.

Nelligan liked scandal, he liked playing up the role of the rebel youth and the wounded lover – but there’s never a known romance of any kind in his life. It seems a strange gap for such a romantic. Meanwhile, his biographers all feel the need to inform us that all the men in his life – from the poet Louis Dantin to a painter who was a roommate of his friend – were beautiful. Dantin himself calls Nelligan “un éphèbe” – a beautiful young man – in his introduction to his works.

There are also the odd sexual notes in some of his poems written after he was committed to the asylum. In a rewrite of his most famous poem, “Le Vaisseau d’or,” usually taken to be about his insanity, he changes the famous lines, “And the horrific shipwreck sent its hull/To the depths of the Gulf, inescapable coffin” to “And the horrific shipwreck sent its three nudes [the sailors]/To the depths of an abyss in repulsive joy.”

Again, nothing here proves anything. Nelligan may indeed have been a celibate straight teenager, in love with the bohemian way of life.

But the theory that he was gay has a nice Occam ’s Razor feel to it. It explains why he was “celibate” in spite of being a bohemian, and it explains his obsession with Rimbaud and Verlaine and Baudelaire in spite of his Catholicism. It also fits all the imagery around breaking hearts easily into the life of a man who hardly had any women around him at all.

Most scholars just resort to platitudes like “He was a poet” or “He was insane” to explain these contradictions. The theory that he was gay covers all the contradictions much more elegantly. And while that doesn’t make it true, it means that it should not be so easily shoved aside. That Nelligan experts are quick to attack the theory probably tells us more about them than it tells us about our poet.

Frank Oliver Call

If you’re lucky enough to find Frank Oliver Call (1878-1956) mentioned anywhere, he’ll be praised as a “pivotal” figure – and that adjective is always used – between Victorian and Modernist poetry. That’s usually it. This being Canada, even the pivotal figures get forgotten. Call doesn’t have an entry in Canadian Encyclopedia, in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, or Wikipedia – all of which can be trusted to have at least a tiny article on the most minor of Canadian figures.

If you dig deeply enough, you’ll discover a few other things about Call. His parents names were Lorenzo and Sarah, he was educated at what’s now Bishop’s University in Lennoxville, Quebec, McGill University. He also studied in Paris and Marburg, Germany. He taught Modern Languages at Bishop’s, and there he was a mentor to a much more famous poet, Ralph Gustafson. He served in World War I. He had a cottage and a garden in Knowlton, where he specialized in irises and peonies. We also know from the manifesto at the beginning of his second collection of poetry that he wanted to strike a balance between modern and traditional poetry.

What you won’t find are any references to a wife or children, although I did finally in an American biographical dictionary that confirmed he was unmarried – a detail not in any Canadian source I have access to.

Unlike Émile Nelligan, whose personal life has been picked over endlessly in spite of the gaps, Call’s is almost a blank slate for us. The claim that Call was gay comes entirely from his poetry, particularly his anthology of homoerotic verse published in 1944, called Sonnets for Youth that included references to Greek myths such as the myth of Hyacinth. We’ll come back to this collection in a future article.

Interestingly, Call’s sexuality has once again sparked interest in his career. Since his inclusion in Seminal, when he’s discussed at all it’s usually as a gay poet.

During World War I, Call was already publishing. His first collection was In a Belgian Garden (1917) and his newer published poems came out in Acanthus and Wild Grapes. While these two books not as explicitly homoerotic as Sonnets for Youth, there are already hints of what’s coming later.

Beauty in Call’s first two collections is reserved entirely for the male, frequently disturbingly young. He focuses on the beautiful eyes, the “sun-browned skin,” and on their voices. Attractive young men singing appear again and again. His love poetry is quite erotic by the standards of the time, but always in the second person, carefully avoiding any revealing pronouns. And like Britain’s gay war poet Wilfred Owen, Call is very focused on the youth and beauty of the young men sacrificed to the war.

Meanwhile, Call’s poetry is largely an all-boys club. When he promises he’ll “sing of the men of the Homeland,” it certainly seems to be true. Women aren’t absent but they are rare. In his first collection, they are mostly old women or nuns, and strangely disembodied. In his second, Beauty gets personified as a beautiful woman, but none of the more real ones do.

The Work to Be Done

Researching which poets of the 19th century may have been homosexual or bisexual, one runs into the immediate problem that Canadians do very little to remember their poets of the era, even though poetry commanded so much respect in previous centuries.

When Elsa Gidlow describes the Montreal artistic scene a mere twenty years later, homosexuals and bisexuals seem to be a central part of it. We have no key yet to let us into the earlier period when Nelligan was writing, or before. But it is very doubtful that one of the few professions that was kind to homosexuals and bisexuals in the West was lacking queer members, even in Canada.

It certainly wasn’t in Gidlow’s time. In the next two articles, we’re going to look at Gidlow – openly lesbian poet, co-founder of the first Canadian magazine of poetry and gay liberation (in 1917!), and first inside chronicler of a gay community in Canada.

Sources: This may be the first article in this blog I actually have the formal education to back me as an “expert,” since I did my degree in Canadian literature. The first source and inspiration for this article is Seminal: The Anthology of Canada’s Gay Male Poets by John Barton and Billeh Nickerson. For Nelligan’s life I used numerous biographies and scholarly studies. Most useful to me were Réal Bertrand’s Émile Nelligan, Reading Nelligan by Émile J. Talbot, and the description of him by his friend Louis Dantin reprinted in the 2008 Typo editions of his complete works – which is also my source of his poems. I also used Poemes Et Textes D Asile, a collection of his work put out after he was committed to the hospital. All translations here are my own – I’ve tried to be scrupulous. I should note that I’ve tried to err on the conservative side. I haven’t noted that the phrase I translated as “fertility festival” – rogations – is actually a Catholic mutation of the Roman festival of Robigalia, which celebrated the fertility of crops, and (inexplicably) male prostitutes. It is doubtful though not impossible Nelligan knew this, just as it’s doubtful but not impossible that he knew the homoerotic Greek myths surrounding the cypress tree and the swan, which appear frequently in his poems. Dantin dismissed Nelligan’s learning and says he got it all from other poets, but his vocabulary was impressive and includes a great many obscure words you’re not even going to find in most Larousse dictionaries, and obscure facts you’re not going to find in the encyclopedia. For the mountain and “The Jungle,” see “L’Aventure sexuelle clandestine: le cas de mont Royal” by Luther A. Allen in Sortir de l’Ombre: Histoires des Communautés lesbienne et gaie de Montréal. I rounded it out with a trip up the mountain – starting from Nelligan’s home at 3958 avenue Laval – and comparing what I saw with what was in his poetry. The cruising ground on the Champ-Marshas been mentioned in a previous article. A note to anyone researching this subject is that there’s a purely fictional set of notebooks for Nelligan written by Bernard Courteau – but you’ll only learn they’re fiction by reading the endnotes. They make Nelligan seem like a postmodernist who’s read far too much Julia Kristeva, though Courteau claims it’s extensively well-researched -and I was sad to learn they’re fiction as they supported my case quite well. As for Call, researching him almost exhausted my talents, and my schooling had prepared me well for digging up obscure Canadian authors. Tiny biographical blurbs can be readily found online, but they’re vague and copy each other. My best source was a set of primary texts – articles, photos, etc – put up online by his nephew at frankolivercall.org, as well as his own books of poetry and the brief blurb in Seminal. Some details – such as his having been unmarried – can be found in Who Was Who Among North American Authors – no author or editor for this excellent resource, just credited to the Gale Research Company. There was information there not in any other print or online source.

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