Archive for the ‘lesbian/bi women’s history’ Category

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

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

The Women at Mills’ Parties

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Did they make love?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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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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I’ve already written about the European reaction upon learning that the First Peoples of North America did not share their neurotic prejudice against homosexuality and gender variance.

The Jesuits and the French explorers brought back stories of Two-Spirit men “given to sodomy” and “Hunting Women” with wives. Later, British explorers brought back similar accounts. George Catlin said that the Two-Spirit tradition must “be extinguished before it can be more fully recorded.” Sadly, that’s exactly what happened in many places.

In the early days of British rule, British traders and explorers were still dependent on the First Nations for trade and survival, and generally did not interfere directly in their traditions. But they wrote with amused horror at what they called the “berdache,” for their British and colonial audience, describing the religious ceremonies, traditions, and identities around the gender-variant/homosexual/bisexual people among the peoples who were here first.

Alexander Henry gives this account of a man named Ozawwendib, or Yellow Head. He was the son of an Ojibwe chief at what’s now Leech Lake in Minnesota, but was then British territory as part of the Hudson Bay Company:

Berdash, a son of Sucrie [Sucre, Sweet, or Wiscoup] arrived from the Assiniboine, where he had been with a young man to carry tobacco concerning the war. This person is a curious compound of man and woman. He is a man both as to his members and his courage, but pretends to be womanish, and dresses as such. His walk and mode of sitting, his manners, occupations, and language are those of a woman.

Henry goes on to praise the “Sodomite’s” courage and speed, but also portrays him as wild and drunk.

Another explorer – the Northwest Company’s David Thompson – described a Two-Spirit person he encountered in what’s now Washington State, but whom he had met previously in British Columbia. He described this person, Kaúxuma Núpika, as:

…apparently a young man, well dressed in leather, carrying a Bow and Arrows, with his Wife, a young woman in good clothing, [who] came to my door and requested me to give them my protection; somewhat at a loss what answer to give, on looking at them, in the Man I recognised the Woman who three years ago was the wife of Boiverd, a Canadian and my servant; her conduct then was so loose that I had requested her to send him away to her friends, but the Kootenaes were also displeased with her; she left them, and found her way from Tribe to Tribe to the Sea. She became a prophetess, declared her sex changed, that she was now a Man, dressed and armed herself as such, and also took a young woman to Wife, of whom she pretended to be very jealous: when with the Chinooks, as a prophetess, she predicted diseases to them, which made some of them threaten her life, and she found it necessary to endeavour to return to her own country at the head of this river.

In the early 1800s, these kind of descriptions were common from Europeans who lived among First Nations people in western Canada. Another Northwest Company official — Charles Mackenzie — wrote that the men of the Crow Nation were “much addicted to an abominable crime, the crime of sodomy.” James Mackenzie said that that the Naskapi Innu people of what’s now northern Quebec and Labrador “are libidinous and accused of sodomy.”

Dictionary-makers dutifully recorded translations for “Berdash” and “Sodomy,” along with other mundane words in common use. For example, Edward F. Wilson’s dictionary of “Ojebway” for missionaries helpfully tells us that the word for “Sodomy” is poodjedeyáwin, should the ministers need to use this word in any sermon.

These descriptions began to fade in the second half of the 1800s, at least in Canada. By the end of the 1800s, the Two-Spirit tradition had disappeared completely from white view, to the point where the missionary Adrien Morice claimed that he thought it was strange that the Dakelh people of what’s now central British Columbia had a myth about sodomy, as “They know the crime in neither name nor deed.” Such a claim would not have been any First Nations a hundred years before.

Morice was very excited about this story, in which a man mutilates and then murders another man (actually a woodpecker in a man’s shape) who tries to have sex with him. When he returns with his victim’s head, his country and home burn until the head is returned to his cousin. Although it is the murderer and not the victim who is punished with fire, Morice sees the story as a slightly-mangled version of the Sodom and Gomorrah story. With a little too much enthusiasm, he tells us,

Can sodomy be more graphically described or its punishment better assimilated to that of the ungodly inhabitants of the plain cities?
The husband here, no less than the God-fearing Lot of the Bible, escapes free ; while the cause of the conflagration, the voluptuous young man, in common with the majority of the population, pays with his life for his unnatural crime.

The Dakelh with their supposed Sodom story were an exception, however – by the 1890s, there was no mention of “sodomy” in any missionary journals or ethnographies that I’ve found in Canada, even as a denial.

This was quite a change. Missionary and explorer accounts in the early 19th-century and before had described homosexuality and gender-variance in peoples as diverse as the Naskapi in the east and the Ktunaxa in the west – and especially the Ojibwe in the middle. Homosexuality and gender-conformity had once been part of the popular narrative that treated First Nations as dangerously “uncivilized,” and white culture as superior.

The Disappearance of the Ceremonies

There’s no dispute that these Two-Spirit identities and traditions existed. The “dance of the Berdache” among the Sauk peoples, the view of Two-Spirits as sacred among the Ojibwe, the various third- and fourth-gender practices on the plains and elsewhere – these things are well-documented in both oral histories and the written histories of explorers. There’s also no disputing that at some point these practices disappeared – destroyed, all agree, by the colonizing culture.

But the precise path that destruction took is very hard to track. In the months this blog has been on hiatus, I’ve been poring over penitentiary records and the reports of the North-West Mounted Police to parliament, and debates in parliament, as well as books written by and about Two-Spirit people in the modern day.

A description of the destruction of the Two-Spirit traditions might exist in oral histories of some nations, but I have no access to these. But no such stories have been mentioned in the books and pamphlets put out by Two-Spirit organizations, which makes me suspect that these histories, too, must’ve wiped out.

Still, we can build up a working theory from the evidence we do have.

First of all, the 19th-century Canadian justice system meticulously recorded the races of its prisoners, and there are very few “red indians” charged with sodomy, buggery, or gross indecency. The police had no qualms about arresting First Nations folk for other crimes, even minor ones, as the records the North-West Mounted Police were sending back to the government after 1873 show.

Furthermore, the colonial government had begun plans to assimilate the First Nations population as early as 1857. Throughout the late 1800s – and especially after the 1876 Indian Act – numerous laws were passed to control different aspects of the cultures of the First Nations. But the ceremonies surrounding Two-Spirits are never mentioned. Surely they would’ve been a target, if they were still around.

Lastly, the reports of traders, explorers, and missionaries before 1850 commonly mention Two-Spirit traditions and individuals, while later reports don’t mention it at all. By the late nineteenth century, Two-Spirits have completely vanished from the Canadian record – although not from the American one, which continues to record Two-Spirit people among the A:shiwi (Zuni), Diné Bikéyah (Navajo), and Absaroka (Crow) nations into the 1890s.

These three things make me suspect that the ceremonies and identities around Two-Spirits were destroyed in Canada early in the nineteenth century. And because of the time frame – before the government had the means or legal apparatus to prosecute First Nations people for any crimes in their own territory – I suspect it was conversion, and not the law courts, that did the damage. While it’s only a guess at this point given the lack of evidence, it seems probable that missionaries rather than the police who forced the shift.

This would fit with the growing body of essays and other works by Two-Spirit writers, who point out that the missionaries’ attempts to introduce homophobia along with Christianity worked all too well, and they now face serious discrimination in communities whose ancestors once honoured them.

Judging by the disappearance of Two-Spirit people from the missionary and explorer records by halfway through the 1800s, I’m guessing that the ceremonies honouring Two-Spirit folk were already gone in Canada by the second half of the 19th century.

It’s possible some of it continued in disguised form in different ceremonies after that, but as the government clamped down on these ceremonies as well starting in the late 19th century, any vestige of the older ways would’ve been broken.

Lately, the First Nations in Canada have been experiencing a resurgence of their numbers, and a renaissance of their culture and traditions. In the early 1990s, this renaissance sparked a renewed interest in the Two-Spirit traditions. The term “Two-Spirit” was coined in English at a conference at Winnipeg in 1990, an exact translation of the traditional Ojibwe term niizh manidoowag. The phrase has since been adopted by Two-Spirits in the US as well.

But these new developments will have to wait for later entry. For now, though, we turn toward the emerging voice in the late 19th and early 20th century, of the earliest lesbian and gay writers and poets.

Sources: The Catlin quote comes from his book Letters and notes on the manners, customs, and condition of the North American Indians from 1844. Alexander Henry gives his account of Ozawwendib in his published journals with David Thompson from 1799-1814. He never uses the name Ozawwendib, which is supplied by another trader, John Tanner. The description of female-bodied Two-Spirit can be found in David Thompson’s narrative of his explorations in Western America, 1784-1812 the Charles Mackenzie quote comes from Les Bourgeois de la Compagnie du Nord-Ouest, which was published by the North-West trading company. The James Mackenzie quote comes from the same book. Edward F. Wilson’s 1874 dictionary is titled The Ojebway Language. Missionary Adrien Morice’s bizarre reading of the Dakelh story comes from his book Three Carrier Myths, published in 1895. For information on crime and punishment by the North-West Mounted Police, I looked over the reports they sent to parliament in the Sessional Papers for the late 19th century. Those are a gold mine of information, and have probably supplied about half of my information for the 19th century on any topic — I still haven’t finished examining the penal records, though, so there may be more in there. For the other point of view, I went to some of the recently-published works and studies, including Becoming two-spirit : gay identity and social acceptance in Indian country by Brian Joseph Gilley, and Two-spirit people : Native American gender identity, sexuality, and spirituality by various authors, edited by Sue-Ellen Jacobs, Wesley Thomas, and Sabine Lang, and Two spirit people : American Indian, lesbian women and gay men by Lester B. Brown. All of them had little on Two-Spirit history, most of that American, and most of it from the same explorers’ and missionaries’ stories I’ve been using. There was nothing whatsoever on the disappearance of the traditions, except to say that they indeed disappeared. I’ve rounded this out with information from Two-Spirit websites and pamphlets, and Wikipedia’s article. None of the e-mails I’d sent in enquiry to Two-Spirit organizations when I did my original article on this ever received a reply – understandable, but still disappointing.

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Volunteer educators wearing ribbons and going into public schools – often over the objections of parents – to talk about sex with pre-teens and teenagers. Doctors addressing the topic of STDs and disease prevention in the media. Pamphlets and books urging parents and teachers to talk about sex with their children.

For the readers of this column, I suspect these images would more likely conjure up the work of the post-AIDS education movement than anything that happened a century ago. This, though, is the social Purity movement, Canada’s most powerful movement in the late 19th century and the first decades of the 20th.

And while AIDS educators often had the secondary role of fighting homophobic bigotry, the Social Purity movement used similar methods to fan the flames of that homophobia to a panic level.


Before we can talk about the movement, we have talk about the concept of “degeneration,” which was popularized by an Austro-Hungarian intellectual by the name of Max Nordau and which was the basis of the idea of “social purity.” Canadian sociologist Mariana Valverde describes his major work, Degeneration:

Nordau claimed that fin-de-siècle decadence seen in such writers as Nietzsche and Oscar Wilde was rooted in physiological nervous-system decay and would lead to harmful evolutionary consequences, such as “hereditary hysteria,” if allowed to flourish. The artists and writers despised by Nordau were characterized as emotional, melancholic, and generally feminized; Nordau’s plan for regeneration thus involved both the purification and masculinisation of “the race.”

The theory went that immorality – as defined by the respectable Christian classes and their religious leaders – caused the brain and the rest of the nervous system to break down. Drinking and gambling could be a cause, and so could a lack of personal hygiene, but sexual immorality was what most interested the theorists of degeneracy.

Once the brain had begun to break down, they claimed, it would lead to further immorality – and a hardening of attitude that turned into contempt for conventional morality. This would cause the brain to break down further. This process would eventually cause the “degenerate” to turn to the most vicious of sexual crimes, by which was meant prostitution among women, and rape, incest, and – at the bottom of the list – homosexuality among men.

Worse, this was a Lamarckist theory. Lamarckism was the pre-Darwin form of evolutionary theory, and held that acquired traits could be inherited. The children of a man who’d developed his muscles, Lamarckists claimed, would grow muscles more easily than their father had. And the child of degenerates would begin life in a state of advanced degeneration, and would likely produce children even farther along the line – unless someone (such as a well-meaning Methodist) stepped in to intervene.

Since degeneration was considered easier that regeneration, and since it worked through temptation, it was thought that it would spread quickly and swallow whole cities, regions, and nations unless there was a constant effort to stop it. If degeneration were left unchecked, human civilization would rapidly crumble.

It’s easy to laugh at such ridiculous theories now, but this was considered mainstream science at the time. Even the most progressive organization at least paid lip service to it, and those who questioned it entirely were seen much as creationists are seen today.

Laughing at it might also be disrespectful to the millions of lives destroyed by this theory. “Degeneracy” was the kernel of belief at the centre of Nazi Party ideology. It also formed the theoretical underpinnings behind the residential school system here in Canada.

The Social Purity Movement in Canada

While the basic theory was taken as fact, there were many quibbles about the details. Were poverty or uncleanliness causes or symptoms of degeneration? Which races were the most degenerate – it being taken for granted that Anglo-Saxons were the most pure, thanks to generations of sexual repression. Were there any races that could not be regenerated?

The Social Purity movement was never a unified group. It was a series of organizations that occasionally came together to fight for specific causes or share information. Each had its own ideas, its own agenda, and its own theories around the causes and cures of degeneracy.

For this reason, they’re extremely hard to pin down on a modern political map. Social Purity groups fought for better conditions for the poor, better wages for women, and running water and sanitation in the slums. But they also fought immigration, and sometimes worked to bring an end to the influx of immigrants from China. They set up education programs, taught cooking and languages, but pressed for longer jail sentences for sex crimes and abortion. They promoted personal hygiene and the use of soap. They pioneered sociology in Canada. They set up missions to convert Catholics and non-Christian immigrants. They fought for (and in BC and Alberta, won) the forced sterilization of the mentally impaired. In short, they defied easy categorization as left- or right-wing or apolitical, and it was only after 1920 that the movement would divide strictly along left-versus-right lines.

The value system that linked all these things was the fear of “degeneracy.” Whether trying to get soap and clean water and good food to the desperately poor, or trying to keep so-called “degenerate races” out of the country, their goal was to prevent Canada from “degenerating” further, and to “regenerate” – through personal cleanliness, sexual repression, and Christian morals and prayer – those parts of society that had already begun to degrade.

The major players in the game were mostly Protestant churches – mostly the Presbyterians, the Methodists, and a theatrical Methodist breakaway group, the Salvation Army. Catholicism often had to defend itself from charges that the church was degenerate, and the church and the Catholic press frequently tried to demonstrate that they more pure that the Social Purity types.

Social Purity activists operated through organizations that ran the gamut from the moderate National Council of Women (which controversially broadened the fight against degeneracy to allow Catholics and Jews into the movement) to the extreme Lord’s Day Alliance (which fought stores opening on Sunday, and which considered the adding of Saturday to the weekend to be a Jewish plot). They included the Methodist-run Social and Moral Reform Council, and the YM- and YWCAs. They included many doctors and medical organizations, and their ideas were promoted in medical journals.

Social Purity and Homosexuality

Although it took up a number of issues, the movement is now often best remembered now for its focus was sex. In particular, its activists were obsessed with prostitution and incest and pornographic images of women. “Purity workers” went into schools to teach “sex hygiene” classes, or what we would call abstinence-only sex education. They raised panics claiming that secret, underground rings of forced prostitution formed a web across the country.

Most of the literature focuses on “degenerate” women, usually described her worst form as a “fallen woman,” or prostitute. Degeneration was thought to cause its victims to deviate from gender norms, and the “fallen woman” was usually portrayed as lacking in feminine modesty and delicateness.

Female homosexuality, though, was almost never even hinted at. I did find one 19th-century Canadian medical journal in French that warned against “tolerated houses” – legalized houses of prostitution – claiming that Paris’s tolerated houses were practically “schools of tribadism.” “Tribadism” was the old word for lesbianism, and – dating to 1893 – it’s the first unambiguous mention of lesbianism I’ve found in any Canadian source.

Male homosexuality, meanwhile – though rarely mentioned directly – was universally present as the subtext of all fears of male “degeneration.” It’s no accident that Nordau’s archetypes of degeneracy were Oscar Wilde (who was not yet Europe’s most famous sodomite, but who was suspiciously effeminate) and Friedrich Nietzsche (the German philosopher whose love of young men were already the stuff of rumour in his lifetime). It’s also no accident he singled out artists as “degenerates,” and gave “effeminacy” as a primary trait of degeneracy.

Nor did these associations always remain on the level of subtext. One wing of the Social Purity movement talked openly of sexual “deviance,” fearing that if young people didn’t know about it, degenerate predators might take advantage of their ignorance. The movement’s most popular sex education textbook, an American work published in 1894 called Light on Dark Corners, speaks about homosexuality openly and puts it at the top of its list of “Startling Sins”:

1. Nameless Crimes.—The nameless crimes identified with the hushed-up Sodomite cases; the revolting condition of the school of Sodomy; the revelations of the Divorce Court concerning the condition of what is called national nobility, and upper classes as well as the unclean spirit which attaches to “society papers,” has revealed a condition which is perfectly disgusting.

Another section of Light on Dark Corners lumps “Sodomy” in as one form of Satyriasis – male sexual obsession – and describes it as a physical disease that can be transmitted along with gonorrhoea and syphilis. This fits more with the descriptions of other forms of degeneracy.

What’s interesting about the first description, though, is how it associates homosexuality with the upper classes. Virtually all the literature the Social Purity movement produced around “degeneracy” focused on the slums. Prostitution, alcoholism, and incest were believed to be exclusively or almost exclusively working-class traits.

Homosexuality, though, was different. The homosexual degenerate could infiltrate the halls of prestige and power through its salons, and find an audience to spread its degeneracy and corrupt the populace.
Not that the idea of homosexuality as a corrupting influence was new. Edward Gibbons had claimed that it had helped bring down the Roman Empire. Now, though, degeneracy theory claimed to show the scientific (and medical) process that caused homosexuality to bring down Rome.

If it could happen to Rome, it could happen anywhere. Canadian Social Purity activists were determined not to let it happen in their new, pristine nation. After all, not only were hey building a moral, Christian nation, but degeneracy was thought to cause physical deterioration as well as mental collapse, and large strong men were needed to clear the trees, work the farms, and operate the machinery in the factories. In short, sexual immorality was thought to dissolve muscle tissue and leave one less energetic.

One wonders what the Purity activists might have thought of today’s bodybuilders at a gay gym.

Again, these ideas were very much mainstream. A major medical journal — The Canadian Practioner — mentioned in 1895 that several medical journals were calling for castration of homosexuals and other sex criminals. It added, “The arrest and imprisonment of Oscar Wilde for a ‘nameless crime’ and the recent exposure of the perverted sexual sense among many of the British aristocracy has awakened a feeling among many that imprisonment or fine is too mild a dose for such moral debauchees.”

Social Purity’s Legacy

In many ways, this movement is the thread that tied together the growth of homophobia in different areas of Canadian society. The Social Purity movement helped turn the tide of tolerance that the Enlightenment had encouraged by giving a veneer of science to homophobic neurosis. Arguments that homosexuality should be a religious and not a legal problem were silenced by making it seem instead like a threat to civil society.

The movement as a whole was ambivalent about politics, which seemed corrupt. But Social Purity activists had no problem accepting government funding, or lobbying governments for changes to the law. It was in part the influence of the movement that put “gross indecency” in the criminal code in 1890 and 1892, and strengthened the maximum sentence – when the law was questioned, after all, Minister of Justice John Thompson defended it on the grounds that it was necessary to stop homosexuality from spreading.

The Social Purity movement also helps explain why the Canadian Secret Service had to get involved in the first police raid on a gay space. If “degeneracy” could eat up Canada from the inside, then it was certainly a matter of national security.

Social Purity’s insistence on talking about sexual “deviance” in public, meanwhile, meant that homosexuality began to get covered in outraged news articles and editorials demanding a cleaning up in the streets. It was the topic of journalistic exposés, moral poetry, and in the novels of some of the country’s best-known authors.

In my next entry, we’ll turn to the growing number of discussions of the “problem” of homosexuality in the media – in newspapers, non-fiction books, poetry, and novels.

Sources: My best source is The Age of Light, Soap, and Water: Moral Reform in English Canada, 1885-1925 by Mariana Valverde – this is, in fact, the best on the social purity movement in Canada out there. It has one odd flaw – though written as recently as 1991, it never once mentions the moral reformers’ obsession with homosexuality. This I reconstructed myself from primary sources – such as Light in Dark Corners, legal debates and newspaper articles previously cited and those that will be cited in the next article. This is especially strange, as she lists all their other obsessions exhaustively. Among the primary sources used here are Shedding Light in Dark Corners by B.G. Jeffris and J.L. Nichols, Max Nordau’s Degeneration (an 1895 edition in English with uncredited translation), the 1893 journal of L’Union médicale du Canada (Vol. 22, no. 11), and the September 1895 issue of the Canadian Practitioner (Vol. 20, no. 9). My interpretations have also been influenced by the readings sourced in the last three articles. As always, I turned to Wikipedia to flesh out details, and find names and dates.

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Changing Views on Homosexuality in the West

By the mid-1800s, most of Europe had stopped executing “sodomites.” The United Kingdom and Canada were among the last to end the death penalty, but finally followed suit in the 1860s.

In 1868, Europe got its first gay-rights activist. Homosexual sexologist Karl Heinrich Ulrichs began publishing pamphlets under an assumed name, advocating the abolition of sodomy laws.

An ally of his was a heterosexual journalist and human-rights campaigner named Károly Mária Kertbeny, whose gay best friend had committed suicide after having been blackmailed. Kertbeny coined the term “homosexual” as an alternative to the bigoted phrases used up to that point. This joined a number of other phrases invented in the 1860s as non-insulting names for homosexuals – “the third sex,” “inverts,” “similisexuals,” and “urnings.”

In short, there were reasons to hope that things would get rapidly better. The spirit of the times was that of the Enlightenment: a questioning of the assumptions of the past, a declaration of the equality of all members of the human race, and a claim to individual freedom. It was the core belief of the Enlightenment that reason and science would fix all human problems, and that human beings were perfectible.

There was just one problem: very few Enlightenment thinkers were willing to take up the homosexual’s cause. Men like Jeremy Bentham, Ulrichs, and Kertbeny were the exceptions. Most saw us as a problem to be corrected through the proper application of science.

Of Sodomites and Homosexuals

Before we can tackle the prejudices of another age, we’re going to have to tackle the prejudices of this one.

Anyone who’s studied LGBT history seriously will have come across the name Michel Foucault pretty rapidly. Foucault was a French philosopher who is famous, among other things, for having studied the history of sexuality, and particularly that of homosexuality.

Foucault, his followers say, was of the belief that identity and sexuality were created by language and culture. He believed, they say, that exclusive homosexuality and exclusive heterosexuality were invented when medical science discovered these concepts – that until then, no one considered themselves gay or straight, there was no gay community nor culture. His famous phrase that, “The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species,” has become the rallying cry of this perspective in academia.

(“Temporary aberration” is always the phrase used by Foucault’s disciples, though this is a bad translation of the original. The word translated as “temporary aberration” — relaps — means “relapsed heretic” or “lapsed Catholic.” Thus it’s someone who returns to their original state, not someone who takes on a new, temporary one. This suggests that Foucault may have been misinterpreted somewhat.)

Now, LGBT history done since Foucault has done pretty much nothing but erode that view – exclusive homosexuality and heterosexuality were both known in Classical Greece and Rome, and in many places outside the West, and their origins (divine, inborn, or environment) have been debated by philosophers and medical theorists at least as far back as The Symposium of Plato some two and a half millennia ago. An anonymous work once believed to be Aristotle – an important thinker right up until modern times – suggested that some homosexually passive men were born that way. A medieval monk named Arnald of Verniolle said at his trial that God had made him gay.

There is also linguistic and literary evidence of gay communities going back at least to the 1600s, and at least one eminent historian – John Boswell – argues there’s evidence of gay communities in the 1000 s AD in Europe. Communities of exclusively homosexual men seem to appear in any city of sufficient size anywhere in the world at any point in history, regardless of other cultural considerations.

Yet in spite of all this, the theory that homosexuality is a modern invention that replaced a natural bisexuality has proven remarkably resilient, largely for ideological reasons. Worse, the theories have become increasingly distorted with each generation. Foucault’s own nuances have disappeared, and now periods like 17th-century France – when state-sanctioned burnings of homosexuals had greatly increased – are more and more being portrayed as bisexual Edens spoilt by the arrival of medical science.

Still, Foucault’s theories are not entirely without merit. While they very poorly frame the worldviews of gay men and lesbians at the time, they do accurately capture a shift in the views of the persecuting groups. The era’s defenders of morality lost interest in bisexuality, marginalizing it during this period, and psychiatry became absolutely obsessed with exclusive homosexuality or “inversion.”


The idea that an understanding of nature could teach people to be better human beings is an old one in the West. During the Age of Reason, the idea came back with renewed vigour – Francis Bacon, father of the scientific method, argued that human being should take their cues from nature. Philosophers Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau built government systems by imagining what human beings would’ve been like in nature – and coming to exactly opposite conclusions.

With the Enlightenment, these ideas went mainstream, and reason, science, and knowledge replaced religion as central idea of the West. Not surprisingly, science quickly turned its attention to human society and the human mind. Throughout the 1800s, the so-called “social sciences” were invented in their modern forms – economics, sociology, political science, and (most important for us) psychology.

It’s difficult not to be suspicious of the whole discipline of psychology when you’ve studied its history. That history is littered with the corpses of very strange theories, held to with quasi-religious fervour by a few psychologists who assert their authority and expertise over the common run of humanity who might question them. Each generation of new psychological theories wipes away the previous ones, and raises themselves up as modern gods.

This is especially obvious now when we read the theories of homosexuality popular in the mid-1800s and early 1900s. While some researchers (such as Ulrichs, Karl Westphals, and Paul Moreau) felt that homosexuality was inborn, the idea won out that that some or all cases of homosexuality were caused by nurture, not nature.

Historian Byrne Fone notes that “as early as 1852, some medical theorists distinguished between ‘innate’ and ‘acquired’ sexual characteristics.” It followed logically that – if homosexuality was dangerous to society – the “innate” homosexual had to be contained or controlled, to prevent the spread of “acquired” homosexuality.

Gradually, though, psychiatry came to be dominated by the theories of Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. These suggested that domineering mothers and passive or absent fathers were the cause of homosexuality. This theory still survives in pop psychology, and is often touted by the religious right when they wish to give a veneer of science to their arguments.

Psychiatry changed the landscape of homosexual life. Outside of gay history circles, it’s often been assumed these changes were for the better, but a closer look makes this idea suspect.

Arrests and convictions on charges relating to homosexuality greatly increased in this period in the English-speaking world. Parents were likely more willing to turn children over to a psychiatrist for a “cure” than to a tribunal for execution, but many of the methods used throughout Europe and North America for “treating” homosexuality – such as electroshock or castration – essentially constituted torture.

The Enlightenment had swept away the idea that a human being was fundamentally flawed, and hopeless without God’s intervention. Psychiatry now added the idea that the homosexual was often or always created, and could be contained or eliminated as part of the perfectibility of the human race that the Enlightenment had offered.

In early Canada, the law had been very rarely used against consensual homosexual couples – and apparently never for execution. However, those laws were changing, too.

Influenced by science, legal attitudes – which had been getting more permissive – began to get worse again. While execution never returned, new laws came into existence to help the police contain the danger homosexuality was seen to represent, and the flames of this terror were fanned by the new science of psychiatry. With the arrival of the modern police force and the penitentiary system in the 1830s, there was every sign that things were going to get a lot worse before they got better.

We’ll turn toward law enforcement and the police in our next instalment.

Sources: Many, although a good place to start would by Byrne Fone’s Homophobia: A History and John Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality. There is also Louis Crompton’s Homosexuality and Civilization. Foucault’s theories are laid out in his multivolume Histoire de la Sexualité, although my description of how those theories are used in universities is largely from personal experience. An excellent critique of this perspective can be found in the work of historian Rictor Norton, who blogs here.

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Seen from the point of view of the “sodomites,” the Conquest of Quebec was a mixture of good and bad. On the positive side, the Quebec Act of 1774 effectively legalized lesbian sex – England did not define female homosexuality as “sodomy.” It also brought in the principle of “innocent until proven guilty,” and introduced the jury system.

However, the Conquest also meant that New France passed from the hands of a country that was gradually becoming kinder to sodomites to one that was beginning to become more brutal. France had hit the peak of its executions in the 1600s, and would legalize homosexuality in just a few decades, while Britain – after centuries of denying that homosexuality even existed on its shores – had begun the with-hunt in earnest in the 1690s. It would continue to get worse until the early 1800s.

A gambler would be tempted to bet that things would actually become much worse in the future Canada, because of the 40,000 refugees pouring over the border after the American War for Independence – refugees from what had once been the most violently homophobic portion of the English-speaking world, probably even of European civilization. Puritanism had weakened somewhat, but the Puritans’ extreme homophobia seemed to have put a deep stamp on the American psyche that kept anti-sodomy laws on the books into the 21st century.

Canadian Silences

In spite of this mix of very volatile threads, the French-Canadian tradition of tolerance and the Loyalist Tory tradition of not-fixing-what-wasn’t-broken seem to have encouraged to look the other way. Just as England had done until the 1690s, Canadians seemed eager to keep up the pretence that homosexuality just did not happen within their borders.

Thus, when a Halifax newspaper printed a story of a British lord attempting to rape another man, it seems to be under the impression that its readers didn’t know what homosexuality was. Thus, even lawyers were confused about what the term “sodomy” meant. Thus, “sodomy” trials were rarely talked about in the press.

Yet, homosexuality was mentioned in the books Canadians read – mostly in travelogues and missionary accounts. There, they learnt that men married men in China, that a (black) Ugandan king’s same-sex desires led him to massacre countless innocents, and that the First Nations living on the great plains at the heart of North America celebrated rituals that respectable Europeans would find disgusting.

Homosexuality and race became linked in the public mind, and homophobia fed the Europeans’ growing sense of racial superiority – a subject I’ll return to later. The linking of race and homosexuality distanced Canadians from the reality of homosexuality in Canada. It was something that happened elsewhere, among non-Europeans.

“Sodomites” in early Canada

This belief that homosexuality was a purely foreign vice seems to have acted as a kind of protection. While many records are missing or impossible to access, the number of “sodomy” or “buggery” trials seems to have been very few, and all the ones before 1841 that I can find details of involve bestiality, same-sex rape, or paedophilia – all lumped under the same category of “buggery” as homosexuality between consenting adults. Among these, we have Thomas Clotworthy in Montreal, caught in bed with an eleven-year-old, and Jean-Baptiste Coulombe (also in Montreal) accused of raping another man who was probably named Pierre Courtois. Neither of these trials seem to have resulted in a “guilty” verdict. Even when it came to actual or statutory rape, the courts seemed willing to give a fair trial, and kept to the innocent-until-proven-guilty rule.

Moreover, when men start appearing in prisons for sex between consenting adults, it seems that the judges were lenient, that governors were willing to commute death sentences.

(This wasn’t unique to homosexuality – Canadian judges applied the death penalty less often than judges in other countries, and governors were constantly commuting sentences for a variety of crimes.)

When the penitentiary was built at Kingston, it brought with it a new paradigm – that the law didn’t exist to punish criminals, but to reform them. With that in mind, judges became less reluctant to issues sentences for sex between men, and the first consensual couples start appearing in the records.

Virtually every person I’ve found who was sentenced in Canada for gay sex throughout the nineteenth century was working class. The first couple to show up in the records were a pair of common labourers – 39-year-old English immigrant Samuel Moore and 27-year-old Irish immigrant Patrick Kelly. It would be fifteen years before a second couple – George Smith and George Hogg – arrived at the penitentiary.

As for the wealthy and the powerful, they managed to escape the full force of the law. Wealthy Scottish merchant Alexander Wood accepted quiet exile from Canada in exchange for silence – and then managed to return to the country after only a short time and re-establish himself.

Wood had been accused of abusing his power to see some soldiers naked. Though this was well known, Canadian high society chose to look the other way. Wood bought a plot of land that became knowing as a regular cruising ground – Molly Wood’s Bush – and this region later formed the heart of Toronto’s Church and Wellesley area.

George Herchmer Markland – the rising star of the colony’s elite, the Family Compact – was less lucky. His encounters with soldiers and possible attempt to buy the sexual services of a law student destroyed his career. The scandal was covered up, but Markland was still removed from the centre of power and almost completely erased from colonial high society and history.

Another powerful individual, the second-highest-ranking British medical officer in the Empire James Miranda Barry, was not even suspected during his stay in Canada, in spite of his unusual appearance. Barry – who was quite likely either intersexed or transgendered – seems to have had some difficulty “passing,” but his position as a member of the elite of colonial military officers seems to have protected him from excessive questioning. He was mostly known for his reforms that greatly improved the lives of soldiers.

While male homosexuality did occasionally become noticed by the courts or the ruling classes, female homosexuality remained completely invisible during this period. In fact, it was so invisible that the highly-conservative feminist movement of the 19th century felt safe using Sappho as an icon of female empowerment in the field of literature, without any apparent fear that it might taint them by association to “Sapphic love.”

Progress and Backlash

Given the silence, the secrecy – the simple fact that homosexuality just wasn’t on anyone’s radar – it’s probably not too surprising that in 1869, the new country quietly abolished the death penalty for “sodomy” without a second thought or any real debate.

This was part of a wave of political reform that had led to Confederation, and had swept the death penalty from the books for almost every crime – a wave that had begun in the very progressive province of Nova Scotia. Halifax had abolished the death penalty for “sodomy” as early as 1848.

After Confederation, however, things started to get much uglier. This is the time of the rise of extreme-racist “social Darwinist” movements that used immigration laws, government institutions, and propaganda to enforce their xenophobia.

Not surprisingly, this period from 1867 to the First World War also marks the first real rise in major persecutions against homosexuals and bisexuals in Canada – the first police raids, the first “education” movements, the first newspaper moral crusades, and the first public discussions about what to do with the “problem” of homosexuality.

It was also a time when the British government provided the model for a new tool with which to persecute homosexual and bisexual men – the “gross indecency” law.

Before we turn to this law, we’re going to have to look at the changing understanding of what homosexuality was, what caused it, and how to deal with the “problem” of people who had sex with people of the same sex.

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