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Champ-de-Mars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moïse Tellier’s Cake and Apples Shop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Guards at the Gate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Women at Mills’ Parties

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tommy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Did they make love?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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First, I’d like to apologize for the long hiatus. I haven’t abandoned this site — far from it. However, I’ve spent since April trying to scrape up information on a very buried part of Canadian history — the situation of the Two-Spirits in the early days of government assimilation programs — and every source of information I’ve turned to has run dry. I’ll be trying a few more things, and then I’ll post an entry in the coming week.

In the meantime, I’d like to plug a bill I wrote that will hopefully be before the House of Commons in the coming term. It was profiled on both Xtra.ca and Slap Upside the Head this week, and deals with the compensation of gay, lesbian, and bisexual veterans, calling for an apology, a change in the records, and compensation for victims of a homophobic policy brought in in World War II.

The NDP’s Peter Stoffer — critic for veteran’s affairs — is championing the bill. You can write him to voice your support and encouragement here:

House of Commons
Ottawa, Ontario
K1A 0A6
(No postage required)

Telephone: 613-995-5822
Fax: 613-996-9655
E-Mail: Stoffer.P@parl.gc.ca

The Liberals’ Judy Sgro — their critic for veteran’s affairs — is also interested:

(same address)
Telephone: 613-992-7774
Fax: 613-947-8319
E-Mail: Sgro.J@parl.gc.ca

So far, the Conservatives’ Peter McKay has been non-committal. Please write to him and encourage him to take these issues seriously:

(same address)
Telephone: 613-992-6022
Fax: 613-992-2337
E-Mail: Mackay.P@parl.gc.ca

Thank you in advance, and I’ll have another article here next week.

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For those who are keeping track of the out candidates and how they did in the election, I’m pleased to say that — in the election no one else is happy with — we did fairly well. The NDP managed to elect two of its six queer candidates, the Liberals elected three of their four, and Réal Ménard of the Bloc held on to his seat.

Every queer person who ran for re-election won — the Bloc’s Raymond Gravel has quit politics. Even the well-known closeted Conservative cabinet minister held his seat, though whether that’s a victory or not I leave to the reader to decide.

Here’s a breakdown, party by party.

NDP

Bill Siksay won his tightest race yet against Conservative challenger Ronald Leung in Burnaby-Douglas. That’s good, because Siksay has been the loudest voice in the House of Commons for LGBTQ rights since the retirement of Svend Robinson. He is the only critic for LGBTT issues in the House of Commons (the other parties don’t have one), and he has been tireless on the issues of same-sex marriage, queer refugees’ right to asylum in Canada, and trans rights.

Vancouver East’s Libby Davies was the first queer woman MP to come out, and is the NDP’s joint deputy leader. She is more focused on anti-poverty issues than on directly queer ones, but she was one of the passionate voices for same-sex marriage when the issue finally came to a head. One of her main goals now is keeping the Insite needle exchange program alive, which helps slow the spread of HIV infection. She won by her usual massive landslide.

A special mention should go to Thomas Mulcair. Though Mulcair is straight, anyone who becomes uncontrollably enraged by Conservative homophobic policies on immigration — as he did when the Conservatives decided not intervene in the deportation of Kulenthiram Amirthalingam — ought to have a place on this list, and an honorary place in our community.

Special mention, too, should be made of Megan Leslie, one of the NDP’s new MPs — a straight woman who co-founded the queer group OUTlaw at Dalhousie, who’s done work on trans rights, and worked with a number of queer organizations. She was misidentified as a queer woman in Xtra.ca before voting day, though it doesn’t seem to have hurt her in the Halifax election.

Liberal Party

In the 39th Parliament, the Liberals had matched the NDP two out MPs for two. In the 40th parliament, the Liberals have exceeded that number, and now have three.

Scott Brison is a fiscal conservative who’s always been socially liberal. When he came out in 2002, he said he was “not a gay politician, but a politician who happens to be gay,” and his career has mostly focused on business issues, on industry, and technology.

Still, being gay has changed the course of his career. Way back in 1999 — when the Liberal Party voted en masse against same-sex marriage — Brison was a Progressive Conservative who voted for it. When the Canadian Alliance party devoured the old Progressive Conservative one, Brison no longer felt comfortable in the homophobic atmosphere of the Harper Tories, and found a more natural home as a purely fiscal conservative in the Liberal Party.

He was the first openly gay cabinet minister in Canadian history, being named Minister of Public Works in Paul Martin’s government.

By contrast, Mario Silva has a much lower profile. Silva is a cabinet minister that most Canadians have never heard of, although he’s been recognized for his progressive views on environmental, labour rights, and immigration issues.

He hasn’t been lacking on queer issues, however, since he came out. He spoke out in favour of same-sex marriage, and quietly tried to use his influence in the Liberal Party to get the Immigration Officer to permit Juan Camacho to stay with his male common-law Canadian partner, in the days before universal same-sex marriage in early 2005.

Still, of all the LGBTQ MPs currently in the House, Silva is the most controversial. His first election in 2004, he was not yet out, and yet ran an against openly-gay social worker in the NDP, Rui Pires. Some in the riding have claimed that Silva was running a homophobic campaign against Pires, and making his sexuality an issue. If that’s true, I can’t find a solid trace of it in newspapers or in cyberspace.

What is certain is that Harper Conservative Theresa Rodrigues was running a homophobic campaign against both for their parties’ support of same-sex marriage, and most likely Pires — who was out — suffered the brunt of the damage as a result. Silva only came out of the closet after his election — he refused to answer questions about his sexuality until after he arrived in Ottawa.

A new face among the Liberals is openly gay United Church minister Rob Oliphant, who beat the Conservatives in Don Valley West. Again, he’s mostly an unknown quantity on the federal political scene, but he’s been deeply involved in both Toronto’s gay community, and a strong supporter of their community centre, the 519. He’s also been involved behind the scenes in the Liberal Party since the 1970s.

The Bloc Québécois

The Bloc had two out members last session. But pro-choice, gay Catholic priest Raymond Gravel was refused the right to run by the church, even though he abstained on all LGBTQ votes like same-sex marriage.

Réal Ménard was the second out MP. He came out in 1994 in parliament, speaking against Liberal backbencher Rosenanne Skoke’s objections to including “sexual orientation” in Canada’s hate-crimes law. His background is political science, and he’s been shuffled into every position in the Bloc’s shadow cabinet, from immigration to health care to defence to public housing.

He’s also the Bloc’s unofficial spokesman on all LGBTQ issues. In 2004, when Montreal’s Gay Chamber of Commerce invited all the candidates for the area to debate issues affecting queer people, Gilles Duceppe — who represents the riding — didn’t go personally but sent Réal Ménard as his representative. During the same-sex marriage debates, it was Ménard who led the attack for equal marriage on the Bloc side.

Green

Of course, the Green party didn’t win any seats. But the Green’s one out candidate, Andre Papadimitriou, did increase his party’s share of the vote in his Toronto riding from 3.75% to 5.1%.

Conservatives

In my last post, I mentioned there was a fiscal conservative cabinet minister whose homosexuality was an open secret in Ottawa, but that I wouldn’t out him here because his record on LGBT issues was good. Well, he too retained his seat.

It does make me wonder, though — would he still be with us if he’d come out in the last parliament? Would the ultra-conservative base of his party abandon him? Or would they have put partisanship and policy over personal disgust?

The Conservatives have run openly gay candidates, usually in urban ridings with large gay populations where they’re considered to have little or no chance of winning. These are usually fiscal conservatives who try to soften their party’s image for gay voters. Lorne Mayencourt and Chris Reid both come to mind. Chris Reid was primarily known for wanting looser gun control laws, while Mayencourt’s focus is lower taxes, and law and order.

I mentioned a debate held by the Gay Chamber of Commerce above. This was in Gilles Duceppe’s riding of Laurier-Sainte-Marie, which includes Montreal’s Gay Village, in 2004. I was at that debate, and that year the Conservatives were running an openly gay candidate in the riding named Pierre Albert. Albert’s defence of his choice to run for the Conservatives gave me some insight into the mind of an openly gay Conservative.

Albert was attacked from all sides throughout the debate. Put on the defensive for running for the Conservatives, Albert admitted that his party had an atmosphere of homophobia and a dangerous number of social conservatives. He argued that this was because the party was western-province dominated, and that the solution was for more socially liberal people from other parts of the country to join the party and change it from the inside.

He explained that as a fiscal conservative, he couldn’t join the Bloc or the NDP, and that while the Liberals espoused fiscal conservatism in theory, in practice they tended to make money disappear — frequently to their friends. He didn’t consider that fiscally responsible, so he felt he had nowhere else to go.

Albert’s arguments struck me, and I present them here because I’m still fascinated by the idea of gay fiscal conservatives trying to change the party from the inside. I wonder sometimes if this is what Mayencourt and Reid imagine they’ll one day be able to do.

If so, given their support outside the party — and the evangelical Christianity deeply entrenched within the party — it seems unlikely they’ll be able to transform the Harper Conservatives anytime.

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Happy Pride 2008!

I just wanted to wish a Happy Pride to those here in Montreal!

As of last July, gay sex has been legal only 39 years in this country. In that time, we’ve secured most of our basic fundamental legal rights. And while there’s a lot still to do on the government/legal front — not to mention working to change the social climate — it’s a good day to reflect how far we’ve come.

Thirty-nine years is nothing in historical time. We’ve come a long way in a short time.

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Canada got its “gross indecency” law five years after Britain did. The law was imported by an eager young law-and-order type named Sir John Thompson, who was at that time Minister of Justice in the cabinet of Prime Minister John A. MacDonald.

Thompson is a fairly important figure in Canadian legal history – the father of our criminal law, in fact. In 1892, he would also become our fourth prime minister, and in 1894 he would be dead – his life having ended quite suddenly (and embarrassingly) at a luncheon with Queen Victoria. In those four short years, Thompson managed to pass the gross indecency law twice.

When he introduced the bill the first time in 1890 as part of a short update of the criminal code, it was a precise copy of the Labouchère Amendment. His introduction of the law on April 10, 1890 is worth quoting in full:

”The third section of the Bill contains a penalty for gross acts of immorality committed in reference to a male person. We have upon that subject very little law, and we now have no remedy for offences which are now notorious in another country [Britain], and which have made their appearance in this country. I think, that a clause of that kind, which is in the English Act, shall be adopted here. I propose, however, in committee, to enlarge the maximum term of imprisonment from two years. In this class of offences, which, as I have said, obtained some notoriety in the mother country, and which have made their appearance here in one or two places, the maximum penalty of two years imprisonment is, I think, entirely inadequate.”

Sadly, Thompson doesn’t give us any details of the “one or two places” where gross indecency has begun to appear in Canada.

There was some argument in committee about the wording of the bill. No one objected to the spirit of the law, but several objected to the letter.

Conservative Sir Richard Cartwright said that although he was afraid that homosexuality “has been on the increase in certain sections of society,” he still worried that the vagueness of the bill “might lead to consequences that he [Thompson] does not intend.” Peter Mitchell (Independent, NB) pointed out that Thompson had used the words “gross indecency” in another section to indicate something entirely different (heterosex in public).

Thompson responded to Cartwright, saying:

”I think it is impossible to define them any better, for the reason that the offences which are aimed at are so various. The notorious cases which I mentioned a few moments ago [– not recorded on official record –] are not the same in their characteristics, and the description which would cover them would not apply to those cases which have been brought to my attention, as occurring in Canada within the last few months. I think it is better to leave it in this form. It is not more vague than the English Act.”

This was enough for Cartwright, but not the Liberals and the independent in the room. John Charlton (Liberal, Ontario) reminded Thompson that “The offence referred to in clause 3, in many American States, is specifically named.”

Mitchell said, “I still think that in so serious a matter as one involving imprisonment for five years, the specific act characterised as ‘gross indecency’ ought to be in the statute.” He added, “No false modesty should restrain us from protecting the liberty of a subject in a case like this.”

Thompson didn’t even bother to answer Mitchell or Charlton. The committee left the section as it was, with its harsher penalty than Britain’s.

When the bill came up for its final vote on April 16, 1890, the Liberals suggested other amendments to the other clauses — the seduction of women and the trade union clauses seemed to be the most controversial. No one bothered to amend the parts about homosexuality, and the bill passed easily.

Thompson was clear during the debate in committee that the law needed to be vague – like Britain’s law, its lack of specificity was seen as a positive aspect, because it effectively criminalized any act of desire, affection, or romance between men, rather than outlawing a specific sexual act.

The New Criminal Code

Thompson’s magnum opus was the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1892. Behind this bland name was the most massive bill in Canadian history up to that point – an attempt to rewrite the entire Canadian criminal code from scratch, instead of making just the usual patchwork changes. Any law that was to kept had to be re-passed, including the “gross indecency” law passed just two years before.

Members of parliament picked over every aspect of the new criminal code, suggesting amendments. They did not spend much time on what was now known as “section 178,” but this time even Liberal leader and future prime minister Sir Wilfred Laurier said, “It is difficult to know what is a gross act of indecency, and what is not.”

Thompson countered that “gross indecency,” being a more serious crime, it would get a “higher judge” – presumably one trained in what a Liberal MP named Louis Henry Davies called “the niceties of the English language.”

There was one significant difference between the first debate and the second, however – one of the Liberals opposed punishing homosexuality with jail time at all. David Mills was a former school superintendent and a journalist, respected for his intelligence but seen as a bit of an ivory-tower intellectual. He got the nickname “the philosopher of Bothwell” from his political enemy, Prime Minister MacDonald.

Mills was the first to argue that the state had (almost) no place in the bedrooms of the nation. As he put it:

”All these offences against morality have crept into the common law from the earlier ecclesiastical law, and they were rather sins than crimes, not being attacks upon property or life, or upon members of the community. These offences are wholly subjective, and altogether different in that respect from the other crimes embraced in the statute book, and it is a question whether crimes of this sort should be punished by long terms of service in the penitentiary. I do not think they should. I think that flogging, or something of that sort, and the discharge of the prisoner, is preferable, and a far better deterrent than anything else.”

The justice minister, however, disagreed. Thompson told “the philosopher of Bothwell:

”There is a distinction, I think. We only punish them as crimes where they are offensive to the people, or set a bad example. As to the section 178, relating to acts of gross indecency, I have no objection to reducing the term of imprisonment, considering that whipping accompanies it. It is impossible to define these cases by any form of words.”

What is intriguing is that Thompson’s answer avoids any mention of religion. This may have been because religion was a very touchy subject – Thompson was a Catholic in a largely Protestant party, and the most controversial issue of the day was whether Manitoba had the right to deny Catholic schools public funding.

Yet he makes clear that the purpose of the jail sentence is to prevent homosexuality from spreading. Just a few decades earlier, “sodomy” laws had been written using Biblical terminology – “abominable” and “abomination” being popular terms of choice. If they’d felt the need to justify themselves, they had used Bible passages for their support. They had needed no further justification than that the punishing of “sodomites” was God’s will.

This was the first time any politician in Canada publicly challenged the value of anti-gay laws – and the first time those laws ever had to be justified with secular rather than religious arguments. Sadly, David Mills’ argument was ignored, and the code passed with no further debate upon the subject.

“The philosopher of Bothwell” was a rare dissenting voice in an increasingly moralistic society. Before we turn to that climate of moral crusade, however, we’re going to look at the first victims of these “gross indecency” laws.


Sources: My primary sources for this section are the Hansards of the Debates of the House of Commons for 1890 and 1892 (volume 2 in each case) and the Debates of the Senate for 1890. For details of Thompson’s life, I went to the Life & Work of the Right Hon. Sir John Thompson (1895), by J. Castell Hopkins, with a little help from Wikipedia. The Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online filled in many of the details of Thompson’s and Mills’ lives.

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