I just wanted to apologize for the long hiatus. I am still working on the site, but my current project – researching the people in Elsa Gidlow’s circle – has taken much more time than I expected.
I expect to have something up in the next two weeks.
I just wanted to apologize for the long hiatus. I am still working on the site, but my current project – researching the people in Elsa Gidlow’s circle – has taken much more time than I expected.
I expect to have something up in the next two weeks.
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
In John Barton’s introduction to Seminal: The Anthology of Canada’s Gay Male Poets, he describes what he calls “a gaydar moment.” For Canada’s earliest poets, we can only speculate on their sexuality – educated guesses based on their work, their lives, and the context of their times.
The few openly gay literary critics working on Canada’s poets know that we have to be conservative.
Still, Barton and Billeh Nickerson are able to give us two poets whose work was published before the end of World War I, and who may have been gay. Frank Oliver Call (1878-1956) was an Anglophone poet from Quebec’s Eastern Townships who’s thought of as a bridge between traditional and modern poetry in Canada. Émile Nelligan (1879-1941) was one of Quebec’s greatest poets and famous tragic figure.
Meanwhile, another early poet, Elsa Gidlow is the first individual we know about to identify as “homosexual” in the country. She gives us both our first poetry openly about same-sex love, and our first descriptions of Montreal’s queer community. She deserves her own article, and I’ll be devoting the next few entries to her life and the circles she travelled in.
As for Nelligan and Call, neither were “out” publicly – and neither of them are on this list without controversy. Still, their work seems to include what some of us see as a “gay sensibility.” Elements of gay life or gay aesthetic haunt the edges of it. Neither were married, or otherwise connected romantically to any woman. Call incorporated homosexuality clearly into his writing, though in Nelligan’s work there are only suggestive hints. We’ll deal with Nelligan first.
In the bookstore a block from my home, there’s a large photo of Émile Nelligan in the window. It’s the same photo used on every book about Nelligan’s life. And there are many books. While English Canada has largely forgotten its 19th-century poets, Nelligan still looms large in French Canada, as much for the myth of his life as for his work.
Émile Nelligan was born in 1879 to a French-Canadian mother and an Irish immigrant father. He famously didn’t get along with the father. Nelligan was a child prodigy in poetry and knew he wanted to be a poet from an early age. David Nelligan wanted his son to enter a better-paid profession.
Nelligan was first published at age sixteen. He wrote prolifically throughout his teenage years, published (much of it under pseudonyms), gave readings, and was part of the Montreal literary scene.
Then in 1899 – before his 20th birthday – he had a breakdown that is now believed to have been the onset of schizophrenia. He was hospitalized, and never left the hospital. He died in 1941, having spent two-thirds of his life in an asylum. He only became famous after his complete works were published in 1903, and though he had visitors in the hospital, it’s said he never knew that he came to be considered one of French Canada’s greatest poets.
The brief spark of genius followed by more than forty years of insanity meant that Nelligan’s life leant itself easily to myth. The most famous of these myths was that his breakdown was caused by his having an anglophone father and a francophone mother, and could not reconcile the two cultures – an object lesson for nationalists on the danger of mixing cultures, and a metaphor for Quebec in Canada.
Few of Nelligan’s biographers take this theory seriously now. But these days they have to increasingly address another theory – that Émile Nelligan was gay.
Nelligan literary critic Émile J. Talbot summarizes the debate, and provides his own opinion in a discussion of the tension between sexuality and religion in Nelligan’s work:
Armand Laroche, in his play Nelligan blanc (1981), suggested that Nelligan was a homosexual, a condition that, if true, would be sure to heighten his anxiety in matters sexual. This suggestion has since been repeated by others, notably by Aude Nantais and Jean-Joseph Tremblay in their play Nelligan déchiré. There is, however, no textual, biographical, or historical evidence for such a hypothesis, and it has not been endorsed by any scholar of Nelligan. Since homosexuality would not have been a subject of discourse in nineteenth-century Quebec, the absence of evidence itself is not, in itself, proof of the absence of the fact.
Talbot goes on to say, with refreshing honesty, that he will assume Nelligan is straight unless there is evidence to the contrary. He is far from the only scholar to adopt an “innocent until proven gay” position when it comes to understanding historical figures, but he is one of the very few to admit it clearly.
To his credit, he also admits that nothing is known about Nelligan’s sex life, if any. Some of his biographers tell us that he claimed to be celibate, either because he was married to the muse of poetry or because he was a devout Catholic, but there’s no real proof even for this.
I disagree with Talbot that we should assume the heterosexuality of Nelligan without any hard evidence either way. It suggests that queer people were rare birds among Montreal’s poetry scene – and when we get to the next entry, we’ll see that that’s simply not the case.
When academics look at the things that influence a poet’s work, they tend to go to the books they were reading, especially other poets.
All that is good – and supports my point given that those authors for Nelligan were Rimbaud, Verlaine, and Baudelaire. But sometimes it’s worthwhile just to walk in the poet’s footsteps and see what they saw.
Nelligan began going out of long walks at night in the last two years of his life. Nobody knows where he went. And I hope the reader will bear with me as we walk through this literary mystery.
Émile Nelligan’s neighbourhood is remarkably well-preserved. The old greystone attached houses with their carved porches maybe beautiful to those of us raised on glass and concrete, but to Nelligan they were part of an urban jungle that the speakers in his poems always seemed to want to escape. And north, east, and south, it’s old grey stone as far as the eye can see.
If you walk a quarter of a block to the Rue Napoléon, though, and walk a few minutes west, you come to the eastern slope of Mount Royal – the city’s largest park, and a paradise for anyone wanting to get away from the city. There the maple trees and birches that line the streets give way to the trees that fill Nelligan’s poems: yews, cypresses, white poplars. You’ll also see other objects, like statues, that seem to fill what could be called his “park at night” poetry.
Reading Nelligan’s work and walking the park, it feels impossible not to conclude that you’re looking at the places in the park poems – and very likely that Nelligan spent at least part of those long nights wandering the forest that was practically his own backyard. But by the time you get to the trees on that eastern slope, you’ve already entered a place long known to Montrealers in the know as “The Jungle.”
No one knows how old “The Jungle” is. The men who cruise there tend not to write memoirs about it. It looms large in gay fiction in Quebec, and as early as 1954, there was an official study of it. Historian Luther A. Allen tells us that “It is plausible in fact that well before the 1930s, gay cruising had established itself on the trails.”
How much earlier? Parc Mont-Royal’s sister park – Central Park in New York – became a cruising spot almost instantly after it had opened, and Mount Royal in the 1890s was close to the nascent gay neighbourhood in the red-light district on Saint-Laurent, “The Sodom of North America” where there had already been a bust of a brothel of male prostitutes (more on this in a future article). Montreal already had a cruising area on the Champs-Mars behind city hall, but the public had begun to notice it, and the mountain was closer to the red-light district. So it would be very, very surprising if there wasn’t already gay cruising there in the 1890s.
If there was a gay cruising spot on the mountain, and Nelligan was there, did he notice it? For evidence of that, we turn to his poetry. There are frequent references to public sex in parks at night in his poems – the “large parks where Love plays under the trees” (“Rhythms of the Night”). In these places,
The languorous, beautiful yews, and the white poplars that become sad,
Cast shadows over the green nests of love. (“Dream of Fantasy”)
Similar imagery is also called up in “Night Seeds Love”:
The night seeds love, and the Fertility Festival [rogations]
Gets down on its knees with Dream.
Then there’s “Force Back the Dirt Path”:
Force back the trail
Almost being reborn
To our passing shadow.
With all that
Which was from the villa
Among hushed voices
Are here and there knocked over.
In the dead park
Where roams a perfume
Of white night in brown night.”
In another poem –“Under the Satyrs” – he personifies his pain as a person he has clasped to him in “cloistered in the back of old, close pavilions” under “under the darkness of rustic/Trees that emit an opiate perfume.” In a poem from his asylum days, he writes, “On the side of the mountain a spring [of water] sings/A spring of love and of beautiful youth.”
Why all this imagery of parks and darkness and “green nests of love”? Much of this poetry comes out of that period of Nelligan’s life when I suspect he was wandering the mountain behind his house.
Almost all critics have seemed to have assumed that the “green nests of love” were full of heterosexual couples. This strikes a false note with me. Even today – post-sexual-revolution, post-pill, in an age where the parks are better lit and better policed – most women would think twice about following a man onto trails into Parc Mont-Royal at night. Women in Nelligan’s time were even more vulnerable.
Meanwhile, most of the prostitution at the time seemed to be going on in indoors, in the semi-tolerated (heterosexual) brothels in the red-light district. Most arrests for heterosexual prostitution I’ve found in this period in my research took place in “disorderly houses.”
At the same time, most arrests I’ve found for gay sex took place in public. It was tolerated nowhere, so the safest option was the parks and other dark places outdoors – far from everyone.
This concatenation of possibilities doesn’t actually prove anything. But none of these possibilities are farfetched. I’d even argue that it was likely that Nelligan spent at least some of his night walks wandering the mountain behind his house, and the cruising likely already going on up there was mentioned in his poetry – mentions that seem to include him implicitly.
One of the things Nelligan biographers have to wrestle with are the bizarre contradictions in his personality. Several of his biographers tell us that Nelligan was a Catholic so devout he gave up on romance with women, but also a bohemian whose favourite authors were the most irreligious crowd: Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Verlaine, and Charles Baudelaire. Réal Bertrand, tells us, “He wanted, more than anything, to imitate Rimbaud.”
These are extremely odd choices for a devout Catholic. Rimbaud, Verlaine, and Baudelaire were enormous critics of the Catholic Church.
There’s another connection between these authors. Rimbaud and Verlaine male lovers who went into exile, and fill the same place in France’s mythology of homosexuality that Oscar Wilde fills for Britain’s. Baudelaire, meanwhile, wrote frankly and openly about lesbianism. All three were required reading for anyone entering Montreal’s gay community just twenty years later, as the next few entries will show.
Then there’s the near-total lack of women in his life – only three or four in his circles of friends, and none of them seem to have been lovers. There’s a Gretchen mentioned in his poetry –a beautiful immigrant from Westphalia in Germany – but no one has ever connected her to a real person, and it’s as likely she’s as much a fiction as the perfect shepherds and beautiful salons in his other poems.
Sometimes, the fact that he wrote about being in love with women in his poems is taken as proof of his heterosexuality. But of course, it was a pretty common strategy for gay men from Marcel Proust to Oscar Wilde to disguise real-life same-sex relationships as heterosexual ones in fiction, and this held true for gay writers well into the 20th century. And even twenty years later, Elsa Gidlow would agonize over whether she should talk openly of her relationships in poetry, when lesbianism wasn’t technically illegal.
Nelligan liked scandal, he liked playing up the role of the rebel youth and the wounded lover – but there’s never a known romance of any kind in his life. It seems a strange gap for such a romantic. Meanwhile, his biographers all feel the need to inform us that all the men in his life – from the poet Louis Dantin to a painter who was a roommate of his friend – were beautiful. Dantin himself calls Nelligan “un éphèbe” – a beautiful young man – in his introduction to his works.
There are also the odd sexual notes in some of his poems written after he was committed to the asylum. In a rewrite of his most famous poem, “Le Vaisseau d’or,” usually taken to be about his insanity, he changes the famous lines, “And the horrific shipwreck sent its hull/To the depths of the Gulf, inescapable coffin” to “And the horrific shipwreck sent its three nudes [the sailors]/To the depths of an abyss in repulsive joy.”
Again, nothing here proves anything. Nelligan may indeed have been a celibate straight teenager, in love with the bohemian way of life.
But the theory that he was gay has a nice Occam ’s Razor feel to it. It explains why he was “celibate” in spite of being a bohemian, and it explains his obsession with Rimbaud and Verlaine and Baudelaire in spite of his Catholicism. It also fits all the imagery around breaking hearts easily into the life of a man who hardly had any women around him at all.
Most scholars just resort to platitudes like “He was a poet” or “He was insane” to explain these contradictions. The theory that he was gay covers all the contradictions much more elegantly. And while that doesn’t make it true, it means that it should not be so easily shoved aside. That Nelligan experts are quick to attack the theory probably tells us more about them than it tells us about our poet.
Frank Oliver Call
If you’re lucky enough to find Frank Oliver Call (1878-1956) mentioned anywhere, he’ll be praised as a “pivotal” figure – and that adjective is always used – between Victorian and Modernist poetry. That’s usually it. This being Canada, even the pivotal figures get forgotten. Call doesn’t have an entry in Canadian Encyclopedia, in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, or Wikipedia – all of which can be trusted to have at least a tiny article on the most minor of Canadian figures.
If you dig deeply enough, you’ll discover a few other things about Call. His parents names were Lorenzo and Sarah, he was educated at what’s now Bishop’s University in Lennoxville, Quebec, McGill University. He also studied in Paris and Marburg, Germany. He taught Modern Languages at Bishop’s, and there he was a mentor to a much more famous poet, Ralph Gustafson. He served in World War I. He had a cottage and a garden in Knowlton, where he specialized in irises and peonies. We also know from the manifesto at the beginning of his second collection of poetry that he wanted to strike a balance between modern and traditional poetry.
What you won’t find are any references to a wife or children, although I did finally in an American biographical dictionary that confirmed he was unmarried – a detail not in any Canadian source I have access to.
Unlike Émile Nelligan, whose personal life has been picked over endlessly in spite of the gaps, Call’s is almost a blank slate for us. The claim that Call was gay comes entirely from his poetry, particularly his anthology of homoerotic verse published in 1944, called Sonnets for Youth that included references to Greek myths such as the myth of Hyacinth. We’ll come back to this collection in a future article.
Interestingly, Call’s sexuality has once again sparked interest in his career. Since his inclusion in Seminal, when he’s discussed at all it’s usually as a gay poet.
During World War I, Call was already publishing. His first collection was In a Belgian Garden (1917) and his newer published poems came out in Acanthus and Wild Grapes. While these two books not as explicitly homoerotic as Sonnets for Youth, there are already hints of what’s coming later.
Beauty in Call’s first two collections is reserved entirely for the male, frequently disturbingly young. He focuses on the beautiful eyes, the “sun-browned skin,” and on their voices. Attractive young men singing appear again and again. His love poetry is quite erotic by the standards of the time, but always in the second person, carefully avoiding any revealing pronouns. And like Britain’s gay war poet Wilfred Owen, Call is very focused on the youth and beauty of the young men sacrificed to the war.
Meanwhile, Call’s poetry is largely an all-boys club. When he promises he’ll “sing of the men of the Homeland,” it certainly seems to be true. Women aren’t absent but they are rare. In his first collection, they are mostly old women or nuns, and strangely disembodied. In his second, Beauty gets personified as a beautiful woman, but none of the more real ones do.
The Work to Be Done
Researching which poets of the 19th century may have been homosexual or bisexual, one runs into the immediate problem that Canadians do very little to remember their poets of the era, even though poetry commanded so much respect in previous centuries.
When Elsa Gidlow describes the Montreal artistic scene a mere twenty years later, homosexuals and bisexuals seem to be a central part of it. We have no key yet to let us into the earlier period when Nelligan was writing, or before. But it is very doubtful that one of the few professions that was kind to homosexuals and bisexuals in the West was lacking queer members, even in Canada.
It certainly wasn’t in Gidlow’s time. In the next two articles, we’re going to look at Gidlow – openly lesbian poet, co-founder of the first Canadian magazine of poetry and gay liberation (in 1917!), and first inside chronicler of a gay community in Canada.
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.
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
(No postage required)
The Liberals’ Judy Sgro — their critic for veteran’s affairs — is also interested:
So far, the Conservatives’ Peter McKay has been non-committal. Please write to him and encourage him to take these issues seriously:
Thank you in advance, and I’ll have another article here next week.
Late nineteenth-century Canada was not exactly a place that welcomed difference or embraced diversity. In fact, thanks to “degeneration” theory and its believers among social scientists and medical experts, both racism and homophobia were growing in the new Confederation.
The theory of “degeneration” suggested that societies could be put into three categories – the “primitive or barbaric,” the “civilized,” and the “degenerate.” This was a one-way process. Barbaric societies could become civilized, and civilized societies could degenerate, but not the other way around. “Degenerate” societies would eventually be overrun by the barbarians or more civilized masters, in a kind of survival of the fittest of societies.
The only truly interesting phase of the process – for the social scientists and doctors and intellectuals that believed in it – was the middle part. They thought that the goal of any society should be to ensure that its “civilized” phase was stretched out as long as possible. Once degeneration reached the heart of society, it would be impossible to reverse the tide. The fall of the civilization would be inevitable.
Throughout the West, educated people were spurred by fear of “degeneration” to see any moral tolerance as the first symptoms of an oncoming plague. And the poor and those from outside the Europe and its colonies were seen as carriers of this plague. “Degenerate” behaviours – gambling, drinking, drug use, prostitution, extramarital sex, a lack of church attendance, an inability to hold a job, a disrespect toward one’s elders, and (of course) homosexuality – were both the symptom and the cause of “degeneration.” The majority of Western intellectuals saw these things everywhere, except of course inside their own white and middle class culture.
These theories still had an aura of respectability in European society when they became the justification for concentration camps and the Holocaust in the first half of the twentieth century, and are still consciously argued by white supremacist groups. In Canada, the panic around “degeneration” resulted in a fierce and deeply entrenched racism directed at the black population, as well as at immigrants from India and Japan. But the two favourite targets of racist intellectuals in 19th-century Canada were the First Nations and the Chinese.
Even at the end of the 19th century, there were still people arguing against degeneration theory – either from an Enlightenment perspective that said that people were equal, or from a Christian one of love of the human race and of compassion. In order to overcome what it saw as naive tolerance, racist intellectuals argued that non-white groups had to be contained, assimilated, or even removed from Canada for the good of the country, and that tolerance put them all at risk.
To make that argument, these intellectuals tended to claim that groups like the Chinese and First Nations had tendencies toward vices even the most liberal weren’t likely to defend. And homosexuality was a favourite charge.
The Chinese in Canada
In the mid-nineteenth century, the first Chinese came north to British Columbia following the tide of gold rush to the Fraser Valley. Pretty soon they were joined by workers imported in large numbers directly from China to make up labour shortages on the Canadian railroad.
The Chinese largely saw themselves as temporary workers. Money was easier to come by in North America than in the drought-ravaged areas of southern China that provided the workers. Whole communities raised the cash to send their men overseas, on the understanding that after they would return after earning enough money to pay off their debts and put their family in a better financial position. Most of these men left their wives in China, and many left children. If the man being sent to Canada didn’t return to China in his lifetime, his remains would be transported back after his death to be buried with his ancestors.
Because they considered themselves temporary workers, the first few generations of Chinese in Canada saw little point in assimilating more than was absolutely necessary. Chinese workers often kept their traditional modes of dress. The community created clan associations that ran temples and assistance programs, to better reproduce life in the homeland.
The Chinese in Canada also tended to hold on to their traditional moral codes, mostly based in Confucian ideas, which Christian social reformers considered much too lax. For example, gambling in moderation was seen as an acceptable way to pass the time by many Chinese, but it had the taint of sin to the Protestants of western Canada. Intellectuals and newspaper columnists claimed that Chinese communities were awash opium, and that they were havens for prostitution. Some social purity groups claimed that white women were being kidnapped and forced into prostitution by Chinese men.
And along with all these other evils, the anti-Asian movement claimed that homosexuality was particularly common among the Chinese.
There was a small grain of truth in the claim. China had no equivalent of the West’s fits of moral outrage or panic around homosexuality. None of China’s gods called for the execution of homosexuals, and no one in China expected cities to be destroyed by fire for permitting it within their walls. Homosexuality, at worst, was seen as something funny, and in certain times and places in China’s history, gay love affairs were even romanticized.
For ordinary people in the areas of China that gave Canada most of its immigrants, sexuality was governed by Confucianist principle that said it was a duty to one’s ancestors to produce children. Confucian morality also suggested that there were certain behaviours that were proper to women and certain that were proper to men. So homosexuality was seen as a distraction from these duties.
But among the elites, homosexuality was featured without judgement in stories and histories, particularly in the histories around the Han emperors (202 BCE to 220 Common Era). Homosexuality went under such poetic names as “the breaking of the sleeve”—after a story about how the Emperor Ai cut his sleeve rather than wake his lover, Dong Xian, who’d fallen asleep on it – and “the bitten peach.” Among the Chinese, certain areas such the city of Quanzhou in the Fujian province had a reputation like San Francisco does today.
In Homosexuality and Civilization, Louis Crompton talks about the many stories in China of the aristocrats and their male lovers:
Clearly, these normative tales, if we may so call them, show an unselfconscious acceptance of same-sex relations, an acceptance that was to persist in China for twenty-four centuries. They contrast strikingly with the myth that dominated the imagination of Western Christendom – the story of Sodom with its supernatural terrors.
A few centuries of travel narratives had already cemented the idea for Europeans that China was a place rife with homosexuality. The Dominican monk Gaspar de Cruz had claimed that the earthquakes that had hit China in the 1550s were caused by the Middle Kingdom’s tolerance of “sodomy.” In 1598, the Spanish put two Chinese traders to death for homosexuality in the Philippines. The traders defended themselves by saying that it was common among men in China.
And right from the early days of the British in Canada, books were available to British settlers that described China like a modern Sodom. A 1732 collection of travel stories that found its way to Canada claimed that “Sodomy is frequent in China,” and said that “In the time of the Chinese [Han] emperors, there were publick stews [brothels] of boys in the imperial city Pequin [Beijing].” This collection also repeated the Chinese view that homosexuality was most common in Quanzhou.
Until halfway the late 19th century, British-Canadians had tended to think of homosexuality as something that only happened in other, more tropical places. And China, India, and even Italy were comfortably far away. The complete denial and silence around homosexuality in Canada had inoculated the colony against anti-gay panics that hit their peak in the early 1800s in Britain, and then began to die down.
But increasingly, homosexuality was being discussed as a problem. Newspapers began reporting sodomy trials in the 1840s, but started talking about it as a social problem in the 1880s.
Edward Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire had convinced the intellectual classes that homosexuality could help bring down an empire. And Max Nordau’s Degeneration had argued that immorality and “effeminacy” could spread like a disease, both across a society and through a family line. So homosexuality was not only contagious, it was fatal to empires.
And right around the time social reformers were first seriously trying to whip the public and governments into a panic around the “problem” of homosexuality in Canada, the man in charge of finding labour for the national railroad – Andrew Onderdonk – imported 5000 Chinese men (and no women) from Taiwan and Guangdong – the province next door to Fujian.
Political careers could be (and were) made opposing Chinese immigration, especially in British Columbia where the anti-Chinese panic was at its worst. BC politicians Amor de Cosmos and Noah Shakespeare both built their careers on their very vocal anti-Chinese racism. While the railroad was still being built, however, arguments against the Chinese in Canada were balanced out by practical necessity. John A. Macdonald, our first prime minister, said, “”It is simply a question of alternatives: either you must have this [Chinese] labour or you can’t have the railway.”
Once the railroad was out of the way, though, political sentiment turned quickly against the Chinese migrant workers. A royal commission was set up to study the “problem” of Chinese immigration. Not surprisingly, many people speaking at the commission brought up homosexuality.
An American merchant named Thomas King told the commission that “Sodomy was a habit” among the Chinese, and “The practice of shipboard sodomy and pollution is common”:
Sometimes thirty or forty boys, leaving Hong Kong apparently in good health, before arriving here would be found to be afflicted about the anus with venereal diseases, and on questioning the Chinese doctors to disclose what it was, they admitted it was a common practice among them.
There are many reasons to doubt King’s version of things, including his characterization of the migrant workers as boys. Everywhere else, they’re described as young men, and the few numbers I’ve been able to find suggest that they were largely in their twenties and thirties. But this kind of slippage – describing men as boys when talking about homosexuality – was very common in 19th-century Canada whenever the subject came up.
King was far from alone in his views, though. A detective by the name of C.C. Cox from San Francisco said he knew of “one instance” where a Chinese man “cut out the penis of another who refused to submit to his degrading desires.” An Irish businessman named Cornelius Mahony who was working in Peru was somewhat less sensationalistic. He attributed “sodomy” among the Chinese in Peru entirely to the lack of women:
No Chinese women at all were imported ; in fact I only saw one little Chinese girl. The result of this was that crimes of the most horrible and unmentionable kind were common among them which it was found impossible to prevent. They were in point of fact sodomites of the worst kind. They were treated very badly, in many cases, in Peru.
A rare defender of the Chinese at the commission was an E. Stevenson, a doctor from Victoria. He argued that the Chinese migrant workers had been largely maligned with false accusations. Naturally, for him this meant distancing them from charges of homosexuality:
Gentlemen, you have heard several witnesses testify unfavourably on this Chinese question, and they have inferred so and so. And, from the fact that so many Chinese males are here and so few females, it has been inferred by Christian (?) people that – well, I hesitate to say it – that sodomy was by them practiced. I stamp it as a damnable slander. The man who so acts bears the mark of Cain not only on his forehead but all over him.
The 1885 commission concluded that the Chinese were a danger to Canada, especially in large numbers. The result was a series of attempts to stop Chinese immigration through taxes and outright bans that lasted until after the Second World War.
Gay panic and yellow peril fed into each other. To moral reformers, the belief that the Chinese were inclined toward homosexuality meant that their arrival in large numbers in western Canada could trigger the collapse of Canadian civilization into “degeneracy.” The existence of homosexuality in Canada had been denied up to that point, but now moral reformers were saying that homosexuality had arrived on Canada’s shores at last. As carriers of this supposed infection, the Chinese were seen as a particular danger to the country.
For all the panic about the Chinese and homosexuality, though, there doesn’t seem to be a disproportionate number of cases of Chinese men before the courts for “sodomy” or “gross indecency.” The Victorians were kept careful records about their prison populations and the race and place of origin of their convicts, and while the Chinese were charged disproportionately with almost every other crime, they’re nearly absent from lists of people charged with “sodomy” and “gross indecency.”
One curious exception is the case of a man named Ah Hoy, who in 1887 was sent to the British Columbia penitentiary for two and a half years for “Assault with intent to be carnally known.” “To carnally know” and “to be carnally known” were Victorian legal terms and quite precise, and suggests that Hoy was looking for an active, male rather than a passive partner. Sadly, this bland page of statistics doesn’t yield any other details of the case, and my best research has yet to turn up any more facts.
Naturally, the lack of concrete evidence to back up the assumptions of the white supremacists that the Chinese were carriers of homosexual degeneracy. Homophobia shored up and helped entrench a powerful anti-Chinese sentiment in this country that only began to thaw with World War II.
The Chinese weren’t the only group to come under the Victorian microscope because of their supposed inclination toward homosexuality. The First Nations of Canada, too, faced scrutiny from a society that already saw them as a problem to be fixed.
But this will have to wait for my next instalment.
Sources:My best source for this section was The Report of the Royal Commission on Chinese Immigration, prepared for the federal government in 1885. It includes about 400 pages of arguments, mostly anti-Chinese. I only skimmed it, but I don’t recall ever seeing one Chinese name among the people called to speak before the commission. For background on the Chinese communities in Canada themselves, I found Smoke and Fire by Kwok B. Chan an excellent resource. For attitudes on homosexuality in China, I wasn’t able to locate a good print resource so I relied a little more than I like on Wikipedia, augmented by resources such as Homosexuality and Civilization by Louis Crompton and the Dictionnaire des chefs d’État homosexuels by Didier Goddard. The travel narrative
is “An Account of the Empire of China” by Dominic Fernandez Navarette, in A Collection of Voyages and Travels, 1732, accessed from Early Canadiana Online
“Media” to us means mostly electronic means of communication. In the 19th century, though, news, high art, and low entertainment were carried mostly in print. Novels filled the place of movies, serial short stories and articles in newspapers filled the place of sitcoms and TV news programs, and pamphlets filled the space of blog and forum posts online.
Poetry, meanwhile, was still a form of mass communication, and it was everywhere. It appeared in newspapers, was passed around and read at parties, and religious and political poetry would be handed out at meetings. Ordinary people read it, and it was used to advertise products. Politicians had to write poetry to prove their political street cred – much in the same way they might attend barbecues or rodeos to prove they’re just ordinary people today.
Social purity activists were very good at using the media. They mastered the use of newspapers, journalistic exposés, novels, and poetry to push their moral agenda and work toward the exposure and eradication of “degeneracy.” And even those who weren’t purity activists were happy to play the game of bringing “light on dark corners” – scandal, after all, has always sold papers.
Social Purity in Newspapers
Social Purity activists greatly influenced – and often owned – the newspapers. They spread their ideas through editorials, and influenced what news stories were covered and how they were covered. In 1897, a Presbyterian clergyman named J.A. Carmichael forced a major Winnipeg newspaper called The Leader to run his sermon criticizing the paper for its insufficient coverage of the evils of prostitution.
Interestingly, though, it was the French and Catholic Press that first called for moral crusades against homosexuality. It was the Irish Canadian that first broke the story of Francis Widdowes arrest (in very sensationalist terms). It was La Patrie that fretted that sex between consenting adults in the case of William Gray and John Pettigrew might corrupt “young boys.”
And it was the best-established French Montreal paper La Presse which called for a police crackdown on gay cruising, in its June 30, 1883 edition (though it was not the first paper to do so):
A great gathering of “friends” yesterday evening behind the Palais de Justice. From the twilight until midnight, one could see gliding among the poplar trees long, lanky beings with tapered legs swishing by with an effeminate air, coughing, and calling to one another in sugary tones.
The fresh air and beauty of the evening had attracted to this privileged place twenty of these hooligans, men-women who hold there their ignoble Sabbats. Many times, these brutes, fashionably dressed, had been brought before our courts of justice for having given passersby a view of their dirty pastime. Light sentences permit them to return to the pleasures of their race.
Yesterday evening, Clovis Villeneuve, a “dandy” affiliated with this nocturnal association, approached a citizen sitting at that hour on the steps of the Champs-de-Mars, chatted in a honeyed voice and…was seized by Lafontaine, constable of the central patrol.
The unlucky one was only sentenced to pay a $20 fine, or spend two months in prison.
The sentence was very light. Why not send this hooligan to the penitentiary?”
Protestant Social Purity activists were not far behind, however, in using the papers to push their agendas. Soon, every paper was reprinting sermons on Sodom and Gomorrah, and every Canadian city was being compared to it. Cases of “gross indecency” were finding their way into articles on the courts.
There had been finger-wagging about the morality of individuals brought up on sodomy charges before, but the call for mass arrests was something new. So was the description of gay spaces – the club in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, or the cruising ground in the Champs-de-Mars.
The press, it seemed, had discovered the informal networks that constituted the gay community in those days – brought to the public’s attention meeting places, modes of dress, and ways of speaking that characterized a previously invisible subculture. And now that “degeneration” was on everyone’s mind, the guardians of morality in the press called for the eradication of this subculture, lest it spread and corrupt what was seen as a new country.
The Journalistic Exposé
Christopher St. George Clark was not a moral purity activist. He was a reporter with the Toronto Publishing Company, and seems in his work to be rather cynical.
Nevertheless, his most famous work — Of Toronto the Good: The Queen City As It Is — played well to the Social Purity movement, which could never quite get enough dirt to satisfy its appetite. Indeed, the cover of the book advertises that it was “brought prominently before the world” to the International Social Purity Congress at Baltimore, Maryland, by the women’s Christian Temperance Union.
Of Toronto the Good is a journalistic exposé by a seen-it-all reporter talking to the city’s marginal citizens – its poor, its barely employed, its criminals – and the people who worked with them. Although he sometimes mentions “sinners” of the “Somerset” and “Oscar Wilde” variety, he only devotes one paragraph to the subject:
If saintly Canadians run away with the idea that there are no sinners of Oscar Wilde’s type in Canada, my regard for the truth impels me to undeceive them. Consult some of the bell boys of the large hotels in Canada’s leading cities, as I did, and find out what they can tell from their own experiences. A youth of eighteen once informed me that he had blackmailed one of Canada’s esteemed judiciary out of a modest sum of money, by catching him in the act of indecently assaulting one of the bell boys connected with a hotel in that city.
Clark then goes on to enumerate a number of cases of both same-sex sexual propositions and rape (making little distinction between consensual and forced sex) and mentions two prominent merchants who were well known among the city’s young men. After describing how open a secret homosexuality in Toronto is, he concludes, “this fact serves to demonstrate how little is actually known to the police of what is taking place right under their noses, while these very men and their acts of indecency are the talk of all the boys of the city.”
One thing that’s interesting to note about Clark’s descriptions that’s mirrored in the newspaper coverage of “gross indecency” of the time: journalists always went out of their way to describe sex between men as if it were an act of paedophilia. A sixteen year old or eighteen year old would generally be a “young man” in any other article, but becomes a “boy,” in these descriptions almost inevitably.
It’s worth noting here that the age of consent for heterosexuals was fourteen in Canada, and at that age a person could be convicted of “sodomy” or “gross indecency” themselves if they were a consenting partner. They could be sent to adult prison. By infantilizing the younger partner, though, the Social Purity activists and the journalists who catered to them were able to make homosexuality seem more predatory.
It’s difficult to think of poems as having once been mass media. But poetry once filled the place that electronic music now has in Canada. It wasn’t yet the private exercise of bohemians at odds with their society.
Still, poetry was considered a more respectable mass art form, and so there were fewer things you could get away with. Bible stories, however, were always allowable. Homosexuality is frequently hinted at by references to the “cities on the plain,” Sodom and Gomorrah.
By focusing on the Sodom story, poetry tended to make homosexuality seem to be a thing of the past, extinct in the modern world. One exception is in the work of Nova Scotia’s most prominent poet, Moses Hardy Nickerson, who put out a great number of morally uplifting poems. In his poem “Cupid’s Career,” he gives one of the only descriptions of homosexuality in the modern world in Canadian poetry of the time.
In “Cupid’s Career,” the god of pure love comes to an unnamed modern city. Nickerson’s city is a twisted, soulless, degenerate Gotham of a place. After meeting as number of “rivals” – love of gold, love of finery, love of empty sophistication – Cupid encounters yet another “false” love:
Soon he met another rival,
Painted [with makeup] to conceal a stain
‘Twas that lightning scarred survival
From the Cities of the Plain.
The image of the man in makeup seems to echo the effeminate gay men cruising the Champs-de-Mars in the La Presse article. If these portrayals are accurate, they seem to suggest something like the molly culture of England, which largely celebrated effeminacy. When the first first-person descriptions of gay life appear in the early twentieth century, such men – usually referred to even by themselves as “fairies” or “queens” – are a prominent part of the community.
As for Nickerson’s poem, it might be interesting to note that a previous stanza names Cupid’s homeland as “The Land of Delight,” and describes it (using a line from the bisexual poet Lord Byron) as “Where burning Sappho loved and sung.” The irony will probably not be lost on a modern reader, but clearly it was for Nickerson.
Social Purity and the Novel
Unlike poetry, the novel was not quite a respectable form of media in 19th century Canada. Novels were often cheap, lowbrow entertainment for the middle class and literate working class, and filled a niche like the Hollywood movie does today. They were often adventure stories of romance-bordering-on-pornography with absolutely no pretence toward a moral message.
Like with the debates among evangelical Christians now on the subject of video games, Social Purity activists argued whether their children should be allowed to read novels at all. Many Social Purity leaders advocated only reading non-fiction.
Other Purity activists argued that the novel could be a powerful tool of what they called “moral uplift.” One of these was Presbyterian minister Charles W. Gordon, better known by his pen name Ralph Connor. When Gordon wasn’t preaching fire-and-brimstones sermons against prostitution in Calgary – and urging citizens to publicly “out” the johns who went to the brothels – he was writing morally correct adventure stories for children that were intended to entertain while they taught the finer points of Presbyterian theology.
Gordon’s best-known book is The Man from Glengarry. Published in 1901, it was an international bestseller, and Canada’s most successful novel until Anne of Green Gables came out seven years later. In 1922, it was even turned into a made-in-Ontario silent movie.
For our purposes, what’s really interesting about The Man from Glengarry is that this 107-year-old novel contains what appears to be the first gay character in Canadian fiction. “Little Merrill” is an aristocratic and effeminate man whom the main character – the unfortunately-named Ranald “Glengarry” Macdonald – has managed to reform.
The name was likely inspired by George Merrill, whose status as the poet Edward Carpenter’s lover was England’s most open sexual secret. Gordon’s Little Merrill belongs to the gentleman’s club that the self-made businessman Ranald is now rich enough to join. Interestingly, although Merrill is supposed to be an ex-gay, his conversion seems to have been about as successful as that offered by modern ex-gay programs – that is, not at all:
The club-rooms were filling up; the various games were in full swing.
“Hello, little Merrill!” Young Merrill looked up from his billiards.
“Glengarry, by all the gods!” throwing down his cue, and rushing at Ranald. “Where in this lonely universe have you been these many months, and how are you old chap?” Merrill was excited.
“All right Merrill?” inquired the deep voice.
“Right, so help me—” exclaimed Merrill, solemnly lifting up his hand. “He’s inquiring after my morals,” he explained to the men who were crowding about; “and I don’t give a blank blank who knows it,” continued little Merrill, warmly, “my present magnificent manhood,” smiting himself on the breast, “I owe to that dear old solemnity there,” pointing to Ranald.
“Shut up, Merrill, or I’ll spank you,” said Ranald.
“You will, eh?” cried Merrill, looking at him. “Look at him vaunting his beastly fitness over the frail and weak. I say, men, did you ever behold such condition! See that clear eye, that velvety skin, that – Oh, I say! pax! pax! peccavi!”
“There,” said Ranald, putting him down from the billiard table, “perhaps you will learn when to be seen.”
“Brute,” murmured Little Merrill, rubbing the sore place, “but ain’t he fit?”
There are a couple of oddities of this portrayal – aside from the fact that Merrill is variously characterized as a pagan (“by all the gods”), and atheist (“lonely universe”) and a Catholic (“Peccavi”) in a few lines.
Firstly, Merrill is a young man going after an older man – a reversal of the older-predator, young-boy stereotype that had flooded Canadian papers. Secondly, Gordon seems aware of something that the ex-gay movement is still in denial about – that religion can’t make gay men into straight men. These two surprising bits of realism, plus the relative sympathy of the portrayal by a Social Purity leader, make me wonder if Merrill is based on someone Gordon really encountered in the course of his mission work.
Thanks to the climate of homophobia generated by the Social Purity movement, though, these portrayals were overwhelmingly negative. Yet the period just prior to World War I saw the first response to the negative images of homosexuality pushed by the Purity movements activists. For the first time, queers began to speak back through literature. The late 19th century and early 20th witnessed the first flowering of homoerotic art, of writers popularly perceived as gay, and finally – in the 1910s – a gay writer and his openly lesbian protégée.
Their story will have to wait for a future instalment. For now, we’re going to turn to how homophobia and racism became closely linked in the late 19th century, and how charges of homosexuality were used to demonize both the Chinese.
Sources: The La Presse article appears in their June 30, 1886 edition. Christopher St. George Clark’s Of Toronto the Good: The Queen City of Canada As It Is came out in 1898, and is now probably the most-referenced book on sex crimes in 19th-century Canada. Moses hardy Nickerson’s Carols of the Coast was published in 1892, and – “Cupid’s Career” notwithstanding – many of his poems are quite good. Last I checked, The Man from Glengarry was still in print from the New Canadian Library, which lists it as by “Ralph Connor,” Charles W. Gordon’s pseudonym. Gordon couldn’t publish under his own name because it would’ve damaged his credibility as a minister. The details about Carmichael’s crusade against The Leader and Gordon’s sermons against prostitution can be found Red Lights on the Prairies by James Gray.