Saturday, April 23, 2011

Being Out. It Did Get Better.

Saying goodbye to family life as I had known it was, however painful, clearly necessary in order to move on emotionally: to fully commit to maintaining an independent parental relationship with the boys and hope that my former wife would continue to recognize the value of that relationship; to learn how to manage a world that presented a myriad of potential connections and rejections.  As it happened, my former wife asked me at one point that she be able to take the boys out of the country for one year in order to pursue a professional opportunity that was closely linked with the Catholic Church. We both discussed that request with the boys, they were excited about living in another city for a year and I felt that, although I would miss them, the experience could be good for them. We both realized that in the terms of our separation and divorce agreements I could have prevented the children being taken outside Quebec, but I agreed.

Arrangements were made that they would visit with me at regular intervals during the year. When the year neared its end, she decided that she wanted to stay away an additional year. I felt that decision violated the understanding we had and began to think that she might, in reality, want to take away the close relationship I had with the boys; I suspected she was being encouraged in that direction by  her colleagues and advisors in the Church. Although strongly objecting to that extension, I accepted a slightly shorter time for the boys to remain with her and away from Montreal in return for her promise to return at the end of that extended period. While she did return as promised, that experience led to a break in my trust that she respected the maintenance of a close relationship between me and my sons and set into motion the series of events that led to both of my sons living full time with me.

Meantime, my political activities related to gay liberation expanded;  my professional life as a professor of philosophy unravelled simultaneously. My friend and colleague at McGill, John Southin, had organized a programme of studies known as "Biology and Social Change". John suggested that we teach a seminar in gay liberation as part of that programme and it was offered in the autumn of the academic year 1971/72.  We were joined by Linda Page Hollander, a lesbian and teaching assistant in the Biology Department. The seminar, drew mainly on the book, Homosexual Liberation and Oppression, by Denis Altman, an Australian professor of philosophy. The book synthesized in a skillful manner the various theories that led me to change my own understanding of my sexual identity.

The seminar was open to any student at the University and we hoped it would serve as a step in politically organizing the gay and lesbian community. It was wildly over-subscribed and many students who could not register for the course expressed the desire to attend without receiving credit.  We decided to hold the seminar in a large class room situated in the library, right next to the library lounge, in order to make it more easily accessible to the many students who expressed an interest; especially those too fearful to either register or make their interest too public. We left the door to the class room opened; braver students would come in and stand at the back of the room; the more timid could be seen, library books in hand as a cover, walking casually back and forth in the hallway outside. I believe that seminar was the first university course given for credit in Canada and one of the first in North America in what is now called "Queer Studies".

In the second term we realized that the interest and participation in the course was meeting its intended potential as an organizing tool. We decided to move it into the larger, less formal space of the library lounge itself; creating a combination drop-in-center and consciousness-raising group. Soon more than a hundred people were participating, many of them drawn from the community outside of McGill; of particular significance were several former members of the, now defunct, Front de la Liberation Homosexuelle. The FLH had been founded the year before, was mainly francophone and, I believe, the first overtly political gay organization in Montreal. It had been raided by the police a few months previously on an alleged liquor permit violation; in a blatant act of intimidation they seized its membership list, inspiring enough fear amongst members that the organization folded. Meeting on the campus of McGill University provided protection against a similar raid: there was at the time an agreement between the police and the University that they would only come on campus if invited. Consequently, many from the community, who with good reason were fearful of police repression, felt safe meeting with us.

At the end of the term it was decided by participants in the discussion group to form Gay McGill; loosely affiliated with the McGill Student Society, but open to anyone wishing to participate. A short time later a decision was made by the same group of people to form the Gay Montreal Association (later becoming L'Association pour les droits des gais du Quebec) that would be independent of the University and dedicated to political action. Gay McGill held mega-dances at the McGill Student Union Centre, usually drawing over a thousand people, and used revenue from the dances to fund the political activities of the ADGQ; a very successful formula that worked for many years. Although those dances were primarily a social event, they were, as well, a mind-blowing experience of the size and potential power of the gay and lesbian community; no one had ever experienced so many gays and lesbians together.

As the dances gained in popularity there was an attempt by the liquor board to deny a permit, which was successfully challenged with the legal assistance of the Students Society. We suspected that someone had intervened with the liquor board to stop the dances. There were at least three possibilities.  The police were almost always present outside the dance venue; probably due to their agreement with the University, they never entered the premises. We always feared they might, since they often raided gay bars. Another possibility was that owners of gay bars themselves had intervened. Their establishments were empty on the nights of the dances and they were clearly losing much money. The third possibility was the University itself, which could have been dealing with complaints from any one of a number of powerful interests who found the dances objectionable. We never discovered who was responsible.

Seeing the level of participation in our seminar, the staff of the McGill Daily asked that we produce with them a special issue of the Daily dedicated to gay liberation. The issue was simply called GAY and John, Linda and myself wrote the main article entitled, "School is Not a Gay Place to Be"; a critical analysis of the oppression of gays and lesbians with particular emphasis on the education system. The presence of an active gay movement on campus provoked a conservative backlash. A student group for the repression of homosexuality was formed, but little was heard from them except a few letters to the Daily.

One afternoon I was teaching a seminar on Neo-Platonism in a class room that had a door on both sides of the room leading to a hallway. As I was sketching a diagram on the blackboard of the relationship between the One and the cosmos, someone of student age I had never seen before came in one of the doors, walked directly up to me, pulled out a gun and fired, then turned and calmly left through the opposite door. The sound of the shot echoed off the concrete walls and people screamed. Probably being in a state of shock and realizing I wasn't injured, I turned back to the blackboard and continued with the seminar as though nothing had happened; the incident was somewhat more unnerving on reflection. The bullet had, evidently, been a blank.

Only one of my colleagues in the philosophy department said anything to me about either the gay liberation seminar or the subsequent article; anglo-Canadians being known to more often show their disapproval through a polite silence. However, shortly thereafter, I was summoned to a meeting with the chairperson of the department. He related that I had become a disappointment to the department; having been hired to teach Greek and Medieval philosophy and having largely moved into other areas of interest that weren't priorities for the department.  He suggested that I might be happier moving on and offered me a year of continued teaching followed by another year of salary with no teaching responsibilities in return for my resignation.

I knew from a political perspective I could and should fight that proposition. I had always taught at least one course in the area for which I was hired; no one had ever complained when I also taught courses in philosophical anthropology and religious experience. However, from a personal perspective, I was increasingly unenamoured with teaching philosophy in particular and with academia in general. I saw an opportunity to use the proffered offer to make a transition to a different profession. I signed the resignation letter, though made it clear I was suspicious of what the real motives were behind it. The Dean of Arts, an old lefty with whom I had a good relationship, called me when he saw the letter  to ask if I was being railroaded out of the faculty. He offered to support me in questioning the request for my resignation, but I declined.

What I really wanted to do was some sort of counselling or psychotherapy; mainly within the gay community and from the perspective of helping individuals overcome the damage caused by social and political oppression. I wanted to bring together working toward individual and political liberation through parellel interventions. As an academic, prior to coming out, I had been interested in both analytic theory and radical therapy; I had most enjoyed working with students on an individual basis in tutorials and outside of class. My own experience in understanding the manner through which social oppression resulted in personal repression of a stigmatized identity offered a model for personal change. Helping individuals change the narrative of their lives through learning how social oppression had been internalized in their personalities attracted me as a significant focus for the next phase of my life. The paid year off from teaching made it feasible for me to research what sort of training would bring me where I wanted to go.

I had come to know several psychoanalysts through my participation in the R.M. Bucke Society for the Study of Religious Experience, so I first explored becoming a lay analyst and undergoing a training analysis through the Montreal Institute of Psychoanalysis. Being gay would, of course, be an issue because most psychoanalytic institutes didn't accept homosexual candidates; despite the fact that Freud himself argued both that homosexuality was not a mental illness and that homosexuals should be accepted in training institutes. Following a series of conversations, the Montreal Institute agreed to accept me and I began interviews with potential training analysts. While I very much appreciated their openness to my candidature, I found through those interviews that I really couldn't identify with the sort of practice that constituted their approach to psychotherapy; though respecting their intelligence, I found their mode of practice rather elitist and oriented almost exclusively toward the few who could afford to pay for the lengthy, time consuming process of analysis.

I considered psychology and was told by a friend who was a professor of clinical psychology that it was very unlikely the programmes available in Montreal would accept a politically active gay person. New York University did accept me in their graduate, clinical psychology programme, but, when it came right down to it, I wasn't willing to leave the boys in order to study in New York. Finally, Peter, the community organizer with whom I lived in the collective, suggested that clinical social work would be a viable alternative route towards the practice of psychotherapy or counselling. As is the case with many schools of social work, the McGill school was more or less split into two antagonistic camps: community organizing and clinical work. I was ideologically much more in tune with the former than the latter and found through Peter a professor of community organizing who was willing to champion my admission to the school. I was admitted over the objections of some of the more conservative clinical staff, who continued to snipe at me throughout my presence at the school of social work and almost managed to derail acceptance of my MSW thesis. As it emerged, social work was a good match for how I wanted to practice as it incorporated both an individual and collective approach.

My thesis was an analysis and description of the Gay Social Services Project, begun in my first student placement with a branch of the Family Service Association under the supervision of Miriam Green. Miriam had been active in working with the gay community for several years; beginning with running a drop in centre for gay men at about the same time John, Linda and I were giving our seminar. Miriam and I made a good match and initiated a social services project during the early Seventies that spawned many groups still existing today: our intake was set up as a telephone information and peer counselling service for the gay and lesbian community; today it continues as Gay Line and Gai Ecoute; our therapy/counselling group for gay men morphed into le Groupe de discussion pour hommes gais; the gay youth group, a real political hot-potatoe in the Seventies, survived as Lamda Jeunesse; the gay AA group to which we provided support survives as Live and Let Live. Individual and couples counselling didn't survive the cuts in government services in the Eighties; though Johanne Still, a lesbian who worked with me on our MSW thesis and on the Gay Project, continued offering private counselling, as did I. The project served as a model for integrating both the personal and political dimensions of change.

You no doubt noticed that amongst the groups that originated through the Gay Social Services Project and have survived, the majority became francophone; which is happy and appropriate given the linguistic make-up of Montreal. I remember an international conference on the gay and lesbian liberation movement held in Montreal in the Eighties. Much to the bewilderment of most delegates, drawn from Canada, the United States and Europe, a major conflict erupted at the plenary session regarding what some participants from Quebec regarded as an overrepresentation of anglophone groups and presentations during the conference.

The reality was that after the raid on the FLH political organization related to gay liberation was led disproportionately through the anglophone community. There were several reasons for that fact: the suppression in the Seventies of groups having "Front de la liberation de...." in their names; the reality that gay liberation at that point in time was largely an American phenomenon and english-speaking Montrealers tended to be more touch with those developments; and, in addition, though the Quiet Revolution had succeeded in talking away much of the power of the Church in Quebec, the elites controlling the educational and social service establishments of the province remained in large part both Catholic and  conservative. It would be decades before it was possible to do presentations on gay issues to students in what was then the Catholic school board and before the francophone social service centres would even consider gays and lesbians as foster or adoptive parents. They were never open to offering services specifically for the gay and lesbian community. Those administrative structures founded by the Church tended to continue as vehicles of its values long after the population had moved on; hence, there was resistance and almost no support within Quebec institutions for the changes being demanded by the gay movement and no safe haven to serve as a spring-board for political action.

What I have omitted in the brief flyover of my involvement in the gay liberation movement in Montreal is the two year interval from 1973 to 1975 involving the founding of Androgyny Bookstore/Librarie L'Androgyne; a GLBT bookstore that included feminist and non-sexist children's books and flourished as a major community institution for more than twenty-five years. I omitted mention of Androgyny because I felt it would be fun and fitting to devote a separate posting to its memory. For those of you who are accustomed to a weekly posting of this blog, there won't be any for the next week as I'm off to visit William and Mary in Virginia; driving into warmth to escape from a Montreal Spring that seems  unable to defeat a long and bitter  Montreal Winter. Meantime, if you want a glimpse of the reality that was Androgyny, you can visit the FaceBook webpage: L'Androgyne: gone, but not forgotten.

No comments:

Post a Comment