Who Repairs the Locks on the Toilet Doors? – Liz Millward

The story of lesbians organizing in 1970s Canada is one filled with adventure. There are violent (and somewhat drunken) clashes in Montréal, between women and the men (bar patrons and police) who expect them to endure harassment. Someone’s blood is shed. Knees and voices quiver. Pride in collective action is born. There are public speeches on the steps of Parliament Hill in Ottawa. There are women involved in Lesbian Mothers Defence Fund groups in several cities. They provide support to themselves and each other as they work towards mounting the legal challenges that will allow lesbians to keep custody of their children. On a bright sunny day there are marchers in Moose Jaw who protest against Anita Bryant and her trade marked brand of Florida vitriol. There are virulent scenes of conflict in Ontario and Nova Scotia with those gay men who, as R.W. Connell might say, are complicit with patriarchy and are determined to reap its dividend.

The 1970s see an insatiable demand for conferences which spill over into the next decade. There is a Gay Women’s Festival in Toronto in 1973, lesbian conferences in Montreal in 1974 and 1975, Ottawa in 1976 and 1978, Toronto in 1979 and 1984, Vancouver in 1981 and 1983, Calgary in 1988, Halifax in 1987 and 1990. On the weekends when the conferences are held, women cram themselves into university classrooms to discuss nervously and bravely monogamy and non-monogamy, fantasy, masturbating, bisexuality, aging, alcohol and liberation. They attend the dances and coffeehouses and return to their home communities energised and exhausted. Some of the women are full of conviction that the national lesbian movement is just out of sight around the next bend. Others are disappointed at the infighting between women who disagree over their visions for the movement.

There are mixed lesbian and gay conferences; some defined as national, some as regional. The Ontario Homophile Federation holds a conference in 1971. In 1973 the Centre Humanitaire d’Aide et de Libération (CHAL) in Québec City hosts the first pan-Canadian conference of gay organisations. In 1976, at what is billed as the Fourth Annual Gay Conference, forty lesbian and gay organisations from around the country meet in Toronto. They debate the finer points of lesbian autonomy, the relationship between gay liberation, lesbian liberation, and the women’s movement and the role of the National Gay Rights Coalition, formed the previous year. There are angry scenes at the plenary over the resolutions on lesbian issues. The Body Politic comments that discussion “quickly degenerated into disorderly name-calling, much of it among the women.” Women storm out of the room and storm back in.

There are more hopeful, more informal conferences too. In 1978 at a prairie gay conference, hosted by the Saskatchewan Gay Coalition, “a strong feeling of regional identity and common purpose are being forged.”

What begins as a few items of lesbian paraphernalia available at these conferences and through the nascent community centres becomes a vast showcase of lesbian culture. Lesbians hungry for women-positive imagery provide the demand. The supply comes from lesbians expressing themselves artistically and displaying their wares on stalls at conferences and their talents at festivals. They begin to build a world of alternative media and art. They work on magazines and newsletters, including the more obvious ones such as Long Time Coming, and less obvious ones such as Carousel Capers.

In the 1980s lesbian media blossoms. Amazones d’hier Lesbiennes d’aujourd’hui, The Open Door: Rural Lesbians newsletter, and the Lesbian Newsletter appear. Dykes on Mykes starts to broadcast. The Canadian Women’s Music and Cultural Festival in Winnipeg draws enthusiastic lesbians whose presence causes at least one local burgher to ask whether the “festival was not really a type of political front for the lesbian movement.” The Metamorphosis Festivals in Saskatoon, started by the Saskatoon Gay Coalition to provide an opportunity to experience gay culture, quickly fill up with women performers and participants. Vancouver’s Bi-National Lesbian Conference Organising Committee organises a series of pre-conference cultural events, including a Woman to Woman Art Show with sculpture, textiles, prints, and photography. Branching Out Lesbian Culture Resource Centre in Toronto sponsors a lesbian artists exhibition at a local gallery. Halifax plans an entire conference dedicated to lesbian culture.

The dream of a space just for lesbians–or for lesbians and their gay brothers–is worth pursuing. It is otherwise so hard to find each other. Rural lesbians are isolated. Suburban lesbians sit combing their children’s hair while waiting for their husbands to return. Lesbians brim-full of politics need to caucus, and they cannot do that alone. Besides, women want opportunities to dance together. So spaces are rented in church halls, in Women’s Centres and on university campuses. Women provide space in their homes for meetings and phonelines. Across the prairies there are mixed private member’s clubs (Club 70 in Edmonton, Carousel Club in Calgary, Gemini Club in Saskatoon, Odyssey Club in Regina, and Happenings in Winnipeg), and for a time women become dominant in some of them.

What is at the heart of this lesbian movement? Is it the sense of pride in shared lesbian identity? Perhaps. Is it lust for the confident woman who openly sports a womyn’s symbol button? Possibly. Is it the burning sense of injustice and the feminism to explain it? Probably.

But there is something else, something easy to overlook. At the heart of the movement, in the physical spaces both temporary and semi-permanent where lesbians meet, scheme, plot, dance and drink, sometimes alongside gay men, sometimes without them, are the volunteers. They might be the women who draft resolutions to present at the conference plenary. They might be the women playing guitar who captivate the crowd at a coffeehouse. They might be the women who make contact with feminist lawyers. But most of the time they are not. Many of the lesbian and mixed lesbian and gay spaces are run by boards of directors or small committees. The work required of them has no glamour. They call meetings and attend them, often every week. These women and men are frequently accused of being martinets by community members who believe that they impose unjust rules on in-house behaviour or that they lack political analysis. Yet without the volunteers – the bar staff, the board in charge of running the space, securing licences, maintaining order, and signing their names on the dotted line, without someone responsible for repairing the locks on the toilet stall doors, there would be no movement. What follows for the volunteers is the tedious slog of creating and maintaining those spaces.

Snapshot 1: It is summer 1972 in Edmonton. The president is writing a message to go in Club 70 News. Members must allow staff to collect bottles from the tables on liquor nights by 1.30am. It is simply not fair to be so rude to them while they are volunteering their time to run the club, and if liquor licensing laws are broken the club might close.

Snapshot 2: It is autumn 1973 in Saskatoon, 8pm in the evening. The Board of Directors of the Zodiac Friendship Society is meeting. They discuss a car pool in order to attend a conference in Edmonton. Two months later they decide to organise a games night as an alternative to the dance night they already host every week.

Snapshot 3: It is winter 1974 in Calgary. 1.30pm in the afternoon. Nine women and three men are in a meeting of the Board of Directors of the Carousel Club. They discuss poor attendance figures. Less than a month later they have the same discussion. The previous month they report to each other that the locks on the toilet doors in the ladies washroom have been replaced. In membership newsletters they express frustration with on-going vandalism at the Club and the need to involve more men.

Snapshot 4: It is spring 1975 in Saskatoon. Six women and two men sort out the business of who will have signing authority for their centre. They also need to consider spending money on improving the conditions in the office where they meet. Someone has left the main door to the community centre open, which poses a security risk.

Snapshot 5: It is late autumn 1980 in Vancouver. Twelve women are meeting to organise the upcoming bi-national lesbian conference. They spend their time trying to decide between two possible conference locations, discussing the facilities, visibility of the location, amount of space available, cost, and the chance that the presence of the conference might politicize the area.

Snapshot 6: It is late spring 1983 in Toronto. Six women report to each other on the search for a potential community centre location. They deal with the business of accounts and fundraising. There is little time to discuss their collective vision.

This is the heart of the movement. The volunteers who spend hours pouring over monthly, quarterly, yearly attendance figures at regular and special events and try to work out what the community prefers. They learn quickly from mistakes. They deal with difficult members who do not respect others in the space. They cajole women to be friendly to strangers, not to stand around in cliques, to remember how hard it can be to break into the scene for those who are just coming out. They admonish everyone to remember that these spaces belong to the community, not to straight businessmen out to exploit them. They threaten community members with the truism that if they stop supporting the community events, the events will vanish.

Sometimes the committees have a chance to discuss the purpose of the space. They think about the days when alcohol will be served, and whether it should be present at all. They decide on decor and images, with mixed results. They set limits on where they will advertise, and why. They respond, endlessly it seems, to complaints about the music selection and volume. They patiently explain the nature of the conduct rules to men who resent women’s presence, and women who refuse to tolerate men.

One woman spends her entire night repairing tables which have collapsed. A group spends a weekend building a new drywall to create a TV room. Women rent vans to collect cases of beer or to distribute newsletters. Many of them are involved in a lot of different organisations. The amount of work they do is simply astonishing. And one by one they all, eventually, resign. They do not all receive a letter of thanks from the committee or board or organisation on which they served.

Final snapshot: I am sitting in my office. I have copies of the minutes of many of the lesbian and gay organisations which created the movement in the 1970s and 1980s. The minutes list the names of those present at their meetings. I also have copies of the books and articles which have recorded what is considered the public face of that movement. The indexes list the names of those involved. The lists do not match. I know that committee volunteers might need to preserve their anonymity to protect their jobs and children, and not everyone wants the limelight. But they were the heart of the movement. This is my letter of thanks to them.

I am Assistant Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Manitoba. For the last few years I have been trolling through the wealth of archival material on Canadian lesbian and gay communities at the Canadian Women’s Movement Archives in Ottawa and at the Saskatchewan Archives Board in Saskatoon. I was one of the guest editors for the “Lesbian, Bisexual, Queer, Transsexual/Transgender Sexualities,” issue of Canadian Woman Studies/les cahiers de la femme (Volume 24, Numbers 2-3, Spring 2005). My work on lesbian spaces has appeared in Gender, Place and Culture, and Sapphists and Sexologists. Along with Shawna Ferris, I am Co-founder and Editorial Advisory Board member of the spanking new FAQ: The University of Manitoba Feminist and Queer Review. My real passion is transportation history, and my book Women in British Imperial Airspace, 1922-1937 was published by McGill-Queen’s University Press in 2008.

Comments from old site:

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 11/20/2009 – 22:07.

Thoughtful tribute.
It’s sad that in so many prairie settings queers encounter the same hurdles faced in 1970s Toronto and Montreal…

Submitted by Sandy in saskatoon (not verified) on Tue, 11/10/2009 – 22:33.

this is very interesting. thank you for sharing.