Coming out and speaking up…

The following article from our recent newsletter was written by Bryna Bernstein, who has worked as an Archival Assistant at Rise Up this past summer and fall. She is a recent graduate of the Masters of Museum Studies program at the University of Toronto. Her work focuses on Jewish history, feminist organizing, and queer activism between the 1970s and 1990s.

In the 1970s, lesbians in Canada were speaking up about issues important to them more than ever before, mobilizing for change. Newfound visibility, and opportunities to come together, come out, and develop community, led not only to new services  and support, but also to political action.

Organizations were founded, and events were held across the country. One important example occurred in May 1981 in Vancouver, which was in some ways, Canada’s first dyke march. Another example is the formation and work of the Lesbian Organization of Ottawa Now and the conferences it organized.

In this newsletter, we focus in a little further, examining just a few moments from lesbian feminist history in and around Toronto, drawing on materials from the archive.

A map of “lesbian Toronto” from the program of the
1979 Bi-national Lesbian Conference (p18).

The Other Woman

In 1972, a collective of five lesbians produced and sold the first issue of The Other Woman, a “revolutionary feminist newspaper”According to a history by the Lesbian Organization of Toronto, “the first issue caused a scandal among the feminist community by daring to print more than one article of interest to lesbians.”

These articles were by no means the first instance of calling for lesbian recognition (much had occurred at the Indo-Chinese Conference in the Spring of 1971, for example), but the articles were a particularly visible and consistent tool being used to make calls for change. [see correction notice below]

LOOT

Exchanges at the national lesbian conference in October 1976 made it increasingly clear that there was a “need for space in Toronto for…lesbian identity” including “a place to meet, and a base for political action.” The meeting led to a task force, and in the winter of 1977, the Lesbian Organization of Toronto was founded.

Over the next four years, LOOT would organize, among other things, “a newsletter, a weekly drop-in, Sunday brunches, monthly house meetings, a library, a peer-counselling phone-line, New Year’s dances, and political discussions and actions.” It also co-hosted the 1979 Bi-National Lesbian Conference. LOOT ended its operations in 1980.

Becki Ross’ The House that Jill Built provides an expansive history of LOOT, its founding, operations, and closure.

Taking to the Streets!

On October 17, 1981, more than 300 women marched through downtown Toronto in the Dykes in the Street March, with “lesbian power, pride, and visibility as the theme.” They chanted as they walked, calling out, “We’re here because we’re queer” and “We are the D-Y-K-E-S” (p.102).

The march was organized by the Lesbians Against the Right (LAR) — an organization that aimed to bring a “lesbian feminist politic to the gay, feminist, union, anti-imperialist and other movements for social change.” LAR was founded following a Lesbians Fighting the Right forum held in May 1981, as a response, in part, to the end of LOOT’s operations and “growing hostility from police, from homophobic groups, and from the right wing in general” (Burgess, p. 101). The Dykes in the Street March was one of LAR’s first big events.

Watch the 2019 documentary Dykes In The Streets by Almerinda Travassos which examines the rise of Lesbian visibility in Toronto over the past 35 years.

Fighting for Inclusion

Lesbian feminists both inside and outside of the broader women’s movement, were often calling for greater recognition within other organizations. For example, in 1991, the Lesbian Caucus of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women circulated a letter to the organization’s annual general meeting asking for improved representation. They argued that lesbians had “been integral to the creation and life of the women’s movement” and demanded lesbian issues and contributions be better reflected in NAC’s policies and discussions. Similarly, in 1995, a letter from the Toronto Chapter of the Congress of Black Women of Canada was sent to the National and Ontario regions calling for the creation of an Anti-Lesbophobia Sub-Committee.

Addressing Exclusion

Lesbian feminist organizations were, like many feminist organizations of the time, largely white, largely middle class, and largely able bodied. In 1986, the DAWN Lesbian Caucus sent an open letter to all “lesbian and gay organizers, groups, and activities.” They recognized that while some organizations had “fought for and struggled with accessibility,” a great deal of queer organizing, events, and services did not sufficiently support the access that people needed to engage. The open letter details “the bare minimum for accessibility,” addressing issues ranging from accommodations for people with visual impairments, the need for smoke free spaces, publicity, and transportation.

Correction: The article above includes an error in the line that reads: “(much had occurred at the Into-Chinese Conference in the Spring of 1971, for example).”

While there had been a lot that had occurred at the Vancouver Indochinese Women’s Conference (which was reported on in The Pedestal), much less happened at the Toronto conference. At the Toronto conference there was an appeal for all lesbians to stand up and identify as such. After that no other interventions occurred, and there was no contention or disruption related to lesbian (or any) issues. 

This was an error in editing, where nuance was erased regarding the important differences between the Vancouver and Toronto conferences. Please accept our apologies for the error, and thank you to Carolyn Egan, Maureen Hynes, and Nancy Thalia Reynolds for bringing it to our attention!

And you can hear more about what really happened at the Toronto conference in our interview with Carolyn, Maureen, and Nancy for Women Unite!

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