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Keeping the City’s LGBT History Alive

North America's largest collection of LGBT archives calls Toronto home.

In an era when same-sex couples can get married, have children, and live life “out” in Toronto with little fear of harassment, it’s easy to dismiss discrimination as a thing of the past. But the negative history surrounding LGBT issues is still being written, a fact that is evident in our politics and schools. Even our own city, home to one of the largest celebrations of diverse sexual and gender identities, has a murky past when it comes to protecting the rights of the LGBT community.

This serves to remind that the past should not be forgotten, and the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives serves a vital role in this by curating the history of LGBT people in Canada. Home to the largest individual LGBT archive in North America, the CLGA’s mandate is to acquire, preserve, organize, and give public access to information and materials in any medium (including 8-tracks and 35mm!), by and about LGBT people, primarily produced in or concerning Canada.

“We provide an open space and public programming with a goal of engaging the public,” says board president Robert Windrum.

The grassroots organization relies on community donations, and providing community access is a large part of their mandate, as is educating the public about the ongoing need for an organization such as this.

“We’re seeing a real generation gap,” says Windrum. The younger generation, he explained, thinks that the battle for acceptance is all but won, while the not-much-older generation remembers the impact of discrimination that occurred even at a structural level. “We know why the need exists. The bathhouse raids served as an important lesson.”

Founded in 1973 by members of the collective that published The Body Politic, the CLGA also maintains non-archival collections, which include a research library, international subject files, and an international collection of queer periodicals—all of which are available to the public for education and research.

“While the archives are typically accessed by researchers, I’d encourage anyone who is curious to come in and explore our material,” says Windrum. Volunteers work with the public to help them navigate the vast computerized database, and to narrow down their search terms the old fashioned way (using hard copies and humans).

The volunteer-run organization is based in a 19th-century heritage home at 34 Isabella Street. The three-storey house features, in addition to its vast collections, a multi-purpose space (available to the community for anything from meetings to weddings), an art gallery, and a reading room. The archives are open to the public on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday evenings, from 7:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.

CLGA is run entirely on community donations and the organization’s core fundraiser, the 5th Annual Fowl Supper, is coming up on November 5. According to Windrum, the event serves as a way to bring people together at a Prairie-style turkey dinner that feels like you are sitting down at a church supper with friends and family. Tickets are $50 and are available online.

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