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culture

The Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives, 40 Years Later

A home on Isabella Street is a repository of information related to Canadian LGBT history.

The Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives, on Isabella Street.

Some archival institutions begin with a philanthropic endowment; others arise from legal necessity. In the case of the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives (CLGA), a notice at the bottom of the editorial page of a 1973 edition of the pioneering LGBT journal The Body Politic provided the starting point:

The task of reconstructing the history of gay people is painstaking work—often yielding little more than speculative sketches of what has been. History can be a tool of both oppression and liberation. It has all too often reflected the world view of the status quo, projecting the historian’s own political, moral, and psychological biases onto reality, rarely providing an objective and neutral account of the real people and forces involved. These straight historians and other “guardians of morality” have been conscientious in their near obliteration of gay history. One way to encourage accurate historical research is to gather, and make available, resource material relevant to all aspects of gay history. To this end, The Body Politic has founded the Canadian GLM [Gay Liberation Movement] Archives.

From a filing cabinet in the paper’s office, the CLGA, now celebrating its 40th anniversary, has grown into a collection whose range of artifacts runs from bar matchbooks to softball uniforms. Though some materials, including the world’s largest collection of LGBT periodicals, reside in an office at the corner of Church and Wellesley streets, most holdings have been stored in a mid-19th-century home at 34 Isabella Street since 2009.

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Researchers working in the ground-floor reading room will notice the stained glass memorial window. According to a note from artist Lynette Richards, the piece depicts the “pages of history being lifted and shuffled in the winds of change.” The window is designed to be viewed with reflected light, to symbolize the reflection undertaken by the room’s users. Its patchwork design is intended as a reference to the the AIDS Memorial Quilt. Upstairs, exhibition space provides a forum for artistic and historical displays. Throughout the building, the National Portrait Collection honours notable contributors to the Canadian LGBT community.

The CLGA operates with a base of around 70 volunteers. Their commitments range from occasionally helping at functions to cataloguing the collection. Some have assisted the archives from its earliest days, motivating younger volunteers like archivist Kate Zieman. “It’s really inspiring to see people devote that much time to something with so little glory or public acknowledgement,” she told Torontoist in a recent interview. “We all do it because we love the material and feel like it’s worthwhile.”

Zieman began volunteering at CLGA while studying at the University of Toronto seven years ago. She started by cataloguing the rare book collection, then assisted the archives’ community outreach program, which includes school visits, tours, and the promotion of exhibits being held at outside venues like the Yorkville Public Library. One of her current CLGA projects is writing historical vignettes and biographical sketches for Proud FM.

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Asked about her favourite items in the collection, Zieman points to clippings and full issues from Toronto’s gutter press. “Anyone who thinks Toronto in the 1950s was a really dull place needs to spend some time with the tabloids,” she laughs. Publications like Flash and Hush ran sensationalistic tales of arrests and bar raids, ruining the lives of those it named. Zieman feels these papers give a sense of what postwar gay life was like in the city, even if it’s all filtered through a homophobic lens.

As a counterpoint, she points to the CLGA’s photo collection, originally built from the files of The Body Politic. The holdings include pictures of lesbians during the Second World War enjoying each other’s company. They provide a positive view of gay life, especially compared to the miseries compiled by the tabloids.

Because the CLGA lacks a steady source of government funding, it relies on the generosity of donors for its operations and collection building. One unexpected source of money has been eBay. The archive sells donated books that don’t fit its current collection criteria. (At the moment, the CLGA is primarily looking to fill in gaps in materials relating to bisexuals, lesbians, and trans people.)

Overall, Zieman finds the CLGA serves as a community builder, open to everyone regardless of their sexual orientation. “We provide a nice place to come and witness the struggles of people who came before us, and celebrate the gains and focus on what we still need to do.”

Additional material from The Body Politic #10, 1973.

Photos by Jamie Bradburn/Torontoist.

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