Historicist: I Sing The Body Politic

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Historicist: I Sing The Body Politic

As Xtra winds down its print edition, a look at the pioneering gay journal that spawned it.

The final cover of The Body Politic (February 1987), depicting the first (November December 1971)

The final cover of The Body Politic (February 1987), depicting the first (November-December 1971).

The year 1971 was critical for Toronto’s gay community. The federal decriminalization of homosexuality two years earlier, combined with the general spirit of 1960s activism, opened discussions on a taboo topic. In 1971, the city saw its first local performance of The Boys in the Band, a gay picnic at Hanlan’s Point, which served as the ancestor for Pride; the first gay-studies course offered by a Canadian university, presented at York; and the inaugural meetings for two activist organizations—the social-services minded Community Homophile Association of Toronto (CHAT) and the more radical Toronto Gay Alliance (TGA).

Amid these happenings, hawkers hit the streets on October 28, 1971 to launch a new publication. For the cost of a quarter, readers flipped through the debut of The Body Politic (TBP), a journal dedicated to “gay liberation.” Over the next decade and a half, TBP provoked controversy and legal battles as it attempted to look at the intellectual, political, sexual, and social issues of its community.

TBP emerged from the radical side of Toronto gay activism. While the local underground newspaper, Guerilla, published gay-centric articles, there was a sense it wasn’t the right vehicle. “They thought gay stuff was cool because it was different,” contributor and TGA member Charlie Dobie later recalled. “But the more gay content they ran, the more gay people got involved, and the more some of the straight guys felt threatened.” Jearld Moldenhauer, the founder of the pioneering University of Toronto Homophile Association and Glad Day Bookshop, was upset when his Guerilla article on a Parliament Hill demonstration was significantly altered. “We realized we needed our own voice,” Moldenhauer reflected, “and I think that was a catalyst.”

During a TGA meeting in September 1971, Moldenhauer asked if anyone was interested in launching a new paper. Several names were contemplated, ranging from “Mandala” to “Radical Pervert,” before “The Body Politic” was chosen. The paper would run on a collective model, which caused rocky moments for its early members. “Everyone had the same power,” Dobie noted, “but like a hung jury, one person had the power to block something from happening. The only way to break the stalemate was for that person to leave. And sometimes they did.”

Prepared at sites ranging from Moldenhauer’s Annex apartment to Guerilla’s offices, production on the debut issue was swift. Articles were read aloud to the collective for approval and to save on photocopying costs. Several members pitched in more than $200 to cover printing expenses. They rented an IBM Selectrix typewriter to crank out the text.

The content of the first was, as collective member Herb Spiers later put it, “pages and pages of political harangue.” The “We Demand” manifesto presented to the federal government that summer (and co-signed by current Parkdale-High Park MPP Cheri DiNovo) was reprinted over four pages. It called for the removal of the terms “gross indecency” and “indecent act” from the Criminal Code, uniform consent age for all sexual acts, removal of references to homosexuality in the Immigration Act, employment equity, revisions to the Divorce Act regarding gay parents, the right to serve in the military, cease RCMP targeting of gays, and equal rights with heterosexuals.

Cover, The Body Politic, Winter 1974

Cover, The Body Politic, Winter 1974.

A two-page article on how to proceed with gay liberation included the following advice:

The most important tactic is building well-organized and well-publicized actions such as demonstrations, public meetings and debates, conferences, pickets at anti-gay media establishments, etc., etc. These actions will carry a clear message to our brothers and sisters in the closet—you are not alone, gay is good, gay is proud!—and which are aimed at the social institutions which not only reflect the prevailing anti-homosexual attitudes of society at large, but also have the power to physically oppress us and perpetuate these attitudes. This is the most decisive way to cut across our fragmentation and change gay and straight heads in the process…Eventually, we will win the support of the vast majority of straights because they too are oppressed by the distortion of human sexuality, relationships and love which is called “normal” in this society. They will realize they have no stake whatsoever in hating or fearing homosexuals or homosexual feelings of their own.

As the collective evolved, some organization was required. The fourth issue described the early set-up, which involved weekly meetings. All content was voted upon by the collective, with two-thirds approval required for publication. Members were encouraged to participate in distribution, layout, and writing. Two coordinators—initially Moldenhauer and Hugh Brewster—were appointed to handle tasks ranging from answering mail to keeping financial records. Volunteers handled everything until the mid-1970s, after which the paper hired some paid staff.

The paper, however, was primarily male-oriented—a problem the staff wanted to address. “We continue to welcome contributions from gay women but we cannot presume to speak for them. Under such conditions anything we do will smack of tokenism,” noted an editorial in the ninth issue. Several years passed before it better addressed women’s issues.

The makeup of the collective was generally in a state of flux—all of the original members had left by mid-decade. But some who joined during the early issues stayed for the long haul. Among them were friends Gerald Hannon and Ed Jackson, who joined with the second edition. Hannon provided one of the first articles to stir up controversy outside the gay community. Published in the August 1972 issue, “Of Men and Little Boys” was the paper’s first examination of sexual relationships between adults and minors. “The time has come to face the fact that there is a sizable minority of gay men who are primarily interested in sexual relationships with adolescents,” Hannon wrote, “and that these people, by the mere fact of their sexual preference, are working—albeit often unwittingly—towards some of the ideals of gay liberation with regard to the family.” Hannon argued that children were little more than the property of their parents and that, in order to achieve full civil liberties as human beings, they had to break away from the traditional family construct. That, he argued, included awakening their sexual awareness: “Loving a child and expressing it sexually is revolutionary activity. The activists of tomorrow are more than likely in someone’s arms today.”

For many gays and straights, the piece was cringe-inducing. The mainstream media jumped on it, starting with a Globe and Mail piece where columnist Kenneth Bagnell attacked a $14,000 federal grant to CHAT to open a distress centre, linking potential seduction of youngsters with Hannon’s piece (CHAT soon distanced itself from the paper, which responded by calling them a reactionary organization). The Toronto Star feared that such articles would set back the gains in rights and tolerance that homosexuals had made since the Criminal Code amendment.

Source: The Body Politic, February 1976

Source: The Body Politic, February 1976.

Relations with the Star grew frostier when the daily refused to run an ad for TBP in early 1973. The Star cited its policy of refusing to print ads that identified anyone as homosexual or related to sexual activity. TBP complained to the Ontario Press Council, which ruled that the Star had been discriminatory. In revenge, TBP’s printer, Newsweb Enterprise, which was 80 per cent owned by the Star, refused to print further issues. The Star continued its refusal to print ads for the journal and other gay businesses and organizations, though this policy occasionally backfired: it relented in publishing an ad for the Metropolitan Community Church in February 1974 after Reverend Robert Wolfe was cited for bravery by city council after preventing a suicidal gay youth from jumping off the west tower of City Hall.

The low point was a Star editorial on October 19, 1974, which presented the paper’s stance on homosexuals. Though it considered itself tolerant in supporting the Criminal Code amendments, it didn’t want to encourage the spread of homosexuality: “We have no wish to aid the aggressive recruitment propaganda in which certain homosexual groups are engaged, and we strongly oppose those who seek to justify and legitimize homosexual relations between adults and children.” The paper felt that TBP actively proselytized among both adults and youth. Some gay-centric ads might be accepted in the future, as long as the Star was “satisfied that they are not seeking converts to their practices.”

Letters printed over the next few weeks tilted toward the Star’s position. Gay activists responded by picketing the Star and the home of publisher Beland Honderich. A special free edition of TBP was printed to refute the editorial. Several advertisers pulled their spots from TBP during the fallout.

Fears about converting innocents into homosexuals were hysterical. If anything, access to TBP allowed people to sense there were others like them, giving them the courage to come out. Community organization listings increased. Beyond its availability in certain cities, the paper was mailed across the country and throughout Europe. It also helped chronicle gay history through the establishment in 1973 of the forerunner of the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives. Pink Triangle Press was established in 1975 as a non-profit corporation to cover publications and the archive. The name was chosen in reference to the symbol used by German concentration camps to identify homosexuals during the Nazi era. It was hoped it would serve as “a reminder of where gay oppression can lead if gay people neglect the active struggle for their rights.”

By mid-decade, TBP was evolving into a magazine format, with a stronger emphasis on news. It also drew increased scrutiny from the police morality squad. A “Harold Hedd” comic strip by underground cartoonist Rand Holmes depicting fellatio prompted two visits after it was published in spring 1975.

Cover of the December 1976 January 1977 edition of The Body Politic, which featured "Men Loving Boys Loving Men "

Cover of the December 1977-January 1978 edition of The Body Politic, which featured “Men Loving Boys Loving Men.”

That scrutiny increased in the wake of the murder of shoeshine boy Emanuel Jaques after being sexually assaulted by two men in a Yonge Street body rub parlour in July 1977. Given the hysteria and homophobia unleashed by that incident, TBP may have chosen the wrong moment to publish another Gerald Hannon piece on adult-youth sexual relations.

In its introduction to “Men Loving Boys Loving Men” in the December 1977-January 1978 edition, the collective noted that it had sat on the piece for six months, with increased reservations following the Jaques murder. They accepted that, given the tense climate, there would be consequences for publishing the piece, which profiled three men who loved pre-pubescent boys. One of the men, a primary-school teacher in a relationship with a 12-year-old student, claimed, “I just want to liberate my kids a little bit and help them find their sexual direction. Helping them realize their sexuality is nothing to be ashamed.” Nearly 40 years on, the article remains unsettling—Hannon admitted years later the piece was naively one-sided and he could have been critical about the teacher.

The backlash began in the Toronto Sun, where Queen’s Park columnist Claire Hoy upped his usual homophobic rants through a series of articles which viewed Ontario Arts Council grants to TBP as tax money aiding child abuse. The collective responded with a statement denying it promoted child molestation and defending its right to discuss controversial issues.

At around 5 p.m. on December 30, 1977, five morality officers from the Metro Toronto Police and OPP descended on TBP’s office at 24 Duncan Street. Collective member Ed Jackson watched as 12 boxes of material containing subscription lists, financial records, unpublished material, and assorted books left the premises during the three-and-a-half-hour raid. “It seemed like everything we needed to continue publication walked out the door,” he observed. On January 5, 1978, three officers of Pink Triangle Press—Hannon, Jackson, and Ken Popert—were charged under sections 159 (using the mail to distribute obscene material) and 164 (possessing obscene material for the purpose of distribution) of the Criminal Code. Despite the seizures, the next issue was only three weeks late.

Little did they or lawyer Clayton Ruby realize that five years of legal trouble were just beginning.

Source: The Body Politic, November 1978

Source: The Body Politic, November 1978.

Some, like Claire Hoy, hoped the raid would put the publication out of business. The Star criticized the means used. “The homosexual rights movement seems to have a strong suicidal impulse,” Robert Nielsen wrote on the editorial page, “which is perhaps appropriate to the non-procreative sex it fosters. But that’s no reason why the authorities should throw away the rule book in attempting to hasten its demise.” But the nature of the raid, coupled with the spectre of crushing freedom of expression and a growing sense that police were targeting the gay community spurred others to support TBP. In the media, Pierre Berton, June Callwood and Charles Templeton criticized the raid. Eight city councillors sent a letter to Ontario attorney-general Roy McMurtry asking that the seized materials be returned. The Ontario Arts Council increased its annual grant.

On January 3, 1979, Mayor John Sewell spoke in front of 300 people at a rally to support both TBP and a recent police raid on the Barracks bathhouse. Sewell felt the journal played an important role with the gay community and that the article shouldn’t be used as an excuse to kill the publication. He was applauded when he observed that “people who are not interested in these issues do not have to read these papers.” The uproar against Sewell, who stood onstage with the three men charged, was loud, with allies questioning his judgement. Sewell’s defence of the gay community was used against him during the vicious 1980 municipal election campaign.

After six days of testimony, Judge Sydney Harris acquitted Hannon, Jackson, and Popert on February 14, 1979. “I must judge with objectivity and concern for the right of free discussion and dissemination of ideas unless there be a clear incitement to illegal action,” he ruled. McMurtry appealed. Attempts to overturn the appeal not only failed, but a subsequent ruling by another judge in February 1980 ordered a new trial. The increasing financial drain on TBP led to a long-running “Free the Press” fund to cover expenses.

In the wake of the February 1981 bathhouse raids and comments McMurtry made to the Sun regarding gay activists bent on confrontation, it seemed like police and the provincial government were out to harass the community. “They know the public is frightened by homosexual militancy and by their proselytizing,” McMurtry observed, “but they seem to enjoy feeding their fear.”

Despite these setbacks, TBP continued publication. It marked its 10th anniversary with a long article that was part retrospective, part office tour. City council defeated an attempt by alderman Joe Piccininni to ban the journal from the press gallery following a cover story on the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence (which offended the Catholic sensibilities of Piccininnni and Mayor Art Eggleton) in February 1982. Further obscenity charges were laid following an April 1982 article on fisting, “Lust With a Very Perfect Stranger,” which resulted in acquittals several months later. Cover stories featured topics like the emergence of AIDS.

Source: The Body Politic, July 1979

Source: The Body Politic, July 1979.

As for the ongoing “Men Loving Boys Loving Men” legal issues, Hannon, Jackson, and Popert were acquitted again in June 1982. McMurtry’s office appealed again. By this point, even staunch opponents of homosexuality thought things were getting ridiculous. “I couldn’t be more opposed philosophically to everything that the publishers of TBP represent,” evangelist Ken Campbell told the Globe and Mail in 1982. “But at the same time, here is a case where fellow citizens are left paying the bill after being twice acquitted of the same charge.” The end came at midnight on October 15, 1983, when the deadline for the attorney-general’s office to appeal for the third time passed without a word.

By 1986, financial pressures initiated meetings among the collective to discuss future directions. The result was Pink Triangle Press’s first written mission statement:

To engage audiences among lesbians and gay men and those who share their concerns, through a variety of means and media, offering them opportunities to support and participate in the development of ideas and in actions which promote liberating social change, focusing on sexuality in its social, political and cultural contexts.

The “variety of means” already included Xtra, which had launched as an upbeat four-page tabloid in 1984. People felt that the time had passed for one publication to encompass everything, which resulted in concepts for three potential future publications: a national monthly designed to appeal to a broader audience; an international quarterly focusing on intellectual, analytical and political content; and a lesbian-centric tabloid. The idea was to phase out TBP as these new publications launched. A hierarchical structure for the organization was brought in, with Ken Popert as publisher. At the same time, several longtime TBP staffers indicated they wanted to leave within the next year.

On December 16, 1986, they decided to suspend TBP with its February 1987 issue. Despite the terminology used, the publication was effectively killed. The news slipped to the public during a CHUM-FM interview with Popert. “I know some people are angry at the decision we made,” Rick Bébout wrote in the final issue, “some resentful, some feeling robbed of a resource we’d led them to believe they could take for grant. But mostly people say to me: yes, it’s sad, but it was time.” Subscribers were asked if they wanted to use the remainder of their account to fund Pink Triangle in general.

With the demise of TBP, Xtra took on more political content. It eventually expanded into separate editions for Ottawa and Vancouver. With the announcement that it will switch exclusively to online publishing after its February 19, 2015, Toronto edition, more than 40 years of regular Pink Triangle print coverage draws to a close.

Source: the Globe and Mail, February 6, 1980

Source: the Globe and Mail, February 6, 1980.

In a 2014 essay for Xtra, Michael Connors Jackman summed up TBP’s legacy:

The paper was a social experiment, an intellectual engagement, and a political project aimed at changing the world. In this way, it was a working out of difficult issues, sometimes messy and fraught with contradiction. There is so much to be learned from the work of the paper, from the rousing ideas laid out in its pages to the incredible individuals who gave so much of themselves to all of us.

Additional material from On the Origins of The Body Politic by Rick Bébout (Toronto: online, 2000); the November-December 1971, May-June 1972, August 1972, Autumn 1972, Winter 1973, Summer 1973, March-April 1974, November-December 1974, February 1976, December 1977-January 1978, February 1978, December 1978-January 1979, January-February 1982, November 1983, and February 1987 editions of The Body Politic; the April 12, 1973 and June 16, 1982 editions of the Globe and Mail; the July 1996 edition of Toronto Life; the August 24, 1972, October 19, 1974, March 29, 1978, January 4, 1979, February 16, 1979, February 26, 1982 editions of the Toronto Star; the March 3, 1981 edition of the Toronto Sun; and the November 9, 2006 and January 29, 2014 editions of Xtra.

Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

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