Toronto’s Queer History, Recounted in Buttons and Pins
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Toronto’s Queer History, Recounted in Buttons and Pins

The Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives puts activism front and centre with exhibits "Pushing Buttons" and "The Pin Button Project."

Pushing Buttons and The Pin Button Project
Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives (34 Isabella Street)
September 28–October 22
Tuesdays through Thursdays from 7:30 to 10 p.m., Fridays 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

While political and social activists have been using buttons, badges, ribbons, and pins to promote their causes and show solidarity for more than a century, it was through the civil rights movements of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s that pin-backed buttons came into their own as a consciousness-raising tool. Now, the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives is charting the history of LGBTQ activism in Toronto and across the country through an ongoing online gallery called The Pin Button Project, and a physical exhibit called Pushing Buttons at the CLGA.

“The Pin Button Project arose out of an encounter I had at a fundraiser dinner of the CLGA,” says project curator William Craddock.

At the event, a small display of archival items allowed guests to get a close-up of the sort of material that the organization collects and preserves. On the display was a pin button from the early days of AIDS activism and, as I passed by, a guest began to share a very emotional and personal story about how he had that button and how it reflected the environment and his life at the time. From there, I began to conceive an online exhibition and oral history project surrounding LGBTQ+ buttons. These buttons, given their emotional expressions and personal nature of wearing, have such great potential for igniting individual memory and opinion—and I wanted to provide a place for discussion around the issues of our community’s history, and to start collecting these stories for the CLGA to share with future generations.

As technology has changed, so have the methods that activists have used to communicate, shifting from handbills and soapboxes to mimeographed newsletters to Facebook and Twitter. How is it that pin buttons remain so popular today? “They are a relatively inexpensive, easily created, and widely distributable medium, making them an ideal form of expression for activist movements and community groups,” Craddock explains. “They allow an individual to share, to a wide extent, a political belief, support of a cause or event, or other statement related to self-identity.”

The CLGA currently has more than 1,500 pin buttons covering a spectrum of LGBTQ-related issues, events, slogans, establishments, and organizations over a period of several decades, with the earliest dating back to the late 1960s. From a starkly simple button for CHAT (which those in the know would have recognized as the Community Homophile Association of Toronto) to pins advertising long-departed bars and clubs like Chaps, Colby’s, and the Toolbox, to campaign buttons for George Hislop, Doug Wilson, John Sewell, and Glen Murray (and, notably, against Mike Harris and Bill Davis), the pin buttons in the collection illustrate the humour, heartache, and defiance of the queer communities as they struggled to secure equal rights and legal protections, funding and services to fight HIV/AIDS, and social, cultural, and sexual spaces they could call their own.

The Pin Button Project has launched with a small selection of buttons from the CLGA collection, with more to be added to the site every few weeks through to the end of December. At that point, more than 400 photos of the buttons will be present on the site. “This is not the full 1,500 buttons that the CLGA has in its collection, but it is a pretty broad selection that covers a very diverse range of LGBTQ+ history,” adds Craddock. As an added feature, site visitors have the opportunity to submit questions, opinions, and personal stories regarding the buttons on display. The physical exhibition features several buttons from the collection, photographic prints as well as other archival images, and a make-your-own-button station.

Individuals are welcome to contribute their own pins to the CLGA’s collection, making them available to the many researchers that pass through the archive’s doors. For more information about donating materials to the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives, visit the CLGA website.

The Pin Button Project also features an Adopt-a-Button initiative that allows visitors to attach their name to a button for a small donation (minimum $25). It’s an innovative approach to fundraising for the archive, and a way for donors to connect with their own queer histories or to honour the memories of loved ones, friends—or notable homophobes.