CHAT (COMMUNITY HOMOPHILE ASSOCIATION OF TORONTO)
Bits And Pieces
CHAT had come out of UTHA (U. of Toronto Homophile Assoc.) at the beginning of 1971. Within six months, it seemed very much the mother group for everything that happened. Its meetings, particularly when held in the nave of Holy Trinity Church with it's dark wood pews and tall windows, gave the feeling of a gay parliament. There was a momentary aura of having kicked out the politicians and occupied some ancient institution.
There was cooperation, but there was also debate, personality and policy clashes, factions, intrigue in the background.
CHAT opened a community centre on Cecil St. in 1972. The struggle to make this Centre work probably affected a lot that happened from there on in, weighing it down. The left-right clash within CHAT coalesced around control of the social service side of things and eventually went beyond the possibility of reconciliation. At the incorporation conference at the end of 1972 the left lost a crucial by-law vote and walked out. There may have been an inevitability to this. On the other hand that may be too easy an excuse, and this may have been the first step away from their immediate audience by gay activists in this city. Another version might say this is where the community building aspect of gay liberation was chopped off at the knees in Toronto. CHAT hobbled on for five or six years. But the result within the Toronto gay movement was a community scene that was basically a desert for the rest of the decade. Different kinds of activities struggled in their separate spheres but were no longer able to feed off each other to anywhere near the degree they had previously. Paul Macdonald, in the tenth anniversary issue of The BP, speaking of things before this split says it simply and well -- "In some ways the spirit has never quite been the same . . . they were heady times."
A million tales could be told about CHAT, from the adventures, political and otherwise, of its president, George Hislop, to the treasurer absconding with the treasury. But again these notes are not meant to cover that, they are just an accompaniment to what Charlie and I put in the Archives.
Here are a few memories that hang on some of those scraps of paper.
When I first sat down in the CLGA library to write these notes, the CHAT dances were my starting point. Very soon there were a couple of pages of metaphors and musings. In the end all this was edited out, only a brief reference in the section on GATE remained.
Finding some out-of-the-way spot on a dance floor, shutting my eyes and thus shutting out the rest of the world, and dancing the night away: that was my idea of paradise. I was an energetic dancer if not a notable one, it might be said I moved to my own peculiar rhythms. When I was a child and no one was home I'd put on a symphony and hurl myself from room to room, leaping, rolling on the floors, whirling about, bouncing off the walls. After an hour or so of my first CHAT dance I again began to dance alone and again dancing became that special pleasure. From then on the idea of someone to dance with seemed irrelevant. I guess I can consider this, at least in my own life of very humble highpoints, as another little gift from gay liberation. As unremarkable and unoriginal as it seems, it freed me of one more inhibition, and through the seventies and eighties gave me an independent way to enjoy myself and to be part of all the energy that even in these times still flows around a gay dance floor. To me all of gay life is summed up there, I open my eyes and look around and all the stories, all the emotions, the mundane, the grand, the petty, the opportune, the narcissistic, the overwhelming, every uncertain move, every yearning, the beer, the sex, the hope, the disappointment, the smoke, the heat, the cruising, the dirty little apartments, the poppers, the welfare cheques, the escape from confinement to exist for a moment as gay people in our own world, it goes on and on, and around me and through me. And most of all and finally, I feel this is the one place on earth I have a right to be, this is mine, it is ours, and we share it, and who does that queen think she is anyways.
So, a small bow to the night I first wandered down the alley between Eaton warehouses and into the nave of a Holy Trinity Church filled with gay music and jumping gay bodies.
And my apologies for leaving it at that and not writing of the incredible feeling of community and history that pervaded those early dances.
A Few Degrees Of Separation
In May, 1972, a few members of the Western Guard tried to shout down a gay panel discussion at the St. Lawrence Centre and then started spraying a type of tear gas as they retreated. This was followed by a Molotov cocktail thrown into the Cecil St. CHAT Centre the next night. Black scar on the floor where the bottle of gasoline hit, it looked harmless enough and was in keeping with the general ineptness of the Guard at this point. The previous night, getting the address wrong, they had mistakenly tossed their first Molotov at some teacher's house up the street from CHAT. Eventually two members of the Western Guard were charged, of whom one had previously been convicted of assaulting USSR Premier Kosygin in Ottawa.
After this, small groups of us started guarding the CHAT Centre, sleeping there at night. At most this only lasted a couple of months. We placed our sleeping bags near the north wall of the main hall, away from the windows. Every now and then a stray sound filtered up from the basement, which was a warren of small rooms. On the main floor large and flimsy windows overlooked Cecil Street. Particularly at first, the least noise (on the corner was Grossman's Tavern) was enough to make us reach for our baseball bats.
But there was no more trouble.
To complete this shaggy dog tale of the degrees of separation between the Premier of the USSR and the Prime Minister of Dominica see GUY AND ME
(2011 SIDE NOTE: I may be wrong, and in 2011 I no longer have access to any way of confirming this, but while neither The Toronto Star nor The Globe & Mail allowed the BP to advertise in their Classified columns in the 1970's, there's this vague recollection that ads from the Western Guard were accepted. Talk about being at the bottom of the food chain! As for the incident above, see Rick Bebout's Promiscuous Affections for a more detailed account. As he says, the fire in fact could have been much more serious had it not been caught in time.) See Rick Bebout on the CHAT firebombing.
1) Digging through our boxes of memorabilia out comes a Back/Chat, the CHAT house organ, from Mar.72. On the back is handwritten results of voting for the board of directors that spring. These indicate a hardcore activist membership of 20-25% re votes for Jerry Moldenhauer and Paul MacDonald. The virtual tie for Pat Murphy and Stephanie St. John is interesting. Pat was a strong personality, articulate, popular, leaned to the left. Stephanie was a pseudonym, a very conservative personality who always talked as though she were leading a kindergarten class.
2) In the box also is a CHAT info handout from early fall of 1972 to members re a Kenneth Bagnell column in the Globe & Mail linking CHAT and Gerry Hannon's BP article, Of Men And Little Boys. This story came on the heels of another tempest-in-a-teapot in June. That time it was created by the Toronto Sun over a couple of BPs sent out in a CHAT information packet to some woman worried about her son.
As a result a few people in CHAT from the right of the political spectrum, in particular Mary A., were calling for any member of other organizations, especially TGA and the BP, to be kicked out of CHAT. People would be required to sign a pledge they were not and had never been a member of these two. BP vendors should not be allowed into the CHAT Centre, nor should anyone else carrying a copy of this paper. Those making this demand didn't get their way. This time. But the cracks in CHAT were getting harder and harder to paper (hmmm) over and the Bagnell column caused a lot of problems.
The minutes of the CHAT Board meeting of Feb.12, 1973 include an item titled "Body Politic" which reads "That with the intention of establishing a proper stmosphere the Board prohibits the carrying on of any commercial venture which is not specifically an official CHAT enterprise." Presumably this refers to a BP wendor selling copies to CHAT members at the CHAT centre.
3) This leads in to the CHAT Policy Convention in late fall of the same year. The left-wing has lost a crucial policy vote, their members on the board resign there and then and the left prepares to walk out, never to return as a force in CHAT.
The resignations of CHAT's most active and public directors were hardly out of their mouths before Mary was on her feet saying good riddance. If they wanted to leave, well fine but life had to go on and she for one was offering herself as a replacement here and now. I think she actually got up and took a seat on the platform without waiting for any sign from the membership that they wanted her there. Which suggests a little planning to this bit of public theatre. In any case the door was truly slammed, to everyone's detriment. People would occasionally slip through in one direction or the other but it was no longer one tribe. In this manner CHAT began its slow decline to irrelevance, coming to its end by 1977.
Another curiosity from the bottom of the box, a CHAT selected bibliography "concerning male and female homosexuality", May, 1972, interesting as an illustration of the way activists shuttled from group to group. Among the people who put this together was Charlie Hill, later of the National Gallery, braids and all, who at this point may still have been president of UTHA (University of Toronto Homophile Association) and who spoke as the Toronto Gay Action representative at the national demo in Ottawa in 1971, though he only joined TGA later. (The scheduled TGA speaker, i.e. Herb Spiers, had had an accident on the way.) Also responsible for this pamphlet were Chris Fox, involved in the future in getting sexual orientation into the contracts of the Metro library system where she worked; and the writer, publisher and occasional crotchety contrarian Ian Young, with whom I don't think I've ever had a direct conversation though we'd been in the same room often enough.