Ottawa LGBT History: Before Liberation

As challenging as life in the 70s and 80s were, the time before liberation was to live as a sexual outlaw. Remember that the LGBT movement for rights and freedoms is only 50 years young. People of our parents and/or grandparents age risked everything—their jobs, their families, their freedom, sometimes even their lives—by being discovered. Just engaging in gay sex, consensual or not, was illegal in Canada until 1969.

The homophobia and transphobia was so mainstream and unchallenged that many LGBT people simply didn't explore their sexual or gender identity out of self-loathing and fear. People who didn't want to be discovered often got married to someone of the opposite sex simply out of societal pressure. Many people interviewed for the VLP described a crushing feeling of isolation and feeling terribly vulnerable and alone during this time.

Others who sought to live more open lives typically moved to larger cities, where underground queer communities were forming. Ottawa wasn't as large as nearby Montreal or Toronto, but the civil service offered an attractive job opportunity, that is until queers were spied on by the RCMP in an attempt to root out so-called 'security risks'.

Gay life existed in Ottawa, nonetheless, for those in the know. House parties and spaces like the Chez Henri and Lord Elgin provided safer spaces for queers to socialize if you were willing to risk being seen in such a space. Hate crimes happened constantly and gay men and lesbians had to be doubly careful entering and leaving any known queer space.

Cruising was another way for gay men in particular to meet for sexual encounters. Any space that was dark and afforded some measure of privacy would do. Parks, bathrooms, pools and gyms, theatres... even walking on the street... gay men learned to find each other. Women had even fewer options to meet other lesbians.

At least two political figures in Ottawa were likely LGBT, hiding in plain sight. The first was Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenize King (1921-1926, 1926-1930, and 1935-1948). Never marrying, which was unusual for a political leader, he has been suspected of loving John Buchan, Lord Tweedsmuir, who became Governor General, though he was a straight married man. He also had a strange fixation on his dead mother, keeping her photo above his bed in Laurier House and attempting to reach her through seance.

The second was Ottawa's first female Mayor, Charlotte Whitton (1951-1956, and 1961-1964) who lived with her suspected partner, Margaret Grier, until Grier's death in 1947. A star hockey player at university, she was a controversial and assertive personality as a politician, saying once that "Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult." She was buried beside Grier at her own death in 1975.

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