The history of the lesbian community in Ottawa begins well before the modern queer liberation and feminist movements that started in the early seventies.
Gay women were left with even fewer options to meet each other than gay men who had at least had a thriving, albeit potentially dangerous, cruising culture. Lesbians tended to be more private, socializing at house parties and meeting through activities like sports.
Two bars in particular became known hangouts for 'bar dykes' or 'sports dykes'—the Texas Tavern and the legendary Coral Reef, so infamous it was dubbed the 'Oral Grief' within the community.
As the civil rights movements blossomed in the early 70s, lesbians were often conflicted to choose their battles—to fight for women's rights within the feminist movement or for queer rights along with the gay male community. Lesbians faced the same discrimination as gay men did, but also had other challenges that women in general faced, such as pay inequity. Another major challenge that tragically affected many lesbians was that if they were married with children, they often lost custody as courts would favour a straight single father over a lesbian mother.
In both communities, they may have felt unwelcome, as straight women feminists may have felt lesbians hurt their image or were too radical, and gay men could have different objectives or were possibly misogynists. These divisions frequently were divided on class lines, with more middle-class women tending to focus on feminist issues, and others gravitating towards queer issues.
In Ottawa, feminists tended to gather at the Ottawa Women's Centre, which some say gradually became more accepting of lesbian women as they integrated themselves into the organization. Other lesbians preferred to work with gay men at Gays of Ottawa, saying that gay men could just be a lot of fun to work with. Marie Robertson recalls some challenges, however, recounting a story about how the women objected to a male nude art show in the Centre that they took down during a woman's social night, outraging some of the men who felt it was censorship.
For the second part of this series on the Lesbian and Feminist movements, click here.
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