What's your story

There is still work to be done: how I've seen gay rights change in Canada over the years

In 1972, Roger Spencer discovered Toronto's gay scene and became active in early pride parades and demonstrations. He reflects on what's changed, and what still needs to change, in the gay rights movement.

'I don't want the pioneering work of early gay rights pioneers ... forgotten.'

Roger Spencer, in 1974 and today, has seen many changes in gay rights and community over the years. (Roger Spencer)

In the summer of 1972, Roger Spencer discovered Toronto's gay scene and became active in early pride parades and demonstrations. Over the years, he's seen many changes for gay rights, but also see that there is work still to be done.

Throughout 2017, we're asking Canadians, "What's your story?" Spencer of Toronto shares his:

I was born in Belleville, Ontario, to a patriotic family. By 1965 I realized that I was different. I liked my same sex.

Roger Spencer's childhood home, Belleville, Ont. (Roger Spencer )

In the mid 1960s love power seemed to be everywhere but nowhere for me. My only resource was an old medical book my family had. It told me I was sick.

In 1969 I read the news about the Stonewall Riots and learned that I was not alone — there were others just like me and we had a name.

At the same time Canada decriminalized homosexuality.

'I couldn't be anything other than me'

My family moved to Toronto and with no Internet or other resources, I had to find my way on my own. I managed to buy an adult themed newspaper tabloid that had a regular feature column from "Duke Gaylord" that detailed gossip from the inner-city gay community. Names were changed to protect the innocent. Near the column was an ad for a "Gays Dating Association," which I responded to and met some gay men. They told me of the Yonge and Wellesley gay scene.

'My siblings went from attitudes such as "but you were made for a woman" to happiness for my happiness.' Spencer, here with a boyfriend in the '80s. ((Rogers Spencer))

I took my young self to Yonge Street in the summer of 1972. It was a classic "dark and stormy night" and I walked around the block two times before mustering the courage to enter an all-ages discotheque.

A year later, looking for something more, I joined The Community Homophile Association of Toronto (CHAT) and spent the next several years marching in early Gay Pride parades and demonstrations. Socially, the highlight was securing the volunteer DJ position at the weekend CHAT dances in 1973 through to 1977.

Being gay in the  workplaces of the early '70s was career suicide, but I couldn't be anything other than me. I was threatened with dismissal, but I moved on to more tolerant employers in the late '70s and flourished.

I was there during the 1980s bath raids demonstrations. I lost a sleeve on my winter coat as it was torn off by a police officer who tried to pull me away from the protesters. A tug of war ensued between the police holding one of my arms and a couple of women pulling on my other arm. The women won.

Today I am proud of how far both our community and police have come.

Civil rights lawyers say police discriminated against gay men by raiding four bathhouses, but the chief of police disagrees. 2:16

The fight continues

When official recognition (if you will) of Gay Canadians happened in 1969 when Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau declared that the government had no business in the bedrooms of the nation and decriminalized homosexuality.

It was a milestone in an era that was still very conservative. Unfortunately, this legislation did not change attitudes or other laws including the basic age of consent which was 14 for opposite sex and 21 for same sex.

Things progressed first with the City of Toronto declaring equality under Mayor John Sewell. The Province of Ontario flip flopped but finally did as well and the federal government followed. Even after these victories the battle wasn't over as the community turned its attention to other inequalities such and marriage and adoption rights.

Now we have equality, in my opinion, but the fight for the hearts of some Canadians continues and the situation for my LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters in many parts of the world is dire.

Views of Toronto Pride, 1990. (Roger Spencer)

My journey has included being harassed, bashed, arrested, charged and dismissed in court. My openness to family, friends and co-workers seemed to slowly change their attitudes towards gay people in general because they had one they knew. Often I was the only one they knew.

Co-workers went from shock and complaint to curiosity and acceptance. My parents went from encouraging me to get psychiatric help to defending me (and gays in general) to their friends and other family members. My siblings went from attitudes such as "but you were made for a woman" to happiness for my happiness.

We have equality in my opinion, but the fight for some of the hearts of Canadians continues.- Roger Spencer

I have survived the pandemic, but many I know have not. I stopped counting when I got to 10 fingers. I know long term survivors as well. By the 1990s the real party was back — I'm retired from the party scene now. My Queen is still Gloria Gaynor. I take great pride in my small role in Gay Liberation.

Today there is still work to be done, and I hope the younger generation realizes this and takes up the challenges because even recently I have been called out as "faggot" on the streets of Toronto.

I don't want the pioneering work of early gay rights pioneers — many of whom are no longer with us — forgotten.

What's your story?
What defines Canada for you? Is there a time that you were proud to be Canadian, or perhaps a time you felt disappointed? Is there a place, person, or event in your life that sums up what being Canadian is to you? Tell us at cbc.ca/ whatsyourstory.


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