Arts·Queeries

10 Canadian LGBTQ stories that need to be made into films or TV series

Jim Egan — whose story is at the heart of the first queer Heritage Minute — is far from the only history-making Canadian worthy of immortalizing on the screen.

Jim Egan is far from the only history-making Canadian worthy of immortalizing on the screen

Clockwise from top left: Montreal AIDS activists. Zami's Xtra! cover. Delwin Vriend and Andrew Gagnon. The Brunswick Four. George Hislop. The Body Politic. (Delwin Vriend: Canadian Press/All others: Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives)

Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.

In under 24 hours, over a million viewers watched the first LGBTQ Heritage Minute when it first debuted last week. It was a record for the 27-year-old mini-doc series, which made its inaugural dip into the rich history of queer Canadiana via the story of Jim Egan, our country's first publicly known gay activist. This got me thinking: with interest clearly high with respect to this history, why stop there? And while Heritage Minutes are a fabulous start, why not expand these stories into full-length film and/or television?

Telling the stories of actual people and events in Canadian LGBTQ history on any sort of screen hasn't exactly been a regular occurrence. There have been some great documentaries (like this very recent one, The Fruit Machine), but in terms of narrative adaptations, the only example that comes to mind is the 2004 CTV made-for-TV movie Prom Queen: The Marc Hall Story. And with all due respect to the nobility of that Aaron Ashmore-starring take on the Oshawa teenager who fought the school board to take his same-sex date to prom, it's rather depressing that it stands so alone as a representative.

So with the 50th anniversary of the decriminalization of homosexuality in this country coming next year, I feel like it's a very appropriate time for the media-makers and funders in Canada to get some balls rolling on adding a few examples to the CanCon canon of historical queer narrative storytelling. And beyond Jim Egan himself (whose autobiography offers a perfect blueprint for a film or miniseries), here are 10 more stories that are equally worthy of just that (in alphabetical order, coincidentally).

Bathhouse raids

Police raid the Sex Garage party in 1990. (Linda Dawn Hammond/IndyFoto.com)

The closest equivalent of a "Stonewall" (the 1969 New York City riots widely adopted as a starting points for what was then termed the "gay liberation movement") in Canada is very arguably the 1981 Toronto bathhouse raids, in which police violently descended on four of the city's bathhouses and arrested 304 men. It's still one of the largest mass arrests in Canadian history (the police called it "Operation Soap"). Gay activist and politician George Hislop (more on him later) was quoted in the The Body Politic (more on that later too) as calling the night "the gay equivalent of Crystal Night in Nazi Germany — when the Jews found out where they were really at." This resulted in unprecedented community mobilization — and an iconic moment in Canadian LGBTQ history — when, the next night, some 3,000 people marched toward Toronto's 52 Division police station chanting "Fuck you, 52!"

The entire story of those raids has already been documented in the 1982 documentary Track Two, which is available in its entirety online to give screenwriters some inspiration:

And tragically, while this specific raid gets the most attention due to sheer number of people both who were arrested and who protested, it is hardly an isolated incident. 60 men were arrested at Pisces Spa in Edmonton in 1981, a huge tipping point for the activation of that city's activist movement. Montreal police arrested 146 men in the 1977 Truxx raids (there's a documentary on this too, which also shows how the men were thrown in overcrowded cells and forced to take tests for venereal disease) and then another 163 in the 1984 Buds raids. And while it wasn't a bathhouse, the 1990 raid of the Montreal after-hours queer party Sex Garage was as much an equal to a "Stonewall equivalent" as the the 1981 Toronto raids (read the entire horrifying story here).

This is obviously just the Cole's Notes: raids of men's bathhouses occurred in essentially every major Canadian city, as late as 2004 in Calgary and Hamilton. Which really begs for a Canadian Horror Story anthology-type series, each using various raids as a window into the unique regional activist communities that fought back against them.

The Body Politic

Issues of The Body Politic. (Canadian Gay and Lesbian Archives)

Two years ago, I wrote this piece here at CBC Arts on why every Canadian should know about The Body Politic in honour of Nick Green's Dora Award-winning play exploring its history. Head to that link for a full 411, but in short: in the 1970s and 1980s, The Body Politic was an unparalleled hero in the history of Canadian queer media. The magazine, which began in 1971, played a role in essentially every battle fought in the liberation movement of its time, and a movie — or better yet, miniseries — in the tradition of great journalism narratives (think a queer Canadian Spotlight) following this has endless potential, though it best include the magazine's history of criticism for not recognizing marginal groups within the queer community. For starters, we hear Nick Green has a Dora Award-winning play that could be adapted.

The Brunswick Four

The Brunswick Four. (Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives)

Paging Ellen Page! You've done incredible work producing and performing in LGBTQ content since you came out, so we have a homegrown suggestion for your next step: adapting the story of the Brunswick Four. And I can assure you, it would make for quite the movie (perhaps starring yourself and, say, Alison Pill, Tatiana Maslany and Emily Hampshire?). Basically, it would revolve around the events of January 5, 1974, in which four queer women — Adrienne Potts, Pat Murphy, Sue Wells and Heather Elizabeth — went to an amateur singing night at Toronto's Brunswick Tavern...except when it came time to sing Rodgers and Hammerstein's "I Enjoy Being a Girl," they changed the lyrics to "I Enjoy Being a Dyke." The owner immediately asked them to leave, but they refused and ended up being both assaulted and arrested by the police. And this is just scratching the surface of the story of these incredible women, three of whom would end up standing trial — a trial which received major mainstream press attention in a way LGBTQ people had rarely ever before.

This seven-minute mini-documentary expands on their story further, and once you watch it you'll understand why it too should be expanded: into the lesbian superhero movie the Brunswick Four have deserved all along.

Delwin Vriend

Delwin Vriend and his partner Andrew Gagnon at a rally following the Edmonton Legislature's verdict. (Kevin Frayer/Canadian Press)

On April 2, 1998, discrimination based on sexual orientation was ruled illegal in Canada, and the man behind that fight was Alberta college instructor Delwin Vriend. Seven years earlier, Vriend has been fired from his job as a lab instructor at The King's College in Edmonton because he was gay. He filed a discrimination complaint to the Alberta Human Rights Commission, but they refused it because "sexual orientation" was not protected under the province's human rights code — so Vriend sued both the Commission and the Alberta government. And this case eventually made it all the way to the Supreme Court, who ruled in Vriend's favour. A classic David vs. Goliath tale (if David was queer and Goliath was...Alberta), Vriend's story seems like a pretty easy sell to me.

Everett George Klippert

Justice Minister Pierre Trudeau responds to a Supreme Court decision that Everett George Klippert should be locked up indefinitely because of his homosexuality. 3:15

Remember when I noted that 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the decriminalization of homosexuality? Well, we have a mechanic from the Northwest Territories to thank for that: Mr. Everett George Klippert. In 1965, Kilppert was questioned by the RCMP in the village of Pine Point, N.W.T. about his potential involvement in an arson case. While the RCMP would find that Klippert had nothing to do with it, there was something else he voluntarily admitted to them that would put him in custody for the next six years: that he had consensual sex with other men. Arrested and ultimately sentenced as "a dangerous sexual offender," Klippert appealed the decision, eventually losing his case in the Supreme Court in a controversial 3-2 decision. But outcry from the loss put the wheels in motion for then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and then-NDP leader Tommy Douglas (played by a pair of future Canadian Screen Award nominees for best supporting actor, to be sure) to push for an omnibus bill that would lead to the decriminalization of homosexuality in 1969.

George Hislop

Arguably the best American example of LGBTQ history being narrativized in a movie is Gus Van Sant's Oscar-winning Milk. And while it doesn't quite have the same ring to it, I'm waiting for one of Canada's many queer filmmakers to make Hislop. Dubbed "the unofficial mayor of the Toronto gay community," Hislop — among many other things — co-founded the Community Homophile Association of Toronto (one of Canada's first organizations for queer folks) and helped organize the first gay rights demonstration on Parliament Hill. And that was just 1971. A decade later, he'd run for Toronto City Council in the 1980 city elections, remarkably receiving the support of then-Mayor John Sewell. He'd narrowly lose, but the story of the campaign — in which both Hislop and Sewell were subject to endless bigotry — is one of the most captivating Canadian political narratives in our history (and yes, that actually is saying something).

The 1989 International AIDS Conference

The 1989 International AIDS Conference. (AIDS Activist History Project)

This cannot be stressed enough: there are enough stories of Canadian heroes when it comes to the AIDS epidemic to keep Heritage Minutes going through infinity. And while I admit my sole example is rather obvious, it is certainly a dramatic one — and one that reflects an incredible collaboration between the AIDS activist organizations in Toronto (AIDS Action Now!), Montreal (Réaction-SIDA) and New York (ACT UP). I love the idea of a film following each organization separately as the narrative builds to their glorious meeting of minds on June 5, 1989, when they stormed the stage of the 5th International AIDS Conference in Montreal — an event they had not been invited to. As the audience waited for then-Prime Minister (and true villain in the history of HIV/AIDS) Brian Mulroney to open the conference, Toronto AIDS activist Tim McCaskell took the microphone and opened it himself "on behalf of people with AIDS from Canada and around the world." Many scientists in the audience stood up and cheered, and the following year, activists were invited to the International AIDS Conference in San Francisco (read a firsthand account of the events by McCaskell here, and then contact him to consult you through a screenplay.)

The reclamation of "two-spirit"

A still from North Mountain by two-spirit filmmaker Bretten Hannam. (VQFF)

Another conference with far-reaching influence on LGBTQ history in this country and beyond was the third annual Intertribal Native American, First Nations, Gay and Lesbian American Conference, held in Winnipeg in 1990. At the conference, activist Albert McLeod proposed the term "two-spirit" to refer to the Indigenous LGBTQ community. This was very much meant as an act of reclamation of pre-colonial traditions, when two-spirit people were looked upon as a third gender — and, in almost all cultures, honoured and revered. As the 2-Spirited People of the 1st Nations explains: "Two-spirit people were often the visionaries, the healer and the medicine people...respected as fundamental components of our ancient culture and societies...Since European colonization, the existence of the two-spirit community has been systematically denied and culturally alienated from the Aboriginal identity." Now, it doesn't feel like my place as a white writer of colonial descent to suggest how the term's contemporary origins could serve as an entry point into a film or TV series that helps further reclaim this history, but I do feel comfortable saying that there are many very talented two-spirit filmmakers working in this country who should be given free reign to explore the many, many possibilities.

Rupert Raj

"Trans people today are deeply indebted to pioneers like Rupert Raj, who forged a path where none existed and dared to make the world a better place for all," author Brice D. Smith writes about Rupert Raj's autobiography Dancing The Dialectic: True Tales of a Transgender Trailblazer, which should have already been optioned for film and television by now. Raj, born female in Ottawa in 1952, began his own gender transition when he was 19 years old. By the time turned 30, he had already — among other things — founded two organizations for trans people (the Foundation for the Advancement of Canadian Transsexuals and the Metamorphosis Medical Research Foundation) and two transgender-focused publications (Gender Review and Metamorphosis). And this was very much only the beginning. Raj's contributions to Canada's trans community are seemingly endless — and more than overdue for a cinematic celebration.

Zami and Doug Stewart

Zami on the cover of Xtra! in December 1984. (Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives)

History privileges the privileged, and Canadian LGBTQ history is by no means immune to that. The people, organizations and institutions that are generally celebrated as iconic and heroic to our country's queer history are largely cisgender, gay, white and male. That's not to discount their contributions in any way (though that's easy for me to say that, since I am all of those things), but it's important to remember that while folks like Jim Egan and George Hislop and everyone at The Body Politic were fighting the good fight, there were so many unsung heroes in marginalized queer communities — many of whom felt ignored by the white gay men at the forefront of the general "movement."

Giving these histories as big a spotlight as possible would surely result in important and inspiring storytelling, but here's one in particular that stands out from my admittedly questionable perspective: Zami, the first Black queer group in Toronto. Founded in 1984 and named after an East Caribbean word for lesbian sex, one of the group's original organizers was Doug Stewart. Stewart was one of the first people in Canada to speak out publicly against the exclusion and racism that queers of colour faced from the overall queer community. In 1986, after The Body Politic enraged queers of colour in the community after publishing an advertisement from a white gay man who was seeking "a young, well-built BM [Black Man] for a houseboy," Stewart wrote a letter to the magazine that said racism among gay men "forces gay men like me to prioritize my concerns...Black gay activists define themselves first and foremost as Black and as gay second."

Zami was just one of dozens of groups formed in the 1980s to combat problems from the "queer establishment." To name but a few groups with leaders and stories worthy of much more than a Heritage Minute: the Gay Asians of Toronto; Juka, the Nova Scotia Black Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Association; Gais et lesbiennes asiatiques in Montreal, Lesbians of Colour in Toronto and Asians and Friends in Ottawa.

About the Author

Peter Knegt has worked for CBC Arts since way back in 2016, with highlights including co-hosting weekly live talk show State of the Arts, writing the regular LGBTQ-culture column Queeries and playing integral roles in the launch of series The Filmmakers and Canada's a Drag. Beyond CBC, Knegt is also the filmmaker of numerous short films and the author of the book About Canada: Queer Rights. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter with the same obvious handle: @peterknegt.

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