This organization changed Toronto queer history — and a new film shows us how we can learn from them

The documentary Supporting Our Selves chronicles the impact of the Community One Foundation, looking back into the past for lessons about the future. The film premieres at Inside Out 2023.

The documentary Supporting Our Selves looks back into the past for lessons about the future

Still frame from the film Supporting Our Selves (SOS). Activist leZlie lee kam dances joyfully at a Pride celebration, holding a cane and wearing a rainbow lei around their neck.
leZlie lee kam in Supporting Our Selves (SOS). (Four Corners Productions)

Cutaways is a personal essay series where filmmakers tell the story of how their film was made. This Inside Out 2023 edition by producer Jenn Mason focuses on the film Supporting Our Selves, a documentary that connects the history of Toronto's pivotal Community One Foundation to modern queer advocacy.

What holds a community together? What can we learn from looking back at our history — from both the successes and failures of the past? And can these questions be answered through a documentary about a little-known organization that started with discreet "SOS" gatherings held in private homes? 

The intersection of my queerness with my work is constantly evolving. Since the first short I produced, I knew that I wanted to use the tools at my disposal to make a difference — to encourage thought, encourage growth and fight for further acceptance and understanding of my community. 

The initial idea for Supporting Our Selves (SOS) was a documentary about the history of the Community One Foundation. Our executive producer, Philip Kocev, first approached me looking for someone to take on the project and run with it. The film quickly evolved from there. 

I had never heard of Community One, though I did recognize their mascots "The Fruit," having seen them at a few of Toronto's Pride Parades. I was struck by the idea of an organization that had a role in so much of what we know as today's queer community but was essentially unknown to the broader public.

Community One was founded in 1980 (known then as the Lesbian and Gay Appeal) by a small group of activists who threw private parties in friends' homes ("SOS" Nights) with the goal of raising money to support the wider community. Since then, the foundation has funded The 519, Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, Pink Triangle Press, the Inside Out Festival (where we premiere this month) and countless others. It is undeniable that the community here in Toronto, and even in Canada, would be vastly different without these organizations — without this investment.

Still frame from the film Supporting Our Selves (SOS). Activist Jay Baldwin smiles widely and dances in their wheelchair, wearing a shirt featuring a rainbow and the words "be you."
Jay Baldwin in Supporting Our Selves (SOS). (Four Corners Productions)

Thinking about this history, I couldn't help comparing my life now to theirs then. In many ways, I am lucky. I am married and my wife and I have a three-year-old — luxuries that would not have been afforded to us had we been born 30 years earlier. I can go to gay bars, dance at queer parties all over the city and see myself and my community represented on mainstream films and TV. 

But even so, homophobia still plays a role in our lives and I'm sure it will in the life of our child. Hatred is seeping in around us (and not just south of the border). Our community feels splintered, and there is no denying that racism is still rampant. We've seen our institutions struggle as they work to address the wrongs of the past and find a way forward.

As I reflected on the history of Community One — a group of people coming together to ask, "How can we better grow and support our community?" — I realized that the same questions are on my mind today. It's astonishing to think that so much time has passed and there has been so much growth, yet many of the same challenges still exist.

Still frame from the film Supporting Our Selves (SOS). Activists Harvey and Rosemary smile, Harvey clasping his hands, seated in chairs against a wood-panelled wall.
Harvey and Rosemary in Supporting Our Selves (SOS). (Four Corners Productions)

It was there that I really saw the potential for this film — the opportunity to use this history to launch a bigger conversation, hopefully one that would resonate with many communities beyond those here at home. 

My next step was to bring on a director — a partner who would be inspired in the same way, and someone who would want to use this history as a lens to examine the growth and evolution of our queer communities. In Lulu Wei, I found just that.

Lulu is a Toronto-based director and cinematographer whose work explores themes of space making, cultural identity and queerness. "I wanted to make a film that told the multiple histories of the community and used Community One as a jumping-off point to explore queer history, intergenerational connection and the idea of supporting all the different parts of our community," they say. "I hope by looking at the past, we're able to build a stronger queer community for the future."

Still frame from the film Supporting Our Selves (SOS). Activist Christopher Nkambwe smiles, looking gratified and wearing a rainbow headscarf at a Pride event.
Christopher Nkambwe in Supporting Our Selves (SOS). (Four Corners Productions)

Through this documentary, it's been an honour to document the stories of activists whose work laid the foundation for our lives today, but it's also been equally inspiring to shine a light on some of our present-day activists as they issues they fight for such as senior care, queer newcomers and the disabled community who feel so forgotten.

In the end, Supporting Our Selves has become a conversation between past and present. It shines a light on the energy and commitment that activism and advocacy takes, while exploring the strength and struggles of our resilient and diverse communities. Watching the final product, I feel the power of all the hard work and bravery that's gone into the fight for greater acceptance.  I also feel the call to action for support from many in the film. I hope those who watch will take a moment to look outside themselves and support those around them — for if we don't support our communities, who will?

Supporting Our Selves screens at Inside Out 2023 on Tuesday, May 30.


Jenn Mason is a producer with a wide range of multi-media projects under her belt from documentaries to fashion shows, art installations to theatrical performances.

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