Montreal was home to the first known queer magazine in North America from 1918-1920
Les Mouches Fantastiques wasn't a perfect piece of art — but not every part of queer history has to be
In the fall of 1917, a woman named Elsa Gidlow published a letter in The Montreal Daily Star announcing her desire to form a writing group. She invited anyone interested to attend the first meeting. As Gidlow recalls, some men at that first meeting seemed to be there looking for a date; they would have been disappointed, surely, to find out that Gidlow was a lesbian. However, one man did attract Gidlow's interest. Roswell George Mills, who by all accounts made little efforts to hide his own queerness, would go on to host the second meeting of their new writing club.
It is out of this partnership that Les Mouches Fantastiques — an underground magazine published between 1918 and 1920 in Montreal, and the first known magazine in North America to be written by queer folks and openly concerned with queer issues — was born. The magazine published poetry, essays, and social commentary, and ran until Gidlow and Mills moved to New York in 1920. Of the five issues of Les Mouches, four are rumoured to exist in a few archives. Only the final one is widely available.
Truthfully, when I first read that final issue, I felt disappointed. I wanted something poignant, an illuminating line or poem from the past that shone light onto present issues. What I found, instead, was an incomplete record of incomplete thoughts — and it took me a moment to remember that queer history has significance beyond simply being inspirational.
I think the desire I had is fairly common, especially during Pride Month. That is, the desire for queer people, past and present, to be perfect or "finished" — queer heroes wrapping up the project of queer liberation. Les Mouches Fantastiques resists that categorization. All that is unknown, and perhaps unknowable, about Les Mouches reminded me that seeking perfection might keep me from recognizing a valuable moment in queer history — a moment of process, rather than a moment of completion.
The most is known about Elsa Gidlow, who went on to write the first non-pseudonymous lesbian autobiography in 1986. Raised in Montreal, she felt frustrated at the "overwhelming-maleness" of "heavily-churched Quebec." However, the community formed around Les Mouches led Gidlow to her first lover and gave her space to explore her identity. In describing her time reading and writing with Mills, she wrote:
"[It] permitted me to find a credible space for myself between the rigidities of 'male' and 'female' ... I now saw a spectrum of gender not crudely defined by bodily sex characteristics but psychological and emotional gradations flowing into one another, freeing the individual from arbitrary, prescribed roles."
Less is known about Roswell George Mills; however, he does have the distinction of being the first openly queer man in Canada whose life we know about through friendly descriptions, rather than court records of "gross indecency" charges.
Mills was believed to have written a female advice column in The Montreal Star under a pseudonym. Gidlow reports that while he went to work "scrubbed and in tweeds," with friends Mills was most often "delicately made up and elegantly dressed, wearing exotic jewelry and as colourful clothes as he dared." He identified his personal crusade as the task of showing people that it was "beautiful, not evil, to love others of one's own sex and make love with them."
Beyond Gidlow and Mills, Les Mouches had some surprising ripple effects, especially given the brevity of its circulation. Gidlow received correspondence from readers as far away as Havana; that same reader would later send Gidlow magazines banned in Canada hidden inside copies of Ladies' Home Journal.
Bizarrely, the most notable critic of Les Mouches was none other than horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, who self-published several harsh critiques of Les Mouches in his own magazine, The Conservative. He felt that Gidlow and Mills were stifled by their "bondage to the lower regions of the senses."
The writer that came to the defence of Les Mouches after Lovecraft's critiques was Reverend Graeme Davis, an Anglican minister from South Dakota and a fascinating character. Davis published a long essay praising Les Mouches before getting in touch with Mills, starting a correspondence that moved from literary topics to more intimate ones — which ultimately led Davis to travel to Montreal and start a love affair with Mills.
Davis, it seems, did not view his ministry and his sexuality as inherently contradictory. Though he kept his sexuality from his congregation, he was otherwise fairly open about his desires while speaking of the church with "a lover's veneration." Mills apparently went back and forth over moving to South Dakota with Davis, but ultimately decided against it; Davis eventually entered a monastery that forbade outside communications, and the record of his life seems to end there.
Even given the fragmented nature of the historical record, it's clear that those connected to Les Mouches dealt with some of the same issues in their writing and in their lives that we deal with as queer people today. They wondered how they might reconcile their future dreams with their present frustrations, or traditional values with rebellion, and they found new fluidity in their own identities. They weren't without fault; their poetry was hit or miss, their essays convoluted at times. They definitely didn't leave us any ready-made solutions.
I think the desire for perfection — perfection from ourselves and perfection from others — sometimes keeps us from making real change. The lives that revolved around Les Mouches, imperfect and incomplete, reminded me of the importance of just making a start. Les Mouches was, after all, more of a jumping off point than a destination. But those involved dared to participate in the conversation and even to be, not heroic, but rather themselves: queer people, talking about how to live in a world that resisted them. Perhaps, then, there is inspiration to be found in the story of Les Mouches, and hopefully it is a willingness to try, even if we risk failing before we succeed. I, for one, would be quite proud to be remembered that way.