Proudly prep some tissues: The first LGBTQ Heritage Minute, celebrating activist Jim Egan, is here
Every Canadian should know the names of Jim Egan and his partner Jack Nesbit
Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.
Since the early 1990s, the 60-second mini-documentaries known as Heritage Minutes have undoubtedly become a Canadian institution, offering introductions to various figures and moments in our country's history from Laura Secord to Chanie Wenjack to the Halifax Explosion. But despite over 80 editions being produced, none of them dealt with the rich, extraordinary history of Canadian LGBTQ folks and their contribution to our society...until now.
Aptly timed for Pride Month, Historica Canada — who have been producing Heritage Minutes since 2012 — have just released their one-minute take on Jim Egan, widely considered Canada's first known public gay activist.
"Jim Egan changed the way Canadians define equality and human rights, at a time when it was uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous for LGBTQ2 people to step forward," says Anthony Wilson-Smith, president and CEO of Historica Canada. "We're proud to tell his story, which is an important one not only for those affected, but for all Canadians who believe in equal rights."
You can watch the Minute below, which was directed by Stephen Dunn (Closet Monster) and narrated by kd lang. Full disclosure: I personally served as a consultant on the project, advising the producers throughout the making of the film.
As the Minute makes clear, Egan played an indelible role in the history of LGBTQ rights in Canada, but there's obviously more to the story than 60 seconds can possibly illustrate. So here's a bit of background if you have a few more minutes to spare.
Why Jim Egan?
When I was doing research for a book I wrote on Canadian LGBTQ history way back in 2011, I had the pleasure of interviewing dozens of queer leaders from across the country, ultimately asking them all the same question: if there were one activist to single out from our history, who would it be? Most of them were quick to emphasize that was a reductionist question given the vast number of folks who have made huge contributions in that regard and the politics of privilege that went into who was able to assume roles of public activism (both very valid points) — but if they had to give an answer, just like this Heritage Minute had to pick an inaugural LGBTQ story, it would be Jim Egan.
Unfortunately, Egan had passed away a little over a decade before, on March 9, 2000. So while I wouldn't get to interview him for the book, I made up for it by becoming...mildly obsessed with him. I scoured the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives for anything pertaining to him, read his memoir Challenging the Conspiracy of Silence: My Life as a Canadian Gay Activist (which I highly recommend adding to your summer reading list) and watched the 1995 documentary Jim Loves Jack. And as a result I can certainly attest: Jim Egan is, to say the very least, a Canadian hero.
Egan was born at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto on September 14, 1921, and would come to have his first gay experiences while serving in the Canadian Navy during World War II. After coming back from the war, Egan began exploring Toronto's underground gay scene — itself quite brave, given that this was 20 years before homosexuality was even partially decriminalized in Canada and you would be thrown in jail if you got caught. By the early 1950s, he had somewhat accidentally become the country's first public gay activist — by writing letters. Basically, Egan took it upon himself to send countless letters to the editors of magazines and newspapers that had printed viciously homophobic articles. As one might expect, very few of his letters were actually published in the magazines or newspapers. But writing them sparked a passion in Egan and led him to write a series of columns about homosexuality in the True News Times, among the very first ever published in Canada from a gay point of view.
A rare 1960s gay public figure
By the 1960s, Egan was writing from that perspective with astonishing regularity, making him an extremely rare gay public figure. But, tragically, this drew the ire of less open gay people, who were terrified Egan's "promotion" of homosexuality would do more harm than good. At that point, homophobia didn't really exist in most of mainstream heterosexual society because a lot of people were still somehow unaware that gay people actually existed — and a lot of those gay people wanted to keep it that way.
His longtime lover Jack Nesbit (whom he meets in the opening scene of the Heritage Minute) also wasn't so keen on Egan continuing his writing. The largely negative attention he'd been receiving as a result had put a severe strain on their relationship, not to mention the couple's phone essentially becoming a de facto gay crisis hotline. So in 1964, Egan gave up activism and moved with Nesbit to rural British Columbia.
From a reclusive life to making history
Egan and Nesbit would end up living in reclusivity for more than 20 years — but that changed in a big way in 1987. The couple decided to use the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to challenge the exclusion of pension benefits to same-sex couples. Eight years later, after endless unsuccessful hearings and appeals, their claim would become the first involving gay rights to ever be heard in the Supreme Court of Canada under the Charter. Though they lost the case five voters to four, at the same time the Court ruled that the equality rights section of the Charter should now read to include sexual orientation. This gave a massive opening for future cases to be won, setting the stage for the huge legal gains made by LGBTQ people in the decades to follow.
Both Egan and Nesbit died in 2000, at the ages of 79 and 72 respectively — two years after celebrating their 50th anniversary together. Every Canadian should know their names, and hopefully this Heritage Minute will bring us closer to making that a reality.