Arts

Why all Canadians should know about The Body Politic

Pride Month is an opportunity to not only celebrate the present but recognize how we got here. And there's perhaps no organization or institution more responsible for that than The Body Politic.

A new play in Toronto canonizes the magazine, which played an extraordinary role in Canadian LGBT rights

(Canadian Gay and Lesbian Archives)

Pride Month kicked off last week with a historical first for Canada: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau helped raise the Pride flag above Parliament Hill for the very first time. While that is certainly symbolic of how far we've come as a nation in terms of LGBT rights, it's incredibly important to utilize Pride not just as an opportunity to celebrate the present but recognize how we got here. And there's perhaps no organization or institution more responsible for that than The Body Politic — which just so happens to be the subject of a new play currently making its debut in Toronto.

The Body Politic was essentially the first real voice for queer people across Canada. The seminal monthly began publishing on October 28, 1971 when 5,000 copies of its first issue were sold at street corners and in bars across the country (the collective behind the magazine had paid $225 out of pocket to get the issues printed).

As described by collective member Michael Riordan in its fifth anniversary issue, the publication was "born in the wild heat and ferment of Canada's first gay upheavals."

"The paper has only one paid staff person… the rest of the collective work at a variety of intermittent livelihoods, unemployment insurance from time to time, and the paper absorbs as much as their lives as they allow, or more."

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

The Body Politic played a major role in essentially every single battle fought in the "lesbian and gay liberation movement" (as it was called at the time), and it was also notably the first Canadian publication to write about HIV/AIDS. In 1977, it received international attention and support when an article entitled "Men Loving Boys Loving Men" led to its offices being raided by Toronto police, taking with them 12 cartons of materials — including a subscription list — and charging members of the editorial collective with "possession of obscene materials for distribution" and "use of mails to distribute immoral, indecent and scurrilous materials." The members were ultimately acquitted over four years later, but by then, considerable emotional and financial damage had already been done.

Although its headquarters were based in Toronto, The Body Politic became the de facto communication between queer communities across the country because of how widespread its writers and readers were. It ceased publication in 1987 after over 15 years of fighting for queer Canadians, but that doesn't mean it can't still be celebrated: an extensive timeline of the magazine's history can be viewed here, and you can also head to the Canadian Gay and Lesbian Archives and physically go through their collection of every single issue

Nick Green, the writer behind the new play exploring the magazine's history, recommends the long read.

"You're seeing queer history come to life month by month," he told CBC Arts. "It's an amazing resource because I think there's a generational divide in the queer community and there's not a lot of conversations about where we've come from. It's a unique experience to sit down and get an accurate and detailed glimpse into our history."

But experience can wait until after June 12, when Green's Body Politic ends its run at Buddies in Bad Times in Toronto. The play — which Green hopes to see produced in other cities across the country soon enough — does an extraordinary job at condensing the magazine's history into a singular experience.

Cole Avis, Geordie Johnson, Diane Flacks and Jonathan Seinen in Nick Green's Body Politic. (Jeremy Mimnagh)

"It was pretty daunting when I first set out," Green said. "It's 15 years of history. It's hundreds and hundreds of people that were involved in The Body Politic. So many significant events happened."

Ultimately, Green decided to focus on four significant events in the The Body Politic's history, using the framing device of a present-day relationship between a young man and his much older partner — a topic that remains as taboo today as it did when it was at the centre of the magazine's legal battle in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

"The contemporary storyline really holds a comparison between where we were during the paper's life and where we are today," Green said. "What's still going on, and what discussions are we having in almost the same words. I think it's an exciting opportunity to draw focus to the fact while we have achieved a lot of privilege and opportunity because of the work that was being done in the time of The Body Politic, there's still a lot of issues that exist today for people who aren't as represented as loudly in the queer community."

Body Politic. Written by Nick Green. Directed by Alisa Palmer. To June 12. Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, Toronto. 

About the Author

Peter Knegt has worked for CBC Arts since 2016, writing the LGBTQ-culture column Queeries (winner of the 2019 Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada) and playing integral roles in the launch and production of series The Filmmakers and Canada's a Drag. Beyond CBC, Knegt is also a stand-up comedian, 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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