November 3, 2017

GATE: The Beginnings of Gay Liberation in British Columbia

By Tim Pelzer 

Just two years after the Liberal party government of Pierre Trudeau
decriminalized homosexuality in 1969, a small band of brave gay men came
together to launch the Gay Alliance Towards Equality (GATE) in Vancouver.
From 1971 to 1980, the group campaigned to foster understanding and
acceptance of gays and lesbians during a period of universal hatred for sexual
minorities.  Don Hann, a former GATE activist from that period, talked to Rebel Youth  recently about the struggle for gay rights during the 1970s. 

1. Who were the principle founders of GATE in 1971 and what were their
backgrounds ? 
“GATE Vancouver came into existence in June, 1971.  After the supernova
that was Stonewall many groups known as Gay Liberation Fronts (GLFS)
emerged in North America, Europe and Australia.  Stonewall itself and many
GLFs that it spawned were a product of the massive social change of the
1960s.  The student, Black civil rights, anti-war and women's movements were
all calling for drastic changes in society. The GLF’s survived not much beyond
1970.  They had taken on the following objectives: the dismantling of
capitalism and patriarchy  as well as the project of gay liberation.  They had
taken on to much of a full plate.  They had no substantive strategies or programs
which had organizational viability.  There were individuals who early on
realized this and felt the need to find other ways forward other than those
proposed by the GLFs.  Among those were the people who organized GATE

“Names that come to mind are Maurice Flood, Ian  MacKenzie and Stephen
Sheriffs.  Not all but some early GATE members [such as Flood, Mackenzie
and Sheriffs] had honed their political teeth on the left in the Trotskyist
movement.  The Left [New Democratic Party, Communist Party] at that time
was hostile to gay liberation.  The Trotskyists were as liberal as it got
contending that homosexuality was a scientific and not a political question and
therefore would not take a position on gay liberation.  So gays within the Trot
movement resigned their membership and put their energy into building the
autonomous gay movement.”

“What was needed was a strategy and organization which could mobilize vast
numbers of lesbians and gays and possible supporters which was not something to be found within the thinking of GLFs or something that the Left in those early years would support. That was of course a focus on gay civil rights and the building of an autonomous gay movement beholden to no one.The German gay liberationist Kurt Hiller in 1921 had put it succinctly : the liberation
of homosexuals can only be the work of homosexuals themselves
. It was
Brian Waite, one of those young Trots who saw no way forward for gay
liberation within the Left, who proposed a civil rights strategy in his article : A
Strategy for Gay Liberation
published in Issue 3 of the Body Politic magazine
(March/April 1972) .”

“To comment further on GATE Vancouver’s membership, it’s participants
came from a diversity of class backgrounds and histories across Canada and
the US.  Long time Chairperson Maurice Flood was born into an Irish Catholic
working class family in New York City's Bronx District.  Others came  from
working class families while some from the "middle class".  Women were not
involved with GATE and the reasons for that  are too complex to mention here
but they were supporters and consistently present at GATE demonstrations.
At the second to last demo GATE organized in August 1979 protesting
violence against gays, womens’ groups were among the 17 community
organizations who spoke at the rally in Robson Square.”

2.  What year did you join GATE and how did you find the organization ?

“I found my way to GATE Vancouver in October, 1973.  I can't recall just how
but I knew immediately that this was an organization I wanted to be involved
with.  It’s civil rights perspective, it’s structure and it’s militancy all appealed
to me. On November 8, 1973, I attended my first GATE demo with six other
members in front of the British Columbia Legislature in Victoria calling for the
inclusion of sexual orientation in the provincial Human Rights Code.”

“The group met every Sunday night over the nine years of it’s lifespan.
Meetings were conducted according to Roberts Rules of Order.  Minutes were
kept of every meeting.  And of course it published the monthly newspaper Gay
Tide.  The first issue came out in August, 1973 and last appeared in March,

3. Tell us what kind of actions GATE Vancouver undertook during the nine
years of its existence ?

“GATE was involved in a myriad of public actions over the nine years of it’s
existence.  It sent members to question candidate positions on gay rights in provincial elections and organized Gay Pride weeks in 1972 and 1973.  It used the media when possible to advance the movement. In 1973, we worked with Video Inn to produce a half hour program in which NDP MLA Rosemary Brown was interviewed about the emerging gay movement, it’s legitimacy and

“On August 28,1971, the first national demo demanding civil rights for lesbians
and gays was held.  This actually launched the civil rights struggle in Canada.
GATE Vancouver held a demo in Robson Square and Toronto Gay Action
organized a demo on Parliament Hill. A document titled : We Demand was
presented to the federal government calling for a multitude of changes in
federal law to bring about equality for lesbians and gays.  GATE through the
years also supported the struggles of other oppressed groups if they had
shown support [for gay rights] or if  there was a sense that we had a common
enemy.  We took our banner to the demonstration against wage and price
controls on October, 1978.  The state which was oppressing workers was the
same state oppressing us and many workers were gay.  We took our banner
to International Women's Day marches and pro-choice marches.  Control over
our bodies was a goal both gays and women shared.”

4. Tell us about GATE’s lawsuit against the Vancouver Sun (a major daily
newspaper) and it’s importance? 
“In 1973, GATE submitted a two line ad for it’s newspaper Gay Tide.  The Sun
refused to publish it.  When pressed to justify its refusal to print the ad, the
Sun said they would not print an add containing the words ‘gay' or ‘homophile'
but refused to put it in writing.  GATE took a complaint of discrimination on the
basis of sexual orientation to the BC Human Rights Commission.  So the first public hearing in Canada of a gay civil rights case under provincial human rights legislation took place in
Vancouver on February 28, 1975. The Human Rights Commission ruled in
GATE's favour and the long battle began with the Sun's appeal to the BC
Supreme Court against the Human Right’s Commission ruling.”

“We organized countless demos in front of the Vancouver Sun building at
Granville and Broadway and were able to garner national attention with the
case. We used it to draw attention to the discrimination we faced with little or
no protection from the law when discriminated against.  I recall that when
GATE sought space to hold it’s first Annual General membership meeting in
June, 1971, the YMCA said no. The Unitarian Church at 49th and Oak did
offer a room.” 

“The case went right to the Supreme Court of Canada.  On May 22,1979, in a
6-3 ruling, the Court  ruled against us and backed the Vancouver Sun.
Technically we lost the case but politically we won because we demonstrated
that gays had no civil rights.”

“Gay Tide vs the Vancouver Sun, heard in the Supreme Court of Canada on
October 5,1978, was a milestone not only in Canadian jurisprudence but in
the history of law itself.  It was the first time that a complaint of discrimination
on the basis of sexual orientation had ever been adjudicated at  the Supreme
Court level anywhere in the world.  Frank Kameny, an astronomer employed
with the United States government had been fired because he was gay in
1957.  He was given leave to appeal to the US Supreme Court but it refused
to hear the appeal in 1961.”

5.  Did earlier struggles in the US (50s and 60s) and Germany (1890s to
1930s) create fertile soil for the emergence of groups like GATE ?
 “Yes.  It is important to understand that there was a long struggle for gay
rights before Stonewall. GATE's roots I would argue stretched back to 19th
century Germany or Prussia as it was then.  In 1869, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs
stood up at a congress of 500 jurists and argued for the decriminalization of
homosexuality.  The German movement flourished into the 1930s until the
Nazis came to power and crushed it.” 

“In the US in the late forties and fifties the Mattachine Society and the lesbian
organization Daughters of Bilitis came into existence.  They were what we call
homophile organizations with nothing like the militancy of the post-Stonewall
wave but they did have a public face and sought legal change against
discrimination.  Harry Hay, a former member of the Communist Party USA,
was an organizer of the Mattachine Society although he later broke with it.
Here in Vancouver we had the Association for Social Knowledge in the 1960s,
one of whose spokespersons was Doug Sanders, a law professor at the
University of BC.”
6.  Was there a national coalition of gay groups across the country during the
70s and was GATE Vancouver part of that ?

 “Yes, the National Lesbian and Gay Rights Coalition existed.  The national
coalition hosted seven national conferences.  GATE did participate in them and one might say had an influence disproportionate to it’s size.  GATE had developed position papers on a number of issues - Police, Gay Liberation, Women's Liberation, Quebec Liberation, etc.  It argued it’s cases cogently at these conferences.”

7.  Now a days, even the police participate in gay rights marches with their
own floats.   What attitude did the police have towards gays and lesbians
during the 70s in Vancouver and elsewhere in Canada?

 “The police in that time were jackboots of the state.  They were it’s
instruments used to attack and try to crush the emerging gay movement.  The
politicians, clergy and shrinks didn't jackboot us themselves but they
instructed their cops to do so.  So the bars were raided and mass arrests were
made in public toilets where we tried to meet.  Names and addresses of those
arrested in those raids were released to the media.  Lives were destroyed.”

8.  Tell me about GATE’S foray into electoral politics ?

“On July 8, 1974, a federal election had been called.  The National Gay
Election Coalition had been conceived in 1973 with  the intention of fore
fronting gay issues during the election.  In BC, Yukon and North West
Territories, GATE Vancouver and the Gay People's Alliance in Victoria led the
project.  We mailed the Booklet "Homosexuals: Minority Without Rights" and a
questionnaire to candidates.  We asked questions at all candidates meetings.
However, the project was met with a media blackout.” 

“Perhaps I can mention here an intervention in provincial politics which
occurred five years later.  GATE in one of it’s most astute strategic maneuvers
decided to run member Bob Cook on a Gay Rights platform in the 1979
provincial election in Vancouver Howe Sound, the riding of Social Credit Party
Cabinet Minister Alan Williams.  He was responsible for the Human Rights
Commission.  This entry by GATE into the public arena of electoral politics
garnered the attention of the provincial and national media.  Cook was the first
openly gay person to run for office in Canada. I remember it well on the night
of the election.  We all gathered at the GATE office on East Pender watching
the TV election coverage.  Whatever the actual vote count we knew our tactic
had been successful in getting provincial and national publicity.  Williams got
69 percent of the vote that night  but 124 women and men voted for gay

9. Why did GATE disband in 1980 ?

 “There is no simple answer to that.  Individuals who had been core members
began to leave.  People had to get on with their lives, careers, occupations,
livelihoods.  We were young in the early seventies and our commitment was
to gay liberation, what ever it took, however long it might take.  Life as a gay
person in the world as we knew it then was simply intolerable.  To hell with a
career, to hell with security.  To hell with all of that.  If this world could not be
changed to make room for gay people, then better to die.We decided not to
die but to fight.” 

“By the end of the 1970s our fight back achieved a lot of success.  1980, the
year in which GATE called it a day, was a watershed year.  The 1980
convention of the Canadian Labour Congress amended it’s constitution to
included sexual orientation as a prohibited ground of discrimination.  History
had brought GATE into existence and history had decided it’s day was done.”
10. Do you  think all the important battles have been won in terms of gay
rights - gay marriage, legal protection against discrimination, adoption rights, etc?  Is there more to be done ? 

“No I don't think its all been done by a long shot.The success of the civil rights
struggle has it’s parameters. Those who are economically marginal or living
in poverty; those whose ethnicity is Indigenous or of other ethnicities; those
who are in the female gender notwithstanding the gains of 20th century
feminism which it seems  has benefited white middle class women
disproportionately for the most part, have not benefited fully from the success
of the modern gay movement.” 

“Civil rights I guess what I am saying are not enough. I might add that GATE
Vancouver well understood that —  although it’s focus was on civil right as I've
mentioned — it supported other struggles for social justice.  And through so
much of the world so little has yet changed for those of same-sex
desire, complicated even more for those whose lives are defined by the the
fault lines of race, class and gender in history.  I would say also that we are in
a time when great vigilance will be needed to protect the ground that has been
won given the dominance of right wing governments in so many countries."

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