blog post by Oli Bédard
On a deserted Sunday at the CLGA the shadows run long from grey light in the half dismantled exhibit room, and outside on Isabella Street, Toronto is a swamp of late May. In a cool back room I listen to Jim, talking about his therapists in a low voice.
He had many.
Jim sat down with John Gruber to be interviewed for the “Foolscap” Gay Oral History Project on December 17th, 1984, and there seems to be reticence in the tone of his replies. Not long into the interview, Gruber pauses the tape recorder and I’m left with a wordless space where some exchange has certainly occurred; when the audio resumes, he is explaining the intention of the project as though in response to some questioning from Jim. “I’m interested in the social history,” he says, and later: “Everybody has a story.” Jim’s discomfort seems to arise from the practical necessity of sharing personal details in an oral history interview. I soon learn that one of the primary themes of this particular interview is gay experiences of psychiatry, and Jim’s unease does not come as a surprise. At the time of the interview Jim was 50 years old; he had been through the mill, from CBT, to Gestalt, to conversion therapy, and even some electro-shock aversion techniques. During the latter he was compelled to sit in a chair and watch a slide show for which he held the remote control. Various images were displayed to him, and when a sexualized image of a man appeared, he was to click the remote for the next image post haste. If this response lacked immediacy, he was subjected to a jolt of electricity. Some of his various therapists treated his attraction to other men as a disease to be cured, others simply advised him to remain celibate.
Listening to the details of Jim’s psychiatric travails, and to Gruber’s questions, I begin to consider the queerness of queer being. Truly all existence is strange, but the layered strangeness of being queer in the context of heteronormativity can only deepen one’s questioning of one’s own being. I think that this oral history making is, among other things, a response to deeply felt inquiries on the nature of the self in alterity. This interview reveals just as much about Gruber as it does about Jim, and just as much about the larger river of community experience from which their exchanges emerge. I think the desire to preserve community voices in this way, to have answers to the particular questions of queer life in all its multiplicity, is the same desire that motivates us to ask why, and how, we exist in this world.
The house on Isabella is dead quiet as the day wanes, and when I go out for coffee, coolness has cut through the heat. I pass a young couple in George Hislop park, and a calm descends over this back way of the city. The wind breathes relief from heat, but it has no language, no coherent answer.