The Foolscap Oral History project is a rich collection of over 100 interviews recorded with gay men throughout the 1980s that tells the story of LGBTQ life in Toronto in the pre-Stonewall era.
The interviewees of this project cover a wide array of topics in their narratives such as activism, relationships, and social life; together, these stories serve to set the scene for gay Toronto in a time when queer identities were much more marginalized than in the present. In particular, these interviews illustrate a social context heavily marked by police surveillance, harassment, and brutality that heavily impacted and informed the ways in which LGBTQ individuals in the city got together throughout the 20th century.
The Toronto Police Department has a long history of regulating the activities of individuals in public and private spaces throughout the city. Notably, the work of the police’s Morality Department was instrumental in policing and criminalizing the sexual lives of men and women. While this department had been in charge of overseeing morality in the city since the end of the 19th century, Norman Clarkson, one of the interviewees, notes that by the end of World War Two the police seemed to have a much greater interest in persecuting gay individuals. Mary Louise Adams, professor of Sociology at Queen’s University, explains that the rapidly changing socio-economic landscape of postwar Canada and the pressures and tensions of a growing city led to increased efforts by city officials to regulate public spaces and ensure that Torontonians behaved according to the social norms of the times.
Indeed, the participants of the Foolscap project recall a number of avenues employed by the police to harass gay men in public and private spaces. One interviewee mentioned being stopped by a police officer while driving in drag under the false pretence of speeding through Yonge Street. Since the information on their ID didn’t match their gender presentation at the time of the encounter, they were taken to the police station where the police verbally and physically assaulted them. In addition to this violence, the interviewee also mentions how officers would rip their fake eyelashes and remove their wigs in the effort to mock their femininity and gender presentation.
This kind of gendered aggression has been a common feature of queer and trans engagements with the police. Russell Alldread recalls how, in Toronto, officers would routinely drive gay men and transgender sex workers to Cherry Beach where they would often beat them and remove their clothes and belongings, leaving them to find a way back to the city on their own. Furthermore, another interviewee by the name of Tony Brady mentions how the police would tease sex workers and frantically try to come up with charges against them in the hopes of removing them from city streets.
Tony also mentions how police officers would constantly interrupt gay people in their attempts to socialize and get together. Not only did this take the form of raids at parties and events, but police officers would also stop same-sex couples and demand that they walked in opposite directions so as to avoid any further engagements between them. While Tony argues that the decriminalization of homosexuality in 1969 had a positive impact in avoiding issues such as the institutionalization of gay people, he exclaims that this didn’t change police attitudes in the city. Karsten Kossman describes these attitudes against gay people at the time as “off the wall”, noting that the police’s efforts to avoid gay socialization in the city went as far as exacerbating tensions and rifts between existing gay organizations in the city by vocally supporting one side over another, inevitably putting its members against each other.
The stories shared by the participants of the Foolscap project serve to provide an image of early gay life in Toronto, as the advances of our modern times can make us forget that gay life in the city didn’t always happen so easily. Moreover, these narratives serve to contextualize the relationship between the city’s LGBTQ community and the police department, especially given the recent tensions arising from their participation in the Pride parade and their alleged inaction when handling a number of LGBTQ deaths. As these debates often get dehistoricized and depoliticized in popular discourse, being mindful of the history of LGBTQ resistance against police brutality allows us to stay true to our struggle and grow stronger as a community.
Doug is a Master of Arts candidate at the Department of Geography and Mark S. Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies at the University of Toronto.
Adams, M. L. (1994). Almost Anything Can Happen: A Search for Sexual Discourse in the Urban Spaces of 1940s Toronto. The Canadian Journal of Sociology, 19(2). pp. 217-232.