– November 09, 2011; Jon Foster, Howl Staff
42 years ago a small group called the University of Toronto Homophile Association held its first meeting at University College. They realized their role quickly as the province’s first group to appeal for gay and lesbian rights, as well as the country’s first university-based lesbian and gay organization. This was quite the remarkable commitment to this cause in 1969.
Last week, this group was honoured with a plaque presented at UC by representatives from the original group; the Ontario Heritage Trust; federal, provincial and civic officials; LGBTOUT; and from the U of T.
“The U of T has been a proud supporter of the proposal to install this plaque at the heart of our founding campus,” said President David Naylor. “We are also proud of the decades-long history of campus LGBT advocacy that has made the university a better place.”
The plaque, the first one being offered to an LGBTQ group, was co-sponsored by the Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies and the Ontario Heritage Trust.
U of T’s gay activism began with an ad placed in the October 15, 1969 issue of The Varsity seeking “anyone interested in discussing the establishment of a student homophile association.” Fifteen people showed up at the group’s first meeting and two weeks later the Students’ Administrative Council recognized the University of Toronto Homophile Association (UTHA) as an official organization. Jearld Moldenhauer, Charlie Hill, Ian Young and Disa Rosen (soon replaced by Bill McRae) comprised the first executive.
“I wanted to change things,” says Ian Young, reflecting on his student days at the University of Toronto in the mid-1960s. “People were in the closet, hiding or pretending. I knew it was wrong.”
During the group’s active years, weekly information tables were set up at Sid Smith to increase visibility and to tackle discrimination. “Many people either stared or walked by very fast,” says Charlie Hill.
The group was not without problems, however. Posters advertising events were routinely torn down, leaving the group to develop lunchtime blitzes running around handing flyers directly to people. Many of these flyers were simply crumpled up and tossed, but despite this, word spread and the group grew.
After some brief lapses in 1973 and 1977, the group reincarnated as Gays At University of Toronto (GAUT). By around 1980 GAUT, under leader Dan Healey, had gotten the message out and acceptance on campus appeared to be improving. “We confronted hostility periodically, but mostly we pushed against a relatively open door,” says Healey.