A Tour of the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives
Amongst some of the queer orientation events were tours of the city to better learn LGBTQ+ history in Toronto and the long fight that’s been fought. Tucked into the heart of Toronto, just north of the Village at Church and Wellesley, is a little bit of our history that many people don’t know about.
If you were to walk down Isabella Street, you’d think that it was just a quaint neighbourhood with medium-sized houses and nicely trimmed lawns—but if you looked a little closer, you’d see that you would have ended up in front of the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives, or CLGA.
Established in 1973, Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives started as a shelf with documents foraged by a group of LGBTQ+ people responsible for starting the first Canadian gay magazine, The Body Politic, amassing a collection of books and flyers that commemorate significant events in LGBTQ+ history. Since its creation, CLGA has not only witnessed the fight LGBTQ+ people have battled for the last forty years but has also recorded, documented and saved bits of that history for us to look back on today.
The very house itself—a modestly-sized little establishment with creaky floorboards—is a relic of LGBTQ+ times. In a dimly-lit living room-turned-office is a stained glass window imitation of the AIDs quilt to remember all the lives lost to the AIDs crisis in the late 20th century. In the same room is the typewriter that John Herbert wrote Fortune in Men’s Eyes on in 1971—the first Canadian play to deal explicitly with homosexual themes. Around the bookshelves is a queer Muslim exhibit that had been displayed over the summer: “Just Me and Allah,” by Toronto photographer Samra Habib.
Each room has its own form of history: audio, video, traditional texts and “vertical files,” or files that CLGA themselves created for a specific historical event. Papering the walls are posters from gay and lesbian cocktail parties from the early ’80s. In the display shelf by the front door are flyers, buttons and news articles of gay-liberation protest, dating back to the Toronto Bathhouse Raids in in 1981, or the Pussy Palace protests from the lesbian bathhouse raid in 2001. These pieces of history do not seem to end, however. Even today, they’re receiving private journals in the mail of gay aristocrats from the early 1900s.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about CLGA, however, is its collection of private histories. LGBTQ+ lives up until very recently have always been relatively kept in the shadows and remained private. A large collection in the CLGA belongs to people’s personal stories, journal entries or video tapes; undeniably, the private and everyday lives of LGBTQ+ people are a large part of shaping who they are today.
Notably, in their A.V. room, the CLGA keeps large amounts of videos on cassette tapes from years past. Jade Pichette—one of the two staff at the CLGA, and our tour guide—claims that probably over half of it is pornography, private or otherwise. “Many museums don’t keep porn and will destroy it,” she says. “But with the LGBTQ+ community, sex is still a large part of our history.” So for years to come, these sex tapes are saved and then transferred electronically onto hard disks so that the threat of age will never tarnish them.
The CLGA aims to keep histories of LGBTQ+ people so that their stories will never be lost and they can continually look back on their journey to get to where they are today. Although its name suggests only Lesbian and Gay archives, they launched a trans pathfinder last Sunday and are expanding their collections to include trans histories as well.
If you’re ever interested in learning, feeling and experiencing Canadian LGBTQ+ history, drop by the Canadian Lesbian and Gay archives on 34 Isabella Street. They also have gay boardgames available to play if you’re ever worried about getting bored—but don't worry, you won’t be.