Selections from Canadian lesbian herstory in our archives.
by Gordon Richardson, with assistance from Alan Miller, Kate Zieman, Michael Holmes (photography)
The first national lesbian conference was held at the Toronto YWCA in 1973 and the Canadian Gay Archives came into existence in the same year. This marked the beginning of collecting archival material and artifacts. Although the name didn’t reflect it, lesbian material was being collected and made available to researchers but it wasn’t widely known. Twenty years later, at the September 19, 1993 AGM, the name of the archive was changed from The Canadian Gay Archives (CGA) to The ArQuives (The ArQuives). Today, the scope of The ArQuives’s collections have expanded and continue to grow to include materials on lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, two-spirited, queer, and other communities.
A look at a few of the lesbian materials in The ArQuives:
The Lesbian Organization of Toronto (LOOT) was formed in winter 1977 by a group of women in partnership with Three of Cups coffeehouse and The Other Woman newspaper. The organization thrived during a distinct historical moment in relations between gay men and lesbians. Lesbians, too often outnumbered and ignored in mixed gay and socialist organizations, formed groups of their own, separate – and often separatist. LOOT operated a women’s drop-in centre, newsletter, library, and phone service, plus hosted dances, coffeehouses, poetry readings, concerts, and open houses where women “coming out” could mingle without having to go to the bars. The organization disbanded in spring 1980. The ArQuives holds copies of LOOT’s newsletter as well as other articles, posters, and ephemera.
Dionne Brand (January 7, 1953-) is a poet, novelist, and essayist. Born in Trinidad and studied at the University of Toronto, Brand was Toronto’s third Poet Laureate from September 2009 to November 2012. Books by Brand in our reference library include her 1990 book of poems, No Language Is Neutral.
Anne Cameron (1938-) is one of Canada’s best known and best loved feminist writers. She was born in Nanaimo, BC, and now lives on her farm in Powell River, BC. The ArQuives holds several of Cameron’s books, including Wedding Cakes, Rats and Rodeo Queens (1994).
Ann-Marie MacDonald (October 29, 1958-) is a playwright, novelist, actor and broadcast journalist, living in Toronto. Our collections include a copy of her play The Arab’s Mouth (1990). A portrait of MacDonald was inducted into our National Portrait Collection in 2000.
Jane Rule (March 28, 1931-November 27, 2007) was a writer of lesbian-themed novels and non-fiction. Born in Plainfield, NJ, she moved to British Columbia in 1956. In 1976 she moved to Galiano Island with her partner Helen Sonthoff but declared herself against gay marriage. Her 1964 novel, Desert of the Heart, was adapted into a feature film, Desert Hearts, in 1985.
Born Deborah Foisy, Ferron is a Canadian folk singer/songwriter and poet and one of the most influential writers and performers of women’s music. In 1971, Foisy changed her name to Ferron when one of her friends had a dream in which she was called Ferron. The ArQuives holds this vinyl recording of Ferron’s 1977 self-titled debut album, signed by Ferron.
k.d. lang, born Kathryn Dawn Lang, is a Canadian pop and country singer/songwriter and occasional actress. She came out as a lesbian in a June 1992 article of the LGBT news magazine The Advocate and famously appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair the next year with supermodel Cindy Crawford. In addition to collecting her music, a portrait of k.d. lang was inducted into The ArQuives’s National Portrait Collection in 1998.
Lesbian Concentrate: A Lesbianthology of Songs and Poems is a compilation of music and spoken word by lesbian artists. It was released by Olivia Records in 1977 in response to Florida Citrus Commission brand ambassador Anita Bryant’s “Save Our Children” anti-gay crusade. Track titles include “Woman-Loving Women,” “Sugar Mama,” “Leaping Lesbians,” and “Ode to a Gym Teacher.”
Carole Pope is a Canadian rock singer/songwriter, whose provocative blend of hard-edged new wave rock with explicit homoerotic and BDSM-themed lyrics made her one of the first openly lesbian entertainers in the world to achieve mainstream fame. With Kevan Staples, their band Rough Trade gained hits in the 1980s such as “Highschool Confidential,” one of the first explicitly lesbian-themed Top 40 hits. “Shakedown” was featured in the notorious 1980 film Cruising, and their song “Endless Night” can be heard in Track Two, a documentary about the 1981 police raids on Toronto’s gay bathhouses. Pope appeared on the cover of The Body Politic magazine in January/February 1984. A photograph of Carole Pope was inducted into The ArQuives’s National Portrait Collection in 2002.
FilmsForbidden Love: The Unashamed Stories of Lesbian Lives (Dirs. Aerlyn Weissman and and Lynne Fernie, 1992) is a documentary about lesbians in Canada, featuring interviews with women, archival footage, and a stylish fictional narrative based on 1950s pulp novels. Trailer via the National Film Board:
Better Than Chocolate (Dir. Anne Wheeler, 1999) is a romantic comedy film about family and lesbian love with a subplot loosely based on the censorship battles of Little Sister’s Book & Art Emporium in Vancouver. In the film, the bookstore is named Ten Percent Books and owned by Frances, played by Canadian author Ann-Maire MacDonald.
Notso Amazon Softball League. Called the “Notso’s” it was started in 1984. Incidentally, this league was preceded by a dyke baseball team, named the Saulkies, which played in the regular women’s league.