By Lo Humeniuk
When looking at Canada’s LGBTQ2S history, the prairie provinces often get glossed over. Many researchers, writers and anthologists choose instead to focus on the three major cities of Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal as meccas of gay culture, activism, and progress. Prairie Fairies: A History of Queer Communities and People in Western Canada, 1930-1985 seeks to fill in this gap in queer history, bringing together an impressive collection of interviews and research which looks at gay and lesbian history in Edmonton, Calgary, Regina, Saskatoon, and Winnipeg.
The structure of this book makes it a bit of a challenging read. Author Valerie J. Korinek splits up Prairie Fairies into three sections in order to do a comparative analysis between five major urban centres, looking first at “Queer Spaces and Opportunities,” then organizational activity (“Communities, Community Building, and Culture”), then formalized activism (“Activism, Reaction, Visibility, and Violence”). The result, unfortunately, feels like she is jumping all over the place. Although she tries to visit each province in each section, the result feels choppy and leads to some repetition. In addition to jumping back and forth between cities, there is also the problem of what her cut-off markers were between the three sections. Activism is defined by Cambridge English Dictionary as “the use of direct and noticeable action to achieve a result, usually a political or social one.” Throughout this book, several of the interviewees note their socializing, their very nature of existing, was considered political by many, and encouraged the forming of networks and groups. In this sense, all of these actions, though less direct, were catalysts for the creation of gay organizations, community centres, and counselling phone lines, which coincided with and supported picketing, marches, and direct challenges to policy. In this, the sections of this book shouldn’t necessarily stand separate; all of the actions and events bleed into one another as resistance work. Had the author structured the book as a chronological and comprehensive review of each city, her ideas and data might have been more accessible.
Korinek’s book provides a great starting point for those wishing to examine queer history in the Prairie provinces further. Throughout this book, the author gives examples of “the gay experience” through looking at cruising spots, tolerant businesses, house parties, and eventually, the growth of community centres, meet-ups, and organizations. She provides anecdotes about both occurrences and people, which provide fun breaks from her longer explanations of the histories of gay newsletters, bars, and groups. She looks at, for example, the ripple effect that happened when Dan Nalbach and Gens Hellquist advertised the simple message “Saskatoon Gay Liberation” along with a post office box in the paper Georgia Straight in 1971. Those that responded ultimately began to meet up to discuss how to create gay spaces. She mentions the first gay marriage— that of Chris Vogel and Richard North in 1974, at the Unitarian Church. She looks at “Augustus Esch” (a pseudonym), a man in the 1920s who posed as another man’s surrogate “son” so that their living together was not considered controversial. Korinek’s text is rich with interesting stories of individuals who found creative ways to overcome societal expectations to live as they chose.
Despite this, the author expresses regret and even notes that she is “haunted” by the fact that she was not able to speak with the broad demographic she initially wished to include. A notable omission is the history of Western Canada’s two-spirit indigenous population, which can be researched at the Two Spirit Archives within the University of Winnipeg’s Archives. Korinek also notes that although her intention was to include more elements of Western Canadian lesbian history than had been previously explored, there were several factors that hindered her. Finding female interviewees willing to speak about their experience was one obstacle. Not having the terminology to discuss their experiences may be another. Additionally, the ingrained thought that one must practice discretion and be secretive about same-sex lovers may have carried over and contributed to the low number of women willing to come forward. Despite this challenge, Korinek does differentiate the experiences of gay men and lesbians through looking at how some lesbians were read simply as “exceptional women” who happened to be strong, unmarried, and wear pants. Further, she looks at how many lesbians were torn between how to fight for both feminism and LGBTQ rights when often, the gay community was looking at only one of those issues.
In terms of queer critical history or, as she quotes historian Laura Doan, work that “explain[s] aspects of the sexual past that resist[s] explanation in the context of identity history,” the author provides context on each of the cities’ histories to give a broader picture of what elements and socio-economic, cultural, and political conditions were in place that may or may not have caused a queer community to flourish. This includes: events such as the building of the Canadian Pacific Railroad and an economic boom following World War II that led to population growth; presence of arts, culture and universities; whether religion was a prominent element of society; and whether there was a strong RCMP presence in the city. In doing this she sets the stage for why some cities were more receptive to their queer communities and why the gay and lesbian populations in some cities were more political or more socially driven. By the end of the book, she has broken down the general attitude or sentiment of each city: Saskatoon as a hive of political movement; Winnipeg as a hub of educational, religious, and media-based progress; Edmonton as a city where counselling became a prominent focus for the queer community, and Calgary and Regina, as cities with less political leanings and more focused on general social spaces such as bars.
This book is ambitious in scope, and I believe the author may have tried to examine a topic too broad for one volume. While she gives a good overview of many of the issues and organizations that grew in the prairie provinces over a 65-year period, this book, at 407 pages (507 if you include notes, sources and index) somehow manages to overwhelm by covering too many things, while also having omissions which the author herself laments. Ultimately, this book serves as a great resource for researchers or others who have a particular stake or interest in this specific topic- gay and lesbian history in these 5 selected cities- but one who just picks it up for curiosity’s sake may find it a bit cumbersome.