Late on the brisk night of Feb. 5, 1981, Douglas Chambers was awoken by a phone call: Police were raiding bathhouses across downtown Toronto, a friend told him. It was a message many gay men in the city received that night, a call to community. Mr. Chambers hopped out of bed and headed to the closest bathhouse to his home at the time – The Club baths, at Mutual and Carlton Streets. There, he witnessed a seminal moment in Canadian gay history: Men were pulled from the building, thrown into a police van, or, if they had enough identification and luck, released into the streets to go home. Police, crowbars and sledgehammers in hand, pummelled through the bathhouse, looking to make arrests or seize whatever they could.
Mr. Chambers stood outside in awe and outrage, warning men to stay away, to stay safe. The next day, he met his close friend Craig Patterson for lunch and told him about what he had seen. “Our purpose in being there was to see what was happening so that we could be witnesses,” Mr. Chambers matter-of-factly told a documentarian in the aftermath, forever immortalized in the 1982 film Track Two.
All told, the raids – which Toronto police called Operation Soap – would see the arrest of 286 men and damage to four bathhouses. The subsequent protests by thousands of people in downtown Toronto became a galvanizing moment for the city’s gay community, which some historians compare to the Stonewall Riots in New York City, more than a decade earlier.
Though he bore witness that night, his close friends say Mr. Chambers, who died on May 1 of complications of COVID-19, never considered himself an activist. “It was just what he was committed to doing: He was committed to taking that risk, to speaking up about queer things when at the time there was no protection,” Mr. Patterson says. “But he did those things because he thought he ought to do that.”
Rather, his friends say, his attendance that February night was less about his gay activism and more about his devotion to community. That was Mr. Chambers: devoted, loyal, generous.
Douglas Chambers was born in Toronto on Nov. 29, 1939, and eventually studied at the University of Toronto. He left Toronto to study at Princeton and Cambridge, and began his teaching career at the University of York, in Yorkshire. But by 1969, he returned home to teach English at the University of Toronto’s Trinity College, where he remained until his retirement in 2000.
It was at Trinity College in 1980 where Mr. Patterson met Mr. Chambers, beginning a 40-year friendship. There, he says, Mr. Chambers became an unofficial faculty adviser to gay students, hosting weekly lunches and supporting them during a time when gay and lesbian protections still were not enshrined in Canadian law. “In many ways he was fearless,” Mr. Patterson says, noting that Mr. Chambers was one of few openly gay faculty members at the time.
At the university, Mr. Chambers helped increase visibility for gay students and staff. After the bathhouse raids, Mr. Patterson recalls, gay students and faculty began wearing pieces of bath towels on their lapels as a sign of solidarity; Mr. Chambers was instrumental in allowing the silent political gesture. And on Remembrance Day, he would don a pink triangle and lecture his classes about the murder of homosexuals in concentration camps.
He was deeply intellectual and filled with so much knowledge of literature and poetry that some found him intimidating. “It felt like he just lived romantic poetry,” says David Macfarlane, who was one of Mr. Chambers’s undergraduate students in the 1970s. “He was so inside of it all that you never felt for a second that this was just a job for him.”
“In the midst of a conversation, if a piece of literature would come to mind, he could quote it for pages if he wanted to,” adds Dennis Findlay, a long-time friend. “And if he couldn’t remember a phrase, he’d go to his many shelves and would open it to the very section he wanted and read it to you.”
Even in romance, Mr. Chambers was scholarly. For 48 years, he maintained a long-distance relationship with Brian Norbury, a British civil servant. In the months they spent apart, the two would never speak on the phone. Instead, they would exchange letters – rife with literary references and scholarly musings.
It was Mr. Chambers’s love of literature, and particularly the poet John Milton, that brought him to gardening. His research into 18th-century landscapes and gardens turned him on to the hobby. In 1985, he bought out his cousins’ shares in their great-grandfather’s homestead, which they had inherited.
On the outskirts of Walkerton, Ont., some 200 kilometres northwest of Toronto, the land had been in the family for 150 years, and Mr. Chambers planned to turn it into an oasis. He documented the transformation in his 1996 book Stonyground: The Making of a Canadian Garden. Modelling it after an 18th-century ferme ornée, Mr. Chambers toiled to create paths and gardens and new landscapes between every plot of soybeans, every tree.
At each turn, visitors would find a new delight: a sculpture, carved by a neighbouring stonemason who etched headstones; a sea of daffodils; a lone surviving elm tree. And in keeping with his love for literature, every element of the gardens held deep meaning. Opening the door to a birdhouse, for example, would reveal a plaque inscribed with one of his favourite passages. Collecting the letters stamped on stones in one path would reveal a message: “Nature abhors a straight line.”
“Walking through it was an intellectual treasure hunt,” Mr. Macfarlane says.
The centrepiece of the land was a farmhouse, where Mr. Chambers would host friends nearly every weekend during spring, summer and fall. Those visiting would often be put to work. Mr. Findlay remembers being tasked to build stairs from the farmhouse to the orchard, earning him the title of “stair master.” Mr. Chambers was always a generous host: “There was always plenty of food, and plenty of booze,” Mr. Findlay remembers.
Occasionally, Mr. Chambers transformed his barn into a theatre and hosted operas or poetry readings with neighbours, raising money in a jar for the cause du jour (always, Mr. Findlay adds, topping up the donations himself).
In 2008, faulty wiring caused a fire that devastated the farmhouse, and the land was later sold. Lost in the fire were many of Mr. Chambers’s artworks, books and papers, including materials he and friend David Galbraith had collected for his final scholarly project, The Letterbooks of John Evelyn, which was nevertheless published in 2014.
Mr. Chambers, who was 80, spent his final years at Kensington Gardens long-term care home. He was predeceased by his partner, Mr. Norbury, and his brother, Lorne Chambers.
Mr. Chambers always emphasized community and had a large, varied circle of friends, according to Mr. Patterson. “He was friends with anyone he found interesting,” he says.
During weekend visits to the farmhouse, Mr. Findlay recalls, after guests completed their tasks, Mr. Chambers would take them on an excursion to meet others in the community. Together, relative strangers would eat dinner, drink and learn about one another, developing a sense of camaraderie and belonging.
“It was about so much more than this farm he had. There was a whole community around us,” Mr. Findlay says. “And Douglas wanted to share his community.”