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Relationships From 'sex perverts' to queer: Globe archives chronicle how we talked about homosexuality

Globe and Mail Update

There are places in a city that don't register in the public imagination, places we aren't aware of when we think of communities. One is an old filing cabinet in the former offices of The Globe and Mail at 444 Front Street West, an antiquated object full of old #9 regular-size envelopes stuffed with yellowing paper and microfiche sheets of newsprint. These mostly unseen envelopes played a large role in how the public viewed homosexuality in the pre– and post-Pierre Trudeau period.

A newspaper library used to be known as a morgue, because the clipping files contained dead stories the paper's researchers and reporters would, with coroner-like scrutiny, inspect for clues in prior news coverage. At The Globe, the clippings were stored in three carousel filing cabinets, which I could activate with the flick of a button. The carousel of clipping trays rotated to the requested row, allowing the researcher to pull out a tray (think morgue slab) with a comprehensive packet of every story on a given subject or person clipped by Globe librarians between 1936 to 1987 (when digital storage replaced clipping).

In early 2016, Globe national affairs columnist John Ibbitson contacted me to request assistance with a story reexamining the incredible case of Everett George Klippert. In 1967, the Supreme Court of Canada upheld a lower-court ruling mandating life in prison for Klippert. He became the only Canadian ever to be sentenced and jailed as a sex offender because he was gay; Klippert spent a decade behind bars.

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Read more: The long, late redemption of a Canadian punished for being gay in the 1960s

Read more: Trudeau to urge pardon for gay man deemed a dangerous sex offender in 1960s

Ibbitson wanted to know if we could track down relatives and original court files, and provide an overview of public perception of homosexuality in the 1960s. Could we find out what became of Klippert after he was released in 1971?

I couldn't have been more excited by a research request. This is one of those queries that come in that my colleague Rick Cash and I don't flip a coin for; he knew I should be handling this.

My first thought was to grab our clipping files for KLIPPERT, EVERETT GEORGE and HOMOSEXUALS. I'd been working for the paper for several years and had previously consulted the HOMOSEXUALS envelopes. I turned the switch on the old mid-century carousel. It shuddered to life, clipping trays creaking up into the ceiling, each row labelled and cranking into view: HANSARD, HAWKER, HELIUM, HIKES, HOCKEY HALL…HOMOSEXUALS. I thumbed through the tray: each file bore a simple title: HOMOSEXUALS 1971 OCT–1984 OCT, HOMOSEXUALS 1984 OCT–1985 JUN, and so on, until I noticed one I hadn't seen previously: an envelope marked HOMOSEXUALS – EDITORIALS. It had a message that stung like a blow to the solar plexus: PREVIOUS TO 1969 SEPT SEE: SEX PERVERTS.

That those long-forgotten colleagues classified queerness in this way reveals much about their era. The tragedy of George Klippert's story is that he was a victim of prejudice at the precise moment when gay liberation was gaining momentum and public consciousness was shifting. Reading the SEX PERVERTS and HOMOSEXUALS clipping files is like watching a sped-up version of the evolution of public and editorial opinion about LGBTQ rights, beginning with the decriminalization of homosexuality. The authority control change from SEX PERVERTS to HOMOSEXUALS in the clipping files is directly a result of George Klippert's experience of injustice. A sampling of some of the contents of both files bears this out.

Long-time Globe columnist John Verner McAree's Feb. 21, 1947, story, "Scientific Treatment for Sex Perverts," begins, "What are called sex crimes are increasing in Canada and the United States, and confronted with them the lynching spirit stirs itself." McAree, considered a progressive voice, moves from this unnerving lede to classify various types of sex perverts: homosexual, indecent exposure, alcoholic degenerate, rapist, and monsters that ship dismembered women in trunks, with the homosexual morally compared to tuberculosis patients not responsible for their lot. "Unless they commit public indecencies," he wrote, "we doubt if they are fit subjects for legal punishment at all."

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An April 13, 1966, news story headlined "Drunks, Deviates Also Attracted to Parks in Spring" cautions women to avoid Toronto parks at night, particularly Allan Gardens, High Park and Riverdale Park. "But the parks will also be the gathering place for some of the most undesirable persons in the community – exhibitionists, homosexuals, drunks, vandals and thugs."

While Alderwoman June Marks said she was afraid to go in any of the downtown parks after dark, police inspectors and the parks commissioner all stated there was little crime or vandalism in these places. "Queen's Park in the heart of Metro has a bad reputation, but Inspector William Henderson said he couldn't remember the last arrest there. He described it as one of the most crime-free places in Metro."

Following numerous other stories in the SEX PERVERTS clipping file that conflate homosexuality with perversion and moral degeneracy, public opinion seemed to swing quickly. On Dec. 12, 1967, The Globe published a landmark editorial supporting the Lester B. Pearson government's bill decriminalizing homosexual acts; this is the editorial that then-justice minister Pierre Trudeau paraphrases in his famous quote "The state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation."

The rapid shift in opinion revealed by the succession of articles is a bit dissonant. From today's perspective, the change is moderate in that it focuses on adult men (lesbians were omitted from the law and the discourse), left to go about their mutually consenting business in the privacy of their bedrooms. Topics like parks, bathhouses, and age of consent are left for later consideration. Looking through the HOMOSEXUALS editorial clipping files in the 1970s, it's interesting to see The Globe's cautious acceptance and encouragement of the mainstreaming of gay rights – with some exceptions.

After the 1977 murder of 12-year-old Emanuel Jaques, The Globe editorial cautions demonstrators to be peaceful and not undermine the presumption of innocence, but there is no direct mention of the homophobia that accompanied the protest and calls to clean up Yonge Street. In another editorial, Ontario horse-racing steward John Damien's 1975 dismissal is viewed as an injustice. "Why should Mr. Damien's homosexuality be regarded as a special case of conflicting – or potentially conflicting – interests?" But the paper was much more cautious in its support of amending federal and provincial human rights codes. "Should not protection of homosexual rights be dependent on a reciprocal right of minors to be free from efforts at conversion?" asked a 1977 editorial.

It's also worth noting that for the Globe librarians and their methodical classification system, Klippert et al. were SEXUAL PERVERTS prior to September, 1969, and then they were HOMOSEXUALS. What happened that month to prompt the librarians to alter subject authority control? The Stonewall riots? No, that occurred on June 28, 1969. The first Canadian Pride celebrations? They took place in 1971.

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Rather, the turning point was the amendments to the Criminal Code decriminalizing homosexuality, which came into force at the end of August, 1969. The librarian part of me grudgingly admires this punctiliousness. Parliament passed the law in June, but the language on the clipping file shifted only after the law came into force, in August. It was a greater authority – the Government of Canada – that altered The Globe and Mail's classification system.

But the dyke part of me feels the decades of effort made by LGBTQ activists and artists who directly influenced that change, including Klippert's own experience and growing advocacy behind bars. Though the law changed in 1969, he wasn't released from prison until 1971.

The clipping files for SEX PERVERTS and HOMOSEXUALS – EDITORIALS with its PREVIOUS TO 1969 SEPT SEE: SEX PERVERTS cross-reference, are still active. I never considered updating the headings. A newspaper is a permanent record, and the language of the subject headings should remain faithful to the language contained in the stories, whatever the discomfort. Besides, it's a reminder of where we were, and provides a way to reflect on those turning-point moments when our language skips a beat.

Excerpted from Any Other Way: How Toronto Got Queer, published by Coach House Books last month

"The Fruit Machine" looks at the lasting impacts of anti-gay policies directed towards Canadian public servants during the Cold War era Globe and Mail Update
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