More below • Podcast: What Pride looks like in small-town Canada
Hugh Brewster is the author of 15 books for adults and young readers. His latest, Unsinkable Lucile, will be published in September.
On the morning of Aug. 22, 1972, I woke up next to Rich Wandel, the president of the Gay Activists Alliance of New York.
GAA was the hottest organization of the nascent gay-liberation movement, so it was a coup to have him in Toronto for our first Gay Pride Week. That evening, he was to be part of a panel with other prominent activists at the CHAT Centre, the headquarters of the Community Homophile Association of Toronto, located in an old synagogue on Cecil Street near Spadina Avenue.
We had launched both the CHAT Centre and Gay Pride Week three days before, with a group of us in gay-pride T-shirts marching down the building’s fire escape singing Hello, Gay Pride Week – a showtune parody with a chorus proclaiming “all those closets will come tumbling down.” George Hislop, president of CHAT, had given a short speech from the top of the fire escape, and I also said a few words on behalf of the activist group, Toronto Gay Action, inviting people to the Gay Picnic on Ward’s Island the next day and the Gay Pride Parade the following Saturday.
As I spooned out granola for Wandel on that warm Tuesday morning, a GAA member named John Wojtowicz awoke with different plans for the day. The 27-year-old Vietnam vet intended to rob a New York bank to pay for his lover’s sex-reassignment surgery. He had fallen hard for Ernie Aron, who would soon begin transitioning to female as Liz Eden. On Dec. 4, 1971, they were married in a splashy ceremony.
Wandel was a guest at the event, as was Wojtowicz’s mother, who had also attended her son’s wedding to Carmen Bifulco four years before. Although they had separated in 1969, Wojtowicz was still legally married to Bifulco, the mother of his two children. Bigamy was not a concern, of course, since legalized gay marriage was not even an activist’s pipe dream at the time.
The happy couple moved into an apartment above a store on Hudson Street, but they would not be happy for long. Wojtowicz’s nickname was “Littlejohn” because of his short stature but also, he later claimed, on account of his small, but very busy, penis. He helped organize the GAA Saturday night dances at the group’s headquarters in a former firehouse on Wooster Street, and found it a great place to pick up guys. This caused conflict with Eden, and after one nasty fracas, she attempted suicide and was taken to St Vincent’s Hospital. More suicide attempts followed, and Eden was eventually committed to a mental hospital. There, she threatened to cut off her penis unless she could have sex-reassignment surgery, which was rare and expensive back then.
This led to Wojtowicz’s bizarre scheme to rob a bank and spring his lover, in his words, “from the nuthouse.” He soon acquired weapons and recruited two young accomplices he had met in a Village gay bar: Bobby Westenberg, 20, and Sal Naturale, who was only 18. On the morning of Aug. 22, they drove around looking for a suitable bank to rob. Outside one location, they dropped a shotgun on the sidewalk and it went off, leading to a panicked getaway; at another, Westenberg was greeted by a friend of his mother, so the trio fled.
Wojtowicz then drove them to a movie theatre on 42nd Street to see The Godfather, thinking it might provide some inspiration. Which it did. After entering a Chase-Manhattan branch at Avenue B and East 3rd in Brooklyn at 2:58 p.m., Wojtowicz passed a note to a teller echoing the movie’s most famous line, “This is an offer you can’t refuse.” At this point, Westenberg panicked and fled. The two remaining robbers pulled out their guns and Wojtowicz yelled, “This is a holdup, Everybody keep calm!”
As the staff began to hand over US$38,000 in cash and US$175,000 in travellers’ cheques, a bank employee silently triggered the alarm and police quickly arrived outside. Wojtowicz looked out the window and saw snipers positioned on the rooftops across the street. He immediately took the eight bank employees hostage, holing up for what would become a 14-hour standoff. Soon a rowdy Brooklyn crowd gathered in the steamy summer heat outside for what one reporter called “a full-blown show.”
Rich Wandel had planned to spend the afternoon preparing his remarks for the evening’s CHAT panel, but he was soon consumed by phone calls. Wojtowicz’s hostage drama had become a media sensation, and live TV coverage reported that he was “an avowed homosexual” wanting money to pay for his lover’s “sex-change operation.”
Wojtowicz’s connection to GAA had been discovered, and the organization was being besieged with calls. Wandel was deeply concerned about GAA being associated with this crime. I remember him pacing around the apartment exclaiming, “Littlejohn, Littlejohn, what are you doing?”
While Naturale kept guard on the hostages, Wojtowicz was going out into the street to negotiate with police – and to stir up the crowd. He asked for pizzas to be delivered, paid for them with loot from the robbery and then threw money into the crowd. Eden was escorted to the bank at Wojtowicz’s request, but she refused to go inside. His mother also appeared on the scene and pleaded for her son to surrender.
When the time came for Wandel and me to leave for the CHAT Centre that evening, the hostage drama was still continuing. At the start of his talk, Wandel described the afternoon’s events but was interrupted by moderator Kathleen Brindley, a CHAT board member, who stated firmly: “I just want to say that my gay liberation does not include guns!” This was greeted with loud applause, which was slightly unfair to the soft-spoken Wandel who didn’t believe in guns – or the robbery – either.
Perhaps the most memorable panelist that evening was pioneering activist Barbara Gittings, who in 1958 had founded the New York chapter of the lesbian group, the Daughters of Bilitis, and had helped seminal activist Frank Kameny organize the first U.S. gay protest march in 1965 outside the White House.
She described how Kameny had asked the men to appear in jackets and ties and the women in high heels and nylons, and how she had clutched her placard in white-knuckled terror. She also spoke about her work lobbying the American Psychiatric Association to drop its classification of homosexuality as a mental illness, which it would eventually do in 1974.
The last speaker was Gerald Hannon, who, like me, was part of the collective of the gay-liberation newspaper, The Body Politic, and was a member of Toronto Gay Action. In his gentle, mellifluous baritone, Hannon outlined his thoughts on the panel’s theme – the “open society” – and then closed by saying that for gay liberation to succeed, we would have to do two things: “close the churches; get the kids.” This was met with a stunned silence from the CHAT members who were mostly of a more conservative bent. And so, Hannon’s career as a self-described “unrepentant sex radical” was launched. The very next day, another Hannon-stirred controversy would erupt.
At 4:45 a.m., Wojtowicz’s hostage drama reached its denouement. He had asked for a limo to take him, Naturale, Eden and the hostages to Kennedy Airport. His plan was to board a plane for Denmark where he thought Eden could have her surgery. The FBI co-operated, but on arriving at the airport, Naturale was shot and killed, Wojtowicz surrendered, and the hostages were freed.
Wojtowicz would receive a 20-year sentence but went on to serve only five. His story inspired the 1975 movie, Dog Day Afternoon, starring Al Pacino; it was a box-office and critical success, and received six Oscar nominations winning one for best screenplay. Money from the film rights would pay for Liz Eden’s surgery.
Wandel seemed relieved when he heard by phone at breakfast that the hostage drama was over. When I searched the pages of The Globe and Mail that morning, I only found a small wire service story with the headline, Homosexuals Occupy Bank, Hold Hostages. A few pages later, however, there was an article titled Gay Liberation that set my pulse racing: “Since this is gay pride week,” it began, “in which our homosexuals celebrate their new awareness, it may be the ideal time to ask this question: should public money be used to encourage homosexuals to exploit children?”
It was by Kenneth Bagnell, a former United Church minister and a regular Globe contributor. What had stirred his ire was an article in the July/August issue of The Body Politic by Hannon titled Of Men and Little Boys. In it, he said Hannon claimed that seducing children is a highly desirable activity for adult homosexual men and “the experience is potentially an enriching one for both parties and a step toward a sex-positive culture.”
The public money that Bagnell referred to was a $14,000 federal grant that CHAT had received to operate a distress centre. He had telephoned CHAT and been assured that The Body Politic was a separate organization, but clearly the public-money-supporting-pedophilia gambit was too good to pass up for him.
I made a panicked call to Jearld Moldenhauer, the founder of The Body Politic and unofficial leader of the city’s young gay radicals. He said he thought CHAT would be issuing a press release disclaiming any connection with the newspaper. He also said of The Globe, “Well, at least they’re noticing us.” Until then, the mainstream media had studiously ignored gay liberation – in fact, The Globe and The Toronto Star refused to even use the term “gay.”
Hannon’s incendiary article had blown open the press blackout, and the next day The Globe ran an editorial titled Within the Law?, which opened with: “The homosexual seduction of a child is a loathsome, pernicious thing.” Some sensational quotes from Hannon’s piece followed, and it ended with a call for police action. The Star went even further with an editorial titled No Open Season on Children, which suggested that the 1969 Criminal Code amendment that legalized homosexual acts between consenting adults, should be rescinded if “homosexuals are using their freedom from prosecution as adults to jeopardize children.”
The calumny that gay men were a danger to children was something the homophile movement had been fighting for years. So it was not surprising that Hislop and the CHAT board decided to hold a press conference disavowing Hannon’s views and saying they opposed “the jeopardizing of children.” Both Hannon and The Body Politic collective wrote letters to The Globe clarifying that they were not advocating the sexual coercion of children.
The letters appeared on Saturday, Aug. 26 – the day of the first Gay Pride March. Despite the bad press, it was an enthusiastic group of about 200 that picked up placards and banners outside the CHAT Centre that afternoon. I marched beside the large Gay Pride banner at the front calling out the chants with a bullhorn: “Two, four, six, eight, gay is just as good as straight!” and “gay power!” We marched to Queen’s Park where there were calls for sexual orientation to be included in the Ontario Human Rights Code.
Then we followed a police car down to the Immigration Building on University Avenue to rally for changes in the federal Immigration Act. Jearld Moldenhauer spoke on behalf of The Body Politic, while George Hislop and lawyer Peter Maloney made addresses for CHAT – with no one mentioning the week’s divisive controversy. The march proceeded to City Hall before returning to the CHAT Centre. Grossman’s Tavern provided a festive finish by sending the Downchild Blues Band – the group that would inspire Dan Aykroyd’s Blue Brothers – into the centre for an impromptu performance.
In reviewing the events of the week for the autumn issue of The Body Politic, I concluded: “Gay Pride Week – a greater test of our gay pride than anyone could have imagined. The effects are still being felt. Did Gay Pride win out? We hope so.” An editorial in the same issue made a plea for unity, urging that The Body Politic, CHAT and TGA “remain united in their stance for basic civil liberties for all gays.”
But it was not to be. The CHAT membership soon voted to expel the “long-haired radicals,” as we were known. George Hislop was reluctant to see us go; the young activists were useful for demos and protests and for managing the popular CHAT Dances held at Holy Trinity, a progressive downtown Anglican church.
“You’ll miss us when we’re gone,” we said. And they did. I left The Body Politic collective that fall to pursue a career in book publishing in Toronto and New York.
The police did not respond to The Globe’s call for prosecution of The Body Politic. At least not then. But five years later, when Hannon revisited this fraught subject in an article titled Men Loving Boys Loving Men, it spurred a police raid.
Hannon and board collective members Ken Popert and Ed Jackson were arrested on obscenity charges and subjected to repeated litigation before the Crown finally accepted their acquittal in 1982.
After The Body Politic morphed into the bi-weekly Xtra in 1987, Hannon became one of the country’s finest magazine journalists, winning 13 National Magazine Awards.
He died in May, and in his posthumous autobiography, Immoral, Indecent & Scurrilous: The Making of an Unrepentant Sex Radical, he writes of his good fortune at being able to witness decades of social change, “much of it due to a cohort of twentysomethings like me, rebelling against the constraints, legal and social that confined queer people.”
I’ll never forget the young cop at 52 Division who gave me the first Pride parade permit. He was perfectly polite, but when he handed over the signed form, he said, “So you’re really gonna march down the street saying you’re ‘that way’?” To him and so many others in 1972, the notion of gay people appearing unashamedly in public was unthinkable. As Andrew Solomon wrote of the first New York gay parade, “it was a means to defy the belief that homosexuality was a sin, an illness and a crime, that gay people were subhuman.”
Now that those beliefs have been largely banished, the future of Pride has fuelled plenty of discussion, particularly after two years of pandemic shutdown. Is it too big? Too corporate? Too frivolous? Sunday’s parade will be much analyzed. I’ll be marching for the We Support LGBTQ Ukraine Fund. Without a bullhorn this time.
No one in that small cohort of (mostly) twentysomethings who marched behind a bedsheet gay-pride banner on Aug. 26, 1972 could have imagined a full month of Pride celebrations with rainbow flags adorning banks, schools and even some churches, and Yonge Street crammed with Pride revellers in the hundreds of thousands.
Of the activists of the seventies, Gerald Hannon would memorably claim: “We grabbed today and shook it until tomorrow fell out of its pocket.”
Pride across Canada: More on The Decibel
Chelle Turingan, co-director of the documentary Small Town Pride, spoke with The Decibel about the joys and challenges LGBTQ communities face organizing events in small Canadian towns. Subscribe for more episodes.
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