History comes out
Gay activist’s fight becomes the first LGBTQ Heritage Minute
Director Stephen Dunn says TORONTO making the first Heritage Minute about Canada’s LGBTQ community reminded him of the countless other queer stories that have gone mostly untold over the years.
His sliver of history debuted Wednesday recounting gay activist Jim Egan’s work for equal rights, in what Dunn hopes will mark a small step toward putting some of those stories on record for the entire country.
“Generally, queer history isn’t really well documented for a number of obvious reasons,” the St. John’s filmmaker said, pointing out that gay sex wasn’t decriminalized in Canada until 1969, which likely kept many stories in the closet.
“I really struggle as a queer person to find people throughout history to look up to,” he said.
The one-minute clip about Egan begins early in his career during the early 1950s when he wrote opinion columns in newspapers trying to dissolve negative perceptions of gay culture in the mainstream. He eventually became one of the first openly gay politicians in Canada.
But Egan garnered far more attention when he launched a lawsuit against Ottawa for the right to claim a spousal pension under the Old Age Security Act. The case led to the Supreme Court’s decision to deny him and his partner Jack Nesbit spousal rights in 1995.
Even though he was defeated in the courts, Egan’s social and political contributions helped usher in another generation of activism, Dunn said.
“What he was doing laid the groundwork,” said the 29-yearold director, whose semi-autobiographical Closet Monster won the 2015 Canadian feature film award at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Producers at Historica Canada, the organization behind the Heritage Minute, picked Dunn to join historians in a quest for candidates that could represent the struggles faced by Canada’s LGBTQ people.
But settling on Egan’s story took some time. Research lasted roughly three months, Dunn said, as they culled through Toronto’s Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives and other resources.
A number of other public figures and incidents were considered, Dunn said, including the Brunswick Four, a group of lesbians whose arrest is credited with mobilizing activism in the 1970s, and the story behind the Fruit Machine, a device the Canadian civil service used supposedly to identify gay men.
The latest Heritage Minute follows a goal set by leaders at Historica Canada to widen the focus of Canada’s history to consider some of its more shameful moments.
Recent additions to the series have acknowledged the country’s racism with stories that address residential schools and segregation.
Having grown up watching Heritage Minutes on television and in movie theatres, Dunn said he wanted to be involved making them himself.
Earlier this year he oversaw telling the story of Lucy Maud Montgomery, author of the Anne of Green Gables book series, which delved into issues surrounding mental health.
“The stories tend to not shy away from the more complex stories of Canadian history,” he said.
“They’re doing cinematic and edgier pieces that don’t quite portray Canada as the glossy utopia it’s often regarded as.”
Actor Theodore Saunders portrays activist Jim Egan in a Heritage Minute, the first to portray the LGBTQ community.