His­tory comes out

Gay ac­tivist’s fight be­comes the first LGBTQ Her­itage Minute

Ottawa Citizen - - YOU - DAVID FRIEND

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.

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