Gay liberation is alive in western Canada. Every day we hear new reports in media of this or that event which reaffirms that gay people will not accept their lot in silence…. After Stonewall aims at being a publication to serve gay liberation in the prairies of Canada and adjacent American states.
— After Stonewall, No. 1 Spring 1977, p.1
When After Stonewall launched its “critical journal of gay liberation” in 1977, the collective had modest goals and a wry self-deprecating sense of humour about its enterprise. It anticipated readers might question the need for “yet another left publication,” this time by “critical faggots” from Winnipeg, Manitoba. Yes, you read that right: Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. Canada’s prairie provinces are not widely known for their queer liberationist politics. But that is a product of history’s failure to historicize the lives of queer women and men in the Canadian West alongside the histories written of their more cosmopolitan and/or coastal sisters and brothers residing in Montreal, Toronto, or Vancouver.
This post is part of a larger study, Prairie Fairies, which historicizes the queer people and communities in the Canadian prairies from the 1930s to 1985. This research corrects the imbalance that has, for too long, ignored queer people outside of the major cities. Furthermore, it argues that Canadian queer activism was not a sequential, nor neat, movement from gay liberationist politics and identity formation to civil rights approaches. In the seventies, it was common to see “pre-Stonewall” types of discrete queer socializing continue, just as it was not uncommon, in the early 1980s, for small pockets of liberationist politics to continue. Some western queer activists challenged those who might claim a central or national gay activist platform by advancing a specifically western Canadian, regional agenda. After Stonewall was one of the most vocal regional gay periodicals to espouse those views.
From 1977 to 1980, After Stonewall was a unique entry into a crowded field of western queer newsletters and small periodicals. Each of the five major prairie cities, Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Regina, and Winnipeg, established gay and lesbian members-only clubs in the early 1970s. As it was impossible for them to utilize the mainstream press to cover their events, these gay and lesbian newsletters spread the word about club activities. Most of these newsletters were quite basic–a few stapled pages of news, board minutes, and lists of directories of queer places. By the mid-seventies, all of the club newsletters were gone. Some of the organizations had folded. In other cases, the burnout of editorial volunteers or the recurrent postal strikes wrecked havoc on publication schedules. But their legacy was important because those small newsletters started a regional tradition of modest, volunteer-produced gay and lesbian periodicals that endured. In the late seventies, After Stonewall was one of a few independent gay periodicals published in the prairies.
Arguably the most political of the periodicals, After Stonewall provides an important vantage point on prairie queer life. The men behind After Stonewall were a diverse lot, “a cross-section of professional and white collar workers, aged from 18-mid thirties, from Manitoba, Ontario, Britain, Wisconsin and Kentucky, high school and university graduates, from Conservative, NDP, Marxist and independent religious backgrounds,” as a 1977 Manitoba Gay Directory put it. They were dedicated to capturing the essence of the “prairie provinces…particular outlook on gay liberation,” which they firmly believed was “just as valuable… as is that of Toronto, Montreal, New York or San Francisco.”
Inspired by Boston’s Fag Rag, the collective’s goal was to offer a queer journalistic forum intended to stimulate discussion amongst gay men and lesbians. As they explained in their first issue, their motto was “unity in action,” which for them meant “gay liberation must imply a general social change overcoming centuries of religious bigotry, class exploitation, and the paternalistic organization of society.” One key departure from other newsletters and small periodicals was their support for feminism and lesbian autonomy. Another was their strong support for a North American perspective on gay activism situated within the local prairie context. In selecting the title, they paid homage to New York’s Stonewall riots, but also “sought to rekindle some of fire which is our heritage, the heritage of Stonewall.” In the end, only “total liberation” and the re-invigoration of a “dynamic gay liberation movement” mattered.
After Stonewall covered a range of topics, including Anita Bryant’s homophobic crusades in Miami and later her proselytizing tour of western Canada, men’s liberation, tensions within Winnipeg’s gay organizations, lesbian politics, liberationist versus civil rights politics, and violence against gays. Unlike the various newsletters produced by prairie clubs, After Stonewall was independent. With limited advertisements, it was unfettered in its ability to challenge readers. And readers responded. In a 1980 issue, After Stonewall reported that its readership came primarily from Winnipeg, rural Manitoba, and western Ontario. On its second anniversary, the collective proudly announced that far “more people read us today,” which meant that readership and subscriptions had increased. Such success, however, did not translate into financial viability. By its own estimation in 1978, the publication was operating at a “40% loss per issue.” At $5 for an annual subscription (four issues per year), it was a good value. Magazine production was done by “voluntary, unpaid, self-managing collective workers” on evenings and weekends. So despite evidence of their increasing impact, publishing the journal exacted a financial and personal toll.
In the winter 1979 issue, the Collective announced that the initial group was disbanding. George Edin and Mark Kaluk were off to Calgary for work, leaving John Allec, Walter Davis, and Bill Fields to consider their options. Shortly afterwards, Davis and Fields headed west to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan and took the journal along for the ride. There they produced two final issues. Joining Davis and Fields in the newly reconstituted After Stonewall collective were lesbian feminist activists Wiesia Kolasinka and Amy Gottlieb, which made “50% lesbian control” a reality. Doug Wilson was a contributor for these Saskatoon issues. Saskatoon was selected, in part, for its reputation as a welcoming, politically queer city. In fact, as the collective noted, “up until now, Saskatoon is the only city in Canada with a gay community centre.” Saskatoon’s accomplishments were then so well known that a delegation from Vancouver visited the city to tour the centre. In June 1979, those Vancouverites proposed following Saskatoon’s lead to launch a dedicated, self-funded gay centre in their city.
While After Stonewall found much to applaud in its new digs, all was far from rosy. The pages of After Stonewall speak volumes of the oppression and opposition that gays and lesbians were buffeted by in the late seventies. Economic challenges, religious fundamentalism, the rightward turn in mainstream politics, and renewed police oppression all found easy scapegoats in queer activists and the visibility of queer men in baths, parks, and on city streets. After Stonewall urged readers not to be daunted by the backlash but to fight back:
In our struggle for freedom, our own energies and those of millions more will be released. We need no Ayatollahs, no Joe Clarks, or Trudeaus, no Carters or Kennedys to tell us how to live. We need only ourselves—lesbians, gay men, women and the many more who will resist and win that ‘total liberation’ we are committed to. We welcome you to Saskatoon, in that same loving spirit in which we were ourselves welcomed.
— “Welcome…” After Stonewall No. 9, Fall 1979, p. 19.
After Stonewall was not only critical of those who opposed gay and lesbian activism; it was equally critical of “the movement.” In the collective’s opinion, the National Gay Rights Coalition (NGRC), an Ottawa-based umbrella organization to which all regional groups belonged, was unresponsive to western, lesbian, and Quebec demands. Additionally, After Stonewall opposed the NGRC’s refusal to support lesbian parity in decision-making (in fact, it reversed a policy that would have mandated parity) as well as its support for civil-rights-based activism. This short essay cannot adequately cover those fractious debates from 1977 to 1978 except to say that the NGRC’s reversal on lesbian parity in decision-making meant a small number of groups withdrew from the coalition in protest. After Stonewall was one of these groups, and that withdrawal earned it both kudos and criticism. Here, in an excerpt from speech entitled “Lesbians and Gay Men: Struggle for Liberation,” collective member Bill Fields offers his analysis of this misguided decision:
First, it must be made clear that there is in fact a difference between gay liberation and the present focus in Canada today, which is a civil rights perspective. Civil rights is a demand for equality and nothing more, equal participation with heterosexuals within the context of the existing society and societal structures….Gay liberation on the other hand proposes basic changes in the way society is structured…. It means that we understand the commonality of struggle beyond sexual orientation.
— Bill Fields, “Gay Liberation: A Movement Out of Focus” After Stonewall #6, 1978.
Liberationist viewpoints were widely articulated in a number of western periodicals in the seventies. But After Stonewall’s condemnation of the national civil rights movement was perhaps the most virulent. In 1979, it observed “the gay movement has come a long way since that first issue…The orientation to civil rights as a strategy is fundamentally wrong; civil rights struggles are a means to an end, not the end in themselves.”
This short analysis of After Stonewall’s content cannot address all of the issues they covered. But it is important, given the prairie setting and the long history of settler-Indigenous politics to note that After Stonewall was one of the first western Canadian periodicals to quietly draw attention to the oppression of Indigenous queer people. As well, it championed lesbian activism and lesbian autonomy. For example, Fields denounced the sexism and mistreatment of lesbians in the liberationist movement:
Sexual inequalities and sexism do not magically disappear in the looking glass world of homosexuality, although many gay male activists would like to believe otherwise. Such men often see themselves as the ultimate liberated men. It isn’t so. Gay men do not see or acknowledge lesbian issues as separate, do not see lesbian priorities as separate, do not see lesbians as women. In organizations with men one of two things happens to lesbians. They do all the shit work, are never on the leadership and are never visible or they become the leadership, still do all the shit work and carry all the emotional burdens of the organization until it is stable enough for a man to take over. They educate men in consciousness of being oppressed.
— Bill Fields, “Gay Liberation: A Movement Out of Focus” After Stonewall #6, 1978.
The collective was not perfect. It admitted as much when publishing letters from lesbian readers who considered they had not gone far enough in acknowledging the different experiences of lesbians, or their failure to include more lesbian content. Still, its articulation of gendered tensions within mixed organizations was seldom publicly acknowledged and an extraordinary behind-the-scenes peek into the realities of queer politics.
During its existence, After Stonewall was an important voice within the prairie queer press with a Marxist, liberationist message of “total liberation.” After Stonewall’s success must be judged not by its longevity – few prairie presses lasted more than a handful of years – but for light it shed on prairie queer politics and communities during the late 1970s. Politically, there is much value in being reminded that the transition to civil-rights political strategies was not entirely smooth and that liberationist voices did not go quietly. The success of the rights-based political strategies of the last two decades has largely eclipsed the liberationists’ contributions. After Stonewall’s perspective on this pivotally important moment reminds us of the various voices that once populated ‘the movement.’ And, it further reminds us that such voices were to be found in many places, including Canada’s prairie cities.
Dr. Valerie J. Korinek is a Professor of Modern Canadian History at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. She is an expert in the area of cultural history, gender and histories of sexuality. Widely published in the field of Canadian popular culture, western Canadian histories of sexuality, and food histories, her latest book is entitled Prairie Fairies: A History of Queer Communities and People in Western Canada, 1930-1985 (currently under review at the University of Toronto Press).
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