Saturday, June 18, 2016

The "Good Ol Days" were not good for everyone...

By Carson Murphy, Archivist

June is LGTBQ Pride month, and is also the time the LGBTQ community looks back on its heritage. The topic has been getting increasing academic attention lately which is excellent! Much like the history of women, minorities and people of lower social-economic status, lesbians, gays and other members of the LGBTQ community have been largely silent in Canada’s historical narrative. Its silence however should by no means be taken as a sign it didn’t exist, or that these individuals did not play major roles in our history. Indeed, the true scope of how many historical persons may or may not be ‘closeted’ makes for an interesting discussion, although one for another time. Because homosexuality was not supposed to exist and was often practiced covertly, it becomes a challenge to piece together the different historical narratives of this community.

A group of men on a boat, from the Peace River Museum, Archives and
 Mackenzie Centre collection, PRMA1981.1194.221.
It is a history that comes with a lot of reading between the lines to piece it together. For example. When you think about the narrative of the settlement of Alberta, the story speaks of all the men that moved out here to claim their homestead, and start their farm. The narrative relates how, at least in the early days, men drastically outnumbered women. Now when you read between the lines, you see a land of opportunity – of adventure with fewer rules, fewer people, fewer parsons, and mostly other young, single men. You can’t tell me that what held the appeal for many ‘straight’ men couldn’t have had the same for ‘gay’ ones.

Two unidentified women, from the Peace River Museum,
Archives and Mackenzie Centre's new collection.
Homosexuality was something that happened at the fringes, in the background, that might cross tongues, but seldom made it to paper, and would never come up in polite conversation.  When you look for it, you find it occasionally amongst the plainly stated “good friends”, “companion” or “lodger”, as if that was all it ever was, and perhaps it was.  It seems, whether it was naivety or some form of tolerance, sometimes, in some places, LGBTQ peoples could find some relationships and companionship, provided there was no spectacle and the outward appearance of social decency wasn’t marred.

I like to focus on those glimmers in the LGBTQ history, because the bulk of it tends to be pretty sad. When you consider the number of people who had to live unhappy lives, who faced ostracism, discrimination, and incarceration for things they couldn’t change or help. Living alone fearing they were the only ones. The past certainly was not the ‘good ol days’ for everyone. It’s an interesting thing to keep in mind the next time you look at your family history – who did and didn’t get married, if they moved away, their dreams and aspirations, you never know what might emerge.

Sometimes it’s really tempting to want to time travel, and somedays it really feels like I would be more at home in another time, but then I think how my life would change. And I’m not talking about modern medicine, and hot water (although those are usually two of many reality checks which keep me happy to be here), but more personally I think of how I wouldn’t be able to go out with my significant other, or get married, or likely have family and friends who would love and support me for who I am. And that’s what keeps me happy to be in the 21st century, although there is much left to accomplish on the road to equality, acceptance and even tolerance as the recent tragedy in Orlando has shown us.  

This post is dedicated to the anonymous men, women and everyone in between; who in the past, have faced discrimination, hatred, abuse, anxiety, fear and loneliness because of who they were and who they loved.
Two photographs of unknown people - as normal looking as you or I.
Who knows what their stories were. From a collection of photographs
recently donated to the Peace River Museum, Archives and
Mackenzie Centre.

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