In his now-infamous article “Men loving boys loving men,” which appeared in the Toronto-based gay liberation paper The Body Politic in December 1977 / January 1978, journalist Gerald Hannon described the law as it then related to queer sex in Canada. Depending on where and with whom you had sex, many queer Canadians remained criminals, “the way we were before 1969,” as Hannon reminded, and “the way we still are if we try anything other than the things you can do with one (and only one) other individual over twenty-one and very much in private.”
With his reference to 1969, Hannon was pointing to the limitations of Bill C-150, a piece of federal legislation that changed the law to allow for homosexual acts between two consenting adults in private. Announcing his intention to amend the Canadian Criminal Code, then justice minister, soon to be prime minister, Pierre Elliott Trudeau famously declared, “there’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.” Unless, that is, the bedroom belonged to someone under twenty-one. Believing young people needed to be protected from homosexuality because, as one politician put it during the parliamentary debate, “homosexuals are mostly inclined to pervert youngsters,” Bill C-150 made the age of consent for homosexual acts a full seven years above that for heterosexual acts. While now popularly understood as decriminalizing homosexuality in Canada, Bill C-150 was clear: if you were queer and under twenty-one, your sex life, whether in a bedroom or not, remained just as criminalized after 1969 as it had been before.
The limitations of the 1969 reforms were not lost on early activists. The Association for Social Knowledge, a Vancouver-based homophile group, asked, “Why can a person of eighteen be old enough to enlist and fight for his country yet not be considered old enough to choose the nature of his or her sexual habits?” The North American Conference of Homophile Organizations, which met in Chicago in 1969, passed a motion to “express sharp disappointment that Mr. Pierre Eliot Trudeaux [sic], the Prime Minister of Canada, has seen fit to introduce the limited and inadequate measures” of Bill C-150. Similarly, those who assembled on a rainy day in August of 1971 on Parliament Hill in Ottawa for Canada’s first public gay demonstration demanded “a uniform age of consent for female and male homosexual and heterosexual acts.”
Change to the age of consent had to wait almost two decades after Trudeau’s tinkering and a full decade after the publication of Hannon’s article when, in 1988, the age to consent for most sexual activities was equalized at fourteen. But, and it’s a big but, the age to consent for anal sex was set at eighteen – a drop from twenty-one, but still discriminatory. During the 1990s, courts ruled the provision unconstitutional, but the federal government took no action.
This kind of bum-fuckery is just one of the reasons many queer historians and activists argue it’s inaccurate to view the 1969 amendments as the decriminalization of homosexuality in Canada. It’s why, on the heels of his national apology for the federal government’s discrimination against LGBTQ Canadians, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s call to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his father’s reforms as the inaugural moment of queer “equality” – as the Royal Canadian Mint’s commemorative coin has it – are misguided.
A closer-to-full decriminalization of homosexuality was accomplished not fifty years ago but less than three months ago. In response to decades of work by queer activists, particularly by queer youth, those most directly affected by the arbitrary and ever-shifting age of consent, the House of Commons finally repealed Canada’s 160-year-old law against buggery and, with it, the unequal age of consent.
Not unlike the mythologizing of Stonewall, Canada’s 1969 decriminalization is a myth. In the midst of these homonational celebrations of ’69, it might do us good to revisit Gerald Hannon’s “Men loving boys loving men” in all of its messiness if we want to meaningfully engage with Canada’s radical queer history.
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I was prompted to reread “Men loving boys” and to ponder its meaning in this inauspicious anniversary year by journalist Alec Scott’s recent profile of Gerald Hannon, published in Xtra, the direct descendent of The Body Politic (TBP). In what is otherwise a love letter to Hannon, Scott tells us, “The article pisses me off.” In part, it’s personal. After his first trip to a gay bar, a “barely legal” Scott went home with an “older man” and ended up having to “fight my way out of his apartment” when the man would not accept that no means no. This leads Scott to read “Men loving boys loving men,” often considered an apology for pedophilia, in “this moment of #MeToo reckonings — a time when we are so much more aware of the scars many of us carry left by once-trusted clergy, coaches and teachers.” The article “puzzles me,” Scott continues, “I still can’t get my head around why he felt it necessary to write those pieces and why others decided to publish them.”
Scott’s view of “Men loving boys” through the lens of personal experience is understandable. We all approach the past from our standpoints in the present. Doing so, however, prevents a fuller consideration of the article in its own historical and political moment. In its day, the article provoked a vigorous and vital conversation about sex, age, and consent, one that speaks directly to much of what puzzles Scott about the piece.
The outlines of the story are familiar. When “Men loving boys” appeared in late 1977 fear gripped Toronto’s gay community in the wake of the murder of twelve-year-old shoeshine boy Emanuel Jaques, dubbed in the media a “homosexual orgy slaying,” and by the impending Canadian tour of Anita Bryant’s “Save Our Children” crusade. Fuelling a moral panic, the police raided TBP’s office, seized subscription lists and other records, and laid obscenity-related charges against the paper.
Many in the gay/lesbian community condemned TBP’s decision to publish an article about cross-generational sex in such a volatile political climate. Others, such as Gayle Rubin, wrote to TBP to commend the paper for its courage and to urge the community not to leave those “most vulnerable to attack,” “lovers of young people” and those with “more ‘exotic’ sexualities, genders, etc.,” holding the bag. The attack on TBP galvanized the community, and when “The Body Politic Free the Press Fund” formed, it was widely supported, including by many who disagreed with the article but deplored the police action. After years in court and tens of thousands of dollars, the paper successfully defended itself.
Looking back now, what impresses me is the sustained and sophisticated thinking about sex, age, and power prompted by the article. In January 1978, for example, members of LOOT, the Lesbian Organization of Toronto, called a special meeting to discuss the issue. Many lesbian feminists, like other women, had experienced sexual coercion as girls at the hands of adult men. Other women, more concerned with custody rights than cross-generational sex, put their energies into groups like the Lesbian Mothers’ Defence Fund. Out of this emerged a lesbian-feminist critique of “Men loving boys,” highlighting how it foregrounded the perspectives of men while boys took a backseat, just one expression of a broader imbalance of power.
While often caricatured as unidimensional, lesbian feminism nourished a range of responses. Chris Bearchell, a member of both LOOT and TBP, published “I was fifteen, she was forty-three,” a feminist analysis of female child-adult relations in the politics of the lesbian movement. In novelist Jane Rule’s response, she divulged that her own “sexual initiation” occurred when she was underage with a woman ten years her senior “at my invitation and encouragement.” Expressing a desire to “make adults easier to seduce,” Rule argued, “If we accepted sexual behaviour between children and adults, we would be far more able to protect children from abuse and exploitation.”
As several members of TBP’s collective summed it up in “Another Look,” a lengthy, self-critical examination of the trials experienced by the paper and the community, the most valuable criticisms of “Men loving boys” came from lesbian feminists, who argued that the “concepts of coercion and consent are critical to an understanding of how power operates in sexual relationships.” Countering a libertarian “if it feels good do it” take on cross-generational sex, which was how many read “Men loving boys,” TBP writers insisted that the “sexual abuse of children and teenagers does really happen” and they “deserve legal protection from this kind of assault,” even as the paper remained alert to the ways legal protection can easily slide into legal repression.
“Men loving boys” was only one in a long line of articles TBP published on the broader subject of youth sexuality, a reflection of the paper’s explicit refusal to let the mainstream media, always at the ready with the molester myth, monopolize discussion of youth and homosexuality. A piece in early 1972, noting the formation of gay youth groups in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles, called for a similar group in Toronto to encourage young people’s “personal liberation” and “to actively oppose the federal law,” which “is ageist because it does not recognize the basic sexual liberties of gays under 21.”
Youth liberation was in the air, and not just among gay youth. BYO, the Black Youth Organization, and RAP, Re-United African Peoples, a coalition of black students active in Toronto high schools, played important roles in the city’s black movement during this same period. Certainly, youth liberation was understood to be part of the gay movement. A 1973 editorial in TBP stated, “At the centre of the Gay Liberation Movement is the whole burning question, which we cannot ignore, of sexual rights for gay youth and youth in general.” A few years later, Fiona Rattray, then a young member of LOOT, penned a positive review of Growing Up Gay, a 1976 anthology published by the Youth Liberation Press, a wing of the Ann Arbor-based Youth Liberation Organization. Founded in 1970, the youth-led YLO included in its fifteen-point program the “unhindered right” to “sexual self-determination.”
A second edition of Growing Up Gay featured a piece by Hannon entitled “The Plight of Gay Young People in Toronto, Ontario.” It was actually a reprint of an article that appeared in TBP the year before “Men loving boys.” Its original title was “Seven years to go” – as in seven years to go when you were fourteen and gay before you could legally have sex. Forgotten now compared to its notorious counterpart, it featured the voices and experiences of a group of teenagers, ranging in age from fourteen to nineteen, both gay and lesbian.
Refusing to patronize or sentimentalize young people, Hannon chose instead to detail “the breadth of their disenfranchisement, and their bitter awareness of it.” Hannon highlighted young people’s agency – several of the teenagers he talked to were the force behind Gay Youth Toronto, formed in 1976 – and he underscored the necessity of fighting against age-of-consent laws, a “fight that must involve the energies and talents of young people themselves. They know it. And they’re telling us.”
At a national gay conference in 1975, two young lesbians, in a shrewd demonstration of youth power, told delegates over the age of twenty-one that they should vote on the age-of-consent issue based on the wishes of those under twenty-one. All the youth delegates were in favor of the outright abolition, not just equalization, of the age of consent. While the issue never achieved complete consensus in the movement, the National Gay Rights Coalition, like many of its member groups, including TBP, adopted as part of its platform the abolition of all age-of-consent laws. For all-too-rare moments, and not without a lot of struggle, the movement articulated a political vision that linked gay/lesbian, women’s, and youth liberation. In the 1,000-strong march up Toronto’s main drag in January 1978 to protest Anita Bryant’s visit and to defend TBP, protesters chanted, “Women and Gays and Children Unite: Same Struggle, Same Fight.”
But the historical ground that allowed for discussion of youth sexuality, including the difficult and divisive debate over “Men loving boys,” was shifting. As gay liberation gave way to equal-rights campaigns focused on the courts, youth sexuality was increasingly sidelined in a movement anxious to keep its distance from such a politically explosive subject.
It didn’t disappear entirely, of course. In 1982, a year marked by political struggles over NAMBLA (the North American Man/Boy Love Association) in cities from Toronto to Boston and Philadelphia, Christine Donald contributed a thoughtful article on cross-generational sex. As a feminist, Donald was skeptical of how the “man/boy love lobby tends often to sound like ‘A Man’s Right to Screw (Regardless),’” and she believed there was “an urgent need for men to re-educate themselves … to reassess their use and abuse of their power.” At the same time, she asked, “How can we claim to take seriously the sexuality of children or adolescents while seeing them as helpless, overwhelmed victims?” In the principled tradition of TBP’s determination to discuss complex issues in terms most meaningful to queer communities, Donald wrote, “What leads me to continue this discussion is my sense of loyalty, of compassion for the muddled, deceived, needy – but by no means incapable – fourteen-year-old that I was.”
For those today familiar only with a movement focused on the right to marry or serve in the military, these earlier, frank discussions about youth sexuality may surprise. It may also be difficult to imagine a movement in which queer youth fought for the abolition of the age of consent. After all, not only do we still have one, but its trajectory is upward. In 2008, the Conservative government, arguing for the need to protect young people from internet predators, proposed to hike the age of consent for the first time since 1892. Once again young people organized to counter what they saw as the creeping criminalization of youth sexuality. But the times had changed. Gone were the heady days of gay/youth liberation. Legislation to raise the age of consent in Canada from fourteen to sixteen easily passed.
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In discussing “Men loving boys” with Hannon, Scott admits, “I’m hoping for a full-throated disavowal of it.” He doesn’t get it. Instead, Hannon comments, “I can’t regret its publication. It helped put The Body Politic on the map.” Hannon concludes “Men loving boys” by declaring that the men he wrote about “deserve our praise, our admiration and our support.” Not many agreed then and, I suspect, even fewer would now. But Hannon and TBP, along with the many other gay men and lesbians, young and old, liberationist and feminist, who contributed to a complex, contentious, and crucial conversation about youth sexuality, deserve better than our disavowal. We owe them our praise, our admiration, and our support.
Scott’s withholding of that praise is rooted in his personal experience and a reflection of our #MeToo times. This is entirely understandable. But I think there’s more to it. At precisely the same point in his piece that Scott parts company with “Men loving boys,” he tells us that he sometimes felt like “a domesticated house cat standing at the window, beckoned outside by this randy Tom,” aka Hannon. Hannon holds out what he calls the “culture of promiscuity,” and Scott admits to having dabbled in it back in the day. But, as he explains, “I grew to want something else, something quieter, something that was both more romantic and also less work.” We know what that something is. As Scott’s bio informs us, he “lives in Oakland with his husband.”
The idea of marriage as a romantic refuge from the promiscuous pleasures and potential dangers of undomesticated desire is not simply a personal longing, just as actually getting married is never only about individual choice. They reflect and help to reproduce broader political and historical forces. The domestication of queer politics, expressed in the movement’s embrace of marriage, too often entails a divorce from our radical queer pasts. We can see this in the wish to forget rather than seriously engage with moments like “Men loving boys,” which threaten to tarnish queer respectability and hinder mainstream acceptance.
As we proceed down the present political path in Canada, in which a right-wing government in Ontario tries to turn back the clock on sex education and one in Alberta attacks gay-straight alliances in the schools, now is not the time to turn our backs on “Men loving boys.” Disowning the article will do nothing to protect young people from those determined to abuse and exploit their positions of trust and authority. “Men loving boys,” when read along with the others I’ve included here and many more I couldn’t, add up to a more-than-decade-long and still much-needed dialogue about youth sexuality and the intractable place of power in sexual relationships. It’s that grassroots, community conversation that deserves to be commemorated, not the political discourse of 1969, the limitations of which early activists understood more critically than many of those so keen to mythologize and celebrate it today.
I certainly see nothing like that conversation in our present political moment, apart from the brave efforts of young people to continue talking about the meaning of consent and coercion and to insist on their right to form their own groups. They are the direct heirs of earlier youth-sex activism, and they need, we all need, the resources of our radical queer pasts now more than ever.
One of the historians involved in the critique of the Canadian government’s ‘gay apology,’ Steven Maynard lives in Kingston, Ontario, where he teaches the history of sexuality at Queen’s University. His profile of Jackie Shane, the black-trans soul sensation of the 1960s, appears in Any Other Way: How Toronto Got Queer (Coach House Books, 2017).