The Archivist at Work

Gay Archivist, Number 9, June 1991

Appx 1,200 words


Though not indicated in the title, this unsigned article offers a brief history of the Community Homophile Association of Toronto (CHAT). This online version has been augmented with some footnotes: the numbers, in brackets, link to the notes at the bottom of the page.

Like many gay groups that came together in the early 1970s, CHAT was an all-purpose organization, an umbrella extending over many fronts: social service and support work, public education, and political action.

It was also, like many early groups, a conscious alternative to the commercial "ghetto" -- what little there was of it at the time, straight-owned and often visibly oppressive. CHAT ran a bar, held dances, and operated a community centre. All were meant to attract both men and women; both activists and those less radical.

In many smaller centres, similar "umbrella" groups survived for years, often as the main (or even sole) social and political focus for their local communities. But the model of "one big organization" usually fractured in big cities. In Toronto, divisions based on politics and gender (not to mention gender politics) grew early on, as did increasingly sophisticated commercial competition.

Community organizing blossomed nonetheless, but it was many flowers, not one big tree, that came to occupy the turf of gay and lesbian life in the city. [1]

Rick Bébout, April 1997


One of the challenges in an archives is to find the time to sort material; one of the pleasures is producing finding aids that will lead the researcher to hitherto hidden nuggets of information. An excellent example of this is the recent processing of the records of the Community Homophile Association of Toronto (CHAT), one of Toronto's earliest gay liberation organizations.

CHAT was formed in December 1970 and incorporated in 1973. It was a spin-off from the University of Toronto Homophile Association (UTHA), formed in 1969. [2] CHAT's aims were, as stated informally in February 1971 in the organization's first newsletter, "...to work towards a new, open society where we can stand tall and free with every other citizen."

One of CHAT's first objectives was to provide a phone-in distress service for the homophile community. It also offered services in other areas: information, counselling, outreach, and social activities. From a one room office beginning, CHAT searched for a larger, permanent home to house a drop-in centre, meeting hall, and offices for staff. To raise funds for its activities, CHAT held dances, first at a downtown church, and later at its own facilities. Dances became a major source of income for CHAT. [3]

In 1972 CHAT occupied and tried to rezone a property on Cecil Street into a community centre, but failed to meet parking requirements. CHAT's weekly meetings usually attracted 150 people, so a secure facility was key to the organization. CHAT then moved to 201 Church Street, where its regular dances (held on Friday and Saturday evenings) became an alternative to the bar scene. [4]

CHAT's telephone distress and information hotline service provided emergency, legal, and health counselling to the public. This service, like most of CHAT's efforts in fundraising, attracting members, issuing a newsletter [5], and running a library, was carried out by volunteers. In 1972, however, CHAT did receive federal Local Initiatives Projects funding to assist its crisis intervention services.

George Hislop [6], CHAT's first director, along with other CHAT members and staff, actively undertook speaking engagements at public forums, with the media, and in the classroom in an attempt to provide reliable information about homosexuality. CHAT also protested and lobbied against homophobic legislation, unfair portrayal of gays in the media, and police harassment. Members of CHAT worked on the first Gay Pride events in Toronto, held workshops, and even started a program on cable TV. [7]

By 1975 attendance at the CHAT bar was declining. This created financial stresses, and by 1977 CHAT was $8,000 in debt. The shrinking number of volunteers also reduced the telephone service. In the fall of 1977 CHAT moved to temporary offices on St. Joseph Street; soon after, it ceased operation.

The CHAT records include minutes and by-laws, administration and information files, correspondence, membership records, telephone logbooks, and financial records for the period 1971-77. [8]


Footnotes

  1. Reports on CHAT's early divisions appear in many issues of The Body Politic for 1972. See in particular #2, Jan / Feb, "Headitorial", p 4, "CHAT gets a constitution", p 14, and Chris Fox's "Why We [i.e., women] Need Equal Representation", p 15; and editorials in # 6, Autumn ("Multiply or Divide") and # 7, Winter ("Gone 'fission'").

    For more online info on CHAT, and on community organizing in Toronto during the 1970s (and beyond), see The Body Politic and Visions of Community.
    (Full address: http://www.clga.ca/Material/Records/docs/tbpvis/tbpvint.htm)
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  2. UTHA was the first gay group to be formed in Canada after New York's Stonewall riots of Jun, 1969. CHAT, Toronto's first off-campus group, later had its own spin-offs; one of them, Toronto Gay Action, later gave birth to The Body Politic.
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  3. CHAT's first office was at 6 Charles Street East, in a grand former post office that, at the time, also housed Cinecity, an art-house movie theatre. CHAT's first public meeting, on Feb 1, 1971, was held at Holy Trinity Church (then surrounded by Eaton's warehouses; now tucked behind the Eaton Centre), also the venue for many big and very popular CHAT dances. Some dances were also held at the First Unitarian Church, 175 St. Clair Avenue West.
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  4. For CHAT's community centre at 58 Cecil Street (southeast of College and Spadina), see The Body Politic, #2, Jan / Feb 1972, cover and centrespread. The building, erected as a Methodist church in 1880, had housed a synagogue in the 1920s and a Chinese Catholic congregation in the 1960s. CHAT occupied it from February to late autumn 1972.

    Before the move to 201 Church Street, in Jun 1973, CHAT's offices were at 406 Jarvis Street, and it Social Centre (and dances) at 14 Hagerman Street, behind City Hall.
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  5. Back Chat Newsletter, published 1971 - 1976, is on file in the Archives' lesbian and gay periodical collection.
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  6. George Hislop, for decades the city's most ubiquitous gay activist, was the first openly gay person to run for civic office, in 1980, and a defendant in trials rising from the bath raids of 1978 and 1981. For a profile done at the time of his aldermanic bid, see Val Edwards: "The Time, the Place and the Person", The Body Politic, # 68, Nov 1980, pp 22-25.
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  7. Toronto's earliest gay pride event (if not so-called) was an Aug 1, 1971 picnic, attended by about 300 people, at Hanlan's Point -- already long known as a gay beach -- on the Toronto Islands. The first annual Gay Pride Week was held Aug 19 - 27, 1972 (see The Body Politic, # 6, Autumn 1972, centrespread). Gay Pride Week continued to be celebrated in August -- as a national event -- through 1974.

    "Coming Out," Canada's first regularly scheduled gay TV program, premiered Sep 11, 1972 on Metro Cable Channel 10. Produced by CHAT and hosted by Sandra Dick and Paul Pearce, the series aired 13 Monday-night episodes.
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  8. See Records: Inventories.
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[Records: Inventories] [The Body Politic & Visions of Community]

[List of online documents] [Lesbian and Gay Archivist]

[Victories & defeats chronology / 1964-1971 page]