Original Published 00:12 May 28, 2022
By Julia Peterson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
As a curator and historian, Donny White was often the go-to person for odd and interesting archival documents that turned up in rural southeastern Saskatchewan and southwestern Alberta.
But one letter, in particular, stands out to him.
Around 20 or 30 years ago, he recalls, a local small-town hotel was being torn down, and the owner found a letter wedged under the floorboards. He brought it to White, who saw that it was written by a younger gay man to another man who used to stay at the hotel.
It’s not a love letter — as White describes it, it’s something closer to blackmail, with the younger man asking for money and the fear of being outed “hanging in the background as you read it.”
But as a piece of gay Prairie history, White treasures it.
“There are so few things like this,” said White, 68, now retired and living with his partner in Maple Creek, Sask. “I look for our history, and in many ways, it’s gone.
“It’s irretrievable because no one saw fit to write anything down — and if they did, those that came behind would probably have destroyed it for fear of being exposed.”
White doesn’t know what happened to the men in the letter or how it got under the hotel floorboards more than a century ago.
But when he looks at it, he sees it as a “little hint” of the long legacy of gay life on the Prairies. It’s a reminder that, though so many stories have been lost to time or destroyed, the people behind those stories have always been here.
‘Like opening another world’
Valerie Korinek, a professor in the history department at the University of Saskatchewan, has spent decades of her career exploring queer Prairie histories.
In 2018, Korinek published her book Prairie fairies: A history of queer communities and people in Western Canada, 1930-1985.
But her work on this topic started in 1997 when she learned that community activist and University of Saskatchewan librarian Neil Richards had donated an “incredible collection” of archival documents about queer Prairie life to the university and the provincial archives.
“I hadn’t expected to find that kind of an archive here,” said Korinek.
“So it was a really fortuitous moment — Neil wanted an academic to use the archives and begin to write these histories up, and I thought it was a gold mine of material.”
In the archives and through her research, Korinek has found stories about vibrant rural queer life in Saskatchewan — which often run up against stereotypes about prairie life.
“I think in some people’s minds — certainly, those who live outside the Prairies — there has been a tendency to see prairie people as isolated; whether they were isolated on farms or they were isolated in small towns or they were isolated in relatively large cities, because there’s a lot of distance between prairie cities, and certainly a lot of distance between prairie cities and the coasts.”
But in Saskatchewan, distance doesn’t necessarily mean isolation — the archives are full of stories about people regularly driving long distances to meet up, attend a queer cultural event, watch a movie or join an activist group.
“People had to travel around … but that doesn’t mean that people weren’t getting together,” said Korinek.
The Saskatchewan Gay Coalition (SGC) was a prime example of that. In 1978, a group of activists started making trips to rural communities and small towns, “trying to foster some sort of social space for gay and lesbian people to come together.”
Doug Wilson was the most prominent member of the group — in fact, in a 1985 interview with Briarpatch Magazine, he described himself as “the most openly gay person for at least a thousand miles in any direction.”
Wilson, who was born and raised in Meadow Lake, Sask., was a writer and a prominent human rights activist in the province and Canada at large.
In the 1970s and ’80s, he fought against discrimination because of his sexuality at the University of Saskatchewan, served as the executive director of the Saskatchewan Association on Human Rights and went on to be the first openly gay candidate to be nominated by a major political party to stand for Parliament in Toronto.
But in his involvement with SGC, Wilson would drive to a small town, rent a hotel room, and encourage gay, lesbian and queer people in the area to meet each other and watch a movie.
In the archives, Korinek found letters from people who had attended these movie nights, where they wrote about “how anxious they had been to go to the hotel and ask for Doug Wilson’s room, and go up to this room and be one of three closeted gay men in this small town watching a film with Doug Wilson.”
To decide to go to that movie night or events like those was always “a daunting first step to take,” said Korinek.
People in town might see guests going into the hotel or recognize their car parked out on the street and figure out that they were gay — and people kept taking that risk, in small communities throughout the Prairies, for the chance to meet others like them.
“That’s one of the things that comes through, pretty much no matter which oral interview I did or which activist I learned about through their papers in the archives,” said Korinek. “That first step toward community-building or in search of other people like themselves was terrifying and exhilarating at the same time.
“They all approached it like ‘am I going to find somebody?’ ‘What’s it going to be like?’ ‘What are the risks’? But when people walked through the door or up the stairs … it was like opening another world.”
But she says the way SGC approached their community-building efforts was a very ‘Saskatchewan’ thing to do.
“In a place like Saskatchewan, people here are involved in all kinds of activism and community organizational projects,” she said.
She says small-town organizers have historically brought a “can-do spirit” to their efforts that she finds “emblematic of Saskatchewan.”
“People … are not stopped by weather or distance or the fact that there won’t be 300 people engaged in whatever kind of group they get going,” she said. “If they’re able to attract five or ten people, it’s a start, and they’re happy to start there.”
But this is far from the only type of queer connection and community that grew and thrived in rural Saskatchewan.
In the archives, Korinek also learned about Doreen Worden and Isabelle Andrews, a couple who moved from Winnipeg to Canora, Sask., in the 1970s to gather a rural lesbian feminist archive and start a newsletter.
“They were sick of the city, they were sick of some of the politics in socialist groups and women’s groups — you name it — and they moved to Canora, which seems like an unlikely place to move to be openly feminist lesbian activists in the 1970s and ’80s, or at least it does to me,” she said.
Their newsletter, Voices: A survival manual for wimmin, combined “women’s health, natural health practices, their own kind of theological or spiritual followings, and lesbian activism,” said Korinek.
They drew all their illustrations, mimeographed their magazine onto colourful paper, and sent copies through the post.
“It certainly wasn’t going to win any design awards, but the content of it and the impulse behind it is just extraordinary,” Korinek says.
She says these types of magazines and periodicals “were so vital to creating this sense of community and giving people the ability to begin to figure out who they were and resources for where they might want to go.”
Support and action
When Donny White reflects on gay Prairie history — those who came before him, the things he was a part of, and all that will come next — he often thinks about the kinds of support he has seen over the years in his community.
In the ’90s, when he told a local paper that he hoped to start a support group for gays and lesbians, the response was overwhelmingly positive.
“I think I had upwards of 50 phone calls that day … and all I got was an outpouring of support,” he said.
But when he went door-knocking with petitions about anti-discrimination and marriage equality, people were more reticent.
“People would say ‘Donny, I might lose my job if I sign this,’ or that kind of thing,” he said. “And that was in the ’90s.
“That was disappointing to me, as a gay person. I guess you know who your friends are when they will not sign something that will give you the same rights as them — that I can’t lose my job or my home, or that I can get married. So that was a lesson.
“It was one of the first times I realized that support didn’t necessarily mean action.”
Things have changed since White grew up in small-town Saskatchewan — now “there’s internet, there’s television, and you can seek positive gay role models.”
But to grow and live and thrive where you are, you need more than just a vision of life elsewhere.
“I told someone once, in regards to us, I said ‘on one hand, you can say there’s acceptance, but until we’re embraced, we haven’t made it,’ ” said White.
“Acceptance runs surface-level. Embracing runs deeper.”
This item reprinted with permission from StarPhoenix, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan