While there have always been people who have had same-sex sexual and/or romantic relationships of various kinds, and while there have always been people who have not conformed to conventional gender and sexual roles, the identities that we understand today as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, transsexual and queer are relatively recent constructions. A gay, lesbian and bisexual history of pre-World War II Kingston most certainly exists, but our access to it is limited not only by the lack of visible queer groups and organizations at that time, and by lack of official records, but also by the changed understanding of what it means to be “queer”, a term which has been reclaimed from a very offensive insult to become an inclusive term for sexual difference, encompassing gay, lesbian, bisexual and other non-heterosexual identities.
Uncovering a queer history has been an important expression of queer pride and identity. Initial histories of queerness looked as far back as the ancient past to uncover homosexual bonding in classical Greece, celebrations of love between women in the poetry of Sappho of Lesbos, and male-male love and lesbian nuns in Renaissance Europe. Historians examined diaries, letters and court records and discovered a homosexual subtext in the lives of many “great” figures in Western history, from Achilles of the Iliad to Alexander the Great, Leonardo da Vinci, King Edward II of England, poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, writer Gertrude Stein, writer Virginia Woolf and others
Uncovering a queer history in Kingston has been a challenge. In the absence of the kind of visible figures mentioned above, the attempt to retrieve a queer history of the city from the archives often presents more problems than solutions. As Marney McDiarmid notes in her oral history of queer Kingston: “Archival sources are… uneven, mainly because only certain events warranted the attention of media coverage and much of Kingston’s gay activity took place under a veil of silence that served the interests of heterosexuals and gays alike”. Because of this silence in the printed records of Kingston’s history, much of the material on this tour is based on McDiarmid’s dissertation, entitled “From Mouth to Mouth: an Oral History of Lesbians and Gays in Kingston from World War II to 1980” (Queen’s University History Department, 1999). McDiarmid based her project on interviews with people who participated in the events that they describe. Some of these narrators are identified by their real names, and some by pseudonyms, and their stories, indicated by the use of first names only, make up the bulk of this tour.
While many queer histories have focused on larger cities, Kingston’s queer past offers a good opportunity to observe and to theorize the role of social identities and relationships in smaller communities, where the anonymity and the specialized neighbourhoods of the large city are not possible. There has been no “gay district” in Kingston, and people who have not publicly embraced their homosexuality have had to work hard to keep this part of themselves hidden in a such a small city of interconnected work and social communities. The portrait of Kingston that emerges from McDiarmid’s research is that of a city divided by class lines and by the town-gown split. The queer community of Kingston has at times both revealed and defied the fault lines of race, class and gender, which have defined so many of Canada’s towns and smaller cities. Though people may often remain largely separated by racial, class and cultural identities, in small city like Kingston, shared sexual orientation and shared marginality has often brought people together across these lines. At the same time, many of the stories told by the narrators on this tour reflect the extent to which constructed categories of identity have had material and practical effects on people’s lives. McDiarmid’s work offers more than just a glimpse of one element of Kingston’s past: her dissertation offers a chance to think about the ways in which people define and are defined by social categories, and the ways in which these categories fail to account for contact and community across their borders.