TORONTO AREA GAYS
WHAT WE DID AND WHY WE DID IT
(from the cheap seats at the revolution, a monologue on TAG in the 1970's)
WHAT, WHY (CONCEPTS AND IDEAS)
STARTING TAGa) Motivations
On the train home from the National Conference in Ottawa in 1975 Ian Turner, Tom Warner and I were sitting around beefing about the phone lines run by CHAT and MCC. MCC didn't have much of a reputation for quality at that time and the CHAT line (which had once been the main one in Toronto) operated only on a sporadic basis. Within a couple of weeks Ian and Tom called together a few people to talk over the situation.
As we saw it, a major part of the problem lay in having certain kinds of community work exist merely as an arm of some larger organization. For one thing, the social and political direction of the latter could drastically affect the ability to attract volunteers from the full spectrum of the community. Witness MCC.
In addition, a parent body often had aims and considerations of its own that didn't necessarily coincide with those of a subsidiary activity. Yet such a body continued to exercise overall control. The result was distortion and internal struggle, as evident in the, at times, tempestuous history of the CHAT line. Quality and dependability rose and fell with the fortunes of the main organization.
Beyond these factors, the final spur to action for a number of us was a reluctance to have a religious organization supplying the only regular personal gay outreach in the city.b) An Avenue Into The Community
A new phone line was what most of us had in mind, but we did attempt to shake loose our preconceptions and take a hard look at what the needs of the community actually were. We tried to define these more precisely, where our capabilities and interests lay, and how this all fit together.
We decided that in the area of coming to terms, of coming out and into the community, our own personal experiences and our knowledge would be of particular value, could be of real use to other gay people.
It was to be purely kitchen table counselling, a peer approach. Developing an awareness of when and where to refer people was part of our preparation for dealing with matters outside the range of these methods.
Discussions were long and frequent, occasional pieces of paper were produced, "The Gay Community House" (August,1975) being one of these. Parts of this were generated by the group as a whole but it was given its final form by Bill Dwyer, with help from Stan W., and is interlaced with Bill's desire for a broadly based "sexuality counselling service".
TAG revised this statement into "The Gay Meeting Place" the following month. This seemed to better reflect the aims we had in common. TAG's periodic missives, while they were the product of internal discussion, were also never considered the final word. They served as the takeoff point for further debate. Thus the wish to "help gay people in times of trouble or personal crisis" was further clarified. TAG specifically thought of itself in terms of "orientation" rather than "crisis intervention" activities. It would equip itself with the ability to deal with other areas, particularly through development of the aforementioned referral network, but its primary concern was to help a person as they acknowledged a gay identity, and/or to aid them as they tried to find a way out of isolation.
Basically we saw ourselves as assisting people outside the community to become a part of that community. The way in which we operated, where we advertised, how we thought of ourselves in relation to other organizations, in practical terms what we were willing to tackle and what we saw as beyond our mandate, were all determined by this focus. We directed ourselves primarily towards gay males and this was the product of who we were and who was interested in joining us...and, importantly, of sexual politics. We had dialogue with women and women's organizations, and there was co-operation and mutual respect.
Beyond this, the one secondary function TAG quickly adopted was simply acting as a source of common, everyday community information for whoever needed it.
The overall concept was as an avenue into the community, but I'll expand a little on what might be considered the idealogy behind this definition. We hoped to supply people with some basic knowledge of gay institutions, the ghetto, societal pressures, and to foster an outlook that would help enlarge and strengthen the community and its sense of identity. Our effort was to be centred on affecting the attitudes of gay people themselves rather than society in general (whose questioning of our legitimacy has required us to spend so much time simply addressing our right to a place at the table. It's worth wondering to what degree we have allowed this tactic of a heterosexual culture to dictate our agenda to us.)
We certainly considered ourselves very much an active part of the gay movement rather than some adjunct to it. The chief embodiment of our ideas was the telephone line and we were always prepared to sacrifice any other activity to ensure its health. However it wasn't seen as our only approach, or sufficient to achieve what we wanted. As a result, when TAG couldn't obtain a small gay centre of its own, we were constantly meeting individual people and groups of them elsewhere. (We rented a flat in Nov./75 to serve as this Centre, but abandoned it as unsuitable.) We met in coffee shops, subways, used the bars, our own homes, the 519. All sorts of TAG sub-groups were started; people with common cause or interests were forever being encouraged to start their own activities; the activities of other organizations were always being urged on callers;...whatever got people together and furthered discussion.
What the Gay Community House/Meeting Place statements do provide is an indication of a good part of what was going on at the time. Starting with the undefined idea of a phoneline, we had both widened and then sharpened our focus. There was a lot of diplomatic to and fro, give and take, searching for common goals and a common way of expressing them. We were looking for methods of operating and discussion that would allow people of differing views to work together over the long term.
Requirements in terms of space and equipment were being considered to the point of estimating a budget. The name TAG doesn't come up, it was almost an afterthought; we couldn't think of an acronym with apparent connotations, like CHAT or GATE. In some ways its frivolousness amused us---I mean, "tag, you're it"? really!! It was also simple, memorable after a fashion, and "TORONTO AREA GAYS" said anything further that was needed.
There is a reference to calling on "people in the community" to "train our volunteers". This was probably a way of saying we didn't see ourselves as the fount of all wisdom and experience. It shouldn't be read as a bow in the direction of "the professional" or "professionalism." I wasn't alone in having a strong anti-professional bias, and being a professional in social work, psychology, etc. often caused a TAG person to come under closer initial scrutiny. We wanted to steer away from anything that suggested "client and counsellor". This is in contrast to the fact that there were certainly valued members who were associated with social agencies, and that we had productive contact with several such organizations.c) Kitchen Table Counselling, Communal Structure, Consensus
(This is an overview of the group, with more detail supplied in later chapters.)
Communal structure, and the refusal to model ourselves after any sort of agency were vital to the make-up of TAG. As I've suggested, a bow to the status of professional agencies by mimicking their rules, concepts, set-ups wasn't part of our plans. We saw our interaction on the phone as simply that of one gay person with another, gay people helping gay people with the shared problem of living in a non-gay society. To place it in some other framework would have been false, would have devalued what we were doing.
Responsibility for TAG was shared equally, and the what, why, and how of our activities would hopefully be under continuing scrutiny. Our aim was a co-operative venture based in consensus, not another power structure. We came to agreements on how to proceed but wouldn't allow these to take on the form or the force of rules. In the desire for communal methods of handling work the group also opposed creating an executive. These concerns, the search for ways in which gay people could come together to evaluate issues, arrive at answers, to some degree were a reflection of the larger struggle within the gay community itself to find solutions to these things.
Our attempt to shape some sort of organizational philosophy (for both the day-to-day and overall operation of TAG) had a relationship with what went on in speaking to people on the phones. Both of these things involved questioning accepted patterns of interaction and thought. TAG was telling people on the other end of the line that this is what they had to do within their own lives if they were going to overcome their problems. The group applied this lesson to itself. It's not only around sexual orientation that social conditioning occurs, after all. If a small gay organization of fifteen, twenty, thirty people couldn't discover other than hierarchical and bureaucratic ways of going about its business, what hope did it have of offering other than hierarchical and bureaucratic solutions to its community?
So in terms of the daily specifics, how did TAG operate in the seventies? As a matter of practicality and convenience, different people performed different functions (e.g. mail, dealing with the landlord, banking, files, Rota, etc.). This didn't imply boundaries of authority over any area, and many individual items were passed around rather than always going to the same people. Everybody helped where help was needed, was aware of all areas and, as a group, made decisions in each (see The Workload, And Housekeeping). Although the longer a person was a member the clearer their views were on matters, the formation of a clique or inner group directing the rest was consciously resisted.
What were the benefits of shared and non-hierarchical responsibility? If we had to have consensus and couldn't impose a majority decision then we had to learn to listen to each other, to reconcile different views, had to be consistently sensitive to what made the group work. In order to make decisions it was necessary for each of us to continually consider what it was we wanted within the group and what TAG itself was trying to do. This couldn't help but affect how we responded to people when we were on the phones. The practicality of all of this depends on a common agreement that this is the way a group wants to function. Bit by bit the means are found. It can be frustrating for people wanting to organize in more traditional ways, considered more efficient because everyone is used to them.
The education in different viewpoints (and in patience!) that was an everyday part of getting things done, in turn demanded finding a personal viewpoint of your own, in some ways discovering things about yourself. We were far from perfect and not aware of all the effects of what we were doing but we were groping after ideas, attempting to consciously address what happens when people come together as a group. We let ourselves be guided by the idea that how we chose to operate internally would determine the type and value of our message. It would also have a great deal to do with our ability to attract and hold good people.
One of the main things we expected in return for our work was, of course, a feeling of accomplishment from providing a peer counselling system, from helping other gay people. It was important, though, not only to answer the phone but also to be fully aware of the ideas we were conveying through it. The more our internal dialogue valued individual opinion and was of interest to us as individuals, the more meaning our external dialogue would have for others. The opportunity to think and talk about many things in gay life was not only an incentive to membership but a means of making TAG effective and innovative. The definite place and forms for ongoing internal discussion that were built into TAG were a result of the initial decision that TAG processes had to provide direct benefit of some sort to its own members; and that the group itself had to be evaluated with this in mind.
On a personal level TAG was not a support group per se, and couldn't deal with all of the problems of each of our lives. On the other hand though, any ongoing look at gay issues and life needed to explore personal experiences, aspects of our own gay lives and our responses to them---those things which affected and shaped us. It was only appropriate for an organization that existed to deal with others on the personal level to periodically turn its gaze inwards.
So to recap. In reality there was a two-part aim which saw TAG's group dynamics as the basis for its community outreach. The first couldn't be neglected without affecting the quality of the second. As I've implied, in making decisions we didn't vote. TAG wouldn't go against any member who felt strongly enough about a proposal to say no to it. Beyond this, it took as much time as was needed for everyone to become reasonably comfortable with a direction taken or a choice made by the group as a whole. Perhaps this personal veto and the requirement for consensus was a key. Other gay groups have worked together as a collective of equals so TAG was hardly unique. But in talking to people from these groups there is the expectation, on their part, of some sort of inner circle where authority resided. There were strong dialogues, and views which had to be worked out over time, but power resided in each person in the group. In those years to have attempted to change that would have been to destroy TAG.