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)


Chapter 3

THE THINGS WE DID
(DEALING WITH THE PEOPLE
WHO MADE USE OF TAG)

A) PHONE CALLS

a) Number Of, Format

— The logbook for the second half of 1977 shows TAG was probably averaging 4000-4500 calls a year at that point, including prank, silent and other kinds whose worth was hard to evaluate.

— A reference for 1979 mentions 3000 calls. This must discount the above types. It also suggests their volume and the problem they presented in tying up the line.

— The only figures available for 1980 refer to the phone being answered approximately 250 days.

— A 1981 form letter speaks of 8500 calls yearly with two phones in service.

A single call could last anywhere from a minute to often fifteen or twenty, or even most of the evening. That underlines the usefulness of having more than one line.

Some people worried about taking too long with any one person because of all the others trying to get through. For my part it always felt best to take as much time as necessary, do what you could with the call in hand. That was TAG's general approach.

As far as our attitude towards callers themselves goes, even though our aim was to have people become part of the community we wanted them to take their own measure of their situation, and arrive at their own solutions. We offered information and feedback, weren't disengaged; we were willing to voice opinions in certain areas, and also speak about our own experience, but we wanted to be a helpful listener not the voice of judgement. We couldn't tell people how to live their lives.

b) Types Of Calls

TAG directed itself towards people coming to terms with being gay and this formed the great percentage of what we dealt with. Nevertheless there were all types of calls for which we had to be prepared.

In terms of numbers, the most apparent group were married men, they may well have constituted a quarter of the people we spoke to. Only a few TAG people had been in a heterosexual marriage.

c) Some Types Of Calls, In No Particular Order

This is more a sketching of a few arbitrarily chosen categories than any serious attempt to analyze the content of these calls.

Coming Out

This of course encompasses and overlaps much in other categories. There were two types here: those who were going to come out at some point, and those who weren't.

Among the latter were people who let themselves fantasize they might some time, somewhere, do something...without seriously considering the possibility. They had their foot firmly shoved against the door all the while, there was no way they were going to let it open. For them, phoning TAG was a form of daydreaming, a way of conducting a debate after their decision had already been finalized. And I'm talking about people here who really were not going to do anything, for whom this really was a mere diversion. If you could, the trick was to waft something through the keyhole that would stick, sink a hook in. In the end I think there were probably at least a few of these people who did surprise themselves right out of the closet by calling us.

In contrast there was often a note of what?--authenticity? honesty? from those who would eventually come to some sort of terms even if it wasn't today or tomorrow. Among these calls were ones which stood out because they really forced you to work, to justify being on the other end of the line.

But of course for a lot of people, phoning TAG was just another step in a direction they were already headed; they wanted a little reassurance, a help in building courage, an idea of what was next. Simple things, though not exactly concerns catered to in a world of heterosexual hegemony. These calls could be an easy high, a gay person taking their first steps. They might actually be seventy at the time but they were doing something.

The cumulative effect on me however, was to reinforce cynicism about society and its proclaimed pieties. Considering the ways lives are twisted around, resilience is a necessary stock-in-trade for gay people. I'm amazed at those who seem to handle it all like water off a duck's back.

Married Men

Many. Some happy, some not; some with wives who knew, some with wives who didn't. Many didn't know what they wanted except the opportunity to talk it out. Also numbers of young men engaged to be married.

Silent Callers

A lot of these---they dial a call but don't speak. Give them a friendly spiel, something to think about afterwards. If you get a cough or some other signal, keep going. (If they're jerking off, continue until they come if they don't take too long.) Before hanging up tell them you have to go but maybe when they're ready to talk....

The Phone-sex Call

Sometimes intriguing, even arousing. Oh well.

A Woman Calling

Among women calling: a fair number who had been married at some point but were no longer. For a woman on the TAG end of the line, as in later years, this obviously would have been different but for me there were a couple of things in particular to keep in mind. Make sure you let it be known when and where a woman could talk to another woman--but without making it sound like you were trying to end the call; and be sure you weren't hurrying the conversation because you thought you were trespassing, thought it would be better to have a woman handle it. It may have taken a while to get it together to phone and if all you did was try to pass people on elsewhere it might be a while again before they actually got to talk.

On the other hand there were certainly those who were relieved to learn there was a choice of whom to talk to. (We cultivated a relationship with lesbian women working on other lines so we could be sure of when and where they would be available.)

Abusive Calls

The more ugly of these were the ones who led you on and then suddenly became nasty. It might be somebody trying to pretend they weren't really interested in the conversation they'd just had, but in most cases ugly was simply ugly.

But when a call started out badly there were times that it could be turned into something else. Given half a chance it didn't hurt to test the waters. The alternatives included hanging up. Or telling them to take a flying fuck. That could be satisfying.

Religious Calls

Sodom and Gomorrah and all that. I tried not to be excessively rude. Mostly this stuff was just boring, I wasn't interested in listening to drivel or scoring points. Could be creative fun for the more religiously minded though. On a rare occasion this might be someone trying to work their way around religious beliefs without acknowledging it to themselves. But that's another story.

Prank Calls...and Children & Teenagers

The most important thing about calls from younger people was not to be to quick to judge what was going on. With these calls in particular, their true nature could once in a while turn out to be quite different than expected. (Emphasis on "once in a while".)

Prank calls were our one major problem. The number got passed around, kids thought it was a big joke. If one person calling by themselves, then probably a serious call trying to disguise itself. Unless it turned out in the end to have a whole pack listening in the background. If it was obviously a group of giggling adolescents then the challenge was to get a thing or two out to the hidden one who was actually paying close attention, while at the same time not encouraging the whole herd to call back again and again. If possible give them all something to think about.

It seemed to me that for some young girls, in particular, the telephone was a favorite toy, something to play with when bored. Boys would often be satisfied with one or two calls. There were girls, on the other hand, who would call and call all night long and then no one else could get through. (Since there were no women in TAG at this time I don't know if the trend reversed itself with a change in gender at our end of the line.) You had to take the phone off the hook and hope they'd give up. Attempting to reason only encouraged these people. The other side to this coin: I can remember one person who harassed us for weeks until she was ready to say what was on her mind.

There were quite reasonably, also some kids who were just curious about what you had to say for yourself.

Most importantly, there were serious and good calls from young gay people. Here Gay Youth Toronto was a handy thing to have in town. We were a steady source of members for them.

Emergency Calls

i.e. the operator breaking into the line with an "emergency". The first of these I took, the emergency turned out to be the line was always busy and the person couldn't get through! After that I'd take the number from the operator but go back to the other person already on the line. This procedure didn't work very well if in the end you dialed the number and found it was a phone box that couldn't take incoming calls. I don't remember that we ever got one of these that justified the term "emergency".

Crisis Calls

(Occasionally people dealt with more direct crises than I talk about here, someone had stabbed someone else or the like.)

There might be a sense that a conversation had an added importance, that a person really needed someone to talk to at that particular moment. This sort of thing was difficult to feel out, to figure out what exactly was going on. Getting people to talk and continue talking until the mood began to change, then sliding in a suggestion, some info, a little feedback as they began to open up to such things was about as much as you could do. Kitchen table counselling. The most vital thing was just listening, helping them pull themselves together for the night.

There was always a combination of engagement and detachment in working on the lines. How do people in TAG nowadays keep these in balance? If there were no AIDS groups would it be possible?

There were a whole range of problems you might occasionally run into, family and domestic disputes, angry people, someone with nowhere to stay, legal and court cases. You had to probe to get a clear view. Sometimes people would call over several weeks as they sorted these things out.

Often people knew what to do and were doing it, just wanted to let off steam, someone to talk to, to bounce off of. Which was what TAG was about anyways. You could offer information but people had to decide for themselves what to do with it. You could prod but basically you were an ear through which people heard themselves.

Information Calls

A lot of these. We were a talking gay community resource, and guide book, dealing in local and out-of-town information for Metro residents, visitors, and long-distance callers.

Dating Calls

It was sometimes difficult to convince people we weren't an escort service.

Non-gay Calls

Every so often you were bound to hear from non-gay people with problems nowhere touching on anything gay. They'd seen the number somewhere and figured we were as good a place to call as any. They wanted to talk, often expected you would have an instant answer to their problems, didn't care who or what TAG was. Not a case of someone in the closet making up excuses to talk to a gay line.

Interesting and sometimes strange.

Hoax calls

— Anita Bryant and the Ken Campbell fundamentalists come to town, causing all sorts of ruckus

— the Jacques case occurs

— The Body Politic, previously only maligned, begins to be hauled through the courts

— the Big Red Cardinal-bird [genus:carter, subsp:rosedale] of the Catholic Church in Toronto, recently appointed mediator of police-minority relations, carries on harassing Catholic gay groups

— mainstream newspapers continue to attack both gay people and the new gay institutions, while their columnists search for further opportunities to stir up trouble

— organizations here and there are evicted

— TAG gets one or two bomb threats

The gay movement was probed from all sides for weaknesses, and managed to turn much of it to advantage.

This was the atmosphere in which gay organizations in Toronto existed in the late seventies. When we got suspicious calls, these things were what illuminated them, this was the accompanying scenic view.

A caller, supposedly gay, might attempt to draw us into a conversation that was clearly meant to be used against us. Or perhaps a child would phone with convoluted and leading questions around sex and sexual orientation: ...and the coaching of adults would be audible in the background. TAG was being felt out, screen-tested for a role in the latest smear campaign against the community.

Here we were, trying to alleviate the problems all these bible-thumpers and cops and right wing zealots had dumped on gay people, and there they were, trying to throw a spanner in the works, trying to prevent us from helping ourselves. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

We skated around this sort of thing when we came across it, and went back to the job at hand.

B) MEETING PEOPLE FACE TO FACE

a) Where, How, Who
(other than sub-groups)

As it found the opportunity, TAG started sub-groups to help with the need for some sort of face to face sessions for people coming out. This need had been recognized from the start and dealing with it had always been part of our plans---see the Gay Community House/Meeting Place statements of 1975.

Before the Friday Night Group was running, but most definitely after that too, TAG people met with individual callers or small groups of them.

There were no hard and fast rules, but some common wisdom. There were worries. Given the number of prank and nuisance calls, one of them was simply being lured into some sort of trap. Another was burnout from people taking on too much, or having individuals become too dependent on them. We had to recognize our limits. On the other hand some members were very good at meeting people, putting them at ease and setting them on their way, and enjoyed the extra effort.

For our own physical safety we tried to arrange all encounters in a public or semi-public place, and with more than one TAG person present.

An example of my own particular stupidity: one of my early adventures consisted in meeting a visiting, fortyish, university professor alone in (of all places) his downtown hotel room. When I turned up in the lobby at the appointed hour he wouldn't come downstairs so, ever the missionary, I went up. We had a good conversation all right but when it came to an end there was a tussle and it took all my ingenuity and another ninety minutes to talk my way out of the room. It's not that he'd planned it that way or that I had particular charms, it just happened. It was a tricky situation, I was cornered and felt in physical danger for that time, so there was a certain amount of trauma included in this soap opera. After that I wasn't much for meeting anyone outside of a sub-group other than little old ladies.

The problem I'd gotten myself into didn't recur within TAG and once in a very long while I would still meet someone. But for me this was the exception, it had to feel like it was going to make a real difference. We did have the sub-groups, as I say, so I didn't feel too guilty. (To distance myself from 1982 TAG Guidelines which say "face to face contact...is not recommended by the collective", I suggest again that this was always a valuable part of TAG's work. The drafts of these guidelines show the group of 1981-82 had a real struggle to come to terms with this area. Their worry seemed to be sexual entanglement. Of course there were always concerns about what was appropriate behaviour; but I wonder if paranoia (fear of some sort of smear) induced by the targetting of the community via the bath raids, etc., had anything to do with this raising of the drawbridge and retreat to the battletowers.)

Basically the people we met in this manner fell into two or three categories.

1) Prospective TAG members, people who phoned with an interest in joining TAG. This might include people who had previously used the phones themselves for one reason or another, for coming out or whatever. They then wanted to be of use to others.

2) People just coming to terms with being gay. After spending a lengthy time on the phone with someone, possibly over a period of weeks, you began to feel responsible for them. A rapport developed. They were going through things you'd gone through yourself. Sometimes it seemed the decent thing to meet them for a coffee and chat, get them over the hump of actually speaking face to face with another gay person. For some TAG people this extra step was not a burden. Overlapping this was category 3.

3) People coming out and having difficulty finding the courage to go to their first bar. Meeting one, or gathering a group of them together, TAG people would give a tour, take callers for a drink or two. This was akin to a baptism to some. Once they'd been christened there was no stopping them.

b) One More Consideration

You couldn't work on the phones without being invited to meet for a coffee, and often the propositions were considerably more advanced and imaginative than that. The world is full of interesting people and if we didn't make a hard and fast rule here, would that lead to an ethical abuse somewhere down the road?

Rules were not part of TAG's nature. Each situation was unique. We didn't want people being taken advantage of, or the lines used for cruising, and tried to guard against that. But there were, for instance, many general and information type calls from people as out and about as we were, from people who were clearly able to decide for themselves what was in their best interest. If a conversation got started and you had a lot in common, decided you'd like to meet each other, was that bad? If it led to friendship and/or sex, was that a blot on TAG? (At least one person acquired a lover this way.) Surely there was a place for common sense here? As I've said, we were gay people dealing with gay people, not social workers handling clients.

There was recurring discussion. We tried to be as thoughtful, open and honest about this area as all others. If I belabour this it's because it's an issue that is subjected to knee-jerk assumptions and justifications by all sides. We preferred dealing with these attitudes as they came into play, rather than attempting to side-step them with some form of group dictate.

C) SUB-GROUPS

a) The Coming Out Group (Ian's Group)

Started in 1976 by John McConnell, assisted, and taken over the next year by Ian Turner. As of 1989 it is still handled by him.

People coming out, not ready to face the bars but wanting to meet and talk with others in the same situation were encouraged to try this. There was a certain amount of screening first but likely callers were put in touch with Ian for further information. It was a small group and met in his apartment once a week. Generally people attended for two to four months. Some stayed around to help run things.

b) The Married Men's Group

Also started in 1976. A lot of married men phoned TAG. It seemed a good idea to give them somewhere to get together to discuss their particular problems. This group was started by Harvey Hamburg and taken over later by Stan W. They met at his place, also once a week I think. Some men who attended were separated, others were not, some had children, some were content in their marriages. As with other sub-groups we tried to have a second TAG person on hand to help carry the load. It lasted until 1979 or '80.

c) The Friday Night Group

This started in 1977 and lasted into the eighties. It came to an end during one of TAG's contractions when there were not enough interested people to handle the work.

Held at the 519 the last Friday of every month, and designed for people coming out and those who'd only been out a little while. But others could fit in. It provided an opportunity to meet and talk with other gay people, and to become more aware of a wider gay community. There were many stories of people pacing around the building trying to get the courage to come in. We tried to be as welcoming as possible---coffee and cookies and all that. Total neophytes with very basic questions were grouped together in a separate room, usually with Ian Turner.

Topics to do with gay life were picked for discussion, with people sitting in the usual circle and introducing themselves as they spoke. Meetings were advertised on the answering machine and in the BP, as well as being pushed by TAG people on the phones. With this group as a context it became possible to accomodate more callers' wishes for some sort of face to face encounter.

At the end of a session, smaller groups would be formed and would go off to chosen bars with a Tagette as a guide, thus providing one more piece to the puzzle. The meetings themselves often attracted 30-50 people. Responsibility for this group was widely shared within TAG.

d) The No Name Cafe

Operated on Wednesdays in the basement of the 519 for several years in the eighties. It was offered with fluctuating success (sometimes attracting 60-70 people) as an alternative to a direct plunge into the bars. It had its own core group, with representatives who were considered members of TAG.

e) The Women's Group (Rosemary's Group)

A lesbian discussion group at the 519 started by women in TAG (in particular, Rosemary Doughty) in 1981. At first represented in TAG by these women, it eventually severed all ties and went its own way. It still meets.

f) The After You're Out Group

Another early eighties project that still survives. Operates out of a member's home along the lines of the Coming Out Group. For gay men who are out, to discuss ideas, problems etc..

D) GROUPS THAT HAD SOME ASSOCIATION WITH TAG

a) Transvestites in Toronto (TIT)

This was started in 1976 by Denise Hudson, who was the keeper of the telephone Rota in TAG. It might have been considered something of a sub-group at first: they used our post box, we referred people to them, and its progress was discussed at meetings. It was Denise's particular project though. It had its ups and downs but its existence soon became independent of TAG. Despite the occasional hiatus it lasted in some form at least until the early eighties.

b) The Gay Community Calendar (923-GAYS)

A weekly telephone recording, listing events in the community.

Both Harvey Hamburg, who started 923-GAYS among other things, and Jim McNeil who also ran it, were TAG members; and its equipment has been located in the TAG office since its inception. We recommended it to a lot of people but it was nothing that originated out of TAG itself, or that it had direct responsibility for (though other TAG people also helped with it at times.)

E) THE TAG MAILBOX

For several years TAG advertised its post box---P.O. Box 6706, St. A, Toronto, Ont. M5W 1X5. (Charlie Dobie looked after dealing with the post office and mail pickup for most of the first eight or nine years.) The box attracted a lot of information from other groups and kept us up to date on their activities. It also brought in money by way of anonymous donations. Some people weren't averse to suggesting these to individuals grateful for our help, as a way of helping us in turn.

There was another type of mail, a written counterpart to the phone calls. A sheet of community information was printed up to be included with our answering letters. There was also an attempt to prepare a standard form letter reply to help with some of this but it's not clear whether this was ever used.