CHARLIE INTERVIEWED ABOUT TAG IN 1976This interview was in the September, 1976 issue of Other Voices, a (monthly?) newsletter put out by the University of Waterloo Federation of Students while battling for control of the university's student paper The Chevron. This interview was taped and it's possible that tape may also have been broadcast on community radio in Waterloo, but there's no way to verify that.
This section of Other Voices intends to focus on groups and activities outside of the Kitchener-Waterloo community.
In this issue we feature an interview with Charlie Dobie of TAG (Toronto Area Gays). The interview was conducted for Other Voices by Joe Szalai. TAG is a group of about a dozen gay people in Toronto who operate a peer counselling, information and referral service. It is funded by the members of the group, and has been operating since January.
What is peer counselling?
Well, peer counselling is just ordinary people counselling ordinary people, in other words, we don't pretend to be professionals. If someone needs professional help, we refer them. But basically we're just a shoulder to cry on, or whatever.
What kind of people phone?
All kinds of people, but basically people who think they might be gay or have questions about homosexuality. People who need someone to talk to. We have calls from a crossection of the population of Toronto and southern Ontario.
Do you ever receive any crisis calls? From people who might be contemplating suicide or an overdose of drugs?
A few people who say they want to kill themselves, but I think that every call, really, is a crisis call. When many people want to talk to someone very badly, especially about a subject like their potential gayness, they've repressed it so much and they've bottled it up for so long that it certainly does become a crisis. And it's a very traumatic thing for them to finally make the breakthrough and phone someone. We get a lot of people who phone and when someone answers they panic and hang up. And a lot of people will actually do this anywhere from one to a dozen times before they will finally, actually, talk.
Would you say that making the initial phone call is perhaps the first step in 'coming out'?
Oh, definitely, for a lot of people.
What exactly is "coming out"?
Well, coming out is basically accepting yourself as a homosexual. Accepting the fact that you are normal, you know, as normal as being left-handed or red headed, or being black. These people stand out, mind you, because it's a visual thing. Therefore you're forced to confront it every day. But being gay is different; the majority of gay people are not visible. Therefore it's a very easy thing to hide the fact that you're gay.
Is it difficult to come out?
Well, that depends on the person and it depends on the type of life that that person has chosen. If you're a person who is basically honest with yourself and with other people it's probably easier. But the older you get and the more committments you have to other people the harder it becomes. Someone who has moved up in business assumes a certain role.
Would that include being married?
Oh certainly. Perhaps half of the people who phone us are married, and have children. We've had grandparents phone up. A lot of people get married because it's the thing to do. It's the perfect cover. If you are married and have children people will assume that you're not gay. And a lot of people are very, very paranoid. They seem to think that people are going to know, people are going to suspect, people are going to talk behind their backs. Therefore a wife and children are a perfect cover. And it's a trap that they get themselves into and after a while it just becomes unbearable. It's certainly not fair to themselves or their wives or children.
Why? In what sense is it not fair?
It's not fair that these people are leading double lives. They have to continuously lie. It's just a very self-destructing thing. It's also not fair to the wife, assuming it's a male talking. (Certainly we get calls from females in the same situation.) But it's not fair to the heterosexual mate because the other person is continually lying and pretending love. Some people don't discover their gayness until after they're married. And then of course this becomes a totally new and sometimes frightening thing, so they want to talk to us about it.
I would find it hard to understand how someone wouldn't know their sexuality. Is it something that just develops or always been latent?
And aren't you aware of your latency?
Well, I don't know. I found it rather hard to believe myself because personally I've always been aware of my attraction to men ever since, well, before puberty. So I found it rather hard to believe that someone at the age of thirty or fifty, or in one case, a man well into his seventies, could suddenly, or gradually over a year discover they were gay, but certainly there have been so many people who phoned up in that situation that I have to believe that it does happen, that people can change relatively quickly, or become aware of their changing interests.
How long ago did you come out of the closet?
Well, I guess about six years ago. As I've said before, I've always been aware of the fact that I was interested in men. It took me a long time to realize that I was different. You know that that is something that is not accepted by society. I denied the fact that it was happening to me. I assumed that I would change, or at least I hoped that I would.
What kind of changes have there been since the six years that you've been out? For instance, how has your family responded to it?
Did they know immediately?
They didn't know immediately. I didn't tell them until about two years ago, and the immediate reaction was, "Where did we go wrong?" "What have we done to you?", etc. They tried to put it on themselves. They've gradually come to the realization that they certainly had no control over my sexuality. But basically they accept it now. I would still say they're not happy with it; it was probably hard for them because I was their only son. But they haven't disowned me.
How old are you now?
Have you ever been discriminated against because you are gay at a job, bar or hotel?
No. I don't look gay as such. Oh, you know, I've had people give me black looks on the street when I'm with gay friends. But that's just people. I've never really been discriminated against.
But you must have been oppressed. How did you deal with that oppression?
I don't know. You deal with it as it comes. I really don't know how to answer that.
Who was the first person you told who was a friend and not a sexual partner?
I guess I told my cousin. I don't think he really knew how to handle it, what I was talking about. But it felt good to talk to someone. At that time I was just kind of feeling my way out of the closet. I probably didn't tell him very well.
Was his reaction negative or positive?
Well, it was positive in that he wasn't shocked or anything. It was like I was speaking in a different language.
But it meant an awful lot to you, didn't it?
Oh yes, certainly! I originally came out, or at least made a conscious decision, about six or seven years ago, that I had to do something. I hadn't really articulated it as coming out or accepting my homosexuality. At that time I never would have dreamed of such a thing. I was in a situation where I was going to work, coming home, and all I was doing was working, eating, and sleeping. I had been in Toronto for six or seven years by then, but I didn't really know anyone. I had a couple of good friends but they weren't gay. They were becoming involved with other people; planning to get married, etc. I just suddenly realized that my life was meaningless. I was just kind of going through the motions. I didn't know anyone, or really care about anyone. I was very, very lonely and was getting overweight. So I made a conscious decision that I had to in some way get out and meet people.
Gay people or straight people?
Just people. I hadn't really articulated this into coming out. It was just that I was desperately lonely.
Did you wake up one day and say, 'I'm going to tell the world that I'm gay'?
Oh no! No, not at all. I almost came out by accident. Or by default.
How was that? Could you explain?
Well OK. I became politically involved. At that time the anti-war movement was going full swing and so I became involved with a lot of people, politically. I was interested in photography and I was wandering around Toronto taking pictures and somebody from an underground newspaper saw me taking pictures and asked if they could use some of them. So I became involved with them.
Guerilla. I don't know if anyone remembers Guerilla anymore. I was with them on a volunteer basis for three or four years. It was a lot of fun. And I came out through Guerilla, socially. Just the fact that I didn't freeze when strangers came around. I was the type of person who would get red in the face and kind of shrink into a corner in a crowded room. I learned to accept myself. I was with a group of people who accepted me. Several of the men and women at Guerilla were gay and we had the experience of helping each other to come out. It was certainly a wonderful thing. So I became involved, through Guerilla, in the early gay rights movement in Toronto. But I still had kind of a cover, I was "the man from Guerilla here to report the meeting." Although I didn't maintain that very long. So, that way I came out.
Do you still consider yourself 'political'?
Well, I think TAG is very political. I'm certainly not political in the sense of NDP, Liberal, Conservative. I still vote but there are a lot of other people who are into the 'political' thing. Which is very important, but you can only devote your life to, or concentrate on one thing. And I'm much more comfortable talking or listening people on the phone. That, of course, is a political act because we're doing something that is unpopular. In the popular sense of the word. Well, institutions like the Toronto Star won't carry our ads because we were proselytizing as they say. They still seem to think that everyone who phones up we're going to turn into a homosexual. Of course that's just short of brain surgery and it's pretty hard to do to anyone. Someone either is or isn't. All we can do is inform them. We've been lucky to have an ad in the Globe and Mail, in the personal columns, and that's why we've gotten a fairly good response. We get calls from all across southern Ontario. I think probably as far as North Bay. [N.B. For the extent of TAG's advertising, use the Website Menu link on this page and go to the Toronto Area Gays section of this website.]
What do you tell people who call?
Well, that depends on the type of call. If a person is calling and telling us that they want to talk to someone who is gay, etc., we tell them that we're all gay, everyone on the phone line is gay. We encourage them to tell us their feelings about themselves and just assure them that they're not alone in the world. Most people feel that they're very alone, and that they're very abnormal. It's very hard for a person who does not fit the stereotype. Therefore, when a person realizes that they're gay and they say to themselves well I have no compulsion to wear feminine clothing or swish around, therefore I must be alone. So they feel very isolated. We just reassure them that they're not sick. It's no more abnormal than being left-handed. Of course, this is probably proselytizing. Society would prefer that these people didn't exist, or that they all got a brain operation or just went off and disappeared.
Do you ever get any crank calls?
Oh yes, we get a lot. We get religious nuts. People who want to save our souls. People who want to kill us. Of course, a lot of crank calls are serious calls too. Obviously people have a reason to phone a gay phone line. If a person is comfortable with their sexuality, if they don't feel threatened by other people, they have no reason for attacking us.
So what do you tell crank callers?
That depends on the call, sometimes you just let them speak. There's usually nothing to say to a lot of them. With some of them we get into good arguments. A lot of people phone up very concerned. They have a lot of good questions and they have their points of view. They may be totally against us and if they can state why they think gay people are sick, well, I'm quite willing to talk to them. If you can get a dialogue going, that's good. But a lot of people phone up to scream and rant and rave. Then we get a lot of kids. Unfortunately the number has been passed around the public schools and now we're getting a lot of children who phone up for a joke. It's a good giggle. Although, surprisingly, a lot of these kids have serious questions too. You can't dismiss someone like that just because they're laughing. But it does get rather frustrating.
Would you say that gay people's lives are as fulfilling as straight people's lives?
Well, you're assuming that straight people's lives are fulfilling. Certainly they can be fulfilling. It's like asking if a black person's life can be as fulfilling as a white person's life. If there were no discrimination then there would be no discernable differences. For those peole who accept themselves and don't view themselves as being sick and are not afraid of people finding out, in other words people who've gotten rid of their traditional viewpoints and preconceptions of gay people, well, certainly they can have fulfilling lives.
So what you're suggesting is that being gay is not what causes the difficulties that a person faces, but what society thinks of a gay person
that causes all the difficulties.
Certainly. Absolutely. There is no gay problem as such. It's a problem created by the rest of society. It's a taboo. It's strictly a religious taboo. It has roots that go back thousands of years and people being conservative in nature tend to retain negative aspects of their culture and forget the good points. Certainly it's harder for gay people to function in society, but it's becoming easier now. It's becoming much easier because we're organizing and putting pressure on the right places in government. Certain cities in Canada and the states are passing non-discrimination laws. They're certainly not good enough, though. For instance, in Canada homosexuality as such has never been illegal (in the sense that the offence was gross indecency rather than being a homosexual person) but the age of consenting adulthood is twenty-one, so any gay person in Canada under the age of twenty-one is legally not supposed to have any sexual feelings at all. Whereas, of course, for a non-gay person the age limit is sixteen or in some cases fourteen. A person can legally get married at fourteen. There are many other ways that we're discriminated against. We have no job protection as such. A person can be fired just because they're gay. Oh, I guess a lot of companies would deny that fact. They can always claim some reason to fire somebody.
Do you know of anyone who has been fired from a job for being gay?
John Damien, of course, is the prime example. He was racing commission steward for the Ontario Racing Commission and he was fired for only one reason -- that he was gay. The racing commission was stupid enough to make that fact public. They also offered him a fairly sizeable sum of money if he would just quietly fade out of the scene. He decided to make an issue of it and he's making an issue of it. It's in the Supreme Court now. But of course the government has the money to spend on armies of lawyers. They can keep it in the courts for as long as they want.
Do you know of anyone who's been hassled on the streets for being gay?
Oh yeah. It happens all the time.
Has anyone been charged?
Well, you can't be charged for being gay but you can certainly be picked up on other pretexts.
Suspicion of carrying drugs. Or whatever. I've seen a lot of times when police will just yell abuse from their cars. Many times I've been standing in front of a gay establishment and the police drive by and jeer, but of course they would deny that such a thing ever happens. But police officers are individuals. It officially doesn't happen but of course it happens. People will also get entrapped in different situations. The morality squad has a habit of dressing one of their members as an obviously gay person, prancing around and making advances at people until they get someone interested in them and then luring them off somewhere to arrest them, or sometimes beating them up first. The police can always deny that these things happen; they always do. You know, who believes a homosexual? Most people are so terrified that all they want to do is get out of there.
Has anyone challenged this kind of harassment?
Oh certainly. People are starting to do it all the time. For instance, early this spring there were two men who work for a small alternate paper in Toronto, called Alternatives to Alienation. They wanted to take some photographs of peoples' reactions to two men kissing, in public, in downtown Toronto. So two men stood on the street and were kissing. They weren't doing anything else but. And they got some very good photographs of people looking at them. A lot of people were embarrassed. But they certainly didn't draw a crowd. People just walked by pretending they weren't there. However, an off-duty policeman saw them and phoned the police. So the cops drove up and immediately gathered a crowd and so these guys were arrested for gross indecency, obstructing the sidewalk, etc. Of course they weren't being grossly indecent. How can kissing be grossly indecent?
So what happened?
It's still in the courts. They were charged. The outcome is still to be seen. But they're challenging. Fortunately they have some very good photographs to prove it. Now people aren't taking the shit they used to. The fighting back started officially in 1969, New York. Police had been habitually raiding the gay bars, harassing people. They would clear out a bar, line everyone up against the wall and search them. Take down their names and everything. One day the gay people decided to just fight back, and started a fairly good sized riot. That has traditionally been the birth of the modern gay liberation movement. Although there have been gay groups who predated that.
Do you look forward to the day when TAG is no longer necessary?
Well, I think our society being what it is there will always be some form of counselling necessary. I really can't foresee the day when we are going to be accepted on an absolutely equal basis.
That's fairly pessimistic.
Yes, it is pessimistic. 1 can see the day when the law is going to be changed but civil rights legislation in the states has been in existence for a long time and people still talk of "niggers". People still talk of "niggers" in Canada. "Newfie" jokes and "Paki" jokes are racist, even though people would say that they're not. Gay people are the last resort of the racist. You can always tell a fag joke without someone coming down hard on you. So certainly we intend to get protection under the law but you can't legislate the way people think. There are always going to be people who suppress and hide their homosexuality. And sooner or later they're going to need the counselling of someone like ourselves. Certainly it's going to be easier for them, it would have been easier for me if I'd had a phone line. It's great to talk to someone who's anonymous. The person can't get back at you. He doesn't know who you are. Therefore it's so much easier to pour out your troubles. I think that if such a service had been available to me I would have accepted myself fifteen years ago. At least. I certainly would be a lot happier now. Not to say that I'm unhappy but I would have had a ten year start on myself. So there'll always be need for people like us, but not as great.