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Douglas Wilson

1950–1992

By: Dr. Valerie Korinek

Dr. Valerie J. Korinek

Contributing Historian

Dr. Valerie J. Korinek has a doctorate in Canadian cultural and gender history from the University of Toronto. She is currently the A.S. Morton Professor of History in the Department of History at the University of Saskatchewan. An award-winning teacher and scholar, Dr. Korinek is the recipient of the Provost’s Award for Outstanding Teacher at USask. Her scholarly contributions have been recognized with a fellowship in the Royal Society of Canada.

Dr. Korinek has published widely in contemporary prairie gendered histories. Her most recent book, Prairie Fairies: A History of Queer Communities and People in Western Canada 1930-1985 (U of T Press, 2018) has won numerous national awards.

“Anyone interested in participating in a campus gay organization. Contact Doug Wilson, Box 203, College of Education” read the small, classified advertisement in the University of Saskatchewan’s student newspaper The Sheaf in September 1975.[1] Douglas Wilson was midway through his graduate degree in the U of S Educational Foundations program when he placed this ad. A large part of his inspiration to take this step came from the gay activism already underway in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Saskatoon, a city of approximately 130,000 people in the 1970s, had a vibrant gay and lesbian community centre in the downtown core where a small but impactful crew of dedicated activists and volunteers organized dances, parades, protests, cultural events, visiting speakers, films, and social events. Seeing this group openly participate in queer-focused events, Wilson was probably confident that his attempt to start a gay campus club, or to reactivate campus gay and lesbian activity (groups had been active in the early 1970s), was not going to raise any concerns. But it did. And the ensuing controversy would cost him his career as a teacher. At the same time, however, this moment in his life raised awareness about the routine homophobia that lesbians and gays living in Canada experienced and forever forged his activism as a gay liberationist.

“Doug Wilson Speaks,” – October 3, 1975. Image courtesy of The Sheaf, the Richards Collection, and the University of Saskatchewan.

Wilson was a graduate student in the Department of Educational Foundation and had previously completed a Bachelor of Education degree also at the University of Saskatchewan. During his undergrad, Wilson was president of the Education Students’ Union and he was well liked and respected by his peers and was well known to college faculty and administrators. Between his undergraduate degree and his graduate work, he was employed as a teacher in the small Saskatchewan town of Makwa. However, his success and strong network did not protect him when his advertisement was published. As soon as The Sheaf hit the newsstands on campus, students and faculty alerted the dean of education, James B. Kirkpatrick. Kirkpatrick called Wilson into his office and offered him the option to quietly withdraw from his program and leave campus. Wilson refused the offer to leave his program, his job as a supervisor of student teachers, or campus. Surprised by his response, Kirkpatrick alerted the university president, Dr. Robert Begg, who informed Wilson that he would be suspended from supervising student teachers because his “public gayness” would, Begg feared, create problems in the classroom. Begg also believed that “public gayness” might create tensions between the college and the school boards, and potentially worry parents. Kirkpatrick and Begg were likely aware that other, closeted, more discreet gays and lesbians were working as teachers, or indeed working on campus in a variety of roles as faculty, staff, or student employees. But in Wilson’s case, he was open about his sexuality and encouraged others to be as well, which caused a strong reaction from a university administration eager to quell controversy.

In media and print interviews, the dean and president described their actions to remove Wilson from his position as merely a “managerial decision.” What they meant by that phrase was that it wasn’t personal; it was a pragmatic, institutional decision intended to protect the College of Education, the university, and in particular their relationship with the Board of Education and, they presumed, the public. Naturally, others on campus felt differently. Very quickly a group was created – the Committee to Defend Doug Wilson – that consisted of students (many of them Wilson’s fellow graduate students), staff, and some faculty members. Both straight allies and gays and lesbians were determined to support Wilson and see that he received justice. The committee, modelled on one created in Toronto to defend John Damien, who was fired by the Ontario Racing Commission in February 1975 because he was openly gay,[2] went to work – organizing media events, educating the campus and community, starting a petition to reinstate Wilson, and, among other moments of activism, protesting at fall convocation. The convocation protest forced the university’s chancellor, former prime minister John Diefenbaker, to exit the auditorium by the back door. Finally, the committee contacted the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission and asked it to investigate the university’s actions against Wilson. The Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission was the first such organization in Canada to accept a gay dismissal case for investigation. The university countered with an injunction, claiming that the commission did not have grounds for any investigation because Wilson was not a victim of gender discrimination: he was asked to leave not because he was a man but because of his sexuality, and that was not yet protected in provincial human rights legislation. The university’s injunction to prevent the case from being heard was successful, and Wilson and his supporters decided against an appeal.

In the end, Wilson lost the battle (the right to be heard by the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission and to be reinstated to his role as supervisor of student teachers), but he won the war. For in the year during which his case played out, both in Canadian legislative court and in the court of public opinion, he won a moral victory with the public. In his own words, he became the “most openly gay person for at least a thousand miles.”[3] People would approach him to talk to him and share their experiences, and members of mainstream, heterosexual Saskatchewan learned that gay people didn’t just live in Toronto or Vancouver but that they also lived in Saskatoon, and came from small towns and farming communities (as Wilson had). Further still, Wilson’s case politicized mainstream residents of the city, and the province, to what could happen to gays or lesbians if they were open about their orientation.  They could lose their jobs, their rental accomodations, or for lesbians, their children, and this dawning awareness of Wilson’s experiences had an impact on people – some agreed with his treatment, but for many others, they realized how discriminatory the actions had been.   It was no longer possible to believe that gays and lesbians lived elsewhere, or to believe that it was a “private” matter. Wilson’s experiences showed how, despite professional training and an abundance of skills, gays and lesbians could find themselves fired, evicted, or ostracized by friends and families if they were open about their sexuality. Wilson made Saskatchewan residents aware of how homophobia functioned in society in the mid 1970s.

Back at the University of Saskatchewan, Wilson’s case would lead to breakthroughs in various collective agreements for sessional lecturers and university faculty. Explicit anti-discrimination clauses were added to prevent other women and men from being fired for their sexual orientation. Equally, all the media work Wilson did – locally, provincially, and nationally – made him a prominent gay rights activist. Wilson served as president of the Gay and Lesbian Centre of Saskatoon; was a founding member of the provincial activist organization, the Saskatchewan Gay Coalition; worked as a writer and journalist for several small queer presses; created Stubblejumper Press; published a novel, Labour of Love; and worked as the executive director of the Saskatchewan Association on Human Rights (1978–1983). In 1983, Wilson moved to Toronto with his partner, Peter McGehee, and, while there, was involved in a variety of cultural and political work. Wilson was the first openly gay candidate to run in a federal election, when he ran as the NDP candidate for Rosedale Centre in 1988. Tragically, he withdrew from the race when he and McGehee were both diagnosed with AIDS during the campaign. Wilson subsequently became focused on AIDS activism, writing, and political work but died in September 1992 from AIDS-related pneumonia. Svend Robinson, the first openly gay MP, recalled:

“I will always remember Doug as a fighter, but a gentle fighter. He brought such integrity and strength, courage, and beauty to every aspect of life. His early battles were an inspiration that many of us have fought to continue nationally. He was a hero for our gay and lesbian community.”[4]

Today, when groups like gay–straight alliances are either commonplace or threatened and when trans high school students find themselves the focal point of discrimination depending on where they live, we would do well to remember the activism of people like Doug Wilson. His determination to be both gay and a teacher, and to work to provide support for other university students who were lesbian, gay, or queer resulted in the loss of his livelihood and career as a teacher. His experiences remind us that progress is never easy and that standing up for our own and others’ rights to be ourselves, be proud, and create community are important actions. Wilson’s pride as a gay person, his belief in “living my liberation” as he put it, was incredibly important for Saskatoon and for Saskatchewan. Wilson’s commitment to building community and his lobbying for change in Saskatoon and Toronto were important historic moments in Canadian gay activism.[5]

Doug wilson
“Doug Wilson – 11390.” Image courtesy of the Richards Collection, University of Saskatchewan, MG355_Richards_SA1067_Photos_SB13391_DougWilson_006.

[1] See Valerie J. Korinek, “‘The Most Openly Gay Person for At Least a Thousand Miles’: Doug Wilson and the Politicization of a Province, 1975–1983,” in Canadian Historical Review, 84, 4 (December 2003), pg. 6. This essay is adapted from that longer article.

[2] For information on John Damien’s case, see Robert Rothon, “The Forgotten Hero: Too Gay for the Horseracing Business,” in Xtra Vancouver (January 17, 2007).

[3] Doug Wilson, “Briarpatch interview,” cited in “The Most Openly Gay Person for At Least a 1000 Miles” (p. 1).

[4] “Proud Lives: Doug Wilson–October 11, 1950–September 26, 1992,” Xtra (October 2, 1992).

[5] “The Most Openly Gay Person for At Least a 1000 Miles” (p. 17).