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Overview of Gay and Lesbian Activist Magazines and Newsletters on the Prairies

1970s & 1980s

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.

In the era of the smartphone, it is very difficult to imagine how people lived before this small device revolutionized all facets of our lives. Before smartphones, to get information about activist, social, cultural, or political groups one had to search for information in traditional and alternative media – daily newspapers, magazines, radio, and television – or worse still, look for posters, ads, or billboards in one’s community. However, imagine that you cannot list your group in local, regional, university, or national media locations. Imagine that the very mention of your group’s name might be cause for controversy, or censorship, or worse – outright refusal to print such “inappropriate” information. This is the situation Canadian gay and lesbian people found themselves in in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as most mainstream media, including most classified advertising, prohibited the use of terms such as “homosexual,” “gay,” or “lesbian,” which made reaching your intended audience very difficult.

In interviews and published reflections, many Prairie gay and lesbian activists who came of age in the 1960s and early 1970s struggled, particularly as teenagers, to find other people like themselves (see G. Hellquist).[1] So for some, their next goal was to help others find queer spaces, and a key need was for visibility – in media, in non-fiction books (many early activists created lending libraries), and via resources like telephone “helplines” to provide information about where to find community. Even a simple action like getting a phone book listing could prove controversial, as it did in Winnipeg when Manitoba Telecom Services blocked a listing for a gay organization in the early 1970s. A handful of activists focused their energies on making queer spaces more accessible – and they created a network of gay and lesbian membership clubs in Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, and Regina. To spread the word that these clubs now existed, each of the five membership clubs created a newsletter. These periodicals – ranging from Carousel Capers (Calgary) to What’s Happening (Winnipeg) – were a key informational and community-building strategy each club utilized. And that was the start of the “queer presses” in the Prairies, although this is a glamorous term for what were very basic, mimeographed (later photocopied) newsletters.

Written and produced by small, dedicated teams of volunteers, these newsletters were initially an essential component in advancing LGBT information and ultimately evolved into supporting community-building activities throughout the region. Over the first two decades of explicit queer organizing in the Prairies, these newsletters, and later modest “magazines,” were key to forging identities across the region – in the cities, but also, importantly, on farms and in the small towns and northern, more remote communities. The article that follows provides an overview of five historically important and unique publications.


Carousel Capers

Calgary, 1970–1975?

Carousel Capers (periodical cover), vol. 4 no. 5, Scarth Street Society. Image courtesy of the Richards Collection, University of Saskatchewan.

In 1969, a small group of women and men from Calgary, who were fed up with harassment from the owners of a covert gay bar where gay Calgarians socialized, banded together to create a gay and lesbian member-only club. Club Carousel officially opened its doors for the first time on March 20, 1970.[2]By 1972, they had more than 600 members.[3] The other Prairie cities emulated this model, starting with Edmonton’s Club 70 (1970), Winnipeg’s Happenings Social Club (created 1971; incorporated 1973 as the Mutual Friendship Society); Saskatoon’s Zodiac Friendship Society (created 1971, incorporated 1972), and Regina’s Atropos Fellowship Society (created 1971, incorporated 1972).[4] Each of these clubs (and many other organizations that followed) would produce a newsletter to share their activities, and eventually publishing a mix of club events, news, articles, artwork, poetry, and fiction for lesbian and gay readers.

Carousel Capers, the Calgary club’s newsletter, was one of the earliest in the region. Beyond this achievement, Carousel Capers was notable because it had a lesbian editor and female editorial team (all the other publications were primarily staffed with male editorial teams).[5]Like many other early newsletters, it was a “hand typed and drawn, mimeographed affair. It grew to 24+ pages in its heyday with columns such as Chatter Box and Cecil’s secrets.”[6] Alongside feminist messages and artwork, the newsletter also provided more utilitarian reports of the organization’s meetings and statistics on attendance. While it was never flashy, this modest newsletter offered important historical evidence of how gay and lesbian Calgarians lived in the 1970s. The primary focus was on discretion and privacy. The doors to the membership club were controlled: only members or their guests (who had to be gay or lesbian – no straight people were allowed) could enter. The point was to provide a gay and lesbian space for gays and lesbians. Discretion continued over into the pages of the newsletter. In 1973, the editors printed this warning:

“this is a private newsletter, published by a private club and the contents are confidential . . . Out of the closets and into the streets is a great battle cry for gays who don’t have too much to lose but then there are the rest of us.” [7]

Newsletters were mailed to club members and arrived in discreet envelopes that kept their contents secret from postal employees and curious family members alike.

Carousel Capers’sfocus on privacy was different from other newsletters and small magazines elsewhere, whose editors hoped that by publishing news of social, cultural, and activist information, they might serve to expand opportunities for gay and lesbian people. And through that visibility, encourage a sea change in mainstream views.


Gay Saskatchewan/Grassroots

Saskatoon, 1978–1982

Gay Saskatchewan (periodical cover), vol 1 no. 5, June 1979, Saskatchewan Gay Coalition. Image courtesy of the Richards Collection, University of Saskatchewan.

Like Club Carousel, the organizers of the Saskatchewan Gay Coalition (SGC) created a newsletter to share their organization’s political and social goals. SGC’s leaders were primarily from Saskatoon and Regina, but their aim was to reach those living on farms, in small towns, and in the north. One of the key members of the editorial team, Douglas Wilson, originally from the farming community of Meadow Lake, was an activist who firmly believed that gay politics and people were not merely an urban phenomenon, but a rural one as well.

The pages of Gay Saskatchewan (later renamed Grassroots) showcased the SGC’s work in travelling through small towns and countryside to meet with local gay and lesbian people and break down their isolation. Gay Saskatchewan attempted to support the core goals of Wilson and the SGC by sharing stories of their trips, letters from readers in remote locations, and community-building events. Ultimately, Gay Saskatchewan wanted to reconcile the seemingly incompatible question of how could you be an openly gay or lesbian person but also a farmer, small-town teacher, business owner, or nurse? Dedicated to equity in leadership between lesbians and gay men, Wilson was joined by Kay Bierwiler, a long-time Saskatoon lesbian feminist and contributor to local feminist periodicals. Starting from a very modest, four-page newsletter, what is now Grassroots grew to become an influential small regional magazine with more than 2,100 subscribers from “across Canada and the northwestern United States.”[8]

Originally, however, Gay Saskatchewan’s motif – a hand-drawn image of settlement-era queer farm couples (one male and one female) – was a blatant attempt to rewrite history and to visualize a longed-for past where same-sex people were depicted as part of the fabric in the Euro-Canadian settlement of the Prairies.[9] This artwork, alongside articles, stories about people the editors met in their travels, letters from readers, and further resources (often directing readers to activities in Saskatoon but also to groups in smaller communities like Flin Flon, Manitoba, or Prince Albert, Saskatchewan) rounded out an average issue. The SGC was active in lobbying the Saskatchewan government for human rights for gay and lesbian people – an important legal step that would protect queer people from discrimination in employment and housing. The SGC also organized an important 1978 protest outside the provincial legislature in Regina and, in many ways, politicized people throughout the province to recognize that gay and lesbian lives were not merely urban lives, but rural lives as well. As Doug Wilson wrote:

“the long term prospect of people living and working positively in Saskatoon and Regina . . . but also in Mortlach, Loon Lake, Swift Current and Langenburg, indeed on the farms and in the small towns of every province is exciting.” [10]


After Stonewall

Winnipeg and Saskatoon, 1977–1982

After Stonewall (periodical cover), no. 2, 1977. Image courtesy of the Richards Collection, University of Saskatchewan.

Overlapping with Gay Saskatchewan/Grassroots was the influential but far more radical periodical After Stonewall. The name referenced New York City’s Stonewall riots of 1969 and drew a link between US and Canadian liberationist activism. Initially produced in Winnipeg, After Stonewall was a collective of gay male activists from the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada who produced a lively magazine that aimed to bring an insistent voice for change to the Prairie region. After Stonewall’s goals were to capture the Prairie activist scene and situate it within a national and international political framework. In their first editorial, the collective wrote that:

“gay liberation is alive and well in western Canada. Every day we hear new reports of this or that event which reaffirms that gay people will not accept their lot in silence . . . we are organizing and we are active.” [11]

The AIDS crisis, and the advent of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in Canada, altered gay and lesbian activism.  In the first instance, because this small community was hit very hard by the AIDS crisis, the deaths, the political backlash, and the need to support gay men living with AIDS. This meant that resources were stretched to breaking point – and so AIDS activist organizations were created across North America.  Within Canada, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which took full effect in 1985, provided a legal litigation model that became popular as a way to pursue “rights” that could be legally obtained—including, importantly, the M v. H case that decided common law support for same-sex couples.  But, in looking backwards, this was a major departure from the liberationist politics that hoped to liberate both gay and lesbians from conventional societal bounds and expectations, and in so doing change society.  Equity seeking was more focussed on working within the system, to achieve legal and later legislated recognition within the law.

There was, they all agreed, so much to do. Over the years of operation in Winnipeg (1977–1979) and then later in Saskatoon (1979–1982), several Saskatoon gay and lesbian activists joined the collective. While the content of this small periodical was most explicit, all the Western newsletters and periodicals shared both Canadian and US developments in politics and culture that were relevant to their readers. In so doing, the queer Prairie newsletters and magazines provided a level of knowledge to seemingly “isolated” Prairie residents that was as vital as the work of urban gay presses like The Body Politic in Toronto.

After Stonewall covered a variety of issues throughout its four years of existence, including anti-gay backlash and censorship, gay bashing and violence (in Winnipeg and Saskatoon), activism efforts, left-wing political causes, and gay cultural and community developments. After Stonewall was not an organizational newsletter, so it was free to cover issues and politics as the editors deemed them important. It ranged broadly in its coverage, even going beyond its two home cities and was one of the first non-Indigenous periodicals to make mention of Indigenous people within the queer community, and to urge awareness of broader Indigenous politics. After Stonewall’s mostly malewriters were often less aware of sexism, but, particularly in the Saskatoon years, they attempted to foreground lesbian feminism more than most Prairie newsletters. Notably, the Saskatoon editorial collective included lesbians as part of the team. In terms of queer politics, After Stonewall favoured liberationist, not civil rights, strategies that made them a minority voice by the 1980s, when “equity” and human rights focal points began to dominate many gay and lesbian political organizations.[12] Both After Stonewall and Grassroots stopped publication in the early 1980s because the Gay/Lesbian Community Centre of Saskatoon (GLCCS), which had been the focal point of the community, was forced to close.


Perceptions

Saskatoon, 1983–2013

Perceptions (periodical cover), vol. 8, no. 5, 1990. Image courtesy of the Richards Collection, University of Saskatchewan.

In the aftermath of the closure of the GLCCS, the first issue of Perceptions was published in March 1983. The product of a merger between The Gay Times and GAZE, two competing Saskatoon gay newsletters, the first issue ofPerceptions was modest: three sheets of paper, folded and stapled together, with black-and-white graphics.[13] But under the direction of long-time Saskatoon activist and editor Gens Hellquist, Perceptions proved a winning formula. Few imagined that the small volunteer collective that wrote, produced, and hosted mailing parties to assemble and mail the magazine would continue until 2013. By that point, the magazine was far more substantive, at more than 30 pages, and, while still written and produced by volunteers, the challenge of producing six issues per year was further complicated by Hellquist’s declining health and premature death. He was, in the end, the driving life force of the periodical, and when he died in September 2013, the remaining Perceptions crew managed to produce only a couple additional publications. It was, in so many ways, the end of an era in Saskatoon’s queer cultural and organizational leadership.

Perceptions holds the record for the longest-running western Canadian gay newsmagazine. As the first editorial noted:

“One of the more important aspects of a vital gay community is the effective means of communicating events within the community. As we don’t have much access to the traditional media, it is important for us to develop our own means of communication.” [14]

The magazine covered Prairie, Canadian, and international news of interest to gay and lesbian readers, providing articles on activism, health (AIDS was a big focal point for coverage), cultural information, and community news across the Prairies. At the back of the magazine, there were pages and pages of listings for events, groups, clubs, and religious organizations across the Prairies and some small, classified personal ads placed by people seeking friends, lovers, and companions. Never a flashy magazine and often in the red financially, Perceptions was a vital voice for the Saskatoon queer community and for the larger Prairie communities it served. Foundational to so much activism and community building, it is impossible to calculate the ways in which Perceptions enriched life for people during those years, but one rural lesbian’s recollections are helpful:

“My isolation in rural Saskatchewan as a woman-loving-woman has been reduced today with the arrival of PERCEPTIONS.” [15]

Sadly, no other periodical has filled the void left by the closure of Perceptions. This is a testament to the vision, energy, and commitment that Gens Hellquist and his team of volunteers brought to their mandate and mission for how to grow, sustain, and support 2SLGBTQ+ people across the Prairies. In the digital era, it is hard to conceive of the role of a small print newsletter; however, while much has been gained by ease of access to vast amounts of material and information, there are trade-offs for regional coverage and information. Consumers want free digital media, but there are costs to those publications, and with limited advertising options today, few can sustain such ventures from small, regionally based clubs. It is also true that the work required to produce newsletters and magazines today is substantially different thanks to the digital era, with both the technological demands +and opportunities However, the funding model is also very different, as the classified advertisements that enabled a periodical like Perceptions to defray some of their production costs (all contributors were volunteers and unpaid) no longer exist.  Given the struggles of mainstream newspapers and magazines to find a digital model that is financially sustainable, it is little wonder that smaller, formerly community based periodicals, would also be challenged by the new realities of digital “content” providing. that digital publishing presents.

Ultimately, today’s ease of access to social media and ongoing news cycles has won over users, but the costs – to community building, regional and national knowledge, cultural opportunities, and the distinctive regional voices provided by these early queer presses and publications we’ve lost – are substantial.


[1] Gens Hellquist, “A Prairie Boy Remembers,” Perceptions (March 6, 1991), pg. 4.

[2] Kevin Allen, “Club Carousel’s Birthdate Found,” Calgary Gay History Project (March 14, 2024).

[3] Kevin Allen, “Club Carousel,” Our Past Matters: Stories of Gay Calgary (ASP Publishing, 2018), pg. 36–39.

[4] Histories of these clubs can be found in Valerie J. Korinek, Prairie Fairies: A History of Queer Communities and People in Western Canada, 1930–1985 (University of Toronto Press, 2018). You may also locate information at various local history projects, including the Calgary Gay History Project, the Edmonton Queer History Project, and Winnnipeg’s Rainbow Resource Centre.

[5] Valerie J. Korinek, “VOICES of Gay, Lesbian and Feminist Activists in the Prairies,” American Periodicals: A Journal of History and Criticism, Vol 28, No. 2, (2018, p. 126).

[6] Kevin Allen, “Before the Net: Calgary’s 70s Gay Press,” Calgary Gay History Project (March 2, 2017).

[7] Carousel Capers 4, No. 6 (June 1973). As cited in Valerie J. Korinek, Prairie Fairies: A History of Queer Communities and People in Western Canada, 1930–1985 (p. 219).

[8] Korinek, “VOICES,” pg. 127.

[9] See June 1978 Gay Saskatchewan cover, Vol. 1, No. 5, in Valerie J. Korinek, Prairie Fairies, pg. 203.

[10] Korinek, Prairie Fairies pg. 324.

[11] Korinek, Prairie Fairies, pg. 261.

[12] See Valerie J. Korinek, “VOICES” (pp. 131–132), for more details on this perspective.

[13] Gens Hellquist, “100 Issues and Still Ticking,” Perceptions (October 25, 1993), pg. 6.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Jennifer, “Rural Connections,” Perceptions (April 13, 1988), pg. 26.