Gens Hellquist


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.

Saskatoon’s 2SLGBTQ+ community owes a considerable debt to Gens Hellquist for his foundational role in creating one of the first explicitly gay organizations in Saskatchewan. Over the course of 40 years, Hellquist enriched the lives of Saskatonians by taking on leadership roles in queer, community, and health activism rather than seeking opportunities elsewhere.

“Gens Hellquist.” Image courtesy of The Richards Collection, University of Saskatchewan. Image #: MG355_Richards_SA1067_Photos_SB13403_GensHellquist_p_012

As a baby boomer, Hellquist came of age in an era where discussions of homosexuality were very limited. In interviews, he recalled that he heard the word homosexual for the first time at the age of 13, looked it up in the dictionary, and realized then and there that his feelings of “difference” had a name. But “obtaining information on homosexuality was next to impossible in the ’50s. At times I wondered if I might be the only homosexual in Saskatoon.” Loneliness was a constant during his teen years, and he recalled that “what I felt seemed so natural to me, although there were times when the thought of being a homosexual terrified me.”[1] People didn’t talk about sexuality, much less homosexuality, in those days, and so Hellquist was on his own to figure out what to do with this knowledge.

In his early teenage years, Hellquist discovered physique magazines – magazines that supposedly targeted an audience of bodybuilders. Once he found those readily available for sale on newsstands throughout the city, he realized he couldn’t possibly be the only one. Who else but gay men would be reading these magazines with the glossy photos of attractive, well-built men posing in skimpy bathing suits, or apparently nude, for the enjoyment of readers? So Hellquist began to stake out the newsstands – hoping to meet other men who bought physique magazines. One day in the mid 1960s, he hit the jackpot in downtown Saskatoon when he saw another man purchase one. Hellquist followed him out of the News Agency on 2ndAvenue (Saskatoon’s main downtown street), and eventually they stopped in front of a store window. Hellquist casually asked the man where he could find other men who read these magazines. The answer was Kiwanis Park, on the South Saskatchewan River next to the Bessborough Hotel, and Hellquist headed there that same night. He recalled talking to a man for hours, and from that point forward “the park became a home for me, and I no longer felt so alone.”[2] Soon after that, in 1965, at the age of 19, Hellquist came “out” as a gay man.[3]

Hellquist remembered Kiwanis Park as a “community centre”; a place that gay men (and it was a solely male space) socialized and were free to be themselves. They found lovers or people to build relationships with, developed friendships, and organized social events like gay male house parties. Initially, Hellquist was thrilled by his discovery of this community; however, given Saskatoon’s harsh winter climate, the park scene wasn’t a feasible location for socializing year-round. Further still, “the evidence of alcoholism and depression throughout the community of men I had met and become friends with was obvious.”[4] Raised in a Baptist teetotal family, Hellquist wasn’t used to socializing in bars or pubs, and he found the other location for gay men to socialize – The Cove, at the King George Hotel – also limiting. A few tables of gay men, drinking and chatting, was not exactly a “scene,” and, while he learned to “tolerate” nursing a rum and coke, this experience was wanting. Then, in 1969, news started to filter back to Saskatoon, via the alternative Vancouver newspaper The Georgia Straight, about the Stonewall riots in New York City.

In response to the events in New York, “gay liberation” groups began to proliferate in North America. Closer to home, a gay and lesbian membership club had opened in Calgary. In 1970, Hellquist and some friends piled into a car and drove eight hours to Calgary to attend Club Carousel, the first members-only gay and lesbian club in the Prairies. Hellquist recalled accessing the downstairs club via a back alley:

“Walking through those doors was an exciting and terrifying moment for me. Once inside I relaxed and started to enjoy the feeling of being in a place where men and women could openly be themselves and, my gawd, openly dance with someone of the same sex. It was the first time I met lesbians as they had never been part of the park, bar or party scene.”

Gens Hellquist, “The Adventures of a Prairie Fag – Part I,” Perceptions, March 14, 2001, p.6

It wasn’t long before Hellquist was suggesting that Saskatoon create its own openly gay and lesbian public space. One of his older friends, Dan Nalbach, an American from Buffalo who was a drama professor at the University of Saskatchewan, was a mentor and sounding board for Hellquist. Together, at Hellquist’s urging, Nalbach and Hellquist rented a post office box and placed a small ad in The Georgia Straight in March 1971 that read “Saskatoon Gay Liberation, P.O. Box 3043.” Then they waited for others to write in asking for information about their group. Responses trickled in, and they met with the people who had written. Those people in turn suggested a few of their friends, and slowly momentum grew such that by the summer of 1971, the Saskatoon Gay Liberation group started planning gay social events in Saskatoon. These plans began by claiming informal gay space in a local bar – the Apollo Room at the Ritz Hotel – which became a key venue for gay men and women to socialize during the 1970s. Another gay club was established on the University of Saskatchewan campus in the fall of 1971.[5] In January 1972, the first meeting of the Zodiac Friendship Society, Saskatoon’s second gay organization, was held. Shortly thereafter, on Friday, February 11, 1972, the Zodiac Friendship Society held its first dance, Saskatoon’s first public gay and lesbian event, at the Unitarian Church.

From the start of the Saskatoon Gay Liberation group, and subsequently going on to serve as the president of the Zodiac Friendship Society, Hellquist would be involved with the city’s gay, lesbian, and, later, queer politics for the remainder of his life. The membership club model, which was popular in the Prairies, was predicated on strong support for social and community spaces, dances, telephone information lines, drop-in counselling and support, and libraries. And in Saskatoon there was a strong activist wing. Hellquist and a dedicated crew of gay male friends – and, by the mid 1970s, lesbian feminists – began to demand more than spaces to be social and come out as a community. They demanded recognition for Pride weeks; legal rights to retain children post-divorce (for lesbian mothers); and human rights extensions to prevent people being fired, thrown out of their rental housing, or being discriminated against in accessing healthcare, services, or government programs. But above all, they advocated for visibility, pride, and full recognition from mainstream Saskatoon residents. This was vitally important, and difficult, work.

Throughout his many years of community involvement, Hellquist served as the president of the Gay Community Centre of Saskatoon; the executive director of the Community AIDS Resource Centre, where he created a crisis and information line; and, in the late 1970s, the founding director of Gay and Lesbian Health Services (GLHS, 1991–2003). Hellquist was also the editor of the longest-running gay periodical in western Canada, Perceptions magazine, from 1983 to 2013, and was involved in the Canadian Rainbow Health Coalition.

Hellquist died in September 2013 but would take immeasurable pride in the fact GLHS continues to this day, under the new name OUTSaskatoon, and is located in one of the core neighbourhoods in Saskatoon, where it continues to provide services, support, and space for 2SLGBTQ+ people. The hallmark of a Hellquist-led organization was in the social services, counselling, and support – each organization he created would, in some version or other, host phone information nights, informal drop-ins and open houses, and a variety of youth programming. A Hellquist-led organization provided a space for men and women to come out, and they often had libraries that circulated literature that spoke to the needs of their clients. These organizations also pressed for healthcare funding, recognition, support for gay men living with HIV/AIDS, and, later, supports for mental and physical health issues that disproportionately affect the 2SLGBTQ+ community. In his later years, via Perceptions but also in public talks and presentations, Hellquist championed how his “tribe” (as he referred to 2SLGBTQ+ people) was still affected by inequity, adverse health outcomes, and financial insecurity due to homophobic discrimination, sexism, and racism.

“Gens Hellquist” (Painting). Image courtesy of Duncan Campbell and The ArQuives: Canada’s LGBTQ2+ Archives, Toronto, Ontario

Hellquist spoke about what he knew, as having dedicated his life to support his community, and to better Saskatoon. He had forgone financial and career opportunities elsewhere because of loyalty and commitment to his community. We can only imagine how his own health was affected by his work to forge a more equitable path for others. As Canadian society started to become more accepting of 2SLGBTQ+ people, recognition for his work was eventually given through the provincial, national, and local honours that he received in the last few years of his life. In 2005, he was awarded the Saskatchewan Order of Merit, and in 2010 he was inducted into the Q Hall of Fame for his contributions to Canadian queer lives.[6] He was eulogized in his obituary as a “fierce warrior, tireless and strong in his relentless advocacy for the GLBT community, his work spanned over four decades. His determination, passion, and absolute belief in what true equality means have changed the landscape for all GLBT people in Saskatoon and nationwide.”[7] In two lengthy interviews with me for my book, Prairie Fairies, Gens was generous in his words for his activist colleagues and their contributions to making Saskatoon more livable for young queer kids as he had once been. But it was evident that much of the leadership, vision, and entrepreneurialism to create organizations and spaces, foster community, and help people was his and a small handful of other equally remarkable individuals.[8]

[1] Gens Hellquist, “The Adventures of a Prairie Fag – Part I,” Perceptions (March 14, 2001), pg. 5.

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

[3] Gens Hellquist, “The Adventures of a Prairie Fag – Part 1,” Perceptions (March 14, 2001), pg. 5.

[4] “Prairie Fag – Part I,” pg. 6.

[5] Valerie J. Korinek, Prairie Fairies (University of Toronto Press, 2018), pg. 169.

[6] Gens Hellquist obituary, Saskatoon Star Phoenix (October 7, 2013).

[7] Ibid.

[8] See Valerie J. Korinek, Prairie Fairies (University of Toronto Press, 2018).