This year, in honour of Pride month, we decided to go back in time to highlight stories which have shaped the rights of the LGBTQ2+ community in North America. Marsha P. Johnson played a huge role in the solidarity movement for LGBTQ2+ rights in the United States. We later published an article to expose the “Fruit Machine” designed to detect gay people in order to remove them from government jobs, or to classify them so that they would not be offered work. All these stories are part of this community’s past. UCTE has also decided to highlight the story of a man who fought for LGBTQ2+ rights in Canada: Jim Egan.
Toronto native Jim Egan was born in September of 1921. He had his first homosexual experience during the Second World War. It is important to note, when he returned from the Navy, homosexuality was still a criminal act, which meant he could have been imprisoned if caught by the authorities. His history as an activist for the LGBTQ2+ community began in the 1950s. How? He took it upon himself to write and send letters to all magazine and newspaper editors who had printed homophobic articles. The majority of his letters went unpublished in magazines and journals, but it was in the writing of these that Jim Egan developed his passion, and he began to write a series of columns on homosexuality for the True News Times. This was a very special edition, among the very first published with a homosexual perspective.
© Jim Egan’s article first published in the True News Times, dated 1951 (Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives/Homewood Books)
When Egan began to come out publicly, many people were terrified. In 1960, it was uncommon to speak out about homosexuality, as homophobia was not yet a concept. This is because heterosexuals were unaware of all that surrounded the LGBTQ2+ community. The Canadian population was not quite aware of the existence of homosexuals, and a lot of fear and hatred came to be directed at the LGBTQ2+ communities. Jim had exposed the truth without really understanding the consequences of his actions.
His long-time lover was Jack Nesbit. By putting himself in the spotlight, Jim was becoming more and more associated with homosexuality, and people were recognizing him. Several issues tested his relationship with Jack, including constant disturbances on their phone line. They decided to isolate themselves in the country for 20 years and to let the dust settle.
In 1987, everything changed. Jim and Jack decided to fight for their rights.
The couple decided to use the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to challenge the denial of pension benefits to same-sex couples. Eight years later, following endless hearings and unsuccessful appeals, their case became the first gay rights case to be heard by the Supreme Court of Canada under the Charter. Although they lost by a vote of five to four, the Court ruled that the equality rights section of the Charter should now include sexual orientation. This provided an opening for the success of future cases and paved the way for huge legal gains for LGBTQ people in the decades to come.
In summary, Jim Egan and Jack Nesbit made Canadian history. Both men died in 2000, Jim at 79 and Jack at 72. Jim’s memoirs were published in the book, Challenging the Conspiracy of Silence: My Life as a Canadian Gay Activist. In addition, in 1995, a documentary was made to honour the love these men had for one another: Jim Loves Jack. Jim Egan made history with his writings and for his fight for the rights of the LGBTQ2+ community.
© Heritage Minute — Jim Egan (Historica Canada)