SPRING 1972—As a third-year American student at the University of Manitoba (UM) in Winnipeg, Canada in the early 1970s, I was eager to find other gay men and to participate in the energetic wave of gay rights activism that immediately followed Stonewall. At that time, Winnipeg was quite conservative, with only two “discreet” gay bars and a private, gay social club that did not have a liquor license. Neither the bars nor the private club appealed to me. The folks at both bars were pleasant but, except for those in drag, most guys seemed closeted and fearful of being outed. One of the bars even disallowed close dancing by same-sex couples because of Manitoba’s strict liquor laws. I wanted something more than forlornly staring into my beer behind blacked-out windows.
In the early fall of 1971, someone had posted a notice in the university newspaper inviting students to meet to form a campus gay/lesbian organization. About 20 people showed up at the first meeting. After some discussion, we decided to continue meeting and to form the “Campus Gay Club.” The club’s new leadership consisted primarily of people from cities other than Winnipeg, as most Winnipeggers were concerned about being outed. In the classic scenario where a group asks who might agree to be “in charge”, it seemed that everyone else figuratively took a step backward, leaving me to reluctantly agree to lead. I had only come out to myself the year before, but, being from Minneapolis, I could more easily afford to come out publicly; I therefore accepted the charge.
The job entailed first determining with others the goals of the group, doing radio and TV interviews, finding activities and speakers for monthly meetings, connecting with other gay rights groups around Canada and the US, and working with the group to put up posters around campus about gay and lesbian issues. In late 1971, we had learned that Jack Baker and Michael McConnell from Minneapolis had applied for but were denied a marriage license from the county. Jack was the incredibly popular two-year president of the Minnesota Student’s Association at the University of Minnesota.
We decided to invite Jack to Winnipeg to speak at UM’s “Friday Forum,’ a regular weekly event where nationally well-known speakers and musicians were invited to speak or perform. We had assumed he was going to speak about gay rights in general , but he wanted to focus his speech on same-sex marriage. Note that this was in early 1972, when basic gay rights were still considered radical by many and same-sex marriage was not even on the radar of most queers.
Attendance at the event was the highest of any Friday Forum that entire school year. Thousands showed up, much to our chagrin. As the leader of the Campus Gay Club, I had the responsibility of first briefly describing the club’s activities and providing a few insights into the local atmosphere for gays and lesbians in Winnipeg. I then introduced Jack. I was a nervous wreck, never having spoken in front of that many people and knowing that many of my student colleagues had no idea I was gay.
Within the first few minutes, several random individuals loudly called out slurs – “faggot,” “homo,” and “queer.” This was going to be a lot harder than I thought. Then a man near the front raised his hand and asked if he could interrupt me and speak for a moment. I thought, “Oh boy. Here it comes.” He then turned to the audience and said, to paraphrase, “Probably like many of you, I don’t know anything about this topic, but I’m here to learn. This is a university and we should all be here to learn. If you are not willing to be quiet and respectful, then I suggest you leave now and allow the rest of us to hear what the speakers have to say.” At that point, the entire audience erupted in wild applause. I was going to be OK.
Jack gave a passionate and powerful speech about why same-sex marriage should be legalized throughout Canada and the US. To this day, I still get goosebumps when recalling this event , as it was such a watershed moment for my self-esteem. It energized me to push forward for queer rights from then on. For that , I still thank Jack Baker and the supportive man in the audience.
Editor’s note: After completing undergraduate and graduate degrees and working in urban planning for eight years, Kirk went on to a long career as a high school and middle school teacher in Seattle and San Francisco. Throughout his teaching career, Kirk raised awareness among students about North American queer history and remained a vocal activist for LGBT and student rights. After that, among other activities, he started a local GLSEN chapter in Seattle in 1995, joined the GLSEN National Board in 1997, and ran GLSEN’s San Francisco office from 1999-2005.—Kirk Bell