Community Homophile Association of Toronto (CHAT)
One of the most original – and desperately needed – social movements of the 1960s and 1970s was the gay liberation movement. Early signs of this movement began appearing in Toronto in the late 1960s, especially within segments of the counter culture. The University of Toronto Homophile Association, established in 1969, was the first organizational expression of this movement. But the founding of the Community Homophile Association of Toronto (CHAT) in late 1970 marked the beginning of a larger, more diverse, and ultimately more influential grouping.
Part of what CHAT did was promote visibility, by organizing news, events and services within the gay and lesbian community, building ties with sympathetic groups, and countering inaccurate and homophobic information in the media, while encouraging the public discussion of important community issues. A crucial aspect of this visibility was encouraging gays and lesbians to step out of the closet and be open with friends, co-workers and family about their sexuality.
CHAT quickly established its own office and led efforts to provide legal, medical, and other supportive services to local gays and lesbians. It set up a telephone help line to provide advice and support, started its own library and provided spaces for dances and meetings. CHAT briefly received a small amount of government money, under an employment creation program, but a homophobic backlash quickly ended that funding.
Arguments between members who wanted CHAT to focus largely on lobbying and providing social services, and those who wanted more direct action and less conciliatory rhetoric, produced internal tension. There was also some related friction after lesbians complained the organization spent much more time on men’s issues than women’s issues.
CHAT’s membership declined as the 1970s progressed, yet that can be seen as a sign of the organization’s success. While CHAT had functioned almost like a gay liberation clearing house, offering something for everyone, more specialized groups formed, focused on culture, politics, services or lesbian organizing. Many of the founders of these new groups had grown into being gay liberation activists from their earlier experiences in CHAT.
George Hislop was a co-founder of CHAT. As its director from 1970-1977, he became more identified with the organization than any other activist. George’s unsuccessful campaign for Toronto city council in 1980 brought him a lot of attention, much of it quite hostile. It was evident that many Torontonians weren’t willing to accept an openly-gay politician. Hislop returned to the public spotlight the following year, after police raids against local bathhouses angered and mobilized the city’s gay community. George Hislop Park, located downtown, steps away from Yonge Street, honours Hislop’s longstanding commitment to help his community attain basic human rights.
- Peter Graham