Ottawa Trans History

Remembrance of things past

Tara’s personal recollection of a slice of Ottawa trans history

In April 1980, an article titled “The Ottawa Non-Scene” appeared in TAMs and tissues, a Montreal newsletter for transvestites and transsexuals. Written by Micheline J., it lamented the fact there was almost nowhere for a trans person to go in Ottawa and concluded with the question “Where is everybody?”

Coincidentally, the same month the following classified ad appeared in the Ottawa Citizen:

Transvestism, Transsexualism. The unigenderist society for androgyny works to advance the lifestyle, interests and unity of transgendered persons everywhere through the creation of a unigenderist counterculture alternative.

This so called unigenderist society was little more than a male born trans person called Sonia Stevens working out of her one room flat in a now demolished building that stood opposite the main branch of the Ottawa Public Library on Laurier Avenue.

I first met Sonia a month earlier. I had phoned the Metropolitan Community Church, which at that time was operating a help line for gays and lesbians, and asked if they knew of any trans groups in Ottawa. The person at the other end of the line gave me Sonia’s phone number. He told me they received quite a few calls from trannies and inquired whether he could ask me a few questions, as he didn’t know what to tell them. He claimed I seemed to have “my head together”, which was news to me.

The day before I was to visit Sonia, it started snowing and didn’t finish until several hours before I was to leave for her apartment. The snow was thick and wet and many streets were-barely passable. The stress of driving my car across town in these conditions combined with my impending visit gave me a bad case of the jitters, but as I lodged my car up against a snowbank opposite Sonia’s place, I knew that despite my anxiety I had to go in.

When I first met her, Sonia was living on the top floor of a duplex on Lebreton Street, near Little Italy. The front room of her apartment was decorated with a shabby sofa, worn to the wood on the arms, a table, a few chairs and a record player, with a large number of 45s scattered on the floor around it. Although it was March, the Christmas decorations were still up.

Sonia was a highly intelligent person and that night we had some interesting conversations, but she was also undeniably odd. Her interest in transgenderism seemed almost entirely political and she relished engaging her intellect by arguing.

Once, after she had moved to Laurier Avenue, we encountered a teenage couple outside her apartment building. They did a small double take upon seeing us and then turned into Sonia’s building and started up the stairs. As we were following behind them, Sonia burst into an incredible speech decrying the immorality and decadence of transvestism. This continued loudly and without pause up the three floors to Sonia’s apartment. By the time we reached her door and the couple had knocked on the door of the apartment down the hail, they looked to be thoroughly intimidated by her sarcasm. I didn’t think it had been at all necessary and she probably did more harm than good. When their door finally opened, I heard the guy say, “Boy, you’ve got weird neighbours.”

That was Sonia. Like most trans people, I once thought all trannies were unusual except for me, and Sonia generally didn’t give me much reason to think otherwise.

Still, when Sonia placed her classified ad, I knew I had to be a part of her “unigenderist counterculture alternative”.

She asked me if I could talk to some of the people who called and I, thinking that we were building something important, said yes. Unfortunately, Sonia’s screening process was non-existent and soon I was receiving calls from people whose primary interest was their own sexual self satisfaction. I knew I was in trouble when they started asking me, in very particular detail, what I was wearing. One fellow, who spoke like Hal from the movie 2001, phoned me intermittently for two years, somehow finding my number even after I had moved. I could never quite figure out what he wanted from me. It was obvious he wasn’t a trannie and yet he never got to the point of heavy breathing. I finally got rid of him by launching a barrage of personal questions at him, which evidently made him very uncomfortable. I never heard from him after that.

There were, however, many genuine trans people phoning also. Most just needed someone to talk to, but there were a sufficient number of people whose deep need to express themselves overcame whatever inhibitions they may have had.

Our coming out was May 3, 1980 when Danielle, the transsexual of our unigenderist society, held a party at her small basement bachelor at The Athlone apartments on MacLaren Street in Centretown. It was the first time I ventured outside in my skirts and the release of years of pent up frustration was exhilarating. Tucked away in Danielle’s flat, I felt like we were a group of political dissidents living under some repressive regime, an apt analogy of trans living I have since come to believe.

The Athlone Apartments. The building needs a plaque: “On May 3, 1980 here met for the first and only time the Unigenderist Society of Ottawa.”

There were about fifteen of us crammed into that small apartment, including three conventionally gendered people who wandered in without knowing exactly what they were wandering into. They too were swept up in the positive energy of the evening. When it became too cramped to move around, Micheline, who had written the article about Ottawa’s non-scene and who awed us with her ease in going anywhere she pleased, suggested we go to the Coral Reef Club.

The Coral Reef was Ottawa’s enduring gay, lesbian and trans bar. Its location beneath a parking garage was appropriately discreet for the largely closeted queer communities of late 1960s Ottawa; but this advantage turned into a disadvantage when these same communities turned proud. Compared to the defiantly well located gay and lesbian bars that opened up in the 1980s, the Coral Reef was an anachronism, an unpleasant reminder of a closeted past. As the gay, lesbian, bi and trans communities look back on their past, however, the Coral Reef stands out for its longevity and it was hard not to be fond of it.

Such sentimentality does not diminish the fact that when I first approached the front door I felt like I was walking into the parking booth. It was the first time I had been to the Coral Reef and I didn’t think it could be much of a place, but after you went through the door and down the stairs, you found a surprisingly large room with a stage to your right. There was no live entertainment that night, but the disc jockey was playing some good tunes. It was about half full, but the dance floor was being put to good use and we blended in easily.

I had only one minor disagreeable encounter with a fellow who muttered something under his breath to me and later while I was on the dance floor walked by and raised his hand to his mouth as if to stifle a laugh. He didn’t upset me. Thinking of it now, I am reminded of Jayne County’s observation in her book Man Enough to be a Woman: “Gay or straight, an asshole is an asshole.”

My evening ended with small talk at Rachel’s Sweetland Avenue apartment. She had invited Laury and I there for some entirely unnecessary post Coral Reef drinks, which nevertheless we quickly agreed to. It had been such a magical evening that we didn’t want it to end. All these years later, Laury and Rachel are still friends of mine. (Rachel was the resident artist for the print edition Triple Echo.)

While we had high expectations after that evening, it is difficult to maintain the initial feelings of liberation over long periods of time when nothing is happening. We thought we were on the verge of a major breakthrough, but we were only beginning the beginning. That realization can be deflating, and it was for me.

The core members of the unigenderist society kept in touch for years afterwards. There were occasional meetings in cheap, too small motel rooms and sometimes in people’s apartments, but organizing was impossible.

Gradually people began to move on. I lost touch with Sonia. She was a difficult and complex person and yet I had grown to appreciate her, mostly for her intellect and for what she had done for me. I am sorry I do not know what happened to her. The trans community at that time inevitably foundered on people’s different needs and expectations and there were never enough of us to form separate, smaller groups of like minded people.

A conversation we had in September of 1983 in the Bagel-Bagel restaurant in the Byward Market typified this breakdown. Laury and I had just come from a drag show at the Coral Reef and were meeting up with Micheline, Nicole and a fellow named Jack to discuss the formation of a new group. I believe this group was eventually to become FACT, an affiliate of Foundation for the Advancement of Canadian Transsexuals, although at the time the precise nature of this new group hadn’t been established.

Everything was going well until Nicole told me that I would, of course, be obliged to wear a bra and a wig. Since I was dressed up but not wearing either at the time and was sitting in a straight restaurant in the middle of Ottawa’s busiest area without being hassled, it seemed absurd to me that I would be required to submit to this requirement to protect the sensitivities of trans people

“We’re breaking all the rules and you’re making new ones?” I was incredulous.

“You have to respect the decision of the majority,” Nicole said

“I do,” I answered, “that’s why I won’t be there.” Nicole suggested that an exception might be made for me, but I had no inclination to be an exception and did not want to participate. I realized I was beginning to sound a little like Groucho Marx: I refused to join any club that would have me as a member.

The problem, of course, was the age old one of visibility. It was not uncommon in those days for MTF trans women who did not pass to be required to come to meetings or parties in their male clothes. The option to change when you arrived was always available, but the requirement for secrecy and discretion was paramount. I couldn’t see how we were to build a proud community under conditions that enshrined more rights to passable trans people than to those who did not pass. I understood that transsexuals who lived in the real world were fearful of being discovered, but for me personally there was no advantage to being a part of such a group. These issues have become mercifully fewer as the trans community has matured, but they were very real at the time.

By 1988, the loose network of trans people that I knew was linked by a very slender thread.

In the spring of 1988, Judy K. decided she’d try to get a group together. Tired of living in a closet, Judy had joined the American heterosexual crossdressing organization The Society for the Second Self (Tri-Ess). She applied for a charter membership for the new group, called at that time New Ottawa Women, and set about trying to attract members. The first call went out to current Tri-Ess members in the Ottawa area. There were a few in Ottawa at the time, but not many who were sufficiently out to take an interest. Jenny G. was one.

Jenny, along with Micheline J., had been nursing the flickering flame for some years. I first met Jenny in March 1979 through Tri-Ess. Although at the time it was hugely significant to me personally (Jenny was the first trans person I had ever met), it’s significance for the trans community lay ten years down the road.

I had joined Tri-Ess in 1978, but my tentative step out of the closet left me disillusioned. I found the entry in my journal:

Today my mail from the Society for the Second Self arrived. I’m disappointed. For one thing, the publication they sent is hopelessly trite, complete with silly, philistine cartoons, grade two level poetry (“and wasn’t Joanne’s verse beautiful?” Oh, God!) and some rather foolish letters. The accompanying pamphlet on The Society for the Second Self is more sensible but has some atrocious pictures of men in women’s clothing. The ridiculous part is not that they look like men – they don’t – but rather that the clothes are so dowdy that they look like a group of Edith Bunkers.

Whatever my views of Tri-Ess at the time, and I freely admit they were somewhat cruel, my joining proved to be one of the more fortuitous decisions of my life. Never underestimate the importance of small events. Although Jenny and I maintained only cursory contact over those ten years, it was Jenny that phoned to let me know that Judy was organizing a new group.

The first meeting of New Ottawa Women took place May 4, 1988. There were six of us present, three Tri-Ess members and three members of the late, great unigenderist society. I enjoyed myself, but remained unconvinced:

Judy was mightily encouraged by our first meeting, but I felt as if I’d seen it before. She’s been getting a lot of phone calls and seems optimistic that these phone calls will materialize into people. I know, however, what a paranoid lot transvestites are. I have every intention of supporting her efforts, but for the time being have adopted a “show me” attitude.

I was wrong. Judy’s timing was perfect. Meeting twice a month in her west end townhouse (the dates were set around the time Judy had custody of her son), the group began to gather steam. As it did, it became clear that the initial rules of conduct, set in part by Tri-Ess and in part by Judy, who after all had to live at our meeting place long after we had left, were beginning to crumble. Although Judy initially wanted only passable trans people to come dressed, that rule collapsed almost immediately and she more or less threw up her hands in surrender. That liberal attitude was responsible for much of the development of what was to become Gender Mosaic. The diverse group of trans people parading from the visitors parking lot across the pavement down to Judy’s end unit must have caused no small amount of conversation around the barbecues that summer.

Little did those people know they were witnessing the beginning of a major piece of Ottawa trans history.