Pride month

Retrospective: 2SLGBTQ+ alumni reflect on Queen's experiences

At 1:20 am on June 28, 1969, New York City police raided the Stonewall Inn, a popular Greenwich Village gay bar. The approximately 200 patrons fought back, sparking six days of protests and inspiring generations of 2 Spirit, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and additional sexual orientations and gender identities (2SLGBTQ+)1 activists.

In honour of the 55th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, we interviewed seven 2SLGBTQ+ alumni to learn about their experiences and to see how the Queen’s community has evolved over the years.

The 1960s

The Queen’s University campus is 615 kilometres from Greenwich Village, but in 1969 it may as well have been at the other end of the world. In an age when same-sex activity was a criminal offense that carried a prison term, 2SLGBTQ+ people knew that living openly could lead to being denied service at a restaurant, being denied housing, ostracism from classmates and professors, and, often, beatings. As a result, they tended to keep their sexual identities to themselves. “No one was gay in those days,” says Gregg Blachford, Artsci’71.  

Blachford, who was not out at the time, remembers his Queen’s experience as happy, albeit steeped in denial.  “I dated women and they thought of me as the perfect gentleman because I never put my hands on them,” he says. “The problem was I didn’t have gay friends. Having people you can identify with is really what opens things up and makes you feel better about yourself.”

Blachford would later learn that there were other gay students at Queen’s at the time – including one of his roommates. Unfortunately, homophobia was so entrenched on campus that they couldn’t come out to each other. “We were so isolated that we were never able to bond,” he says. “We each lived in our own little hidden world.”

As he grew to accept his sexuality, Blachford slowly began looking to broaden his world. “Somehow I picked up that City Park, near the campus, was where gays cruised,” he says. “I remember going there in my third year. There was a man who followed me. I think he might have said hello, but I just scampered. I was too scared to stay.”

Not long afterward, he worked up the courage to enter The Cat’s Meow, a downtown Kingston bar that was popular among gay men. “I walked in, got terrified, and walked right out the door,” he says. “So, on those two occasions I dipped my toe in, but I couldn’t seem to follow through.” He was finally able to come out after graduation, once he had returned home to Toronto.

The 1970s

In the early 1970s, Toronto had taken its first steps toward a more inclusive future for the 2SLGBTQ+ community. By 1973, the city had its own gay magazine, had aired Canada’s first queer television series, and had taken part in the country’s inaugural Pride Week celebrations. And in October, Toronto City Council made history, becoming the first Canadian municipality to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation.

In the fall of 1973, after a popular student newspaper published a column rife with homophobic slurs, a letter of protest appeared in the Queen’s Journal. Signed by “Three Campus Homophiles,” it spoke out, not only against the column, but also against a campus culture that turned an intentional blind eye to violence, intimidation, and ingrained homophobia. It added that “Queen’s is one of the few universities left in North America which still does not have its own homophile association.”  

The letter sparked weeks of debate on the Journal’s letters to the editor page, including several letters defending the offending columnist and attacking the original letter writers. Still, it created enough momentum that, by the end of October, the Queen’s Homophile Association (QHA), the university’s first resource for 2SLGBTQ+ students, was born. In 1974, it became an officially sanctioned AMS organization. “They ran a phone line,” says Dr. Nancy Tatham, Artsci’86, Artsci’00. “There were a lot of callers who were alone and isolated. Or maybe they were kicked out of their houses when their roommates found out. It was a desperately needed service.”  

By 1975, the QHA had established a small resource library, and, a year later, they published their first newsletter. By 1977, they were holding dances every few months in the basement of the law school building, often attracting as many as 150 people.

The 1980s

Toronto experienced its own Stonewall moment in February of 1981, as more than 3,000 protesters took to the streets after city police arrested 286 people in a series of bathhouse raids.

Tatham arrived on campus in the fall of 1981 and came out the following year. “From my experience, there was nothing on campus, so it was very haphazard trying to find community,” she says. Her initiation into the community began with a chance encounter at the Queen’s Choral Society. “We had a break in rehearsal, and one of the other women went outside with me,” she recalls. “She said, ‘you’re one too, aren’t you?’”

Another chance encounter, arranged through a friend in a chemistry lab, led her to the QHA headquarters in the Grey House on what is now Bader Lane. “I lived in Vic Hall, right beside the Grey House,” Tatham says. “I remember being casually warned off. ‘Don’t go near the Grey House. That’s where…’  I don’t remember the exact terminology, but it wasn’t flattering. It was enough to scare me away, but I managed to get up the nerve and I went to a meeting there. That’s how it started for me.”

The mid-1980s was a hard time for 2SLGBTQ+ people around the world. “Rock Hudson had just died,” Tatham says. “AIDS awareness was bubbling up in the public consciousness, and a torrent of homophobia came up with it. We were being hunted down and beaten up.” That made it difficult for Queen’s students who were struggling to find community. “We put together a flying squad,” Tatham says, “because there were people who were too afraid to go to the Grey House. We would get letters that said, ‘Meet me at Place X and Time X. I will be wearing such and such. I just want to talk to someone.’”  

Tatham recalls the experience of a friend: “He was studying in Mac Corry in the middle of the day. A guy was staring him down very menacingly, so he gathered up his books and went down University Avenue. The guy caught up with him in front of Dunning Hall, grabbed him, pummeled him, and hurled his books onto the street. My friend watched as a bus drove over his books. He managed to run away, bleeding, but he told me it wasn’t the beating that hurt the most. It was that none of his fellow students intervened.”  

This was the environment that awaited Chris Veldhoven, Artsci’94, when he arrived on campus in the mid-1980s. Raised in part by a gay father, Veldhoven was more comfortable with his sexuality than many of his peers. “I was already out to my best friend when I got here,” he says. “And I started coming out publicly as I sensed a few other queer folk on campus. It was probably a little easier for me, but even I wasn’t out to everyone in my first year because of everything that was happening.”

Veldhoven and Tatham were part of a diverse and dedicated group of activists who worked tirelessly to change the prevailing attitudes. Veldhoven hosted After Stonewall, CFRC’s first queer radio show. “And because I was exploring studying theatre and theatre history, I met people and pulled together production teams for our first Pride theatre pieces,” he says. “We called ourselves Rebels With ‘Out’ Cause.”  

Tatham graduated in 1986 but remained on campus as a volunteer activist. "In a way, I was fortunate,” she says. “Looking back, I would say that my ability to focus on queer issues was in part because I had multiple privileges as a middle-class, WASP, able-bodied, neurotypical kid from semi-urban Southwestern Ontario with an intact, supportive family where I was the third generation to attend university. I didn’t have to deal with other issues because, my lesbianism aside, I had an easy ride. For those who were not of the mainstream, it was harder to come out, harder to find a place within the queer community, and harder to find a voice on a very white, very straight campus.”

Tatham and her fellow activists had a lot of work ahead of them. In 1987, she met a male student at a dance. A few days later, she bumped into him on the street. “I greeted him by name, and he just froze,” she says. “He was terrified. I saw him again later, and he said that he was with people who didn’t know, and he was afraid I was going to out him. I remember thinking that we should be able to walk down the street and not live in fear.”

That realization led Tatham to more activism. She teamed up with Francois Lachance, Artsci’82, “Queen’s first prominent gay and lesbian activist,” to stage an annual Lesbian and Gay Awareness Week, which culminated in 1989 in Kingston’s first Pride March. “We called it a Pride Stroll,” she says. “I remember gathering on somebody’s back deck. We made a banner, and we went to Market Square at high noon on a Saturday and we marched up Princess to Montreal Street, and then we turned around and marched back. There were no catcalls, nothing. But every shop door opened, and people were just standing there, agog. I think they were shocked.”

Another turning point came when Tatham and others met with the head of Student Counselling. “We told them they needed to offer services for lesbian and gay students,” she says. “And it became clear that they didn’t understand what the issues were.”  

Later that year, Tatham was invited to speak in one of the residences. “One person showed up,” she says. “But we quickly realized that there were all these people clustered at the door, so we invited them in, and it turned into a great meeting.” Dr. Elspeth Baugh, the Dean of Women, read a report about the meeting and voiced her approval. That vote of confidence inspired the group to hold more informal training sessions with residence dons and floor seniors.  

Lorne Gretsinger, ConEd’92, was one of those dons. He says he appreciated the training, but he wasn’t quite ready to come out himself. “I couldn’t come out at the time because it wasn’t a friendly environment,” he says. Despite the efforts of Tatham, Veldhoven, and others, the homophobic roots still ran deep on campus. “There would be posters that said, ‘wear jeans if you’re gay’ on a certain day, and no one would wear jeans that day.”

In addition to working as a don, Gretsinger was active in student government. “I frame it that I delayed coming out by keeping myself busy,” he says. “I was with this great group of volunteers and student politicians who wanted to make things better, but I also knew there was a target on those who spoke out. Everyone knew Chris was gay. Everyone knew Nancy was a lesbian. There were insults and slurs behind their backs. I was not authentic to myself, but they were, and I was so impressed with how they were living and the leadership they showed. And I knew I was going to get there eventually.”

The 1990s

In the early 1990s, the Yukon became Canada’s first province or territory to grant spousal benefits to same-sex partners. And soon-to-be Prime Minister Kim Campbell lifted the ban on gays and lesbians in the Canadian Forces.

At Queen’s, the QHA had adopted a more modern, inclusive name, the Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Association (LGBA). Still, the old attitudes prevailed – and not just on campus. Veldhoven, who by then was working in the Career Planning and Placement office, remembers a student who came to him for help. “It was during the break and they and their partner lived in separate cities,” he says. “They had a romantic conversation over the phone which they thought was private, but there were two phones in the household and one of their parents picked up the extension and overheard the conversation. The parent cut the student off financially, and the student asked me if I could write a letter of support to OSAP so they could survive and finish the year.”  

Stacy Kelly, Artsci’93, was also struggling to find acceptance when he arrived at Queen’s in the early 1990s. “I wasn’t really out, not even to myself,” he says. “Third year was especially difficult emotionally and, not surprisingly, academically.” While homophobia still existed on campus, Kelly experienced a different side of the Queen’s community. “The kindness of faculty and staff is what I will always remember,” he says.

“The late Dr. Norman Brown – I took Greek and Medieval philosophy with him. He knew something was up and he called me out of the blue and invited me to his office to speak with him. I was trembling as I knocked on the door because I don’t like conflict, but he had a plate of cookies and a glass of milk sitting there and he just said, ‘What’s going on? How can I help?’ There were many people who showed me enormous graciousness and caring when I was flailing. That’s what made Queen’s home for me.”

Meanwhile, a storm was brewing on campus. “There was a lot of outrage at that time around what was happening during Orientation Week,” Tatham recalls. “There was hazing, misogyny, homophobia.”  

Elena Christopoulos, Artsci’10, remembers coming to Queen’s in the fall of 1991. “We were driving down the 401 from Toronto,” she says. “My sister, who is 10 years younger than me, was in the car, and I remember my mother yelling, ‘Look down. Don’t look out the window.’ There were banners on the highway, put up by Queen’s students, that said things like, ‘Parents, drop off your virgins. We’re going to take their virginity.’”  

Once she had settled on campus, Christopoulos experienced challenges. “I wasn’t like everyone else,” she said, “and people made that clear to me. I was teased a lot and shamed.”  In her third year, she was sexually assaulted and hospitalized. She left the university and didn’t return for 15 years. “I couldn’t say the word ‘Queen’s’ without crying,” she says.  

Shortly after Christopoulos left, campus activists began making headway. By that time, LGBA volunteers had created a speakers’ bureau to provide training, both at Queen’s and throughout Kingston and the neighbouring communities. “We had never done this before,” Tatham says, “but we did a lot of research and put ourselves through grueling training and made ourselves available as speakers. We’d go in twos and threes wherever they would take us.”  

By the middle of the decade, a group of volunteers, which included Tatham and Veldhoven, interviewed students to gain a better understanding of their experiences and developed more formal anti-homophobia and anti-heterosexism training and delivered it across campus.

In 1997, Veldhoven published the AMS-funded Your Queer Community, Queen’s (and Kingston’s) first-ever guide to resources for 2SLGBTQ+ students, and a new climate of acceptance was slowly settling in. “We were seeing more pink triangles and rainbows around campus and more people were identifying as queer or as allies,” Tatham says. “Even though Queen’s may have realized that it needed to pull up its boots, the changes were coming from the grassroots – students, student organizations, professors, and teaching assistants pushing for change.”

The 2000s

By the turn of the millennium, the Supreme Court of Canada had ruled that same-sex couples had the same rights as common-law heterosexual couples, and adoption was now legal for gay and lesbian couples in most provinces.

At Queen’s, the LGBA had disbanded and was replaced by the Education on Queer Issues Project (EQuIP), and Kelly had returned to campus to work in the Admissions and Recruitment office. And while students and faculty were on a visible path to progress, the haze of homophobia still lingered in some corners. “I made a promise to myself in my workspace in Richardson Hall,” Kelly says. “My co-workers all had pictures of their spouses on their desks, and I promised myself I was going to put a picture of my boyfriend (now husband) on my desk, and if someone asked about it, I was going to tell the truth. And that’s what happened. Word got around, and someone said, ‘I really love working with you. It’s a shame you’re going to burn in hell.’ “

Kelly knew he had to respond, but he didn’t relish the thought of going through the traditional channels. “I didn’t want to navigate the terrible bureaucratic mess of filing a complaint,” he says, “so I decided to do something different.” He helped launch QUAQE, the Queen’s University Association for Queer Employees. “It took a while to get people to come out of the woodwork,” he says, “but the reaction was great. People really liked knowing there was a community for them.”  

As one of QUAQE’s early champions, Kelly found himself thrust into a leadership role. “Mostly, I just tried to be helpful,” he says. “A colleague would confide about their daughter coming out, that kind of thing. I tried to be a positive resource and a role model.” That included writing an op-ed piece to promote QUAQE in the Queen’s Gazette in which he came out to the entire university. “I didn’t really intend to do that,” he says. “I was just learning to become visible. There were people who were much more visible than I was – Chris, Nancy, Marney McDiarmid – these people were my heroes. I was watching them and learning and finding my own way as an advocate.”  

Dana Wesley, Artsci’09, MA’15, was also finding her way as an advocate during the first few years of the millennium. A member of the Moose Cree Nation who is bisexual and 2 Spirit, Wesley hadn’t seriously considered her sexuality before she arrived at Queen’s. “I had always had feelings and thoughts about all genders,” she says, “but I didn’t express them. I repressed them. But once I found my communities at Queen’s, I felt safe exploring what that meant to me.”

A former president of the Queen’s Native Students Association, Wesley divided her time between 2SLGBTQ+ and Indigenous causes during her 11 years on campus. “I felt like I was a part of these smaller communities that were at Queen’s, but not necessarily a part of Queen’s,” she says. “And that is not an isolated experience. I know a lot of racialized students and Indigenous students and other queer students and people who intersect all of those identities who felt the same way. We were at Queen’s, but we didn’t feel we belonged.”

Wesley focused her activism on bringing the university’s queer and Indigenous communities together. “A lot of it was having genuine conversations and helping to open up queer spaces within the Indigenous communities,” she says, “building understanding and eliminating barriers for queer and 2 Spirit students.”

Present day 

Today marriage equality is a reality in Canada from coast to coast, and the right to gender identity and gender expression is enshrined under the Canadian Human Rights Act. Kathleen Wynne, Artsci’76, became Ontario’s first openly lesbian premier in 2013, and queer, trans, and 2 Spirit politicians now serve in leadership roles in provincial and municipal governments across the country.

As Canada and its cities and provinces became more welcoming, there was one segment of the Queen’s community that had yet to embrace the revolution. Although Tatham had been part of a couple of unofficial Homecoming events over the years, there was no official 2SLGBTQ+ presence in the Queen’s alumni community. “Fast forward to 2019,” Kelly says. “A few of us were rumbling around, wondering if, in the spirit of QUAQE, maybe there was something similar we could do on the alumni side. Could we create a positive advocacy space for Queen’s alumni?” Later that year, the Queen’s Queer Alumni Chapter (QQAC) was born. The first official queer alumni event took place once in-person Homecoming returned from the pandemic hiatus in 2022. “It was history-making,” Kelly says. “People shared very openly and talked about their experiences. Now we’re looking to the future and wanting to solidify the chapter’s purpose around being a helpful bridge for queer, trans, and non-binary students.”

The QQAC is one of many services available to the Queen’s 2SLGBTQ+ community today. In addition to EQuIP and QUAQE, there are safe, inclusive spaces in all six faculties and the School of Graduate Studies, supportive services available at Yellow House and the Four Directions Indigenous Student Centre, advocacy services through the Levana Gender Advocacy Centre, and Pride celebrations through Queen’s Pride.

“Things have definitely changed for the better in the 50 years since I was at Queen’s,” Gregg Blachford says. “In many ways, we’re living in a different world.”  

Nancy Tatham agrees. “In the last 10 years, I’ve seen that, when kids enter university, there’s a lot more acceptance than there used to be,” she says. “Now there are far more people on campus who are open and accepting of someone in their life who is gay or trans or bi.”  

Lorne Gretsinger has also observed signs of progress. “When I come to campus and see the poster boards, it’s nice to see the diversity that’s here now,” he says. “It’s not just siloed in Grey House anymore.” He is also encouraged by the make-up of the university’s volunteer leadership. “As I look through the list of people on the University Council, I’m comforted, jazzed, actually, by the diversity of people who are now serving,” he says.  

One of those people is Elena Christopoulos, who was elected to University Council in 2022. “I wanted to be honest that my experience at Queen’s was tough on my physical and mental health,” she says. “Queen’s has made it clear that they want to hear about my experience, and they want to use it to help them do better. Universities typically move very slowly, and I’m proud to see that Queen’s is moving quickly. They’re asking the tough questions and listening to the voices that had previously been silenced.”  

“There is, increasingly, inclusive language and intentions in everything from job postings to the wording on assignments and exams and media releases,” Tatham adds. “And then you look at things like land acknowledgements and identifying one’s pronouns below one’s email signature. Such things look and sound like lip service (and they are, for some), but, with time, they become commonplace, and they let more and more light in and redefine expectations.

Do I think it’s better? Absolutely. Now I can walk on campus and see same-sex couples casually holding hands in broad daylight. You didn’t see that 10 years ago. You definitely didn’t see it when I was a student. Queen’s has seen great change in the past three decades, but it’s not perfect. There is plenty of work needed for greater support for 2SLGBTQ+ members of the Queen’s community -- and beyond.”

Indeed, members of the larger Queen’s community are still occasionally prone to backsliding into destructive old habits, dredging up hurtful memories in those who were around to experience them decades ago and creating new hurtful memories for a new generation of 2SLGBTQ+ students, faculty, and staff. And Tatham, Veldhoven, Kelly, Gretsinger, Wesley, Christopoulos, and Blachford all agree that Queen’s can still do much more, especially for trans students, non-binary students, and BIPOC queer students.  

“We have a huge opportunity to set the standard,” Wesley says. “Queen’s is seen as a leader in post-secondary education. That was drilled into us as undergrads. On our first day, they told us, ‘You’re the Harvard of the north. You’re the best of the best.’ So, let’s be the best of the best by setting the bar high and fighting for everyone in our community, making sure everyone feels accepted and welcome. Let’s do even more to show them that they belong here and that we’re happy they’re here.”

1The way members of the 2SLGBTQ+ community self-describe has evolved over the years. In the interest of inclusivity, we have chosen to use the contemporary term “2SLGBTQ+” throughout this story.

This story was originally published i]on the Queen's Alumni website.