Hustlers and some of Canada’s top politicians came to view him in his casket. He was a court expert on bathhouses and fought for samesex rights. He didn’t know how to put porn videos back in their boxes, but he could get a party started with the “Stripper” dance.
The lot who attended Toronto’s very first gay community dances in the mid-1970s would stand along the walls and shuffle their feet. Every time, George Hislop would break the ice by signalling for the tune, “The Stripper.” “And George, with his little round Pillsbury Doughboy body, would start taking off his clothes,” laughs long-time neighbour and friend Judith Moore. “He’d [only] go down to his gotchies—he didn’t want to be charged for obscenity in a public place.” One Valentine’s Day, he surprised the group with shocking red boxers.
Hislop—a community stalwart who lived for 78 years and seemingly gave his entire life to gay activism—was probably lucky, even if he kept his undies on. Consider what those times were like: gay sex was a fast track to jail until 1969, and dancing closer than 18 inches away from someone of the same sex got you arrested for gross indecency. There were stories of bashed gays calling for help, only to have the police come by and pop a few more punches. Cops were also notoriously accused of inflicting fat lips and concussions on gay men cruising at Cherry Beach.
“I remember Yonge Street on Halloween [in the 1970s],” says Jack Layton, [the late] leader of the federal New Democratic Party. “The drag queens were outside a bar, and the hooligans would come down and throw eggs.” For years, the attacks were considered family entertainment.
Back then, Layton was a professor at Ryerson Polytechnic. “George was the first gay person I had a long conversation with about what being gay was. We became friends.” Layton began to understand how awful everyday life was, how pervasive the hatred. “George was one of the very first people to give voice to those concerns… he was not the only one, but he was the elder uncle in the community.”
Layton recalls Hislop’s extraordinary ability to bring people together. “He was presenting a very edgy issue, but he didn’t come across as a threatening person.”
Actually, some within the gay community thought Hislop was a very big threat. For many, he was too loud. He was creating backlash, hurting gay people who just wanted to live quiet, closeted lives. But that’s not the life Hislop wanted.
His attitude was vindicated when it became clear that the acquiescence of many was only encouraging further harassment. The silence gave police the idea that they could get away with anything. That final “anything” was the massive gay bathhouse raids of 1981. But the raids galvanized the whole gay community, and the outrage forced a special municipal inquiry into relations between police and queers. Hislop even had a hand in that.
Peter Bochove had been arrested in the raids, as the owner of the Richmond Street Health Emporium, one of the fancier tubs. Police inflicted tens of thousands of dollars in property damage and the spa never reopened. But Bochove’s arrest didn’t keep him out of other bathhouses. He was still a regular a few months later, and recalls one specific day when he was having sex in a cubicle. He didn’t think anyone knew he was there. “There was a knock on the door, and I was there in a jockstrap and covered in baby oil,” recalls Bochove. It was George Hislop and another gay community activist, escorting the inquiry commissioner. They wanted Bochove’s input for the report, and he was interviewed right then and there.
That inquiry report was the beginning of a slow change in police procedure, and in gay political clout. Today, Toronto Police Chief William Blair calls George Hislop “an icon.” The chief has spent much of his working life in downtown Toronto, and the cop and the activist spoke often about gay-police relations. Blair says he was never aware of any wilful nastiness perpetrated by officers against gays (and wasn’t involved in the bathhouse raids). Still, Blair talks about today’s “better understanding” between police and the gay community. “For example, the sensitivity around bathhouses. It’s important for police officers to understand that history.”
Blair even recalls the first time he met Hislop, back in the early 1980s. He recognized the activist from the papers. Blair was undercover, buying drugs in a booze can on Homewood (Hislop wasn’t selling).
The chief couldn’t attend Hislop’s November 6 memorial, but he did send flowers to the funeral home. The memorial, held in the relaxed community space of a Church Street bar, was packed. So was the two-day open-casket viewing, held in a local funeral home. Hustlers, activists and all the folks in between came by for one or both events. There was a kid with his skateboard, even Ontario Chief Justice Roy McMurtry, the man long suspected of ordering the bathhouse raids when he was the province’s attorney general. (The theory began to lose steam when the heterosexual McMurtry began attending queer legal gatherings at Osgoode Hall to mark Pride Week, which is where McMurtry and Hislop finally met, according to lawyer and memorial MC Douglas Elliott. More recently, McMurtry’s judicial opinion helped legalize same-sex marriage in Ontario.) There were big shots galore at the memorial. Says one friend of Hislop’s: “If someone had said to him 30 years ago that there’s going to be politicians tripping all over themselves [at his memorial], he would have been quite surprised.”
The bad old days must have been personally rough on Hislop. While Peter Bochove was chatting away one day in the ’70s in a gay bar with Hislop and his partner, Ronnie Shearer, some 20 police officers ran in with guns drawn. They’d received a report that Hislop was lying in the bathroom, murdered. “It was pretty goddamned scary,” says Bochove. Somebody knew Hislop was there, and had called in the “tip” as a warning.
For days, someone telephoned Hislop every morning at 3am to scream, “Die, fag.” Police reportedly considered him a possible sex offender. Even a supportive straight politician, John Sewell, lost an election when the media began dubbing him the “prohomosexual mayor.”
Miraculously, Hislop was never injured. He didn’t take precautions either, always having a listed telephone number, in case someone needed him. Once, a man who needed him called and offered the location of a boy’s body in exchange for Hislop finding a lawyer and accompanying the caller to the police station. It was the summer of 1977, and the 12-year-old shoeshine boy, Emanuel Jaques, had been sexually assaulted, killed, stuffed into a garbage bag and left on a Yonge Street rooftop. Four men were charged; the media and public saw the murder as a gay crime. The boy’s burial was accompanied by a demonstration at City Hall that demanded the return of capital punishment and the elimination of gays.
In addition to the anti-gay hysteria, Hislop had to cope with his own unexpected personal involvement. The murder “sat very heavily” with him, says a friend. But all who knew him say that Hislop was unfailingly fearless and committed, regardless of what was said or done to him or to his community. Peter Bochove singles out influential columnist Claire Hoy for using his bully pulpit in the pages of the Toronto Sun in the late 1970s and early ’80s to heighten public hysteria against gays. Bochove says Hoy implied that murderous pedophilia was “normal behaviour for homosexuals.”
Through it all, Hislop managed to keep his sense of humour. Hoy once knelt down in front of Hislop for a quick confab at a city council meeting. Hislop turned to another reporter and said, “I want you to write that you saw Claire Hoy on his knees in front of George Hislop.”
Over the telephone, you can almost hear the wheels turn as committed gay rights adversary Claire Hoy thinks back to those days. He admits he may have used some intemperate language at the time. “I was pretty outspoken and public about my disdain. All sorts of things were dropped off at my door… like human feces. The feelings of the day were pretty strong.”
His writing was certainly shrill and angry; nonetheless, Hoy doesn’t think he ever equated pedophilia with homosexuality. He says he still disapproves of human rights protections based on sexual orientation, refusing to believe that an entire group should automatically be seen as disadvantaged. “I don’t have trouble with treating people well, but I don’t agree with making special laws for them.” He also calls Hislop an immoral man, reflecting an attitude towards homosexuality that comes in part from his Presbyterian upbringing.
Hoy and Hislop went out for lunch a couple of times. Neither succeeded in convincing the other of his point of view. But the act itself impressed Hoy, who says no other gay activist would have been seen in the company of the enemy. Says Hoy: “I don’t think George did things to grab headlines, unlike some. I had an admiration for George. And I’m not saying that just because he’s dead.”
George Hislop was born in Toronto in 1927. His father died when he was very young, and his mother was always supportive. When George was eight, his mom was asked how many children she had, and answered: “I have two boys. And George.” At least, that’s how George told it.
By Grade 9, he was sneaking into a female strip club on Queen Street by accompanying strapping boys who looked to be of legal age, Hislop told fab in a interview earlier this year. “But when I went to the washroom I discovered men cruising,” he said. Later he found “a cheap grind house, which is where they had movies starting at eight o’clock in the morning and running all day.” Sure enough, there were men hanging around the toilets. “I was too young—and looked even younger—to go into the beer parlours, so the movie parlours were a godsend to me.”
Hislop studied acting at the Royal Conservatory of Music, earning a living as an actor and sometime bartender. He did some union organizing, too.
In 1969, students at the University of Toronto founded a gay group. There was a need for something to bring people together. But community people—non-academics—weren’t really comfortable in the university environment. In 1970, Hislop helped organize the very first Toronto Pride celebration, “Gay Day Picnic.” And later that year, Hislop and a few friends founded CHAT, the Community Homophile Association of Toronto. “‘Homophile’ was an attempt to play down the ‘sex’ in ‘homosexual,’” he explained.
Dances were held at the Anglican Holy Trinity Church (beside the Eaton Centre). The pews could be unscrewed from the floor and pushed out of the way. “The only reservation that they had was that we would be ‘doing things,’” said Hislop. “So we made rules that you couldn’t go up on the altar; that was no-no land…. When the Bishop of Toronto found out, he wasn’t too happy. But the congregation was very supportive.”
When CHAT moved to Cecil Street, near Spadina, its office was firebombed. That prompted a move to Church Street.
Hislop began to spend more and more time on gay issues, which he was able to do because of his partner, Ronnie Shearer. On the day in 1958 when they met on the ferry to Hanlan’s Point, Hislop couldn’t take his eyes off Shearer’s ass. Their first date lasted for days.
“Ronnie did everything for George,” recalls Judith Moore, now a Vancouver resident, who moved in next door to the couple on Avenue Road and became a fast friend. (Although heterosexual, Moore became CHAT’s treasurer at Hislop’s request.) “He even picked out his clothes and laid them out for the morning. Ronnie kept his life in beautiful order.” When Shearer, a successful designer, went away on business trips, Moore’s job was to waltz into the apartment every morning, waken Hislop and prepare a poached egg on toast, tea and grapefruit. Hislop’s suppers were pre-scheduled with a selection of friends.
To be frank, Hislop was a ditzy blond when it came to finances and domestic skills. He never did learn to cook. And when friends once helped the pack rat move, it took a seven-ton truck multiple trips to take all of Hislop’s old newspapers to the dump.
“George couldn’t roll dimes,” says Peter Bochove of his friend’s inability to handle money. Hislop, and sometimes Shearer, partnered with various businesses, among them Robert’s on Church Street, Rogues on Hayden, and the Buddies bar/Crispin’s restaurant combo. There was some money, but no venture was successful enough to bring in long-term hard profits. (In fact, at least one business went bust in spectacularly expensive style.) Hislop’s job was not to run things, but to chat up customers and keep them happy. He was once arrested when authorities found illegal betting machines on a property in which he had a small stake. Peter Bochove says Hislop had no idea the machines were there—it wasn’t the sort of thing he would notice—and a judge, believing Hislop’s protestations of ignorance, acquitted him.
It was Hislop’s bathhouse connection, a 10% interest in the Barracks, that got him arrested for conspiring to keep a common bawdy house following the bathhouse raids. The Barracks gave him a small income (a few thousand a year). Majority owner Jerry Levy eventually bought Hislop out at what Bochove says was “a good price,” and afterwards Levy always helped Hislop financially. Levy’s later business, the now-defunct Spa on Maitland (co-owned by Bochove), gave Hislop a free pass for food and alcohol, as well as a cubicle that Hislop practically lived in for many years. Levy even paid for Hislop’s Blue Cross insurance plan, and when Levy died, his brother kept up payments on the premiums. So when Ronnie Shearer died in 1986, after 28 years with Hislop, others stepped in to look after him.
Hislop never sought another long-term relationship. There was simply no replacement for Ronnie.
Not that Hislop ever gave up on sex. Perish the thought! He even invented a new and improved glory hole. Hislop was short, and had to get up on his tippy-toes to poke his wee-wee through the holes, a posture that made the climactic moment less… liberating. One day, while wandering through the Spa on Maitland, he pointed out that if glory holes were remade into thin ovals measuring six inches from top to bottom, they’d be accessible to anyone from five-foot-six to six-foot-two. He got his wish, including hand grips at different heights. Call it a win for the differently abled.
Hislop loved the Yonge Street bar Sneakers, too. Manager Rick Stubbert says Hislop had been a customer almost since the bar opened in May 1995. Hislop came by just about every day until about a year ago, when his legs became too weak. Hislop’s double screwdriver was always ready by the time he got to the bar. “He was not a good tipper,” laughs Stubbert. “Generations of bartenders bitched and complained. George was tighter than bark to a tree. We loved him for other reasons.”
Hislop would walk to the back of the bar, hold court and watch the pool games. “In some ways he was a very private person,” says Stubbert. “The worst-kept secret in Toronto for months was that George had cancer. You weren’t allowed to discuss it in front of George. He didn’t want people feeling sorry for him, I guess. He was really afraid of that. He wanted to carry on to the end.”
Jane Greer put up signs for Hislop during his first (unsuccessful) run for political office in 1980. “It was very exciting—here was this out, brave guy.” A couple of years ago, Greer showed Hislop an old photo of herself with a campaign sign. Hislop looked carefully at the portrait, then said: “You were a real babe back then.”
Greer is a counsellor at the Hassle Free Clinic, opened in 1973 as a drop-in for hippies on bad trips. Toronto’s drug culture was in full swing and a generation of counterculture kids needed help without lectures from The Man.
Two years later, the drug scene had largely disappeared. Men and women were now looking for birth control and STI treatment. By then, the Hassle Free shared a building with CHAT (and other businesses) on Church Street, and thanks to clinic founders like the late Robert Trow, also a gay man, staff began to think about gay men’s health. Knowing it was a safe space, Hislop began sending friends there, which itself gave the clinic credibility. In 1975 the clinic was incorporated, and Hislop agreed to provide one of the signatures on the legal documents. He became the clinic’s first president.
Then came the gay plague. It was terrifying, unknown and deadly. The Hassle Free Clinic provided what care it could. When an HIV test became available in 1985, staff illegally offered anonymous testing. The blood would go to the lab with a number, no name. Hislop was still president. “Boards can get nervous around that much controversy. George didn’t,” says Greer, recalling that while Hislop would ask pointed questions, he was always ready to be convinced by knowledgeable staffers. “He totally trusted us to do our jobs.” Anonymous testing was finally legalized in Ontario in 1992.
Hislop twice tried to quit as president of Hassle Free. The first time, some five years ago, tremors had made it impossible for him to put his John Hancock on the dotted line. His resignation was refused; instead, someone else was made a signing officer. The next time, he could no longer manage the steep stairs that led to the clinic’s second-floor Church Street offices, and announced that his term on the board was up. Instead, laughs Greer, “We built him a new clinic, with a lift.” It opened at 66 Gerrard Street East in June 2004, and Hislop cut the ribbon. But Hislop’s final uppity political act was to sue the federal government for refusing to pay him a survivor’s pension. Gay men and lesbians who lost partners after January 1, 1998 receive Canada Pension Plan survivor benefits—but that date was picked arbitrarily, and it left out people like the widow Hislop. With activist and lawyer Douglas Elliott taking on the case, Hislop filed a class-action lawsuit against the feds on behalf of all those whose same-sex spouses died too soon to be considered “real” lovers.
Hislop won twice in the lower courts, and finally received a cheque in August for some $14,000 in back pay, which totalled more than his average annual income. The federal government is currently appealing the ruling to the Supreme Court of Canada and executor Christopher Hudspeth is now the lead plaintiff, representing George Hislop’s estate.
Appropriately enough, Hudspeth met Hislop some eight years ago in the bar at the Spa on Maitland, as Hudspeth and friends were finishing up a Church Street pub crawl. “George wandered up, sat and read a newspaper… I sat next to George and he told his jokes.” And then Hislop told his stories.
Says Hudspeth, a bartender: “I’m a history buff, but I didn’t know anything about my gay history. He had all this knowledge—he had lived all these things!” Hudspeth asked if he could return, and Hislop got him a pass. Hudspeth would sit, fully clothed, while Hislop was always in a towel. “I became a fixture around the Spa because I wanted to see George. I wanted to know more, to feel more a part of my community.
“All of my favourite stories have to do with George and Ronnie,” says Hudspeth. “I always loved hearing about Ronnie. I regret not knowing him. There is a dynamic in that relationship that went far beyond what I have seen, [what] anyone could ever hope for. They each had all the freedom in the world, and yet loved each other more than life itself.” Walter Lee works as a cleaner at one of the local tubs. A few months ago, as a favour to his boss, he agreed to have a go at Hislop’s apartment. Lee scrubbed the floors and bathtub for almost three hours. Hislop then tried to press a few dollars into his benefactor’s palm.
Lee’s partner died two years before the CPP cut-off date, and Lee had signed up for the class-action lawsuit after reading about Hislop’s fight in the papers. Because of George Hislop, the cleaner now receives a survivor pension of $183.71 a month. “The money’s OK; it’s not a lot. But the rights—I’m just happy [for my relationship] to be recognized. I told him, ‘You don’t have to pay me. You have done so much for the community.’”
Three weeks later, Lee thought it was time to drop by again for another quick cleaning session. He telephoned, but there was no answer.
George Hislop died on October 8.
George Hislop loved gay sex. He loved watching it, doing it, and encouraging others to do it. Hislop’s parties back in the 1970s tended to end in sex. And his partner, Ronnie Shearer, wasn’t invited. “They were definitely just George’s orgies,” says bathhouse entrepreneur Peter Bochove. “George didn’t want Ronnie to have sex with anyone else, and if he did, George didn’t want to know about it. I never attended, as I had no wish to be in a room where my grandmother was having sex.”
Hislop had one of the city’s few at-home 8mm gay porn movie stashes, which he’d haul out from under a table to get things started.
In the mid-1980s, Hislop adopted the pseudonym Dick Hardon to write porn reviews for the now-defunct Sightlines magazine. Hislop reviewed every flick he watched on an index card, even into 2005. In his later years, he’d rent three a day, four days a week (taking advantage of an $8 special). He also inherited late businessman Jerry Levy’s porn collection.
“He seemed never to watch the same one twice,” says Bochove. “And he never mastered the concept of putting the video back into its box.” He also never threw a video away.
A little while back, Bochove bought Hislop a DVD player. The gift was not appreciated; it was just another damned gadget… until Bochove pressed a few buttons on the remote and “zoomed in on a [porn] close-up.” Bochove recalls, “It took him overnight to master it. I got him 500 movies over three years.” Hislop wore out the machine, and needed another.
In 1988, Spa on Maitland co-owners Bochove and Jerry Levy went to court to force the City of Toronto to allow them to open their doors. Hislop was accepted as an expert witness on the tubs. The judge called him “a habitué of gay bathhouses for the past four-and-a-half decades” and spent a large chunk of his ruling quoting the promiscuous old codger. And Bochove believes that without Hislop’s testimony, Toronto would have only two bathhouses today.
Bochove adds that Hislop “never met a fetish he didn’t like.” Bochove once told contestants at a best-jockstrap competition that they could keep the undergarments, which made Hislop livid. “He wanted them.”
Though he tried, George Hislop never managed to win election to public office. Mind you, the trying itself was a revolutionary act at the time. Hislop ran for city council in 1980 as the Ward Six candidate for a reformist municipal group. He beat out Jack Layton, who later became a city councillor and is now leader of the federal New Democratic Party, for the nomination.
Layton recalls that Hislop bused in men from gay bars for the nomination meeting. Layton lost by 15 ballots out of some 400 cast. Hislop used to admit that Layton’s speech was a barnburner. “He said if I’d undone another button or two of my shirt, I would have won,” recalls Layton. “When I think of George, I think of that giggle. He just had this sense of delight about him all the time.” Hislop became the first out gay man to run for public office in Toronto. He lost, of course.
He then ran for provincial parliament as an independent in 1981 (another gay first), to bring attention to the all-party refusal to add “sexual orientation” into the Ontario Human Rights Code. He was criticized for splitting the vote and allowing a Tory to win.
But he continued to serve political roles. In 1979, Hislop was the first openly gay person appointed to a city committee—the planning board. Layton says Hislop later became a force in Toronto’s municipal planning and historical preservation work. Later, he was appointed to the city’s Planning Advisory Committee and, most recently, to the quasi-judicial Committee of Adjustment, a gig that gay city councillor Kyle Rae helped arrange. “He was passionate about design,” says Rae, and Hislop’s friends say he enjoyed the part-time job, which he held until his death. Hislop helped make decisions that ranged from permitting the replacement of a rotting deck to determining whether to change the permitted density in condos.
Rae also contacted the owners of 50 Alexander Street to ask that Greenwin Properties consider renting to Hislop when a vacancy came up. The philanthropic owners went on to give Hislop a deal on rent.
Kyle Rae was able to help Hislop one last time, in September. The septuagenarian was sent home by St. Michael’s Hospital after recovering from a spate of ill health, but Rae says Hislop was too frail to care for himself. The politician, who sits on the board of the Salvation Army-run Grace Hospital, made a phone call, and a bed was found.
The Salvation Army has long refused church membership to practicing homosexuals, but has said that it does not discriminate when it comes to providing services to the public. Even, apparently, when it comes to atheist gays. (Hislop was raised Protestant but gave up God later in life.) Hislop’s visitors and caregivers in his last days all say that the Grace Hospital staff were unfailingly good to them. Says Rae, “They were angels.”
Back when lawyer Douglas Elliott was a student, he met George Hislop in a Toronto bar. “First he was my hero, then he was my friend, then he was my client,” says Elliott, who filed the lawsuit against the federal government demanding CPP survivor benefits for a whole group of widows and widowers left out of the loop when same-sex spousal relationships were finally recognized in law.
Hislop was the lead plaintiff in the case. Normally, death means the end of a lawsuit. But because this is a class-action suit, the others involved ensure that the case will continue to the Supreme Court of Canada, which has scheduled a May hearing for an appeal.
“We could remove George’s name and continue, but that just wouldn’t be right,” says Elliott. He plans to keep the Hislop name front and centre. “Long after we are gone, the ‘Hislop case’ will continue to plague constitutional law students,” says Elliott.
The lawsuit was initially won in two lower courts, and the federal government finally sent out cheques for accumulated back pay to the seniors affected, with the proviso that the beneficiaries would have to pay the cash back if they lost in the country’s top court—an outcome Elliott calls unlikely.
Friends say that Hislop wanted to spend a bit of money on a gay cruise with lots of shirtless, hunky guys. Sadly, he never got the chance.