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George Hislop, Toronto, ON Canada

On this day in 1980, George Hislop lost his bid to be the first openly gay city councillor in Toronto.  George was one of several openly gay pioneers who tried unsuccessfully to obtain elected office in an era of backlash against the LGBT movement.  He was an iconic hero of the LGBT movement, my mentor, my client and my friend.

 George was born in what was then Mimico, to a staunch Scottish Presbyterian family. George would later joke that he never came out of the closet - because he was never in it! All of his life, George loved to tell a joke, preferably an off colour one. In his later years, he would quip that he was “that dirty old man your mother warned you about!”
George became an actor. He was very proud of his elegant hands, which were featured in TV commercials for cigarettes.
George was a great historian and raconteur. He enjoyed the early gay life in Toronto that in the post war years was scattered around Toronto. As he told me, it revolved around “Queers” Corners” – the cheap taverns that used to line the south side of Queen Street West of Bay where the Sheraton Centre now stands. The Ford Hotel was another hang out where George might encounter his friend and mentor Jim Egan, Toronto’s first openly gay activist (before he and his partner Jack Nesbitt moved out west.)
George told me about one of the earliest gay hang outs on Church Street, the Melody Room. Same sex couples could be arrested for dancing together in public in those days. The Melody Room stationed someone at the door on the main floor near the light switch. If the police arrived and headed up the saris toward the dance floor, the switch would be rapidly flicked and people would switch partners to appear to be straight!
After returning from a stint in London, England, George made many friends in Toronto that would remain close to him throughout his life, including legendary drag queen Michelle DuBarry. Most important of all was Ronnie Shearer. George met Ronnie at the gay beach in Toronto at Hanlan’s Point in 1958 They became hopelessly devoted to each other until Ronnie’s premature death from a heart attack after surgery. They were the first openly gay couple in Macleans magazine in 1972 and also on national TV.
George said that decriminalization was the impetus for the gay liberation movement, as it was known in those days. In 1971, George cofounded the Community Homophile Association of Toronto (CHAT), one of Canada's first organizations for gays and lesbians. George became famous for his flamboyant appearances at CHAT social gatherings that would always be accompanied by the tune of “The Stripper.”
In those days, Canada’ big cities tended to have an “official homosexual,” a person who was willing to identify as gay and speak to the media about our community. George was Toronto’s official homosexual for many years. Some people in our community did not like it because they felt it was best for us to avoid drawing attention to ourselves.
Sometimes gays complained to George that did not agree to have him speak for them. George would respond by asking the person for their name and number so he could give it to the media the next time they called. No one took him up on the offer. It amazed me that George had his name and number listed publicly all his adult life. He got a lot of crank calls. However, George told me that it was worth it because sometimes he so often got calls from frightened young gays who were suicidal. He quietly saved many lives.
George was a real public activist as well. On August 28, 1971, he was an organizer of We Demand, the first Canadian gay rights demonstration on Parliament Hill. George would later return to Parliament Hill to testify in favour of including sexual orientation in the Charter of Rights.
It is hard to overstate the negative impact on Toronto’s LGBT community of the 1977 murder of 12 year old shoeshine boy Emanuel Jaques. George worked with the police to persuade the killer, a sadistic sexual psychopath named Saul Betesh, to turn himself into the police. Sadly, George got little credit for his efforts from anyone.
in 1980, George ran for Toronto City Council. He won the support of then-Mayor John Sewell, a move that contributed to Sewell's defeat. The Toronto police association openly campaigned against both of them in the election, describing it as taking out the trash.
The following year, George ran in the 1981 provincial election as an independent candidate in St. George. George had lifelong passion for politic, and counted many politicians among his friends. One such friend was Jack Layton, a man George once defeated in a nomination race. George wryly observed that if Jack had undone one more button on his short that George would have been doomed!
George went into business with Ronnie’s support in the 1970’s become a co-owner of the Barracks bathhouse, Crispins restaurant and Buddy’s bar. He was a pioneer of gay owned business that treated gay owned clients with respect. Buddy’s became my first “local” when I moved to Toronto in 1980.
George was charged in the infamous bath house raids that culminated in the massive Operation Soap in February 1981. I will never forget the horrendous psychological toil that it took on George. It was a low point in 4 years of intense backlash that had begun with the Jaques murder in 1977.

George faded form the public eye to some extent as a new generation of activists came along like me, people inspired by George, by the spirit of resistance triggered by the bathhouse raids and struggling int the face of the AIDS epidemic. George became a kind of elder statesmen, the unofficial “Mayor of Church Street”
George staged a political comeback of sorts when he accepted my invitation to spearhead a class action lawsuit against the federal government. The government had extended CPP survivor’s benefits to the surviving same-sex partners of deceased pensioners as of 1998, but the change was not retroactive to earlier deaths. Ronnie was the breadwinner in their family. As he had died in 1986, making George was ineligible for survivor benefits – he was told he was “the wrong sex.” Like a number of George’s friends, I was aware that George had been reduced to what he called “genteel poverty” after Ronnie’s death.
The suit aimed to have retroactive benefits extended back to the 1985 inclusion of gay and lesbian equality rights in the Charter. On November 26, 2004, the lawsuit ended in victory for Hislop and his co-plaintiffs, although the federal government subsequently filed a controversial appeal of the decision. However, the Crown was forced to pay benefits pending the Supreme Court of Canada hearing. George was delighted to cash the cheque in August of 2004, but poor health prevented him from taking that cruise he had wanted to enjoy.
The federal government lost the appeal on March 1, 2007, when the Supreme Court ruled in our favour. Although George had died before the hearing, it was carried on by his executor Christopher Robert Douglas Hudspeth.
Hislop v Canada remains a renowned legal precedent, as George proudly expected. George knew his name would live on, although he liked to call the case “The queen versus the Queen.”
Thankfully before his death, George was rightfully honoured. In June 2004, he was the Grand Marshal of Toronto's pride Parade.
In 2005, Hislop was the first-ever recipient of the International Lesbian and Gay Law Association's Karl Heinrich Ulrichs Award in honour of his contributions to the advancement of LGBT equality in Canada.
George died on October 8, 2005 in Toronto Grace Hospital, coincidentally the hospital where I was born. George died on Church Street.
Just one week after his death, George was posthumously awarded the inaugural Jonathan R. Steinert and Fernando G. Ferreiro Award, Canada's largest award for contributions to LGBT communities. The $12,500 award, established by the Lesbian and Gay Community Appeal Foundation, would be given to George's estate.
In honour of his role as a significant builder of LGBT culture and history in Canada, a portrait of George by his friend artist Norman Hatton is held by the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives' National Portrait Collection.
A park in the city's Church and Wellesley neighbourhood is also named in George's honour. We scattered his ashes in the bushes there as he requested, along with those of his little dog Fudger and his beloved Ronnie.
When Prime Minister Trudeau apologizes to the LGBT community later this year, I will be thinking of George.
by Douglas Elliott, Nov 10, 2017
Used with Permission