My Coming Out Summer of 1971 – Part One

Even though I’d had a few same-sex sexual experiences as a teenager and even though I couldn’t keep my desirous eyes off the guys in the gym locker room, I never thought I was gay. That all changed during My Coming Out Summer of 1971.

I managed to fool myself about my sexuality because, after all, I’d had girlfriends throughout high school and many female friends.

Remember that homosexuality, in the 1960s, was virtually invisible in public life, including the media; certainly no homoerotic images either (unless you count the men’s underwear section of the Eaton’s catalogue.)

This is all we had to work with

No role models to be seen and the few bits and pieces I found in the library about homosexuality were negative and/or tragic. That wasn’t me.

One problem for me, though, was that I scored pretty high up on the sissy scale. I threw a ball like a girl, as they say, certainly couldn’t catch one and the only sport I was any good at was skipping rope.   Despite that, I somehow avoided major bullying (or maybe I’ve blocked it from my memory).

The Girls and Drama Club Saved Me

I may have escaped the worst from the boys because I was able to socialize with the girls so easily – and they protected me. Along with that, I did well academically and participated in clubs and played tenor sax in the school band, gaining some kind of alternative status, I guess, allowing the bullying to be deflected.

My proudest moment was beating the football quarterback in the Charleston competition at one of the high school dances.

Because my mom instilled a strong sense of confidence in me, I didn’t think that the bullies could smell fear emanating from me either. Bullies attack the fearful and, although I was nervous, I seemed to be able to hide it.

My “safe space” was the Drama Club where I played major roles from Grade 10 to Grade 13. Later in life, I found out that several of the other boys in that Drama Club, as well as both the male teachers assisting us, were gay.

Off to Queen’s

For university, I left suburban Toronto in 1968 for Queen’s University in Kingston. If I’d gone to the University of Toronto downtown instead, my coming out might have happened sooner, but it was not going to happen in football-oriented, beer-drinking, no gay bar Queen’s.

Nevertheless, my experience at Queen’s was a happy one. I continued to go out with women who thought of me as the perfect gentleman because I never put my hands on them. So polite, that Gregg.

I joined the newly-formed Queen’s Musical Theatre (natch) and performed in The Boyfriend and The Pajama Game. This time, no leads – only the chorus.

Thanks, Andrea

In my final year (1971), I met Andrea, a fellow chorister and dancer in The Pajama Game and we started going out. She was only in her first year, but I soon learned that she was quite different from my previous “don’t touch” girlfriends.  We had lots of fun together but one late night in her apartment, she surprised me by pouncing and, shall we say, getting to second and third base and before I knew it, we were in bed working towards a home run.

Not only that, the next morning she walked around the room naked, as casual as can be. I’d never seen anyone so unselfconscious about sexuality and their body.

As an uptight WASP, this was a surprise to me — combined with joy. The escapades happened for a few more dates, but she — and I — quickly realized that I certainly wasn’t her best lover; most likely, I was her worst.

She then did the biggest favour for me. She told me that her dad, who was separated from her mom and living in Vancouver, was gay and that she loved him and all his gay friends and they had so much fun together whenever she visited him. On top of that, she told me that everyone needs to do what feels right for them and follow their dreams and desires.   OMG. I’d never heard anyone talk like that before.

I am eternally grateful to Andrea for being so sensitive to what was going on for me and for gently and so sweetly encouraging me out the closet door – without ever saying:  You do know you’re gay, don’t you? So why don’t you do something about it, you dummy?

Loosening Up

That was the starter. Then came My Coming Out Summer of 1971. I’d bagged a job as a Host at the brand new tourist attraction in the Toronto Harbourfront called Ontario Place. It was a cool job with all kinds of cool students and grads working there – mostly hetero.   They were hot to trot and seemed to be very used to exploring their feelings and following their desires.  I even grew a beard and let my hair grow longer which caused the management to ask me to cut it. You do know that men’s hair was the battleground with The Establishment in those days!  All us nascent hippies refused to trim our locks and they backed down.   My conservative self was loosening up.

Hair too long, I was told
Fellow hosts on holiday
Hetero hosts hot to trot
I still have my Ontario Place nametag

Working at Ontario Place necessitated renting a room in downtown Toronto. So, for the first time ever, I wasn’t going to live at my parents’ home in the suburbs. I was free to explore!

Looking in Windows

And explore I did. Yonge Street was and is Toronto’s main downtown street and I discovered that was where you could see gay men on the street – if you looked carefully. I learned about the power of eye contact. The way to start talking to handsome men was to stop and look in shop windows when you noticed someone noticing you. You both would become intensely interested in whatever was in that window!   The perfect opportunity to start talking and maybe head to Country Style Donuts which was hangout central at the time. Full of gays but not identified as such. A good cover.

I lived in a shared house right near Yorkville — a part of Toronto that was hippy central at that time. You could almost call us a commune — another eye opener. I was still hesitant to talk about “my truth”, but they certainly weren’t surprised when they saw me bring men home from time to time.

 The 8½ Party and I’m Off

At work, I started to meet other workers whom I suspected were gay. When one of them asked me if I was interested in joining him that night to go to a friend’s party, I didn’t hesitate to say yes. Just to be sure he had sussed me correctly, he did say, slowly and clearly,

“I should tell you that at this party, there will only be men.”

“No problem for me,” I quickly replied, my heart rate immediately doubling.

It was indeed a gay party with about 20 gay men in a swanky apartment – my first one. The party even had a name —The 8½ Party — after Fellini’s film “8½” and also in honour of the hosts’ 8½th Anniversary.   Wow. A party named after a film full of gay guys having fun and wanting to talk to me, given by hosts who’d had a relationship for many years. How cool was that?  Too bad I didn’t take a photo there! But I did find the movie poster.

Poster for Fellini’s “8½”

During this, My Coming Out Summer of 1971, I began to have fun and experience friendship with people like me – just like Andrea had told me her father did in Vancouver.   I’d never felt that way before about my same sex desire. It proved to be the key to me feeling fine about finally coming out to myself and, shortly after, a few friends. Graduating from closeted gay to new gay, I was ready to rock and roll.

Over the years, I learned that my coming out story was completely typical of many others of that time — and still now.  We always think we’re the only ones until we learn we’re not.

How different or similar is my coming out story to yours or someone you know?

14 thoughts on “My Coming Out Summer of 1971 – Part One

  1. Grace John says:

    Thanks for sharing your story, Gregg. As someone who didn’t grow up here but has definitely walked on Yonge street in Toronto, it’s special to know the layers of history to be discovered 🙂

  2. Greg Campbell says:

    Hi Gregg! Your coming out story and mine have many similarities, although I came out in 1977, in Montreal, and ended up in Toronto from 1982 on. I remember the Country Style Donuts and gay people sitting on the wall outside the bank (?) across from the donut store, cruising.
    I was no good at sports at all, but excelled at Footsie, a plastic cup attached to a ring you put round your leg, and you spun the cup round and round.
    I had a girlfriend at 14 who one day looked up at me on the couch, and I knew she wanted to go further than necking. I excused myself to go to the bathroom and talked to myself in there. I realized if I went any further, I’d be lying to her and myself, so I broke up with her soon after.
    Drama Club and the church Folk Group saved my bacon. We did The Music Man, and the other three guys who were in the Barbershop Quartet with me turned out, much later, to be gay as well. Even in high school, we called ourselves the Barbershop Queertet. I dated one of them until the Folk Group found out and we split up.
    At 17, I was in the chorus of The Boyfriend, with a company called Musicompany, and many of the cast were gay. Exciting! An actress in that cast told me a few years later that she remembered me wearing white disco pants that were so tight she could see a dime in my pocket, and it was Heads Up! I started going to the bars, Studio One, Le Jardin, and The Limelight, when I was 16 and looking 12, and was never carded in Montreal. We would go to the discos 3 or 4 nights a week in the summer, and I joined a Gay Youth Group, and we all went out to the clubs together. By the time I moved to Toronto in 1982, I was very comfortable with gay life, or at least familiar with it. I got called “Faggot” as soon as I arrived here, which rarely (if ever) happened in Montreal.
    A lot of this story is depicted in a one-man play I’ll be performing at Buddies In Bad Times, from April 24 to May 5, 2019. It’s called OUT. I play about 25 characters, and there is a scene about The Boyfriend, and my boyfriend in the Drama Club. And lots of disco music! Thanks for your story, Greg.

    1. Gregg Blachford says:

      You were in The Boyfriend too?! Our early experiences certainly overlap. Thank you for your comment. Fascinating. And great to hear you’ll be telling your story at Buddies soon. If I can get to Toronto at that time, I’ll certainly come and see you. In fact, Craig Barron had told me about your work. Congratulations.

  3. Henry Tunbridge says:

    Gregg, I have begun at the beginning (like the song). While I always liked theatre, I didn’t like performing. My worst appearance was as Judge Hawthorne in med volubly aboutCrucible. John Lee & other gay friends in the audience. The other classic experience was when Bobby Golden (then living in Sydney) attended the musical I directed. I think he supplied some of the costumes. It was Chew Chin Chow, & wouldn’t you know it he Trevor & Gus were sitting beside an aged Patrician brother. When Bobby exclaimed volubly about his costumes on stage, the brother innocently said, “Oh he’s your boy, is he? They also convulsed when the Principal was giving out the acknowledgements, citing the pianist giving up her lunch hours. They were so naughty, but it was hilarious. Loved all your explanations of cameras etc. & later tonight will settle down to Sydney excursion. Your blogs are so readable & deserve to be preserved for posterity.

    1. Gregg Blachford says:

      Thanks so much, Henry, for taking the time to write your comments and for sharing your own school stories with all those friends’ names I recognize. And I very much appreciate you methodically reading through my posts. I’ll look forward to reading any comments you might have about my posts from my time in Australia in the 70s.

  4. Henry Tunbridge says:

    Rereading the above, you would never think I taught English. Correction, I will begin at the beginning.

    1. Gregg Blachford says:

      After writing this post, I tracked Andrea down living in nearby Marrickville, ON. She let me know that she was playing in her local drama production and invited me to watch. David and I travelled there to see her. The performance was very good and we had a drink in a nearby pub afterwards. I told her this story and how important she’d been to me and she was touched. I was very happy that we reconnected. 😊

  5. Johanne says:

    Hi Gregg … I love your story of ‘coming out’. Very interesting ! It must have been very difficult prior to the ‘coming out’ not knowing who you really are and whether you would be accepted. I would hope that in 2022 that it is a natural progression of growing up and that it is not stigmatized with one’s peers. We, as a society, have hopefully come a long way !

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