This submission comes from WeirFoulds LLP Law Library Manager Nairne Holtz, who is a member of the firm’s EDI (equality, diversity, inclusion) committee. When Nairne was asked to write a piece in support of legal history and Pride month in Ontario, the end product turned out to be more of a personal account. In the spirit of Canadian legal storytelling, and in support of Pride, Slaw is happy to be able to share Nairne’s story.
I met my wife at work, a Bay Street law firm, in 1996. You could say we met cute. I was working in the library, and my future wife was an articling student. She was what was politely referred to as an ‘obvious lesbian’ while my long hair and femininity rendered my queerness invisible. Though she was bigger and butcher than anyone I had dated and initially I wasn’t sure how I felt about that, I engaged in a subtle campaign of pursuit.
Our first date was preceded by a Christmas party held by a young associate of the firm. The articling students were invited, and I wound up at the party because an old roommate of mine was friends with the associate.
The hostess of the party gave me, my old roommate, and my future wife a tour of her new home. In the master bedroom was a medieval-looking bed with giant iron posts, and my future wife made a crack about bondage. The young associate responded with sharp disapproval, and my future wife blanched. Alienating an associate when you’re an articling student is scary, and doing so when you’re an insecure, working-class, gender nonconforming queer can feel career-ending.
On the plus side for my future wife, by the end of the party, we had arranged our first date.
In the queer world, a joke about bondage doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Queer communities are more open about sexuality. If you’re a reflective person and society tells you that you’re a pervert and what you do in bed is disgusting, well, you start to ask questions: what is acceptable? What is beyond the pale? Are marriage, monogamy, and kids right for me? We’ve had to invent our own rules about relationships and sexual conduct, some of which are at odds with office culture as well as current mores. For example, I recently asked a gay male friend how he’d met one of his oldest friends, and he replied, “Oh, he grabbed my ass at a bar.”
My wife’s path to law was not typical. Her family were working class and struggled financially. Her mother had dropped out of high school, and there was no expectation that my wife would go to university. What she was expected to do was land a husband, and to this doomed end, her mother dragged her to the beauty parlour every week.
At the age of thirty-two, my wife took the LSAT. She didn’t have a university degree and she’d heard you could get into law school without one if you scored well on the LSAT. Without any prep, my wife scored in the 99th percentile, got accepted at University of Toronto law school, and graduated third in her class.
This might seem to guarantee her a successful law career, but things were not that simple. My wife is almost six feet tall and big boned with short hair and a masculine style. She drove to law school on a motor bike. Some people are unsure of her gender, while other people think her gender expression is wrong. We have stories that are funny (gay men trying to pick her up), sad (her gender being questioned at a queer event), and frightening (frat boys attempting to run her over with their jeep). The most unusual instance of misgendering occurred in a law school classroom. My wife was teaching a class with students who were well aware of her gender. Yet, in the heat of a debate, a male student said to my wife, “But sir…” (Did she invoke an authority he was only able to associate with men?)
Public bathrooms are a gauntlet for my wife. She’s been bodily tackled by security guards while other times, no one has blinked an eye at her presence. Sometimes women think she is a man or don’t know, and in those situations, my wife politely explains she’s in the right place. At other times, women understand perfectly well that my wife is a woman, but pretend not to know. Their outrage is disingenuous. What they would like to say to her is: get out of here, you fucking dyke. Get out of here, you gender freak. Except these days, that’s contrary to human rights laws.
Even today, this is still an issue for her—and for a current generation of transgender folx protesting so-called bathroom bills.
But to return to the 90s. In her second year of law school, my wife was second in her class and was interviewed for a clerkship at the Federal Court. The judge, upon meeting her, was horrified. He was rude and referred to her grades as a fluke. This experience was to repeat itself during her articling interviews. As the bronze medallist from Canada’s top law school, a slew of firms interviewed her—only two offered her articling positions. (Did I mention she’s super charming and polite?)
Ultimately, she wound up clerking at the Supreme Court and articling at a top firm, where she made hireback, but she decided to take a contract teaching at a law school. We moved from Toronto to a smaller city. In this city, I managed to convince two merging law firms that they needed a librarian.
Both the law school and the law firm where I worked were conservative. I remember attending a dinner at the home of a law professor in which gay marriage was debated with the host speaking out against gay marriage. “I want my marriage to mean something,” he said. We were insulted to the point of speechlessness.
At work, several people asked me why I had left Toronto. I explained my partner had accepted a teaching position at the university. “What does he teach?” was their next question, and my response was, “She teaches law.”
You might think that would be a conversation starter, but my coming out was met with silence and discomfort. When the part-time handyman made an awkward reference to my lesbianism, I began to realize the fact of my being gay had really made the rounds in our office.
You might think that in this environment I would have had the sense not to bring my partner to our office Christmas party.
Unfortunately, I didn’t. At the sight of my partner, my boss began speaking in tongues and couldn’t look us in the eye. Her thoughts were obvious: “I guess I knew know you were a homosexual, but I didn’t think your ‘friend’ was going to look like THAT.”
Straight couples refused to let us sit at their tables, claiming chairs that remained unoccupied all evening were ‘taken.’
I never went to another office Christmas party at that firm.
A few years into my employment, the all-white firm took on an Asian female articling student. I didn’t get to know her (or anyone there) particularly well, but towards the end of her articles she came into the library. À propos of nothing, the student began to tell me how uncomfortable she, as a racialized person, felt at the firm.
She said, “Even the cleaners are white.”
She said, “I thought …[hesitation]…you might understand.” (Clearly, my lesbianism was still hot office gossip.)
She withdrew her name from consideration for hireback and moved to Toronto.
Not long after, my wife was offered a job in Montreal, and so we left again.
In the overall scheme of things, the pearl-clutching and disdain we experienced in our professional lives was small and not unexpected. Verbal harassment on the street that occasionally got physical was a regular part of our life as an openly lesbian couple in the 90s.
It never occurred to us to complain to the police. They were part of the problem. In the 1960s and earlier, lesbians were arrested and thrown in jail for wearing ‘men’s’ clothing (i.e., pants). Corrective rape of lesbians by cops was not uncommon. Even after the decriminalization of homosexuality in 1969, police harassment continued as the order of the day for decades. In the 1980s, when my wife first started hanging out in gay bars, cops routinely showed up in the streets after the bars had closed to push, shove, and intimidate patrons.
In the summer of 1990 in Montreal, a gay after-hours party, Sex Garage, was raided – police began heckling patrons and refusing to let them get their belongings. When people protested, the cops removed their badges and ID and began to beat people up. People protested the next day and cops beat up and arrested people.
I happened to be in Vancouver, but ordinarily I lived in Montreal, and my entire friend-circle had been at Sex Garage. My roommate wrote me: “I hope to never be chased again by a brute with a Billy club.” Another friend who was videotaping the police was beaten up by them.
In 2000, undercover police officers raided Pussy Palace, a one-night-a-year bathhouse held for queer women during Toronto Pride. The police were ostensibly looking for liquor licence violations but practically speaking what this meant was a gazillion male cops wandering around staring at scantily clad women for 90 minutes. (Again, I wasn’t there but had friends who were.)
Police harassment only really ended with the legalization of gay marriage in 2005. When gay marriage became legal in Ontario in 2003, my partner and I married. (Keeping in mind that I am a librarian, I considered our marriage to have begun when we moved in together in 1999 and I removed duplicate copies of books we each happened to own.)
We got married in case that right was taken away from us. We got married to protect the house we had recently bought. We got married to make medical directives easier. We did this to protect ourselves from my wife’s homophobic family. She was estranged from them for over a decade, largely due to their lack of acceptance of her lesbianism. My wife’s brother and his wife wrote to her that she was not welcome in their home at Christmas if she brought a girlfriend and that their six-year-old daughter had been very upset to learn that her aunt was a homosexual. (Times change. The niece married a black man, is a bit of a hippie, and has taken her biracial children to Pride.)
It’s great that gay marriage has been legalized in Canada. It’s even better that there are anti-discrimination laws, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t discrimination. It doesn’t mean the cops still aren’t a problem. The failure by Toronto police to properly investigate murders that turned out to be the work of Bruce McArthur, a gay male serial killer operating between 2010-2017 was an unsubtle reminder. I’m a lesbian living outside of Toronto, yet even I’d heard there was a serial killer operating in the Gay Village, while the police were still denying this was true. The serial killer targeted homeless gay men and racialized gay men who were in the closet and using apps to have sex.
The message from the cops was clear: if you’re a bad queer, we will not protect you. If you’re a gay racialized man using apps to have casual sex, we will not protect you. If you’re a trans woman selling sex for money, we will not protect you. (The Toronto police were also criticized during the serial killings for the way they handled an as-yet unsolved murder of a biracial trans woman who worked as an escort.)
We’re not free until we’re all free.
That’s why Pride for me will always be about protest and why I don’t think cops should march at Pride, at least in uniform. (For one thing, I don’t march with a brigade of Lesbian Librarians in a turtleneck, pencil skirt, and low-heeled shoes, so why exactly do cops need to march in uniform?)
Pride for me is also a sexy, sweaty queer dance party where stuff is happening that is definitely NSFW.
So, rainbow cupcakes at the office during Pride! On the one hand, that’s so sweet; thanks for thinking of me and the other queers; I’m truly glad there is so much more acceptance. On the other hand, it is also kind of and forever strange; difficult to reconcile with skirmishes with the cops, decades of hassle, marching topless at the Dyke March, and the pride I take in challenging the mainstream.
Nairne Holtz manages the law library at WeirFoulds LLP and is a member of their Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion committee.