Stepping into the archives: a curated look into queer Canadian history

To mark the month of Pride we wanted to look back at primary materials to reflect parts of history within the LGBTQ+ community. We have curated a collection of archival material sourced from The ArQuives: Canada’s LGBTQ2+ Archives, and the Johnny Abush and the Twice Blessed Collection which is part of the ArQuives digital exhibitions (the largest independent collection of LGBTQ2+ materials in existence). With permission from The ArQuives: Canada’s LGBTQ2+ Archives, falling under ‘fair dealing’ within copyright, we are able to share highlights from these collections with you all. 

The ArQuives was founded in 1979 and was “initially an archive of white gay liberation.” The organization acknowledges their archives have represented in far greater numbers the narratives of white, cis, and gay men’s perspectives. However, they are actively working to build a collection reflective of the diverse narratives and individuals in the queer community. And are dedicated to preserving and sharing queer histories with specific emphasis on materials by and about LGBTQ2+ produced in or about Canada.

We share with you a virtual gallery of curated items that gives some insight into queer history in Canada by highlighting The Body Politic: A magazine for gay liberation, and queer Jewish history in Canada by exploring materials from the Johnny Abush and The Twiced Blessed Collection.

If you want to know more about the materials sourced below, or on The ArQuives you can send them a query.

THE BODY POLITIC

The first issue of The Body Politic launched on October 28, 1971. It was, as the CBC describes “essentially the first real voice for queer people across Canada.”  Their first issue sold 5,000 copies. Although based in Toronto, their influence was widespread, and created dialogue between queer communities throughout the country.

In the fifth anniversary issue, Michael Riordan, a member of the publication, characterized the time of the magazine’s founding as being “born in the wild heat and ferment of Canada’s first gay upheavals.”

The Body Politic folded in 1987 after 15 years of publishing groundbreaking work. To celebrate the history of the magazine, we are sharing four pages from their October 1979 issue.

JOHNNY ABUSH AND THE TWICE BLESSED COLLECTION

Colour photo of Johnny Abush in the Twice Blessed archive, standing in front of a bookshelf and behind a large opened catalogued binder. (The ArQuives)

The Twice Blessed Collection and information on Johnny Abush was curated and based on the in-person exhibit at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre in 2019 curated by Liv Mendelsohn (Miles Nadal JCC) and Lo Humeniuk (The ArQuives), with design by Jo Michaels (Miles Nadal JCC) and additional support from Michael Friesen (Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre), Deanna Di Lello (Miles Nadal JCC), and Zohar Freeman (The ArQuives). This work draws from Daniel Heller’s “Creating Community: An Organizational History of Toronto’s Queer Jewish Community, 1975-2003,” in the Ontario Jewish Archives.

 

Johnny Abush (1952-2000) was an active member of the queer Jewish community in Toronto and founded the Jewish GLBT Archives, known as Twice Blessed, as well as the Queer Jewish Culture Committee.

According to The ArQuives, Abush was a financial services systems analyst who began to archive the queer Jewish experience. He was the son of Holocaust survivors who emigrated from Krakow, Poland to Toronto. Abush is said to have had a complicated relationship with Judaism growing up.

As The ArQuives writes, when he was diagnosed with AIDS in 1989, he realized that “in order to feel good about yourself, the major components of who you are need to be a source of pride.” He began to search and document LGBTQ+ experiences, and to look for queer Jewish community in Toronto, which he found with, Chutzpah, a social and support organization of LGBTQ+ Jews in Toronto.

Black and white photo of Johnny Abush (left) and Chuch Grochmal (right) riding bicycles down a street. (The ArQuives)

According to The ArQuives, in an interview with Abush’s friend, former Toronto City Councillor and one-time Chutzpah President Howard Levine, he said, “Johnny was so under the radar. He was at the margins, observing and collecting. His apartment on Alexander St. [in the heart of the Village] was filled with material. He became a self-taught archivist.”

Abush’s collection grew to become the Twice Blessed Collection, encompassing more than 15,000 items. It is now held at both the ONE Archives in Los Angeles and the ArQuives in Toronto.

Pink poster announcing Abush's desire to create a lesbian/gay Jewish archive and bibliography, titled "In Search of Lesbian/Gay Jewish Visibility." (Johnny Abush vertical file, The ArQuives)
Colour photograph of members of Congregation Keshet Shalom carrying a banner during a parade. (The ArQuives)

As the ArQuives state, Keshet Shalom members met every month in the year 1992 for Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat services in “a condominium party room.” Services were moved to the Downtown Jewish Community Centre as the congregation grew, and the JCC granted Keshet Shalom status in the Downtown Jewish Council. Traditional Orthodox liturgy was used at first, but over time, synagogue members developed their own rituals and queered the liturgy. As The ArQuives explain, Keshet Shalom’s Passover Haggadah referenced homophobia as a modern plague, and noted, “This is the Matzah of Hope… we set aside for those are struggling with AIDS.”

Article by Jack Kapica in the Globe and Mail on 3 April 1992 titled "Synagogues Open to Homosexuals" wherein Congregation Keshet Shalom argues that gay and lesbian Jews should not only be allowed within synagogues, but they should also be allowed to be rabbis and cantors. (Congregation Keshet Shalom vertical file, The ArQuives)

Chutzpah was a Jewish organization active in Toronto from 1982-1991. It provided social and religious opportunities for Jewish gays and lesbians.

Flyer for the annual Passover Seder on April 20 on Bloor Street East. (Chutzpah vertical file, The ArQuives)
Flyer advertising Shabbat service at Chutzpah's new location on Cecil Street, showing the new location on a map. (Chutzpah vertical file, The ArQuives)
Yellow Chutzpah flyer advertising a picnic in August 1982. Flyer shows two pirates strolling, 1982. (Chutzpah vertical file, The ArQuives)
Colour photograph of Johnny Abush and fellow Queer Yiddishist carrying a banner during a parade. (The ArQuives)

According the The ArQuives, Abush connected with Jewish LGBTQ groups around the world, and formed an international movement. He attended the World Congress of Jewish Gays and Lesbians, and in 1990, Chutzpah hosted the Congress in Toronto. Abush and other activists in Toronto were active members of the Queer Yiddishist movement in New York.

Article in the Canadian Jewish News on 7 January 1988 by Ancil Kashetsky titled "Jews Urged to be More Accepting of Gays" outlining some of the experiences shared at the forum "Homosexuality and the Jewish Family."
Flyer by Chutzpah asking for volunteers for the upcoming Midwest Regional Conference of the World Congress of Gay and Lesbian Jewish Organizations. (The ArQuives)
Flyer for Holy Blossom Temple's AIDS Committee's Seder for AIDS, for people who had AIDS, were HIV+, and their friends and families. (The ArQuives)

Following their engagement with Chutzpah, Holy Blossom Temple was the first synagogue
in Canada to found an AIDS Committee to provide emotional and financial support for those living with HIV and AIDS.

Magenta banner of the Jewish Queer Culture Committee showing a yellow dove with multi-coloured ribbons trailing behind it. (The ArQuives)

As The ArQuives research shows, in 1993, Abush founded Toronto’s Queer Jewish Culture Committee. Through the committee he organized film screenings at the Downtown Jewish Community Centre, where they showed films like Simcha Dumbowski’s Tomboychick. He also organized “Kolot Geim,” Proud Voices, a gala event to celebrate queer culture, which served as a fundraiser to help support the Twice Blessed Archives. The event was sponsored by Harbord Bakery and St. Urbain Bagel Bakery, along with the City of Toronto and the Toronto Arts Council.

Memorial card showing a picture of Johnny Abush and outlining some of his accomplishments and involvement within his community. (Johnny Abush vertical file, The ArQuives)

Abush died of AIDS-related complications and his memorial was held at the Jewish Workmen’s Circle, with Rabbi Aviva Goldberg leading the service. His work in recognizing the importance of documenting and preserving the stories of queer Jewish communities has allowed future generations to know of the indelible mark he, and many others, made in the Jewish queer Canadian community.

Header photo “Jewish Queer Culture Committee” courtesy of The ArQuives and the Johnny Abush and the Twice Blessed Collection. 

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Brought you by the Niv team.

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