Jim Egan is the subject of a new Heritage Minute, the first with a LGBTQ2 theme in the series.
“I Am a Homosexual,” he wrote in an article for Sir! tabloid under a pseudonym in 1951, a time when few dared to make such declarations. “The acceptance and integration that every thinking, responsible homosexual desires will come some day,” he predicted in another article four years later in Justice Weekly, this time using his initials.
“The homosexual is the sole remaining minority who can be sneered at, reviled, libeled, and spat upon with virtual impunity,” he pronounced in 1963, in one of the first queer-positive articles published by the Toronto Daily Star. By this point, the writer had made the radical decision to use his real name: James Egan.
Today, the gay rights pioneer remains largely unknown by the wider Canadian public, even though the Egan name was immortalized by a landmark 1995 Supreme Court decision that forever altered the gay rights landscape.
But 18 years after his death, Egan is poised to gain broader recognition as the subject of a new Heritage Minute, the popular 60-second short films that spotlight important people and moments in Canadian history. Released online Wednesday, the Heritage Minute is the first to have an LGBTQ2 theme and will portray Egan’s activism, his love story with partner Jack Nesbit, and the couple’s eight-year legal battle that became one of Canada’s most important gay rights victories.
“He began his efforts in the 1940s when it was really, really tough to be gay in this country and he fought a very lonely and quite courageous battle for recognition,” said Anthony Wilson-Smith, president and CEO of Historica Canada, the charity that produces Heritage Minutes. “He was a genuine civil rights pioneer.”
Scholars of Canadian gay history often refer to Egan as the country’s first queer activist. Between 1949 and 1964, the Toronto-born iconoclast submitted hundreds of letters, articles and op-eds to newspapers and magazines, advocating for gay rights — a truly radical act at a time when homosexuality was criminal and gay people across North America were being targeted by state-sanctioned witch hunts.
A voracious reader and curious mind, Egan was unusual for his time in that he never agonized over his identity as a gay man. “I thought that being gay was simply wonderful,” he once told University of Toronto librarian Don McLeod, who edited and compiled Egan’s autobiography, Challenging the Conspiracy of Silence: My Life as a Canadian Gay Activist. It helped that Egan had the full support of a loving mother, and a brother who also turned out to be gay (Egan’s father died when he was 14).
As the self-employed owner of a biological specimen business, Egan was also comfortable speaking out because he never had to worry about losing his job — a common consequence at the time for gay people who were outed.
“He didn’t have to hide at work,” McLeod said. “He could pretty much make up his own life.”