When Jim Egan dropped out of high school in his second year to pursue farmhand work in rural Ontario, it’s likely that no one expected him to become the first person in Canada to publish a lengthy article written from the gay point of view – let alone become the first openly gay politician in Canadian history.
He did both of those things and more.
Born on September 14, 1921, Egan spent his youth farm-hopping and studiously self-educating himself in biology. His passion for environmentalism and science landed him a series of university-level jobs at a young age. He was involved in typhus, polio and cancer research in the years before his ascent to the Canadian activism hall of fame.
He enlisted in the merchant navy in 1943. Travelling during and after the war gave him his first exposure to the queer community overseas. Back in Toronto after his stint in the military, Egan met John (Jack) Norris Nesbit and entered a committed relationship with him that would prove to be lifelong.
It was around this time that Egan’s interest in homosexuality was amped up. After nursing it as a personal research project for several years, he began to seek exposure for his writings.
From 1949 onwards, he wrote anonymized letters to local news outlets like the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Daily Star defending homosexuality as a naturally occurring sexual orientation. His work protested the then-common theme of press sensationalism around the LGBTQ+ community. 20 years before decriminalization, mainstream headlines painted queer people as scandalous, dirty, and less than human.
After a few successes in Canada, Egan expanded his writing reach to mass-market American magazines and began corresponding by letter with like-minded peers. In 1951, his seven-part article entitled “Aspects of Homosexuality” was published in True News Times and became the first long article written from an LGBTQ+ standpoint to be published in Canada.
In 1954, Egan published a 12-part article, “Homosexual Concepts,” in Justice Weekly. The tabloid ran a series of reprinted foreign gay articles after Egan stopped writing for them, which became the first regular source of queer news for Canadians before the establishment of a queer press.
Though his writings were published anonymously, Egan was starting to attract attention. In 1963 he became involved with Sidney Katz’s project, “The Homosexual Next Door,” an article series in Maclean’s magazine. But the resulting public exposure put a strain on his relationship. Interested in starting fresh with Nesbit’s privacy in mind, the two moved to British Columbia in 1964.
Nesbit’s comfort with queer activism began to flourish after the move, and in 1958 the couple co-founded the Comox Valley branch of the Island Gay Society. On Vancouver Island, Egan was also involved in AIDS activism and served as president of the North Island AIDS Coalition for a time.
He wasn’t done with pioneering, either. In 1981, he became the first openly gay Canadian politician when elected regional director for Electoral Area B of the Regional District of Comox-Strathcona. He was re-elected twice before he retired from politics.
Egan and Nesbit put another joint stamp on Canadian history with Egan v. Canada. They opened a court case on Nesbit’s behalf that challenged the same-sex discrimination built into the spousal allowance benefit. The case was eventually dismissed, but it ended with a ban on sexual orientation-based discrimination in spousal allowance cases – a notable victory for the queer community that paved the way to legalizing marriage.
18 years after his death, Egan became the subject of the first-ever LGBTQ+ Heritage Minute, a mainstream tribute to the activist who certainly deserves to be a household name – in every type of Canadian home.
Maya Linsley (she/her) is a Loran Scholar and undergraduate English major at the University of Victoria, where she also works as a digital humanities research assistant. An avid writer, reader, and lover of all things feline, Maya can usually be spotted biking across campus or lurking in the stacks at the library.