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1921 – The birth of a pioneering activist

January 26, 2010

James (Jim) Egan was born in 1921 in Toronto. Egan is widely considered Canada’s first gay activist  – he publicly advocated for gay legal rights, writing letters to editors of Canadian newspapers as early as 1949. Egan’s letters denounce the sensationalist, homophobic articles that were commonplace at the time, particularly the articles that panicked about the spread of a ‘homosexual plague’ that proliferated in reaction to the publication of the 1948 Kinsey sex study (Egan 43). In 1951, Egan began publishing articles in newspapers like the True News Times and Justice Weekly, calling for changes in the discriminatory laws that he calls “unjust and cruel” (Warner 57).

Egan and his partner, Jack Nesbit, were lifelong activists. In 1994 (having lived with Nesbit since 1948) Egan petitioned the Supreme Court to grant spousal benefits to same-sex couples under the Old Age Security Act. He challenged the definition of “common-law spouse,” claiming that the exclusion of same-sex couples was discriminatory under the  Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms on the basis of sexual orientation. A majority of Supreme Court judges voted that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is prohibited by the Charter, and that the “spousal definition violates Section 15 equality rights.” However, this was not a victory for Egan as a majority of Supreme Court judges also voted that the Section 15 violation is a “reasonable limit” on equality rights. Cynthia Peterson, a solicitor speaking on behalf of EGALE, pinpoints the significance of the ruling as a starting point for gays to challenge the constitution:

“Although we are disappointed that the Court did not find in favour of the Appellants, this decision represents a significant step forward for equality rights. The Supreme Court has ruled that lesbians and gays are protected by the equality guarantees in the Charter of Rights. The Court also ruled that the refusal to recognize same-sex relationships is discriminatory. Every Canadian statute which treats same-sex relationships as inferior to heterosexual relationships is therefore subject to constitutional challenge.” (http://www.egale.ca/index.asp?lang=E&menu=1&item=499)

Jack Nesbitt and Jim Egan

Nesbit and Egan ( Lesbian and Gay Archivist, Issue 12, June 1996 - http://www.clga.ca/About/LGArchivist/v12/egan.htm)

In recognition of their groundbreaking fight for equal rights, Egan and Nesbit were honoured as Grand Marshalls  at the Toronto and Vancouver Pride Day parades in 1995 (Smith, 4).

This photograph shows Jim Egan (right) and Jack Nesbit at home with their pets. Egan and Nesbit are the subjects of the 1996 film by David Adkin, Jim Loves Jack.

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