Never Going Back: A History of Queer Activism in Canada


430 pages
Contains Photos, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-8020-8460-5
DDC 305.9'0664'0971





Reviewed by John Stanley

John Stanley Senior Policy Advisor Corporate Policy Branch Management
Board Secretariat.


Manifesto or encyclopedia? In his introduction, Warner claims to have
written a comprehensive history of Canadian queer activism up to 1999.
(“Queer” is meant to replace the cumbersome “gay, lesbian,
bisexual, and transgendered people.”) However, the introduction and
conclusion have the ring of a manifesto upholding the 1970s cry of gay
liberation, while most of the volume involves an encyclopedic recitation
of facts rather than a sustained analysis.

“We’re out, we’re proud, and we’re never going back” appears
to be the book’s essential message. Warner himself is a part of the
community’s history, so his account carries authority. However, his
entry into Canada’s queer history is through “activism,” a vague
term that makes it impossible to contain his narrative.

Of the volume’s three parts, the first section—which covers the
years before 1975—relies on secondary material, with Warner closely
following previous studies in English. (From the works cited, it appears
that he does not know French, perhaps explaining why homosexuality in
New France is ignored.) Unfortunately, from his reading of Canada’s
history, one cannot understand how Canada has arrived at its recent
acceptance of gay marriage. After this weak beginning, the text turns to
its primary focus: the past three decades, which Warner divides into two
periods. Between 1975 and 1985, the community’s voice was dominated by
proponents of gay liberation with the aim of sexual freedom and pride in
difference. After some initial successes, Warner points to a second
period, from 1985 to 1999, which was dominated by “assimilationists”
interested primarily in equality.

While chapters are roughly chronological, the work is poorly organized,
leading to the appearance of people and events (Anita Bryant, AIDS)
before they are actually discussed. Given this sprawl, one is soon left
feeling that Warner’s vision has exceeded his grasp. Without a mastery
of his material, he sometimes contradicts himself. Moreover, there is a
sloppiness about events: a committee was appointed in the “1950s” or
events occurred in the “mid-1970s.” In addition, the publisher has
not served Warner well: there is no author’s biography and the text
abounds with typos. Moreover, there is no bibliography, leaving only
footnotes as a guide to Warner’s research. While there is an index, it
chiefly notes individuals and organizations, severely limiting its use.
Together with the vagueness and inconsistency, this lack of a proper
navigational apparatus undermines Warner’s work as a reference.

Although the volume is unsatisfactory as a synthesis and far from
comprehensive, it is clear that Warner has drafted the first national
history of Canada’s gay and lesbian communities. Never Going Back will
remain a rich resource and an important historical artifact in its own


Warner, Tom., “Never Going Back: A History of Queer Activism in Canada,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 14, 2024,