Retirement is something that many who have crossed that threshold find bittersweet. You are leaving behind people you built relationships with and work that you found value in doing. But you quickly learn a hard truth—like everything else in life, you and your work can become a faded memory.
For Jim Parrott, who recently retired as the executive director of SPECTRUM, that hard truth collides with a fear: that newer generations of LGBTQ+ people will take the decades-long struggles of gay, bi, and trans* rights for granted. Parrott said that we only have to look back at the last hundred years to see how the pendulum can swing. He noted that in the 1920s, Berlin, Germany was one of the most gay and lesbian-friendly cities in the world.
“Then you get to the ‘30s and people are starting to get arrested,” Parrot said.
“That’s what I always worry about: I worry about complacency. Young people don’t understand that politics can change. We see the populist movement in the United States—it’s scary stuff.”
Over the last 50 years, Parrott has worked to advance the rights of LGBTQ+ people through his work with SPECTRUM and as a member of The Glow Centre for Sexual and Gender Diversity at the University of Waterloo. The Glow Centre is the oldest continuously running LGBTQ+ student group in Canada and Parrott was present there at their first meeting in 1971, when the group was named the Waterloo Universities’ Gay Liberation Movement.
“Gay liberation was a big term back in those days…within a month or so, maybe two months, the first newsletter came out and there was a kind of manifesto in it that had four pillars. These were the goals that we hoped for back in May and June of 1971,” Parrott said.
The four pillars were equal rights, social opportunities, LGBTQ+ education opportunities and most important to Parrott, creating a world where same-sex couples could feel comfortable walking hand in hand.
While homosexuality had been decriminalized in 1968, equal protection was not guaranteed to LGBTQ+ Canadians. They were still denied equal rights—such as the right to get married. After a long battle with the government, Parrott and his husband, William Pensaert, became the first gay couple to be legally married in Waterloo Region.
“[Decriminalization] is not the same thing as being protected from being evicted from your home, or fired from your job,” Parrott said.
“By the time I got to 1981, I thought, ‘[the right to get married] is never going to happen during my lifetime. It’s just not going to happen’.”
Many groups, including the Glow Centre, lobbied the then Conservative provincial government to legalize same-sex marriage for years. The High Court in Ontario pushed the government into action as they continued delaying the decision, giving them one year to take action.
On Jun. 10, 2003, the Court of Appeal for Ontario issued the decision to legalize same-sex marriage for gay and lesbian couples across the province.
“We were very much worried…even though the federal government was Liberal, we were afraid that they might put the kibosh on everything,” Parrott said. “So we booked the venue and the officiant for two days later.”
It would take the federal government until 2005 to make same-sex marriage legal across the country.
Parrott also played a role in creating spaces for LGBTQ+ people in the region. The Glow Centre organized zaps—where couples attended other dances on campus as mixed-gender couples and then switched to their same-sex partners halfway through.
“There was nothing you would call a gathering place. The Walper Hotel had a men’s room, but honestly…we needed our own dances,” Parrott said.
The Glow Centre went on to organize their own dances until commercial clubs started to open. In the 1990s, there were around three or four LGBTQ+ clubs across Kitchener and Cambridge, but by 2018, everything had basically disappeared.
“Some people blame Grindr. But here’s what has happened with young people: they say over and over again, ‘well, we don’t need gay clubs we don’t need queer clubs, because we go to this like Club Abstract or whatever and we’re okay there’. But the point is, until you are free to be transparent wherever you are, you’re not free,” Parrott said.
The freedom to be who you are, wherever you are, is the part of the Glow Centre’s manifesto that Parrott said LGBTQ+ people still struggle for. Something simple as holding hands—which straight people take for granted—can still open up same-sex couples to harassment and violence.
“William and I have been doing it for 20 years. But we’re an anomaly…Most of our friends over the age of 50 are terrified of doing that,” Parrott said.
“Visibility is really critical—and yet 50 years have passed and it’s just not really anywhere near where I thought it would be. We do it because, first of all, it feels nice to be able to hold the hand of somebody you love. The second [reason is, it’s a] kind of civics lesson to say, ‘we’re here’.”
Parrot’s retirement from SPECTRUM does not mean he is stepping back from his active role in the LGBTQ+ community. He will continue to support the bi-weekly SPECTRUM Prime group for older adults and is working on the Grand River Rainbow Historical Project. Parrot is also a facilitator for the local chapter of Pflag Canada, an organization that helps parents and family members support their LGBTQ+ children.
Alex Kinsella is a freelance content marketer and writer based in Waterloo Region, Ontario. He's behind the TL;WR newsletter–Waterloo Region's weekly events newsletter. He's worked with some of Canada's most well known tech companies in roles including customer success, development, product management, PR, social media and marketing. Alex has contributed to publications including BetaKit, Grand Magazine and more.