Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Outing History

Among the recent new entries in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography is one for Robert Home Smith, d.1935, the Toronto lawyer, financier, real estate entrepreneur.

Smith has a park named for him not far from where I live, because he was the developer of the large, rather exclusive residential tract along Toronto's Humber River known as The Kingsway. He also established the Old Mill tea room (now conference centre) on the river, partly to draw traffic to his then rather remote neighbourhood.

The entry has a word-sketch of the man:
A tall figure, Home Smith was a “veritable Adonis,” one contemporary said, deliciously funny and charismatic, and, whatever his hearing disability, intensely sociable....
Though outgoing, Smith could be an extremely private man, one who left tantalizing anecdotal trails. Business and recreational trips to Britain, Mexico, Washington, New York, the Caribbean, and resorts in Tennessee and the Carolinas were undertaken quietly; his friendships, mainly with building and engineering types, were never ostentatious; invariably he explained his bachelorhood with dismissive good humour....  He left his entire estate to an associate, lifelong bachelor Godfrey Stanley Pettit.
I had come across Home Smith in some legal history research years ago. Having seen essentially the same info covered in the DCB excerpts above, I informally put him in my (imaginary) file: Historic Canadians Who were Probably Gay.

I think that is what the DCB is hinting, too, with the "lifelong bachelor" and "tantalizing anecdotal trails."

Which raises a nice question of historical practice: how discreet or forthcoming should historians be about the possible sexual orientation of historical figures who were not forthcoming on the subject in their lifetimes? To put it another way, consider how hard it would be for a historian of sexuality to go through the DCB and find the gay or possibly gay Canadians, even when there are hints and suggestions.

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