Jim Egan (activist)

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Jim Egan
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
DiedMarch 9, 2000(2000-03-09) (aged 78–79)
OccupationOwner of a biological specimen business[1]
Known for

James Egan (1921 – March 9, 2000) was a Canadian LGBT rights activist, best known for his role in the landmark Supreme Court of Canada case Egan v. Canada.[2] He is considered Canada's first prominent LGBTQ activist, due to his initial period of activism from 1949 to 1964.[1]


Born and raised in Toronto, Ontario,[3] Egan realized he was gay at a young age.[4] He met John Norris "Jack" Nesbit, his lifelong partner, in 1948.[5]

Early activism[edit]

Beginning in 1949, Egan wrote hundreds of letters, articles, and op/ed pieces to magazines and newspapers advocating equal rights for and criticizing inaccurate portrayals of lesbian and gay people, and to politicians, advocating for fairer treatment of lesbians and gays under the law.[6] His letters appeared in daily and weekly newspapers, and in magazines such as Saturday Night and Time.[6] His article "I Am a Homosexual", was published under a pseudonym in the tabloid Sir! in 1951. In another article in 1954 published in the tabloid Justice Weekly, he declared "The acceptance and integration that every thinking, responsible homosexual desires will come some day."[1] By 1963, he was being published in mainstream publications, writing under his real name in the Toronto Daily Star that "The homosexual is the sole remaining minority who can be sneered at, reviled, libeled, and spat upon with virtual impunity."[1]

In 1964, he was prominently featured in Sydney Katz's "The Homosexual Next Door", a Maclean's article which was the most positive portrayal of homosexuality ever to appear in a mainstream Canadian publication up to that time;[7] even though Egan appeared in the article under a pseudonym, Nesbit — a more private person who was uncomfortable with Egan's public visibility — demanded that Egan give up his activism if he wanted to continue their relationship.[8]

Professionally, Egan was self-employed as the owner of a biological specimen business, and so felt able to speak out without being at risk of losing his job, a fear that kept most other LGBT people in the closet.[1]

Move to British Columbia[edit]

Although Egan initially refused and the couple broke up, Egan soon decided that he wanted to reunite with Nesbit and dropped his activist pursuits.[8] Egan and Nesbit moved to Vancouver Island in 1964, starting their own business.[2] Egan was also active in local politics, serving as a representative for Electoral Area B (Comox North) on the Comox-Strathcona Regional District board from 1981 to 1993.[3]

Supreme Court case[edit]

Having reached retirement age, Egan began collecting Canada Pension Plan benefits in 1986,[5] and applied for spousal benefits for Nesbit the following year.[5] The couple would actually have been better off financially if they collected separate individual pensions, but chose the spousal benefits route as they felt their situation would make a strong test case for the legal rights of same-sex couples.[5] After the spousal benefits were denied, they took the case to court;[5] following losses at the Federal Court in 1991 and the Federal Court of Appeal in 1993,[5] the case reached the Supreme Court in 1994.[5] The case was argued before the Supreme Court on November 1 of that year.

The Supreme Court ruled on May 25, 1995.[9] The court ruled against Egan on the issue of spousal benefits, finding that the restriction of such benefits to heterosexual couples was a justified infringement because the core purpose of such benefits was to provide financial support to women who had spent their lives raising children rather than in paid employment[9] — however, they ruled unanimously to include sexual orientation as a prohibited grounds of discrimination under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.[9] The latter ruling was seen as a significant victory for LGBT rights in Canada despite the loss on the benefits issue itself,[9] setting the stage for later successes in the courts; it came to be cited as a key precedent in important later court decisions such as M. v. H.,[10] Vriend v. Alberta,[11] Little Sisters Book and Art Emporium v. Canada,[12] and Halpern v. Canada.[13]

Later years[edit]

Egan and Nesbit were subsequently named as grand marshals of Toronto's 1995 Pride Parade.[14] The following year, they were the subjects of David Adkin's documentary film Jim Loves Jack.[15] Egan published the memoir Challenging the Conspiracy of Silence: My Life as a Canadian Gay Activist in 1998,[8] with the assistance of University of Toronto librarian Don McLeod who edited and compiled the volume.[1] In the same year, a portrait of Egan by artist Andrew McPhail was added to the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives' National Portrait Collection in honor of his role as a significant builder of LGBT history in Canada.[16]

Egan died of lung cancer on March 9, 2000, at his home in Courtenay, British Columbia.[2] His partner, Jack Nesbit, died three months later.[1]

Egan is the subject of the first Heritage Minute on an LGBTQ2 theme, released in 2018.[1][17]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Yang, Jennifer (June 13, 2018). "'I Am a Homosexual': Gay rights pioneer James Egan celebrated in first LGBTQ2 Heritage Minute". Toronto Star. Retrieved June 13, 2018.
  2. ^ a b c "Gay-rights activist took pension fight to Supreme Court". The Globe and Mail, March 11, 2000.
  3. ^ a b Robert Aldrich and Garry Wotherspoon, Who's Who in Contemporary Gay and Lesbian History: From World War II to the Present Day. Routledge, 2005. ISBN 978-1134583133.
  4. ^ "Gay community has lost a hero ; James Egan started fighting for equal rights in the 1940s". Toronto Star, March 16, 2000.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g "Elderly B.C. couple say they are ideal test case on gay spousal rights". Montreal Gazette, December 29, 1994.
  6. ^ a b Warner, Tom. Never Going Back: A History of Queer Activism in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002. ISBN 0802036082.
  7. ^ Hugh Brewster, "Outcasts". The Walrus, June 2014.
  8. ^ a b c "A happy life in ignorant times". National Post, January 16, 1999.
  9. ^ a b c d "Gay couple lose 8-year fight for pension benefits". Vancouver Sun, May 26, 1995.
  10. ^ M. v. H., at para. 64
  11. ^ Vriend v. Alberta, infra note 24 at para. 90.
  12. ^ Little Sisters Book and Art Emporium v. Canada (Minister of Justice), [2000] 2 S.C.R. 1120 at para. 118
  13. ^ Halpern v. Canada, [2003] O.J. No. 2268 para. 74
  14. ^ "1981 bathhouse raids were a pivotal point ; Angry reaction helped unify city's gay community". Toronto Star, June 18, 2001.
  15. ^ "Canada's pioneer gay activist subject of new TV documentary". Victoria Times-Colonist, January 6, 1996.
  16. ^ Inductee: James (Jim) Egan 1921 - 2000. Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives.
  17. ^ Matteis, Stephanie (June 12, 2018). "New Heritage Minute tells story of LGBT couple's fight for legal recognition". CBC.ca. Archived from the original on June 13, 2018. Retrieved June 13, 2018.