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feature - issue 275

 

He solved his Crystal problem with a quarter-billion dollars.
After seeing The Boys in the Band, he didn’t want to be gay.
He helped change the way Canadians view homosexuality.

The beauty of William Thorsell -
by Mitchel Raphel

A gay man takes over an old building and what’s the first thing he does? Drops a quarter-billion in renovations.

In 2000, William Thorsell, who had been editor-in-chief of The Globe and Mail since 1989, took over as CEO of Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum, the fifth-largest museum in North America. That makes him one of this country’s top antique dealers. Of course, the collection he oversees is priceless.

Thorsell is one gay man for whom the word “crystal” has a positive connotation. Nobody can walk by the corner of Bloor West and Queen’s Park Crescent without marvelling at the 2800-tonne steel skeleton of what will eventually become the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal, the ROM’s current expansion project designed by world-renowned architect Daniel Libeskind.

The project is nothing short of spectacular, and it could not be any gayer. This is drag architecture at its finest: it’s not just about being noticed, but about having the most stunning gown at the ball. When New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) completed its recent expansion, it struck the Manhattan cityscape like a well-tailored power suit amidst a sea of ready-to-wear. MoMA had a straight person at the helm. The ROM is led by a man with two white sofas in his office.

William Thorsell represents the very best in gay cultural stereotypes. He was the lead in his high-school play, president of student council and “got the highest marks in the province.” Born July 6, 1945, he grew up mostly in Edmonton, where he studied at the University of Alberta. In 1975, he began his career in journalism at the Edmonton Journal, becoming an associate editor there in 1977. Thorsell is a cultural sophisticate, and while his personal style could not be called daring, he has an academic fashion sense and a thirst for the next big thing. He has also played an important role in shaping the way Canadians view homosexuality. But he’s too modest to tell you all that himself.

Thorsell joined the editorial board of The Globe and Mail in 1984. By the end of that decade, he had been offered the position of editor-in-chief. He recalls, “When I was appointed I said to the publisher [Roy Megarry], ‘You know I’m gay, and I’m not about to change my social world because I’m now an editor, so you have to understand that before I sign on.’ And he said, ‘I wouldn’t expect that, and if you ever run into problems, just come see me.’”

While running the Globe, Thorsell would sometimes stop on Church Street to enjoy a meal or a cold beer at Woody’s. “The world of gay men to me is a very attractive world,” he says. “I used to come out of the bars in Toronto and say to my straight women friends [that] it’s one of the only rooms in the world where you go in and it’s filled with men who all want to be liked by each other. It’s a powerful common force.”

Currently single, Thorsell notes that he has had to warn dates, both amorous and platonic, that they risked appearing alongside him in the now-defunct tabloid Frank Magazine.
Thorsell wasn’t much bothered by homophobia during his time at the Globe, though when he renamed the Food section “Cuisine,” one staffer spouted, “Oh, cuisine, that’s just gay for food.” Having an out gay man as editor-in-chief of Canada’s national newspaper had a positive effect on the coverage of queer issues. The trajectory of the gay rights movement in Canada – the speed at which legislative advances like same-sex marriage, as well as citizens’ attitudes, have progressed – would likely have been different if the Globe had been conservative on gay issues.

 

“I think that when I was appointed editor there,” says Thorsell, “it gave permission to a lot of other editors to go further in covering gay issues and allowed gay writers to write in to the papers and to say things that were somewhat shocking at the time. I didn’t have to tell them that; they just took the cue – that I was in that chair – and that created a landscape of permissions and orders that were broader simply because of [my] identity.”

Certainly, Thorsell doesn’t see himself as a hardline gay activist, despite the far-reaching effects of his tenure at the Globe. “I don’t feel that because I’m gay, I need to be on the front lines of a particular issue in public, although I have been on some. It’s not a burden, it’s not a duty. It’s a part of who you are, it’s an important part of who you are. But it doesn’t define my agenda very much in terms of what I do.”

In the early ’90s, the Globe endorsed same-sex marriage. “That came out of the [editorial] board itself. I was chairing and [some] members of the board came up and said we should be endorsing the principles of gay marriage, and I said, ‘Well, what do the rest of you think?’ I didn’t propose it. It sounded absolutely consistent with our editorial positions. I was a little cautious about my opinion in terms of leading those discussions. But I didn’t mean to be. And I don’t think they were bringing it up because I was gay. I think it was a very consistent position [based on] all our positions on Charter issues – but it may have come out earlier and stronger than it might have [otherwise].” Back then, endorsing same-sex marriage was mostly an academic exercise. “At the time,” notes Thorsell, “it seemed like, ‘Oh, don’t worry, this will never happen.’”
But don’t look for a wedding ring on his finger in future. “I’m from the generation that never wanted to get married, although I think in principle it should be an option. But I personally would never want to get married.”

Before his journalism career began, and before he acknowledged his own homosexuality, Thorsell knew he was different. He was traumatized when he saw the classic 1970 gay film The Boys in the Band. “It was such a dark picture. It had every cliché type of gay person – the guy with all the sweaters, the aging gay and so forth – and the amount of neuroses in that film, coming out of every player and leading to this dreadful conclusion... You came out thinking, ‘I can’t be gay. I can’t be going into that world.’”

But the cork was about to pop. He would soon acknowledge his sexuality and come to see it as a gift. Thorsell says, “I remember writing an article for the University of Alberta Alumni back in the early ’70s called ‘The Trials of the Golden Boy.’ I wrote that if you were a blond-haired, blue-eyed Scandinavian guy like me, who won all the scholarships and was the president of the school and drifted through university pretty easily, you can pay a pretty high price for it by being a complete bore and not really learning very much about how the world works because it’s all too easy for you. I was actually writing that piece as an appreciation for the fact that [from] high school on, I was always pushed to the side a little bit – in my own head. I always knew I was going to be different and I was never going to go down that line and be the lawyer and play with my kids and all that. And so I think that was a gift for me. Because otherwise I would have been that repressed, horrible, bright-blue-eyed-boy achiever without the gift of the edge. And the gift of the edge in my case was to be gay.”

Once he was comfortable with his sexuality, Thorsell hit the gay bars in Edmonton. The look back then, which Thorsell sported, consisted of white Ts, Levi’s 501s and a moustache. “People used to say I looked like an RCMP officer in those days.” There wasn’t much of a gay neighbourhood, but Thorsell recalls feeling an adrenaline rush when he hit the clubs. “You’d drive out in 20 below at night, where there’s no cars anywhere in sight, and suddenly you’d see this clench of cars in an abandoned area of town around a one-storey cinder-block building with a little light over the door, and that’s the gay club and it’s suddenly quite thrilling. It was as close as you got to being an outlaw. I’m glad in a way that it doesn’t happen [that way] much anymore. But it did create a sense of community.”

In the late ’70s Thorsell read Andrew Holleran’s Dancer From the Dance and Larry Kramer’s Faggots. He also read Toronto-based gay liberationist paper The Body Politic. But “in Edmonton, it wasn’t a politically active community. It was just, ‘Let’s go dancing,’ and we didn’t cause ripples otherwise. You’d get The Body Politic and it was another world, a politically charged world that just did not happen [in Edmonton].” Years later, Thorsell would be talking about gay rights with a Canadian prime minister.

If he had to pick a federal party to run for today, Thorsell says he’d feel most comfortable as a Paul Martin Liberal, because he thinks they best reflect the old federal Progressive Conservative values.

“I have said to [former Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Brian] Mulroney himself, much to his chagrin, that his successor was Paul Martin. Because Paul Martin is a Mulroneyite. The Progressive Conservative Party doesn’t exist as a party anymore...and the Liberals aren’t the old Liberals.”

Thorsell recalls Mulroney lobbying to have sexual orientation included in the Canadian Human Rights Act: “I certainly had discussions with Mulroney at the time [when] they were trying to get [the Act] to explicitly include gay people. It was when Kim Campbell was justice minister, and she couldn’t get [the change] through the House. Mulroney got very impatient about that and said, ‘How come she can’t get it through the House? She’s the justice minster.’ And he supported her completely – he told me that on the phone at the time – and he was going to have to take it and jam it through himself, which he did. He was a pro-gay guy. [But] the Progressive Conservatives fell apart because of Western alienation. And that was partly a values thing. They thought Mulroney was too progressive.”

Thorsell enjoys talking politics. But he becomes more animated when talking about aesthetics and the impact the ROM expansion will have on Toronto. It’s the same excitement he showed when he remembered standing outside the cinder-block building, hearing the disco music thumping.

In 2000, when Thorsell was asked if he would be interested in taking over the ROM, he went to the museum and, like any gay man entering an old building, he began undressing the walls with his eyes. The entrance should not be on the east side; it had to be on Bloor Street. When he became certain that the ROM’s board of directors was serious about a total overhaul, Thorsell couldn’t resist taking it on. He was appointed CEO that summer.

A design competition was held for the proposed expansion, with Libeskind’s crystal design being the favourite and by far the most flamboyant. Thorsell says security guards, museum volunteers and random patrons all begged him to “please take the big step.” The crystal plan was chosen in February 2002. The mood in Toronto was ripe for change.
“Toronto knew it was getting fusty and boring,” says Thorsell, who credits a queer appreciation of architecture and design for helping him through the selection process. Gay men, he notes, tend to travel more and visit cultural institutions.

“You’re not coming to it cold,” says Thorsell. “You’re coming to a culture of architecture and design, which is [part of] gay culture, and so when you go into a competition or seek an architect, you actually know their names, you know some of their work, you’ve been to their buildings. You have some opinions on where the whole field of architecture is moving, where it’s been.”

Thorsell hopes the ROM redesign will light a fire beneath other city projects, taking a boost from public enthusiasm for the Crystal.

“Toronto’s in a good space that way, and political leaders and business leaders should go with it more, take more risks. We’re still being much too cautious. The waterfront [redevelopment, for example,] is so conventional. It’s a nice plan, a responsible plan, but you look at it and you think, ‘There’s nothing at the Toronto waterfront that’s not retro, that hasn’t been done before.’”

Enter Thorsell, the fashionable academic and aesthete. “You don’t go up to repeat things that have all been done... You don’t do that. You go up and say, ‘OK, that’s been mastered.... What can we do on the shoulders of that? What’s next?’ That’s a test of art and it has to be new as well as insightful… It can’t be old. If someone came along today and wrote Beethoven’s Tenth Symphony – and it was a brilliant symphony – I don’t think we would call it art. Because it’s 200 years later.”

The Crystal project is just the beginning for Thorsell. His hope is to “recreate Bloor Street” and renovate the whole area. The planetarium and all that “nasty” concrete around it have to go. So do “those subway things, and then redo the whole subway station itself.” He hopes he can broker a deal with the city to rezone parts of the area so that the south end of the ROM will have a stunning sapphire tower.

This is clearly the architectural version of “You go, girl.”

William Thorsell has managed to get through life without his sexuality holding him back. When he was younger, there was “no taunting or anything like that. I didn’t know that I was gay at that age, but I was. I think there was a period there, before the kind of social or legal acceptance that we all have [now], when it was a little bit thrilling when you finally got used to the idea that you were gay.”

He also knows he’s been lucky. “It seems almost unjust that sometimes it’s that easy for some people. I haven’t knowingly ever paid a price. I’ve often felt that I’ve got some rewards, so it’s kind of an unequal deal. It’s a good thing to say about Canada, and the kinds of worlds we live in.”

Mitchel Raphael is fab’s Editor-in-Chief.

 



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