Heterocentrism in Canadian History: The John McCrae “Controversy”

A couple of days ago, the Ottawa Citizen published a perplexing article about Lt.-Col. John McCrae, author of the famous poem “In Flanders Fields,” claiming that the director of development for the Bytown Museum alleges that “the famed poet was gay.” The article  appears to be a very late response to another article that appeared in Xtra Ottawa last month about the museum, which also suggested that McCrae wrote his most famous poem about a fallen soldier named Alexis Helmer, “his friend, and probable lover.” For the most part, Tom Korski’s article in the Ottawa Citizen sets out to disprove and discredit the allegation by interviewing a number of people who claim to be experts on McCrae’s history and biography.

The most troubling part of this “set the record straight” (pun intended) piece is the not so subtle heterocentrism of the author and some of his interviewees. Dr. Dean Oliver, research director of the Canadian war museum, said that he was unfamiliar with the matter, but asserted that any such historical claim required clear documented evidence. However, he also stated that “[w]here there is doubt, where there is supposition, the onus is on the museum to defend what it puts out.” Dr. Oliver is correct in his arguments about the need for documented evidence to support historical arguments, but his remarks about “doubt” point to the overarching heterocentrism of the article, the assumption that John McCrae was heterosexual (as contemporary Canadians would define the term today).

Curiously, the primary historical expert in Korski’s article is a pathobiologist from the Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph, Dr. John F. Prescott. In 1985, Dr. Prescott published an amateur biography of John McCrae with a small commercial publisher. Korski faults Xtra Ottawa for not contacting “any historian to substantiate the story,” yet his own article includes no academic historians of the Great War and no scholarly experts on the history of sexuality. Instead, Dr. Prescott provides most of the historical evidence, sharply refuting the suggestion that John McCrae may have had a romantic relationship with another man and instead arguing that “[i]f McCrae was alive to hear this I’m sure he’d be apoplectic,” assuming he was obviously a raging homophobe.

Without any serious engagement with scholarship on the history of sexuality and the Great War, this article simply seems to have set out to disprove what it portrays as a slander on the life of John McCrae. It raises a very interesting question, however, about heterocentrism in Canadian history. Do we assume that all major figures in Canadian history were heterosexual, as we define the term in the present?

The problem, of course, is that even a cursory glance at some of the literature in the history of sexuality would show that this “controversy” was flawed from the outset in its assumption that the meaning of sexuality has remained static over time. Historians, including George Chauncey, Steven Maynard, Marc Stein and many others have demonstrated the numerous ways in which the meaning of sexuality has changed in North America in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Is it possible that John McCrae wrote letters recounting love affairs with women while also having been involved in a companionate or romantic relationship with a fellow soldier on the front during the Great War? Historical evidence in works such as  Gay New York and City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves strongly suggests that the complex meanings of sexuality in the 1910s during the war might differ from how we understand sexuality in 2011.

Were Alexis Helmer and John McCrae lovers? I don’t know. I’m not an expert on the topic. But as a historian I do know that the question is not preposterous and that we should not react to the suggestion with such knee-jerk incredulity. Sexuality has a history and same-sex romantic relationships did exist in the past (in spite of what opponents in California might think).

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