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Bob 'Mother' Goderre started living his 'full gay life' in the late 60s

Goderre and his life-partner, Jean Guy LeBlanc, hosted get-togethers at their Albert Street home. They also rented venues for larger social events for the gay community in Sault Ste. Marie

From the archives of the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library: 

In the 1970s, before Sault Ste. Marie held its first Pride march or formed its first official support groups, much of the local LGBTQ community grew around informal dances and get-togethers. Many of these gatherings were held at the home of one man in particular: steelworker Bob “Mother” Goderre.

Robert Eugene Goderre was born in 1923 in Hull, Quebec. As a pre-teen, his family moved to Sault Ste. Marie and quickly put down roots. He worked at the Steel Plant and the Sault Daily Star before World War II broke out and he enlisted. Three of his brothers also served in WWII.

In an interview with the Sault Star, Goderre spoke of his experience, working in field dressing stations and hospitals in Europe, reviving half-dead soldiers with blood plasma. In France, his team worked out of caves rather than tents, since the rock provided excellent shelter from the bombs. He told the newspaper that after the war, he wanted to run a “nice little restaurant.”

A restaurant of his own may not have been in his future, but a gathering place certainly was, although it would take two decades and a failed marriage in order to get there.

After he returned home from the war, Goderre continued to work at the Steel Plant, where he was well liked by his coworkers. In 1947, he married Alma Berard, and they had four children. Their marriage would dissolve in the late 1960s when Goderre met his long-term partner and began to live what he described as “a full gay life.”

It’s largely this portion of his life – from the end of his marriage onwards – that has been immortalized in audio and on-screen. Bob Goderre was the subject of a 1999 documentary, I Know a Place. The short film won an award for Best Documentary Film when it premiered at the 1999 Inside Out Film and Video Festival. Since then, it has aired numerous places, including multiple showings in Sault Ste. Marie beginning as early as 2006.

Goderre was also the subject of an interview, given in December 1983, as part of the Foolscap Gay Oral History Project. This project sought to document the memories and experiences of gay men born in the 1950s and earlier, with a particular focus on pre-liberation gay culture, activism, organization, and community. While most of the interviews focused on the Toronto area, Goderre spoke to Northern Ontario and the more isolated, blue-collar culture he had experienced.

A transcript of the interview provided by the ArQuives, an LGBTQ2+ archives based out of Toronto, revealed a conversation that was both funny and touching; it illustrated the culture of Sault Ste. Marie at the time. It also painted a picture of Bob Goderre, a veteran who wore fur coats to hockey games and shared his thoughts on his life and current events.

Regarding his marriage to Alma, Goderre said, “I think I was gay all my life, especially before I got married…. I think I preferred men then, I don’t know.” He met other men at the Steel Plant, at dances, on the street, and in bars. While there was no gay bar in Sault Ste. Marie at the time, he referenced going to dinner parties at the Empire Hotel: “Nobody knew… They figured, well they’re all straight.”

Other places were not so inviting. Goderre recalled at least one cocktail lounge that tried to ban the gay community from gathering there. Goderre intervened and contacted the police: “I think one of the sergeants went down and talked to [the owners of the cocktail lounge], after that there was no trouble at all.”

Goderre also mentioned going to the Algoma Hotel, at Queen and Bruce, where a friend introduced him to Jean Guy LeBlanc, the man who would become his long-term partner. Goderre never told Alma he was gay. Jean Guy moved in to their home on Albert Street, living in a spare room upstairs. Shortly after moving in, Goderre moved upstairs with him, and Alma left.

Goderre held regular dances and gatherings at his house where gays and lesbians could socialize in a safe environment; occasionally, he rented out halls for larger events.

The film's director, Roy Mitchell, was a young man from Sault Ste. Marie who had attended these dances before moving to Toronto. In a brief introduction to the interview transcript, Mitchell wrote of the challenges of coming out in the Soo and the impact that attending Mother Goderre’s dances had on his own life: “It was the closest thing the Sault had to a gay bar. It was here that many of us first met gay men and lesbians.” He noted that Bob was “one of the men that made it easier for myself and many others” to be gay.

The dances were well attended, with as many as five dozen people showing up on a given night – sometimes, Goderre noted, they were too well attended, as space constraints made him switch to invite-only. Despite this, he didn’t believe Sault Ste. Marie was ready for a gay bar or LGBTQ-focused community centre. He described a relatively positive reaction to his sexuality – including at the Steel Plant, where he once had four men searching for his lost earring backing – although he did reference some men getting beaten up downtown.

While the interview was largely personal in nature, the interviewer touched on larger topics and issues. He referenced a visit from Robin Hardy, a journalist and gay activist who toured Northern Ontario in 1980 to encourage gay rights activism and organization. This project, called “Operation Outreach,” left Goderre unimpressed. “I don’t believe in all these clubs,” he said, before adding that he would support a local gay rights group if it formed.

He wasn’t particularly concerned with the Bathhouse Raids, saying, “Oh I think there was a lot of talk about that, I don’t think it was as bad as what they made it. … Of course, for me I’m more open…. It wouldn’t hurt me to be found anyplace.”

When asked if he could picture pride parades going down Queen Street, Goderre answered with a dismissive, “Please.”

Bob Goderre’s partner, Jean Guy, passed away of AIDS-related complications in 1996. Goderre passed away thirteen years later in 2009; his obituary noted that “’Mother’ Goderre was a spokesperson for The Gay Community here for many years and is missed by many friends.”

As the interview wrapped up, Mitchell asked Goderre to share his opinions about gay life. Goderre responded, “I think it’s just beautiful.”

Each week, the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library and its Archives provide SooToday readers with a glimpse of the city’s past.

Find out more of what the Public Library has to offer at and look for more "Remember This?" columns here.

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