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Memoir

“How a groundbreaking gay film shot in 1960s Toronto helped heal my heartbreak”

As a university student, Chris Dupuis fell for a friend and was crushed when his feelings went unrequited. Then he encountered Winter Kept Us Warm, the first gay-themed feature film shot in Canada

"How a groundbreaking gay film shot in 1960s Toronto helped heal my heartbreak"

In the fall of 1997, during my second year of theatre school, I had a brief fling with a guy in my class. He was 24 and had backpacked around Europe, published a couple of poems in literary magazines and once had beers with ’90s alt-folk icon Ani DiFranco. That, along with the fact that he’d grown up in downtown Toronto, made him seem impossibly cool to a gawky 18-year-old suburban kid with black nail polish and terrible posture.

Unlike most of our classmates, he had an off-campus apartment. But, with our punishing schedule of rehearsals, voice classes and lectures, he often crashed at our college residence. I’d assumed he was straight until, after an evening of heavy drinking, he stayed with me and we ended up fooling around, a pattern that continued sporadically over the semester. 

Arriving at university, I’d dreamed of falling in love with a fellow theatre major and strolling through campus together in wool sweaters, debating the intricacies of Shakespeare and Chekhov while autumn leaves swirled around us. My crush, in contrast, was uninterested in anything beyond our occasional late-night fumblings and drunken debates about Oliver Stone and Martin Scorsese. It took me over a decade to realize that my experience of hopelessly crushing on a friend was not only common but a virtual rite of passage for generations of gays before me—something I came to grasp, in part, through my experience with a little-known but seminal Canadian film released in 1965 called Winter Kept Us Warm.

I first saw Winter in my early 20s, when a Toronto indie paper blurbed a rare screening and deemed the film a queer classic. I was already familiar with big-name gay directors like John Waters and Gregg Araki, and I was eager to expand my cinematic knowledge. I attended the screening hoping for a life-changing experience, but I was distracted and unimpressed by the film’s awkward dialogue and stilted performances. When it played again in Toronto about ten years later, I decided to give it a second chance at the urging of an older gay friend. This time, my experience was radically different. A film that had barely sustained my attention years earlier was now a heart-wrenching portrait of unrequited love. I soon learned that the filmmaking journey of its writer-director, David Secter, had been catalyzed by a story much like my own college experience.

In December of 1962, a few months after Secter arrived from Winnipeg to attend the University of Toronto, he befriended a fellow male student. The pair quickly became inseparable, and Secter gradually developed a romantic interest. He never shared his feelings—it was 1962, and LGBTQ activity was still considered a crime in Canada—but the boys decided to co-sign on an apartment for the summer.

With the intimacy of living together, Secter’s attraction grew. Nothing physical ever happened—besides drunkenly sharing a bed once after a night out—but Secter’s interest was visible enough that his roommate’s girlfriend broached the subject of a possible gay attraction with the boys. Despite Secter’s attempts to smooth things over, the friendship disintegrated. After moving out in September, the pair never spoke again.

My fling also came to a halt because of a girl. In our case, it was a milky-skinned ingénue from our class with whom my crush hooked up a few weeks after our first interlude. At the time, I thought we’d been torn apart by a conniving Jezebel. I settled into a depression before ultimately accepting that my crush’s late-night dalliances with me had been largely a product of alcohol and surging testosterone. Despite occasional forays into bisexuality, he wasn’t interested in a real relationship with me or any other guy.

Not long after things fell apart, I wrote a thinly fictionalized version of the events as a play. I wasn’t thinking of it as an artistic project. It was more like pouring my heart into a diary as a way to shed the experience from my body. Two years later, I came back to what I’d written, reorganized it and staged it as my undergraduate thesis project. Set in a dorm room not unlike the one I’d once inhabited, the show followed a trio of students over three consecutive nights as they drank, got stoned and confessed their true feelings. The protagonist—coincidentally played by an actor named Chris—doesn’t emerge as the hero. Instead, none of the characters come off well, and everyone ends up alone.

Like me, Secter decided to spin his failed romance into art. Winter follows shy freshman Peter (Henry Tarvainen) as he navigates campus life under the wing of Doug (John Labow), a popular senior. Things go well until Peter takes up with Sandra (Janet Amos), an older girl he meets through a student theatre production. At the same time, Doug’s girlfriend, Bev (author Joy Fielding, who started her career as an actor), becomes jealous of the relationship between the boys. The film builds to a confusing climax, at which point everyone’s romantic dreams are dashed. 

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The implausibility of Secter’s decision to make a gay film was rivalled only by his decision to make a film at all. In the early 1960s, indie movies were virtually non-existent outside of Quebec. Perusing the classified section in the Toronto Star for a summer job, Secter stumbled on a notice from a local businessman who was assembling a team to sail around the world while making a documentary about the journey. Unable to secure financing, the project fell apart. But Secter’s interest in cinema was piqued, and he decided to make a movie despite having no prior filmmaking experience. He assembled a volunteer crew through ads in his college paper and courted actors from campus theatre troops. He cobbled together some equipment, bought a few reels of discounted film and set out to make his dreams of cinematic grandeur a reality. 

Owing to a lack of time, Secter never wrote a script. Instead, he worked with a five-page treatment and a rough list of scenes. The team would meet between lectures, improvise the day’s shoot a few times and film it once through before heading back to their regular scholastic lives. Despite its haphazard production, the film unexpectedly blew up, scoring rave reviews from big-name critics and becoming the first fictional Anglo-Canadian feature to screen at the Cannes Film Festival. It went on to tour college campuses and art house cinemas across North America.

Despite the film’s international accolades, it’s still shocking that Secter managed to make a gay film in 1960s Canada. While artists like Andy Warhol, Jack Smith and Kenneth Anger were serving up explicitly queer works south of the border, it was almost impossible to screen them here since they were often seized in transit by the Canada Border Services Agency. In August of 1965, the same month that Secter was completing his final edit, Everett Klippert, the last Canadian convicted of homosexuality, began a thirty-six month prison sentence for gross indecency.

Gay sex would be partially decriminalized four years later. But, from the vantage of the early 1960s, there was no guarantee that this would happen. In that way, Winter is not only a portrait of queer attraction during a deeply homophobic period in our country’s history; its production also highlights the challenges faced by queer artists who wanted to share their stories. In order to get permission from the university to film on campus, Secter had to mask the story’s gay elements. Even the actors were oblivious to what the story was really about, the scenes of sexual attraction constructed through thoughtful camera angles and clever editing.

Had I seen—and understood—Secter’s film at the time of my own tryst, it might have helped me navigate my confusion and heartbreak. Instead, it took years of comparing war stories with gays from different generations to help me grasp the mistakes I’d made and how I could avoid making them again. Later, the catharsis of seeing my own experience, which had felt so isolating at the time, reflected on screen helped me realize the importance of sharing queer stories with future generations. 

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In 2019, I started working on a book about Winter for McGill-Queen’s University Press’s Queer Film Classics series. Initially, I wasn’t thinking about how Secter’s story or the film it had sparked might help younger gays navigate heartbreak. I just wanted to explore a formative but still relatively unknown work from the queer canon and understand its place in cinema history. But researching the film reaffirmed for me the value of creating and preserving these stories. Knowing that you’re just one of many gay guys who’s been rejected by a friend doesn’t mean you won’t fall into the same trap again. But at least, when your heart is broken, it can help you feel less alone while you put the pieces back together. 

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