The Queer Story of James McGay

Graphic by Sarah Manuszak

It was a small fun fact in a tour. An innocuous tidbit that many have forgotten, but it has haunted me every single day of my McGillian life. James McGill, over the course of four years, has become my most important gay icon. As a 16-year-old applicant, I travelled to Montreal and stepped first foot on McGill campus at an admitted students’ weekend. I went through all the motions of a university trip: the presentations, the forced interactions with other applicants, the tour. But that tour in horrific weather did more for me than any other McGill propaganda, because it forever implanted in me a terrible, wonderful, certainly incorrect notion: James McGill was a gay man. 

Stopping outside the Arts building, my tour guide slipped a little fun fact into her presentation. “One thing many people don’t know,” she explained, “is that James McGill himself, the founder of the university, is buried right here underneath the Arts building crest.” Of course, this perked up my teenage ears. A corpse? On my university campus? It’s more likely than you’d think. But her story got better. “There’s a bit of a ghost story along with this burial. James McGill was originally buried at a different cemetery, which was closed down in the 1800s. The university resolved to move his remains to campus. But when digging him up, they also dug up half of the remains of his close friend, as later revealed by a DNA test on the remains. So, actually, there are 1.5 people buried under the crest!” My tour moved on, but my brain did not. 

It forever implanted in me a terrible, wonderful, certainly incorrect notion: James McGill was a gay man. 

Who just “moves on” upon hearing that information???? Since that day in 2016, my mind has not known peace. Here, I intend to lay out some facts and hopefully answer some of my own questions about (fingers crossed) James McGay. So I don’t get sued or expelled, I’ll say it now: I have no affiliation with the estate of James McGill and I put forth my conjectures as ~fictional~ regarding the sexual preferences of this esteemed institution’s founder. 

That being said, what the fuck, right?! Immediately my mind went to how this could be possible. Did nobody use coffins in the 1800s? Where was Mrs. McGill? Who was this mystery “best friend”? Fortunately, a quick skim of James McGill’s Wikipedia page gave me the name of his burial buddy: John Porteous. From there, I was met with a wide expanse of nothing. Who was this Porteous, and how close was he really to McGill?

John Porteous was the fur-trading associate of Mr. James McGill. However, he was clearly much more. Upon the death of Porteous in 1782, James McGill became the effective father of his children, raising the youngest, Charlotte, as his own from near infancy. Because, didn’t you know, James McGill had no biological children of his own! In Stanley Frost’s biography, James McGill of Montreal, it is revealed that McGill bought the plot in Dufferin Square Cemetery where Porteous was buried, and moved him there from his original place of rest in 1797, 17 years after Porteous’ death. Later, after his death at 69 (nice) in 1813, McGill would be buried in the same plot, next to a man who died almost 30 years before him. Such friendly devotion, isn’t it? ….It isn’t; it’s extremely gay. According to Frost, McGill’s grave was bestowed with an illustrious monument commemorating him with great honour. And, in the true manner of a gay counterpart, “a side panel referred to John Porteous as also being buried there”. What’s more, James McGill had reportedly abandoned the fur trade entirely in the years before his death. So why was he buried with a remnant of his past, now cast-aside enterprise? 

Say it with me, gay.

Many of the mysteries surrounding this McGill-Porteous burial can be written off as inconsequential. McGill wasn’t buried with his wife because she was Catholic and he was Protestant. He didn’t have any natural children because, I don’t know, he was busy. His remains were moved because the Dufferin Square cemetery was closed. Porteous was moved with him because people used to be buried so close together that you couldn’t tell whose body was who, right? And surely James McGill was heterosexual, and devoted to his wife, with whom he probably never had sex, more so than the man he was buried so close to that they literally could not dig up his body in the 1870s without also digging up Porteous! All of this I can accept as coincidence. But what drives me to believe in my James McGay fantasy is the sheer mystery surrounding John Porteous. 

As opposed to many of McGill’s other fur trade associates, John Porteous is an online ghost. No Wikipedia page, no archival mentions except in the queries of his possible descendants living in the Montreal community. Even in the excerpts of James McGill’s will available through the McGill archives, no mention is made of Porteous, ostensibly due to the fact that he died before the will was finalized. Suspiciously, though, there is no mention whatsoever of his desired burial state in these excerpts. The university even removed Porteous’ mention from the McGill monument upon his re-interment. 

In the end, I see John Porteous and James McGill as the gay couple that every couple should be: hopelessly devoted.

Could there be a conspiracy trying to destroy the memory of Porteous from history? No, probably not. Would I pay big bucks to see that will in full? Yes. I can only imagine how McGill’s burial clause goes. “Make sure to bury me in the same plot as John Porteous, a fur trading friend of mine, even though I now have renounced the fur trade. Yes, I am aware I can afford a second plot in the cemetery. No, I don’t want to. Dig up the 30-year ground and bury me so close to his newly decomposed corpse as to nearly mistake us for one body.” How has nobody investigated this yet? 

In the end, I see John Porteous and James McGill as the gay couple that every couple should be: hopelessly devoted. Even the other half of Porteous’ remains, now sitting under Complexe Guy-Favreau, were lovingly placed there by the man who seemed more devoted to him than to anyone else: James McGay. McGill displayed complete devotion to Porteous: he raised his children, buried his body, and later was buried next to the man himself. So where is the mark of this “best friendship” on history? If nothing else, I take comfort in the fact that these two possible lovers will remain together, at least partially, on the McGill campus. And I know two body parts in particular that will certainly remain close together forever in that grave: their hearts.

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