The Spartacus International Gay Guide is an international travel app which lists gay-friendly countries based on anti-discrimination legislation, equal marriage, and overall safety for LGBTQ2S individuals In 2023 Canada finished second, behind only Malta on that list.
But it wasn’t always that way, and to be fair, we still have a long way to go. For the past 50 years, LGBTQ2S activists and others have worked tirelessly to advocate for Canada to move away from being a country where being queer was a crime.
The legalization of same-sex marriage, the ban on conversion therapy, anti-discrimination laws concerning sexual orientation, allowing LGBTQ2S individuals to serve in the military, and allowing same-sex couples to adopt, all of that can be traced to a rainy day in 1971 when the chant, “We Demand!” echoed across Parliament Hill.
I’m Craig Baird, and this is Canadian History Ehx!
Canada became a country in 1867, and for the next 102 years, it was illegal to be homosexual.
Men involved in same sex relationships were labelled as criminal sexual psychopaths and dangerous sexual offenders. If someone was outed, especially in the civil service, they lost their job. You couldn’t serve in the military, and you certainly couldn’t marry someone of the same sex.
Jail time was a real risk for many men and women who engaged in same-sex activity.
Back in 1892, a law was passed that labelled anything deemed questionable between two men as gross indecency.
While this included sexual acts and kissing, it also meant that if you happened to hold a man’s hand, or danced with a man, you risked going to jail for it.
In 1953, the law was extended to include women.
Then came George Klippert.
George had no intention of changing Canada, or the laws relating to homosexuality.
He simply spent his days working as a mechanic in Pine Point, Northwest Territories.
He also happened to be gay.
In 1965, he was picked up for questioning in connection with a case of suspected arson. and police quickly determined he had nothing to do with the crime.
Unfortunately, during the investigation George admitted to having consensual sex with four different men in the community.
He was subsequently arrested and charged with four counts of “gross indecency”.
With very little legal representation on his side George fought the charge and went to trial.
Two psychiatrists testified that George had no aggressive or pedophilic tendencies.
They stated he was simply, in their words, an incurable homosexual and recommended that he receive psychiatric care rather than prison time.
Judge John Sissons felt differently and sentenced George to three years in prison on four counts of gross indecency. As this was the second time he was arrested and charged for having consensual sex with other men, he was designated as a dangerous sexual offender.
While George sat in prison, his sister Leah appealed the ruling all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.
On November 7, 1967, the court ruled, three to two, to uphold the conviction and the designation as a dangerous sexual offender.
The ruling caused outrage in Canada, including in Parliament.
The outrage wasn’t because a man had been sent to prison for having sex with other men.
It was based on the fact he was not being given psychiatric help to quote unquote cure him.
At the time, the belief that homosexuality was a psychological condition was still prevalent in society.
In Parliament, Bud Orange, who was George’s MP, objected to his prison sentence. He stated to the CBC, “It is ridiculous that any man would be put into jail because they are affected by a social disease.”
Tommy Douglas, then leader of the federal NDP, stated in the House of Commons that “homosexuality is a social and psychiatric problem, rather than a criminal one.”
Around this same time, Pierre Trudeau, the federal Justice Minister, was working on a huge omnibus bill that would amend many parts of the Criminal Code.
The 1969 Criminal Code amendment was a landmark document in Canadian history.
It included the partial legalization of abortion, liberalization of laws concerning divorce, while also adding in new laws related to impaired driving and animal cruelty.
I’ll be covering the story of this landmark law change later this year.
Future prime minister John Turner described it as the most important and all-embracing reform of the criminal and penal law ever attempted at one time in Canada.
Partly due to the public response over the sentencing of George Klippert, Trudeau added new legalization of consensual sex between two males over the age of 20l.
He famously said,
“There is no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.”
Make no mistake, this bill was a landmark moment in Canadian history.
For the first time, two men or two women could engage in consensual sex in their own home without fear of being arrested.
Yet, the changes didn’t go far enough to legalize homosexuality, nor did it amend how the LGBTQ2S community was treated in Canada.
That would take decades.
And an integral step was the We Demand Rally.
While the bill legalized same-sex relationships only behind closed doors, it was still illegal for that same-sex relationship to include more than two people and it was illegal for same sex couples to engage in any romantic activities in public.
The new Criminal Code didn’t stop discrimination against theLGBTQ2S community, anyone outed as gay could be out of a job with no legal ramifications for the employer.
In an effort to fight for a more equitable society, 12 LGBTQ2S groups came together to form We Demand in 1971.
We Demand wasn’t an organization per se, but a 13-page document that called for changes to federal laws.
It stated in part,
quote “In our daily lives we are still confronted with discrimination, police harassment, exploitation, and pressures to conform which deny our sexuality. That prejudice against homosexual people pervades society is, in no small way, attributable to practices of the Federal government.” end quote.
The letter also stated that in a democratic society, if one minority is denied freedom, all citizens are oppressed.
Within the document were several specific demands that the community wanted addressed, so let’s go through them.
(small beat – music bed change)
The Criminal Code contained the terms “gross indecency” and “indecent acts” related to homosexual activity outside of the home. As a result, men who frequented bathhouses could be charged upon entering. Which happened in Toronto in 1981 when close to 300 men were arrested for quote “being found in a common bawdy house.” In extreme cases, the person could be charged with “gross indecency” and “buggery”, and then be labelled as a “dangerous sexual offender” as George Klippert had been.
We Demand asked that those terms be removed and that homosexuals be treated equally under the law.
Under the Criminal Code, the age of consent for heterosexual sex was 14 but for homosexual sex it was 21. We Demand’s brief stated there needed to be a uniform age of consent.
The Immigration Act from 1952 identified homosexuals as having a “constitutional psychopathic personality” and banned them from applying as immigrants or permanent residents to Canada. We Demand requested that this act be amended to allow homosexuals to come to Canada as immigrants or refugees, especially when fleeing a country where homosexuality was still a death sentence.
The Divorce Act of 1968 put sodomy and homosexual acts in the same category as physical mental abuse, bestiality, and sexual assault as a grounds for divorce.
We Demand asked that this be amended to remove homosexual acts and sodomy as a grounds for divorce.
During divorce proceedings courts nearly always denied homosexuals custody of their children.
We Demand asked that this be changed so that the merits of individuals be the only focus of custody.
Before I continue I gotta take you on a side trip to something called the fruit machine.
In the 1950s and 1960s, if you were gay and worked for the federal government in any capacity, you could find yourself in a chair, looking at a screen, while your pupil responses to pornographic images were measured.
It was called The Fruit Machine by those who administered it, a name coined by an unnamed RCMP sergeant.
It was the brainchild of Dr. Frank Robert Wake, a psychology professor at Carleton University who developed it in the 1950s at the request of the federal government with the goal of finding out which civil servants were homosexuals.
At the time, psychologists believed homosexuals suffered from character weaknesses and the government worried that could make them disloyal and easier to manipulate.
As a result, the government saw gay men in the military, RCMP, and civil service as security risks. During the Cold War, the government believed these men could become Soviet spies.
Under the premise of going in for a stress test, the subject was put in a chair like that of a dentist’s chair where their heart rate was analyzed as they were shown images of naked or semi-naked men and women.
The person administering the test then observed the subject’s pupil size and measured them to see the reaction to the images.
In another test, based on a 1953 study by R.A. McCleary, the subject, held a bag of anhydrous cobalt chloride and anhydrous silica gel. The crystals change colour when exposed to moisture, so the subject was expected to read “homosexual words” including circus, bagpipe, blind, camp, fish, sew, house, and restaurant to determine if they sweated and caused the crystals to change.
In this test sweating was supposed to help determine sexuality
As you can imagine the accuracy of these tests was highly questionable.
While the pupillary response test is used in psychology, the use of this to determine homosexuality is based on the flawed assumption that an involuntary reaction could be measured easily. It can’t be. Changes in pupil dilation are typically less than one millimetre.
The test also presumed that homosexuals and heterosexuals would respond differently to the same stimuli, which they didn’t. Despite the dubious nature of the project, the machine was used until 1967 when funding was pulled by the Defence Research Board.
Many civil service employees, RCMP officers, and soldiers lost their jobs or were demoted without cause during that time and the RCMP collected files on over 9,000 people.
As a result of this hostility in the civil service sector, We Demand stated in its brief that the practice end, and that civil servants should not be fired based on sexuality. They also wanted all RCMP documents related to these investigations to be destroyed.
Finally, We Demand asked for homosexuals to be allowed to serve in the military, be granted equal rights for employment and that Canada amend its human rights laws to give homosexuals the same rights and privileges as heterosexual Canadians.
With those demands in mind on Aug. 28, 1971, activists assembled on rainy Parliament Hill in Ottawa.
Their goal was to publicize the We Demand brief.
The protest was hoping to target federal lawmakers, rather than provincial since the We Demand brief was related to federal laws.
Charlie Hill, who was a 25-year-old university student and a main organizer of the event, said years later,
“We wanted to publicize the demands we wanted for legal change. A lot of people, either gay or non-gay, thought there were no legal issues for gays. That was nonsense. There were still a lot of laws discriminating against gays.”
No government official came out of Parliament to accept the 13-page list of demands.
In all, the protest lasted less than an hour, and about 100 people took part, but the impact of this event would be far reaching.
Overall, there was little news coverage, in fact if you go looking for footage online there are just a few results.
Most stories of the event were brief and buried deep inside newspapers.
The Ottawa Journal wrote,
“The protest, billed Gay Day, was to publicize a brief, recently presented to the government, seeking an end to discrimination against homosexuals.”
However, the event proved to be the first large-scale public LGBTQ2S demonstration in Canadian history.
A smaller group also demonstrated in Vancouver in solidarity.
Charlie Hill, who was part of the group Toronto Gay Action, said on the day of the Ottawa Rally,
“Today marks a turning point in our history. No longer are we going to petition others to give us our rights. We’re here to demand them as equal citizens on our own terms.”
Although an important first step shortly after, very little changed in Canada.
The demonstration was seen as an action by a small minority of the LGBTQ2S community.
However, within the community, it sparked change.
Inspired by the rally, a new publication was created, The Body Politic.
Only a few months after the rally, on Nov. 1, 1971, the first issue of The Body Politic was released.
The magazine was a gay-positive publication that took a frank and deep look at LGBTQ issues in Canada at the time.
It was published by an informal collective that operated out of the home of Jearld Moldenhauer, who owned the Glad Day Bookshop.
Most of those members had been part of the underground publication Guerilla but left after an article about the We Demand Rally written by Moldenhauer was altered against his wishes.
The Body Politic soon became the leading gay liberation publication in Canada.
Due to its subject matter, The Body Politic was not without controversy, or enemies.
In 1973, the Toronto Star refused to print an advertisement for the magazine, stating it did not accept ads related to sexual activity.
The magazine fought this by going to the Ontario Press Council & winning on a ruling that the ad print refusal was discriminatory.
The Toronto Star retaliated by canceling the printing contract for The Body Politic with the Star’s printing subsidiary Newsweb Enterprises.
In 1977, Toronto Police seized the subscriber list for the magazine during a raid of the magazine’s headquarters. Those on the list were in danger of being outed at their jobs, or to their families, if the list should ever be made public.
This resulted in international protests, including one by famous LGBTQ2S activist Harvey Milk in San Francisco.
In 1982, Toronto City Councillor Joe Piccininni tried to ban the magazine from the city council’s press gallery, sparking more protests and exposure for the LGBTQ2S rights movement.
The publisher of The Body Politic, Pink Triangle Press, began to publish Xtra! in 1984.
When The Body Politic shut down in 1987, Xtra! took up the mantle and continued to publish a print version containing LGBTQ2S news, fiction and poetry and even dating personals, until 2015.
Today, it continues to operate as a digital magazine and none of that would’ve happened had it not been for that rainy day on Parliament Hill and the inspiration of We Demand.
Progress takes time, so what happened to the LGBTQ2S movement after the rally in Ottawa? In 1973, Toronto became the first major city in Canada to ban discrimination in city employment on the basis of sexual orientation. Ottawa and Windsor soon followed in 1976.
That same year, The Immigration Act of 1976 was passed which ended the prohibition on homosexual immigrants or visitors. It came into effect two years later.
In 1977, Quebec became the first major jurisdiction in the world to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
A year later, Vancouver held the first unofficial Pride Parade in Canadian history and by the turn of the decade in 1980, Vancouver and Montreal hosted their first official Pride Parades.
However, few of the demands of We Demand rally had been accomplished until a cold winter night in 1981 changed everything.
As I mentioned earlier on Feb. 5, 1981, Toronto police raided a series of bathhouses and arrested hundreds of homosexual men.
These raids resulted in a huge protest in Toronto the following night involving 3,000 people.
That protest attracted national attention, and for the first time, wider support.
Before long, more protests followed across Canada and change towards a more inclusive society began to pick up speed.
In June 1981, mere months after the arrests at the bathhouses, Toronto held its first Pride Parade.
By the 1990s, homosexuals could serve in the Canadian military.
In 2004, Canada became the fourth country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage.
Seven years later, same-sex couples could now adopt a child.
Since 2017, a transgender person can change their gender and name without the completion of medical intervention and gender expression is protected in Canada.
Most recently, in 2022, conversion therapy was banned.
The long road to inclusion and equality can be traced in part to the few dozen people who marched in the rain on Parliament Hill in 1971.
And by the time We Demand returned to Parliament Hill the world was very different.
Forty years later, on Aug. 28, 2011, a commemorative march was organized by Queer Ontario called We Still Demand.
Held on Parliament Hill, it both celebrated the reforms since the first rally and protested against existing issues.
As with the 1971 protest, very little attention was paid to it, but it wasn’t because it was a small fringe movement.
We Still Demand was simply lost in the much larger celebration of the LGBTQ2S community happening in Ottawa at the same time.
The 25th Capital Pride Parade, in which 50,000 people celebrated Pride and watched the Pride Parade that included 1,600 participants and dozens of floats.
While we still have ways to go to ensure LGBTQ2S rights in Canada, it is nice to see how far we’ve come in the past 50 years. [OUTRO] Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, CBC, Xtra Magazine, The Village Legacy Project, Wikipedia, North Bay Nugget, Ottawa Journal,