Select Page

LGBTQIA2+ Organizing in Canada

(Note: This page provides a brief overview of key events that shaped the landscape for LGBTQIA2+ rights in Canada. While these events were significant for the movement, they are in no way comprehensive of LGBTQIA2+ organizing in Canada, and are meant to highlight some important events). For a shorter overview — see the timeline image below.

In 1892, a law passed making “gross indecency” between men illegal, which was extended to women in 1953. Various tactics were employed to discriminate against LGBTQIA2+ in subtle and explicit ways, including the federal government’s explicit targeting of employees using the so-called Fruit Machine, a ‘homosexuality test’ to keep people out of the public service. Moreover, LGBTQIA2+ people were targeted by RCMP and tabs were kept on who attended gay bars or crossed the Canadian border.

After Britain’s Sexual Offences Act was passed in 1967, then-Minister of Justice Pierre Trudeau proposed relaxing laws against same-sex activities stating famously that: “there is no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation”. Only two years later, an omnibus bill (C-150) was passed, including provisions to decriminalize same-sex activity between two consenting adults over the age of 21. Nonetheless, scholars have argued this turning point merely re-criminalized same-sex activity since homosexuality was outlawed in other ways. For example, same-sex activity was still illegal in the public spaces, if three or more parties were involved, or if one party was under the age of 21. Though clearly flawed, this piece of legislation tried to embody the Liberal government’s belief that religion and state should be separated. With the legalization of (at least some) same-sex activity, more organizing, more activism, soon followed.

The 1970s

In the summer of 1971, more than 100 people organized a rally on Parliament Hill (and a related rally in Vancouver) for LGBTQIA2+ rights for the first time in Canadian history. The rally emerged out of a coalition of organizations that formed in the wake of the 1969 omnibus bill, calling for an end to the ongoing discrimination faced by LGBTQIA2+ people, including other sections of the criminal code, not addressed by the omnibus bill. The document they presented to the federal government, known as “We Demand” called for ten specific changes to law and public policy to end the discrimination faced by LGBTQIA2+ people. The We Demand demonstrations are understood as a critical moment in LGBTQIA2+ organizing, spurring ongoing organizing and activism. In 1971, The Body Politic, an important publication that contributed substantially to the building of community and ongoing activism. By 1973, Pride week had emerged as a national LGBTQIA2+ rights event in several Canadian cities.

Demonstrators at the We Demand rally, August 28, 1971. Photograph by Jearld Moldenhauer via Wikimedia.

In 1974, the arrest of several women in Toronto were arrested outside of the Brunswick House after being kicked out for performing a parody song (“I Enjoy Being a Dyke“) at amateur night. The women experienced harassment and violence at the hands of the police. Of the three arrested, two were acquitted, and one charged. Although the charge was eventually dropped, the experience of the “Brunswick Four” galvanized many LGBTQIA+ people in Toronto and elsewhere to fight back, and to resist police violence.

From February of 1975 to June of 1976, the RCMP carried out the Montreal Olympic “Cleanup,” raiding gay and lesbian bars in Montreal’s Stanley Street gay village. The raids were aimed to “clean up” the city before the 1976 Summer Olympics, directed by then-mayor Jean Drapeau. In October of 1977, the raids continued, as 50 police officers arrested 146 men at two gay bars. This time, societal resistance came the next day, with 2,000 people on the streets protesting. In December of that year, Quebec then added Sexual Orientation to the Human Rights Code, making it the first province to pass gay civil rights law. 

The 1980s 

Although same-sex sexual acts between consenting adults were decriminalized in 1969, LGBTQIA2+ were still targeted by police. 

On February 5, 1981, four bathhouses were raided for alleged sex work and other “indecent acts” in downtown Toronto. In the years leading up to these raids, the LGBTQ+ community endured obscene hate crimes and harassment, at times, even perpetrated by the Metropolitan Toronto Police. The police often targeted and searched members of the LGBTQ+ community to catch them in a sexual act. These acts, alongside other suspicions, led to a six month undercover operation resulting in “Operation Soap.” The Toronto police charged 286 men for being in a bawdy house and 20 men with keeping a “bawdy house”.

The following night, over 3,000 protesters took to the streets. The protests began at the Younge and Wellesley intersection and continued onto the 52nd Division police station. The protestors declared their condemnation of police brutality, while openly expressing support for gay rights. Anti-protesters harassed the marchers by yelling homophobic vulgarity at them and attempting to block access to University Avenue. As the protestors reached the 52nd Division, they were greeted with a barricade of roughly 200 officers. Once violence broke out between protesters and police officers, the crowd dispersed. When news broke about the events that took place during the march, public outcry against police brutality was witnessed. In addition, major news outlets began criticizing how law enforcement handled the situation improperly.

Image of the protests following “Operation Soap” in August 1981 Credit: Gerald Hannon. Image via Pride Toronto (by way of BlogTO).

Even more than the experience of the “Brunswick Four,” the 1981 bathhouse raids–known sometimes as “Canada’s Stonewall“–led to increased organizing of LGBTQIA+ people in Toronto, and in Canada more widely to protest unfair treatment and discrimination to end policy violence.

The 1990s

In the 1990s, a wave of legal challenges took over Canada’s highest courts, resulting in progress for the LGBTQIA+ community. One of the most important was a case brought forth by Jim Egan and Jack Nesbit in 1995. These men were common-law partners, appealing a decision by Health and Welfare Canada that had denied them spousal benefits under the Old Age Security Act. Their appeal was ultimately lost, but the LGBTQ+ community won a more important battle, namely that sexual orientation should be “read into” the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, thereby including sexual orientation as a prohibited ground for discrimination under the Charter. Sexual orientation was added to the Canadian Human Rights Act in 1996.

The 1990s also saw key developments in family law. In the case of M v. H, a lesbian couple living together that had split up challenged the Family Act Law of 1990 in its failure to recognize same-sex partners as having the same rights as common-law couples. The Supreme Court of Canada recognized that same-sex couples were not different from common-law heterosexual couples.

The 2000s

The 2000s saw many critical advances for LGBTQIA+ people in Canada. One of the most significant sites of organizing in this period was the continued push for the recognition of same-sex relationships. The passage of Bill C-32 in 2000, gave same -sex couples who lived together for more than a year, the same benefits and obligations as heterosexual couples, recognizing in law what the courts had done in the 1990s. In 2001, Reverend Brent Hawkes of the Metropolitan Community Church in Toronto, initiated Canada’s first legally recognized same-sex marriage, by reading the banns (a notice announcing an intended marriage and giving opportunity for objection) for three Sundays without an objection.

These initial steps toward the recognition of same-sex marriage were advanced further in 2002 when the Ontario Superior Court made a ruling that the prohibition of same-sex marriage was a violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. British Columbia followed with a similar ruling a year later in 2003, and both Ontario and British Columbia came to legalize the licensing of same-sex marriage. Over the next two years most provinces and territories followed suit. On July 20, 2005, The Civil Marriage Act (also known as Bill C-38), received Royal Assent, recognizing civil marriage as “the lawful union of two persons to the exclusion of all others.” With this, Canada became the fourth country to legislate same-sex marriage.

The 2010s…

Organizing throughout the 2010s (and onward) has seen new advances in family law, and in organizing around transgender rights. This has included the increasing recognition of transgender rights in provincial human rights legislation, the inclusion of gender identity and gender expression in the Canada Human Rights Act, and rallies against transphobia.

Timeline summarizing many of the events above!

Additional resources:

Contributors: Amanda Duffy, Mehek Gogia, Allison Hessels, Veronica Horgan, Cortney Christena MacDonnell, Liam Allen-O’Brien, Jelea Porras, Jordan Levi Ruban, Ayewa Tobiloba