Forty years after the first public protest to address gay rights in Canada, an academic conference in Vancouver acknowledges, honours and celebrates this important milestone.
On August 28, 1971, I was four months old and knew not that 24 years later I would walk down the street in Vancouver, Canada holding the hand of a woman I cared deeply for and having bypassed the closet to do so.
Also on this day, between 100 and 200 gay and lesbian people in Ottawa and 20 in Vancouver participated in the first large scale ‘gay rights’ demonstration in the history of Canada. Those in Ottawa gathered in the rain on parliament hill with passion, commitment and placards chanting “Two-four-six-eight! Gay is just as good as straight!” One week earlier, they submitted a 13-page document to the Federal government calling for changes to the law and public policy as they pertained to gay and lesbian people. In Vancouver, there was a parallel demonstration on the steps of what is now the Vancouver Art Gallery, but then were the stairs leading to the Law Courts of British Columbia.
The demonstrations were timed to coincide with the second anniversary of the day Bill C-150 came into effect. The 1969 ominbus bill introduced by then Minister of Justice Pierre Trudeau decriminalized private consensual homosexual activity between people over the age of 21. The 10 demands included such suggestions to the criminal code as “the removal of the nebulous terms ‘gross indecency’ and ‘indecent act.’” It also suggested that the Immigration Act be amended so as to omit all references to homosexuals and ‘homosexualism.’ The document asked for the right of equal employment and promotion of all government levels for homosexuals. Other recommendations included changes to the Armed Forces and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Finally, it demanded “all legal rights for homosexuals which currently exist for heterosexuals.”
This weekend, in Vancouver, the work of these men and women in 1971 is being revisited and honoured through a conference organized by three Canadian academics, Elise Chenier of Simon Fraser University, Patrizia Gentile of Carleton University and David Churchill of the University of Manitoba. “We Demand”: History/Sex/Activism In Canada is intended to explore links between sexuality and activism and to acknowledge scholarly investigation as one form of activism. The conference organizers encouraged participation from both academics and community activists. I am attending the conference with my friend and collegue Lara Wilson, University Archivist at the University of Victoria. We are promoting our Transgender Archives.
I met and talked with one activist at the conference, Brian Waite, who was in Ottawa in 1971.
CR: What was it like being one of 100 plus people in Ottawa?
BW: The majority of men and women, the early leaders of the gay movement, were already left wing radicals. And, then when they came out what could be more natural than to start struggling for their own liberation.
CR: When you were in Ottawa, what did you think would come of it?
BW: We certainly knew that the 10 demands that we put forward were just and were right. We couldn’t see the future where they would be put into place, but we did see the struggle and believe that we would win, ultimately. We weren’t doing it just for spectacle. We did realize that we were the beginning of something bigger than us. We were starting a process. We took a lot of experience from the Feminist movement. Even though I’m a man, the women I was involved with at the time politically taught us. We used some of the organizational frameworks and strategies of the women’s movement and took them over into the gay movement, as did the lesbian activists.
Knowing that the work of both the Feminist movement and the Queer movement is not done, I asked him what should come next. He told me that he had contributed much to the gay movement and felt somewhat retired. But, that if he was to become politically active again, his efforts would be re-directed towards general politics. His concern for the direction and leadership of our majority government leads him to believe that the cliché ‘the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer’ has never been more true. He believes that conferences like “We Demand” help to energize the fight, that academics will go back to their respective universities and spread the word to the next generations. But, he himself wants to fight on a broader political spectrum to challenge some of the growing inequities in the world because he is deeply concerned about what Canada may look like four years from now – for everybody.
Now, I am married to a wonderful man and I have two children. But, who I was when I was 24 shaped me and the people who came into my life then and since have helped to make me who I am. And, now, perhaps because I do have children, the importance of creating a better world is even stronger. Teaching my sons about difference, equality and justice is paramount.
There is no doubt that the brave people who demonstrated in the streets of Ottawa and Vancouver in 1971 were making history, even if they did not know this at the time. This 40-year anniversary needs to be acknowledged. And yet, Brian’s concern over the state of Canadian politics and, indeed, Canadian lives stays with me.
Yesterday, I began this post writing through tears as I both listened to and stopped to watch the former NDP leader and Leader, Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition’s celebration of life. Jack Layton passed away on August 22, 2011. In his last days he wrote a letter to Canadians, the final words of which were “so let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.”
Jack Layton’s dream for a more inclusive and generous Canada is perhaps what we all – straight, gay, bi, lesbian, transgendered & queer – need to be working towards.
Parliament Hill, Aug 28, 1971, Charles Hill speaking; picketers drenched but determined
Canadian Lesbian & Gay Archives – by Jearld Moldenhauer
We Demand Vancouver, 1971, Canadian Lesbian & Gay Archives