Chapter 12. Canada at the End of History

12.7 Queer and Other Histories

John Belshaw and Tracy Penny Light, Thompson Rivers University

Close-up of a man in a suit with a patterned tie and clear-rimmed glasses.
Figure 12.18 Herbert Norman, Canadian diplomat, was suspected by the RCMP of being a homosexual.

The literature on queer history is still in its infancy — although it is a robust infant. In a country in which heterosexual narratives overlapped so completely with the nation-building saga, finding queer histories constitutes a huge challenge in its own right.

In the pre-Confederation period, homosexual relations were punishable by death. This extreme stricture — seemingly never enforced — nevertheless served to keep homosexuality buried deep in the closet. After 1868 the Criminal Code described same-sex relations as an “act of gross indecency,” and a conviction could — and frequently enough did — result in severe jail time and even flogging. These laws would not change substantially for a century.

Conditions in public and private life were hardly better than in the courts. Religious authorities of every stripe regarded homosexuality as starkly immoral. Regarded widely as sexually and psychologically deviant, and criminal, homosexuality — if discovered — could, and commonly resulted in, the loss of employment and social ostracism. To be sure, there are many examples of women engaged in what were euphemistically described as “Boston marriages” and many “confirmed bachelors” whose sexual orientation was a public secret. Hidden histories of this order include Charlotte Whitton (1896-1975), the first woman elected mayor of a leading Canadian city (Ottawa), who spent more than two decades in a same-sex relationship. The accomplished film animator Norman McLaren (1914-87) was able to sustain a relationship with another National Film Board director, Guy Glover, from the 1930s to the 1980s. The possibility of living a fulfilling homosexual life was rarely possible, and examples such as these are the exceptions to the rule. Probably more typical of the 20th century experiences was that of the accomplished Saskatchewan novelist, Sinclair Ross (1908-96), whose homosexuality was only disclosed after his death.

Fruit Machines and Protest

By the mid-20th century, there were growing calls to liberalize both the perception and legal status of homosexuality as activists drew on the experiences of the civil rights and women’s liberation movements. These early campaigns were contemporaneous with increasing suspicion and surveillance of homosexuals by the intelligence community. Security circles had linked sexual deviance (which encompassed sex of any kind for any purpose other than reproduction) with political deviance, at least since the time of the First World War. Homosexuality came to be regarded as disloyal in and of itself, and homosexuals were thought to be easily turned against their own nation. The very illegality of homosexuality, of course, created an environment in which lesbians and gays were vulnerable to blackmail.

A machine with two meters with needles and several knobs.
Figure 12.19 The “fruit machine.”

During the Cold War, the Canadian military and RCMP worked assiduously to root out from their ranks, and from higher levels of the civil service, anyone thought to be homosexual or otherwise sexually “deviant.” Security officials exposed subjects to homo-erotic images and used a device that measured pupil dilation to determine whether the subject was aroused. The so-called fruit machine was bad science, and it damaged (and destroyed) careers, as did Cold War-era interrogations of suspected security risks associated with homosexual orientation. The distinguished, intellectually gifted, and unmarried Canadian diplomat Herbert Norman (1909-57) was grilled in the early 1950s regarding suspicions that he was gay; his subsequent suicide is thought by some to have been connected with his sexual orientation and fear of exposure.

Social standards had changed by the mid-1960s, and there was a greater appetite to decriminalize homosexuality. One catalyst for this shift was the conviction to indefinite detention (potential life sentence in an institution) of a North West Territories man, George Klippert (1926-1996), who had had sexual relations with consenting adult males on four separate occasions. As was the case with lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender women and men in earlier generations, Klippert’s behaviour was at first couched in a language of perversion and psychological illness. A stable and fearlessly honest man, Klippert stood in for everyone whose lifestyle might come under random scrutiny. His conviction was to be the last of its kind. Revision of the Criminal Code followed in 1968, and in 1969, homosexual relations between consenting adults was made legal.

Watch this video on Pierre Trudeau’s Omnibus Interview. Prime Minister Trudeau, who had been the Minister of Justice only months earlier, was able with a single famous aphorism to shift standards in regard to homosexual relations between consenting adults.

Four years later, the Diagnostics and Statistics Manual of mental disorders — the guidebook for psychological assessment and treatment in North America — expunged homosexuality as a form of mental illness.

Megan Davies, a York University historian of institutionalization and mental health, describes the links between social constructions of mental illness and social attitudes toward sexual orientation and identity.

From Penal to Pride

Being gay prior to 1969 could lead to jail, so being “out” was both dangerous and unlikely to attract support. This does not mean, however, that gays and lesbians did not find opportunities to create cultures and to build connections before the Criminal Code was amended. Most major cities contained at least a few discrete venues that were known to be safe sites for queer gatherings. The Castle Hotel on Vancouver’s Granville Street, the Odyssey Club in Regina, the Happenings Social Club in Winnipeg, the steambaths of Toronto, and bars along Montreal’s Stanley Street were locations where gay men in particular could meet and form relationships or satisfy sexual needs. Even after changes in the Criminal Code, however, gay men experienced persecution by the nation’s police forces. Legal acceptance of the right to quietly engage in private sexual relations did not extend to public identification of homosexuality, and a closeted existence continued to seem, for many, the best choice.

However, 1969 marked a turning point in the ability of the LGBT communities to announce their collective presence and to organize campaigns for rights. As more and more Canadians emerged tentatively from the closet, they launched one campaign after the next for “gay liberation” and “gay rights.” These campaigns met with the inevitable and strident objections of Canadians (straight and some gay) who were raised in generations where homosexuality equated, in public discourse and the press, with sexual perversion and even predatory and pedophilic behavior. Under these circumstances, gays and lesbians who were “outed” by the police or the courts could still face stigmatization. Suicides remained a common enough occurrence as a result. Strategies of conformity did not, therefore, disappear overnight. In the short term, as one study has it, many in the LGBT community simply built “a bigger closet.”[1]

Gradually, the homophile community turned to public displays of solidarity. The pink triangle used by the German National Socialist regime of the 1930s and 1940s to identify, humiliate, and persecute homosexuals (in what is sometimes referred to as the “homocaust”) was appropriated by the gay rights movement as a symbol of shared suffering and resistance. “Gay Pride” events began to appear in the early 1970s, starting very small and culminating in marches that — in little more than a decade — became major festive occasions in the nation’s largest cities.

The AIDS Epidemic and the Charter

Although there is evidence for an earlier start in Vancouver in the 1970s, many members of Vancouver’s LGBT community indicate 1981 as the year of the first official pride parade. This is significant in that 1981 also marks the beginning of the human immunodeficiency virus infection and acquired immune deficiency syndrome (HIV/AIDS) pandemic in North America. The following year saw the first HIV/AIDS case in Canada. It struck demographics outside of the gay community, but AIDS was most firmly associated in the media and in the popular mind with gay sexual relations; it was, for a while, sneered at as the “gay plague.” The tragedy of HIV/AIDS — which multiplied through the 1980s and into the 1990s — was both fuel to the homophobic lobby and a spur to increased gay rights and LGBT solidarity.

Just as HIV/AIDS was beginning to chew its way along its disease vector, a further change was coming to the legal status of lesbians and gays. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982 provided a new foundation for gay rights, thereafter tested and approved by the courts. Despite intermittent outbursts of homophobic violence, LGBT Canadians thereafter claimed an increasing share of civic and cultural life. In 1988 Svend Robinson (b. 1952) became the first openly gay Member of Parliament, and 10 years later, Glen Murray (b. 1957) became the first openly gay mayor of a major city (more than 45 years after Whitton was elected mayor of Ottawa). In 2001 Libby Davies (like Robinson, a British Columbia NDP MP) came out as a lesbian, the first in Parliament. As the shadows hiding homosexuality rolled back, further gains were made in the courts and legislatures. Rights to benefits and pensions for same-sex couples were granted in different jurisdictions, gays and lesbians were permitted to serve in Canada’s military, same-sex couples were allowed adoption rights, the definition of hate crimes was broadened to include anti-homosexual cases, and at the turn of the century, the civil laws prohibiting same-sex marriages were crumbling.

The extension of legal tolerance at first, and then actual, legally enshrined rights for gays and lesbians from the 1960s on is a manifestation of the growing rights culture in Canada during those years. Although LGBT Canadians could not be ghettoized in the same way as poor immigrants or visible minorities, they endured significant disadvantages through the 20th century, which included the psychological and physical costs of being socially marginalized, physically threatened, and closeted. The gay community, however, had the significant advantage of cultural capital and representatives (and allies) atop some of the commanding peaks of the media, cultural industries, and the academy, and so were able to speak out in ways that other more visible minorities could not. (Contrariwise, Charlotte Whitton has been criticized for using her advantages as a white middle-class woman in power against the rights and needs of ethnic minorities in Canada.) Some of the gains made by the LGBT rights movement have acted as an example for other communities’ rights, especially since the 1980s.

In 2002 a Durham, Ontario 12th grader, Marc Hall, made plans to bring his 21-year old boyfriend to prom night. The Catholic school that Hall attended, however, instructed him that this would be forbidden on the grounds that the Catholic Church did not accept homosexuality. The case wound up in court where, on the morning of the prom, the judge provided an injunction in favour of Hall. In this instance, the provincial government’s stand against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, at least temporarily, trumped the religious freedom rights of the school and its board. For Marc Hall, this was a personal victory; from a historic standpoint, it was rather more. It revealed that the moral arbiters of Canadian society a half century earlier had either lost their authority or had changed their position dramatically. Far from being declared sexually insane and incarcerated, Hall was applauded across the country. The case also pointed to the strength of identity politics at the start of the new millennium, and the ways in which the Charter had rearranged the legal landscape. “Historic events” such as this one thus serve to reveal as much about the past as they suggest about the future.

A caveat needs to be registered. Historians and social scientists have drawn attention to the fact that the “rights” gained by LGBT Canadians might be considered heterosexual rights.[2] Gay marriage, for instance, “heterosexualizes” queer couples and legitimizes their unions within the boundaries of a particular notion of normal (one that includes, for example, ideals of life-long monogamy). In terms of current issues, there is ample evidence that many groups continue to be marginalized (transfolk, for instance); from a historical perspective, it is instructive to see how invisible their experiences remain in the literature. However, these histories are being brought to light by historians, many who are making good use of interviews to document experiences in the mid-20th century.

Visit the Archives of Lesbian Oral Testimony website. Elise Chenier’s work on archiving lesbian oral history is both a landmark and a benchmark.

Key Points

  • Regulations against homosexual relations and homosexuality itself remained on the books in Canada until the late 1960s.
  • Although LGBT Canadians often found ways of expressing, exploring, and pursuing their sexualities, the various pressures to conform to a heterosexual norm constituted a powerful force.
  • The persecution of gay men in particular increased during the Cold War and, in the security and military services, dubious methods of interrogation were deployed to identify homosexual “threats.”
  • In 1968 Pierre Trudeau’s government took the position that the state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation and effectively legalized homosexuality.
  • The decade that followed saw the stirring of gay pride movements; the 1980s witnessed significant gay liberation and, simultaneously, the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

Media Attributions

  1. Valerie Korinek, “A Queer-eye View of the Prairies: Reorienting Western Canadian Histories” in The West and Beyond: New Perspectives on an Imagined Region, eds. Alvin Finkel, Sarah Carter, and Peter Fortna (Edmonton, AB: Athabasca University Press, 2010), 287.
  2. See, for an early example, Marianne Valverde, Sex, Power, and Pleasure (Toronto, ON: Women’s Press, 1985).


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Canadian History: Post-Confederation Copyright © 2016 by John Belshaw and Tracy Penny Light, Thompson Rivers University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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