Fifty Years of Freedom?

Homosexuality was decriminalized in 1969, but we’re still battling homophobia in 2019.

The Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1968–69[1] was an omnibus bill that introduced major changes to the Canadian Criminal Code. An earlier version was first introduced as Bill C-195 by then Minister of Justice Pierre Trudeau in the second session of the 27th Canadian Parliament on December 21, 1967.[2] Bill C-195 was modified and re-introduced as Bill C-150 by then Minister of Justice John Turner in the first session of the 28th Canadian Parliament on December 19, 1968.[3][4] On May 14, 1969, after heated debates, Bill C-150 passed third reading in the House of Commons by a vote of 149 (119 Liberals, 18 New Democrats, 12 Progressive Conservatives) to 55 (43 Progressive Conservatives, 11 Créditistes, 1 Liberal). The bill was a massive 126-page, 120-clause amendment to the criminal law and criminal procedure of Canada.

Fifty years is a long time. And it goes by in a second.

Canada’s summer of ’69 was much debated by LGBTQI Canadians this year, and the consensus is that there is no consensus. Did the “decriminalization of homosexuality” Bill C-150 achieve anything for our Queers? Or was it a symbolic political gesture, empty and meaningless?

In Alberta much of those five decades — the majority of my life as a born Albertan — were marked by anything but equality. The Progressive Conservative dynasty ruled with a distinctly homophobic agenda. Until the UCP victory, it had reached a peak with the Ralph Klein years, during which his team used resistance to same-sex marriage, gay fostering and hate crimes protection equality rights as a wedge to fire up the base. These are the years when the legislated discrimination I was forced to live within began to really matter to my Queer generation, many of us discovering a newfound activism, inspired by the success of gay heroes like singer/songwriter k.d. lang and playwright Brad Fraser — fiercely effective in the defiant manner of their resistance, emerging from the same community I had discovered myself in; a community that had learned to stand up for itself after surviving the plague years. We had learned the hard way that we needed to change the world around us. The case of Delwin Vriend, and the Supreme Court of Canada decision of 1998 set a new standard, and exposed the agenda for what it was, compelling the Alberta government to discontinue excluding its Queers from human rights protection. Vriend had taken his case to the Supreme Court of Canada, claiming that he was dismissed from his job at King’s College because of his sexual orientation.

Then Alberta dug in its heels and decided to become the last province to step in line with the national movement to accept same-sex marriage, threatening to invoke the Notwithstanding Clause to override the national trend towards acceptance, before finally admitting in 2005 that there was no legal route to stopping it. The tone felt like it softened somewhat post-Klein, but even as late as 2010, LGBTQI issues polarized the Alberta legislature, as remnants of homophobic assumptions were discovered in the province’s diagnostic guide to mental-health disorders. This was followed by the intense debate about the nature of Gay-Straight Alliances and conversion therapy. The battle raged in the most recent legislative debates: GSA rules have been rolled back. And yet St. Albert, not waiting for Alberta’s government to act, took a prominent lead on the national front and banned conversion therapy.

Edmonton is a government town, and so the provincial battle against gay rights is, in fact, Edmonton’s story as well. Prior to the Klein years though, the judicial and law enforcement machine of Edmonton attacked the LGBTQI community. The Pisces bathhouse raid of 1981 demonstrated with cruel efficiency how the behaviour of gay men could be criminalized and punished, with accompanying breathless reporting by the media. A total of 56 people were arrested in raid of the Pisces Health Spa, and each man was photographed, with their names and occupations recorded. The resulting backlash inspired Edmonton’s first Pride march, and a whole new wave of activism. One of the men arrested in that raid was transformed by the experience into an activist and future city councillor named Michael Phair. But even before that, as the Pisces trials were still happening, a gang of outraged gay men entered a campy raft into the Klondike Days Sourdough Raft Race: The S.S. Pisces. If anyone had believed that the raid would force Edmonton’s Queers back into the shadows, they were wrong.

The urgency of the battle intensified darkly as the plague of the ’80s spread through the Queer city… and then through the rest of the city. This is the decade when our Queer story became Edmonton’s story: A shared tragedy.

It’s easy to sit in our present-day privilege, and point at the “Equality Coin” issued by the Royal Canadian Mint as another meaningless anniversary gesture. We are aware that equality still hasn’t occurred, no matter how many parades we throw, no matter how many Pride flags are flown above city and town halls.

Politically, the last half-century has delivered us both mayors that resisted gay inclusion, and mayors who supported it — and more than a few who were silent on the issue. Bill Smith didn’t want to officially proclaim Pride Week, even though Jan Reimer had. Today we have a civic government that supports the diversity of sexually and gender diverse people. And we recently experienced an all-too-brief flirtation with a provincial government that supported our rights. There was finally a year when the premier addressed the Pride gathering at City Hall in person. The next year, Rachel Notley dove in and marched with us, side by side down Whyte Avenue.

This year, Premier Jason Kenney celebrated Pride month with the passage of Bill 8, which the opposition says will take away protections for LGBTQ2S+ students.

Anniversaries are artificial, and yet they’re a convenient historical bookmark for assessing change. On this anniversary my community slipped into a polarized generational debate about the state of our lives and our politics… and our “equality.” At the same time, a change in government (and one with ominous undertones for future battles) has cast a cloud over the present. And on a year where community cohesion and unity of message would have been a powerful front, we dissolved into our own divide.

Our history of the last 50 years is a laundry list of incremental steps into the light. Many steps have met fierce opposition. And yet there is progress.

What Bill C-150 accomplished was significant, despite what the naysayers argue… even if it took decades for its effects to filter through the legal and social realities of our lives. It inspired Edmonton’s community to launch its first gathering place, something which had been unthinkable in a time where admitting to being Queer could mark you as a dangerous offender. In the form of a small basement room on 101 Street, Club 70 was born in September of 1969, and then quickly locked down by the owner of the building once he learned what purpose the basement had been rented for. The enterprising Queers, emboldened by the “decriminalization,” challenged that eviction in court and emerged victorious, winning back their humble sound system and whatever else the landlord had seized, finally establishing a new location on 106th Street, an address that would remain Queer for the next 44 years. And so we can thank C-150 for the beginning of 50 continuous years of gay bars in Edmonton.

In the wake of Bill C-150, a gay man advertised a phone line that Queers with questions could call confidentially, to receive peer counseling. That service grew and grew until it needed an office. It became Gay Alliance Toward Equality (GATE), which worked on behalf of Edmonton’s Queers from 1971, through the Pisces scandal and the AIDS years, eventually transforming into the Gay & Lesbian Community Centre, and now our Pride Centre, counseling and providing services and access to the community for countless thousands of Queers over the decades.

The provisions dealing with homosexuality in Bill C-150 were inspired partly by the case of Everett George Klippert: the last Canadian man imprisoned for homosexuality. When Klippert was declared a dangerous offender and put in prison indefinitely, it was because he had admitted to having consensual sex with other men like him, and that he was unable to change the nature of his desires. He was declared a dangerous offender not because he had been caught having gay sex, but because he told the truth when asked if he could change his orientation. His admission — his honesty — sealed his fate. But it also inspired activists like Mr. ted northe to launch a years-long letter writing campaign that ultimately moved a Minister — a young Pierre Trudeau — into action. Suddenly our lives were being debated at the highest level in the land.

Because of Bill C-150, Queer Canadians could no longer be declared dangerous offenders just because they accepted their Queer state of being and admitted to not being able or willing to change it. Of course, officialdom found myriad other ways to harass sexual and gender diverse minorities. They could still be fired, shunned, attacked, shamed, ejected from the family… being “out” has been — and in many cases, remains — a dangerous choice. But it stopped being illegal in the summer of 1969. The ripples that flowed affected all Queer persons. And hearing our lives debated by the very highest levels of the federal government had a profound impact on our culture.

Bill C-150 didn’t fix everything. It was a new day, but it was the same Canada. But it laid the groundwork for a new phase of a battle that had already been underway for decades. Finally, Queer people could stop fighting to convince Canadians that we weren’t illegal. Now the battle shifted to whether or not we were immoral, insane, unstable, a danger to society… but we were no longer against the law. Now we could, if we dared, gather. And plan. And strategize. There was still danger, and harassment, but activism now had a safer place to incubate.

I was lucky enough to attend the official Edmonton Police Service apology to my community earlier this year. I lived long enough to see the Prime Minister of my country apologize to my nation — my Queer nation. Whether or not apologies change anything is another topic my people love to disagree on. Will I see an apology from my home province in my lifetime? Will it matter? I can only speak for myself. The symbolic gesture spoken by the leader of the country matters. The chief of the police force — an enforcement machine that I’ve been afraid of for most of my adulthood — unequivocally apologizing to Queer people matters. These gestures are not the end of the road. They are signs of evolution of attitude and opinion, a reminder to all activists of the importance of their work. and a caution to remain vigilant.

This article appears in the September 2019 issue of Avenue Edmonton.

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