Despite decades of victories, LGBTQ equality isn’t guaranteed

Feature | Gregory Beatty

The saying “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance” has been attributed to many authors but it’s most often (and wrongly) credited to Thomas Jefferson. While Jefferson doesn’t appear to have written it and may not have even said it, the sentiment was likely on his mind when the Declaration of Independence’s author put quill to parchment.

Now, almost 250 years later, Americans— specifically, those Americans who fought for and won expanded civil rights during the counterculture era — are getting a graphic lesson in its truth.

Against powerful interests, activists battled sexism, racism and homophobia, and promoted equality. Many victories were had but in recent years, a decades-long effort by resurgent Christian Nationalist/conservative forces has begun to pay off, and some hard-won rights are being contested, says Valerie Korinek.

“We just had a vivid demonstration of that with the overturning of Roe v. Wade [1973],” says Korinek, a University of Saskatchewan history professor and author of Prairie Fairies: A History of Queer Communities and People in Western Canada, 1930-1985.

“It’s a reminder that these rights that have been legally and legislatively won, depending on the era and politics, can get rolled back.”

In its 6-3 decision overturning Roe, the U.S. Supreme Court mentioned other legal precedents it was open to revisiting. Prominent among them was Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), where the court held 5-4 that states were required under s. 14 of the U.S. Constitution to license and recognize same sex marriage.

“When Roe was overturned, some justices were quite outspoken about that,” says Korinek. “For them, the reforms challenge the sanctity of the traditional Christian family and sanctity of life as defined by Christian politicians.”

Canada doesn’t have the same rabid fan base for those bigoted and backwards views, but pockets do exist, and they have politicians fighting to represent them. In Alberta, a United Conservative Party candidate in the May 29 election was forced to apologize after comparing transgender children in schools to specks of feces in cookies. Then there’s the ongoing Legacy Christian Academy scandal in Saskatoon, where former students allege they were subjected to abuse and hateful anti-2SLGBTQIAP+ rhetoric.

Some rights in Canada, too — such as same sex marriage — are protected by a different legal framework. While the legal right in the United States depends on a narrow court ruling, in Canada marriage equality was enshrined in law by Parliament in 2005.

“It’s important for people to understand that if you’re just going on court cases it could be challenged with an adverse outcome in a different political climate,” says Korinek.

“Change, or ‘progress’, is not evolutionary, in that we will never go backwards. We can go backwards,” she says.

Dark Ages

At the state level in the U.S., 2SLGBTQIAP+ people have already seen that happen. Across MAGA America, hundreds of laws have been passed (most under the guise of “protecting” children) targeting everything from schools and libraries to medical professionals, drag performances and even supportive families of 2SLGBTQIAP+ youth.

The growing list of restrictions and the disgusting “groomer” rhetoric (which likens the community to child abusers) that’s accompanied them recalls the pre-civil rights era when homosexuality, in both the U.S. and Canada, was illegal.

Police didn’t even have to catch you in the act, says Korinek.

“They could have some collateral reason for investigating you, as in the Everett Klippert case. In response to questioning by RCMP on an unrelated matter, he disclosed he was homosexual. He was charged with that, labelled a sex offender, and imprisoned in 1965,” Korinek says.

Human rights were non-existent too. “People could lose their job, be kicked out of their apartment, be outed to their family. That went equally for women and men. It was a very risky situation,” says Korinek.

1969 is regarded as a landmark moment in 2SLGBTQIAP+ rights in Canada. [see timeline] That’s when the Pierre Trudeau-led Federal Liberal government amended the criminal code to “legalize” homosexuality.

But what it really was, says Korinek, was partial decriminalization.

“It was partial because it only pertained to two adults in a private setting. That got interpreted as a private dwelling, so it didn’t cover same sex activity in so-called public places, nor did it cover minors under 21, or more than two people,” she says.

“Say you had a party in a private house that potentially got raided and they found multiple couples engaged in sexual activity, which wouldn’t be uncommon in a heterosexual context, especially with younger couples in separate bedrooms. You could argue that wasn’t covered by decriminalization,” says Korinek.

The 1969 Stonewall Riot, where gay men, lesbians and trans women staged a multi-day protest after New York police raided a Greenwich Village gay bar, was another pivotal moment, says Korinek.

“Before Stonewall there was some activism in the U.S., including the Homophile Movement and on some university campuses. But after 1969 we see a tremendous upsurge in organizations being created,” says Korinek.

“The club activity was especially important. Groups would host dances that would bring people together and allow them to participate in gay and lesbian culture,” she says.

Money made from the dances helped fund newsletters, community centres and activism.

“That was foundational for bringing people into the community, raising visibility, and giving people a sense of pride which led to demands for rights such as lesbian child custody or human rights to protect people from being fired or evicted just for being gay or lesbian,” Korinek says.

Rude Awakening

The 2SLGBTQIAP+ community received a graphic reminder of its second-class status when HIV/AIDS struck in the early 1980s.

The pandemic brought a vile stigma to the community, says Korinek.

“There was open discussion by conservative politicians, religious leaders and medical professionals about how this was just retribution for deviant behaviour,” says Korinek. “Conservative governments, such as Ronald Reagan’s to cite one important example, didn’t view this as a crisis they needed to act on. They thought it was a plague people had brought on themselves.”

Hospitals proved to be particularly problematic for people living and dying with AIDS, says Korinek.

“If hospitals are going to restrict visitors and caregivers to your next of kin, if you can’t demonstrate that your partner is that person through something like a marriage license, hospitals were barring them. Instead, it’s your parents, or if they’re deceased, your siblings,” she says.

“That was a rude awakening for people. It pushed them to go after marriage equity to ensure their partner could make decisions about their care, not some family member they might not have seen for years because a lot of them, given the stigma around being gay or lesbian, were estranged from their families,” she says.*

In Canada, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (enacted by the Trudeau Liberals in 1982) proved to be an important tool in advancing 2SLGBTQIAP+ rights, says Korinek, even though sexual orientation was not a protected status.

“There were discussions about including it but it was purposely left out,” she says. “But that was modified through a series of prominent court cases so sexual orientation was explicitly included in some codes, or else read in. By the Vriend decision in 1998, every province had provisions where people could not be discriminated against based on sexual orientation.”

Reactionary conservatives and religious zealots fighting 2SLGBTQIAP+ rights often cite a constitutional right of their own: freedom of religion, which sets up a potential clash of rights.

“We’ve recently had the controversy over wearing Pride jerseys in pre-game warm-ups, and NHL players citing one of two things: I’m Russian, and it’s against my country’s laws; or I’m Christian, and it’s against my beliefs,” says Korinek.

“These are moments that, for me, are fascinating academically, but frustrating personally. It’s a warm-up jersey, you’re wearing it for 20 minutes. It’s meant to be a symbol of inclusivity and acknowledgment of queer fans of those teams,” she says. “But it’s demonstrated anti-queer views among some players.”

In a few instances, players had previously participated in the Pride promotion. Korinek suspects they’ve been emboldened to refuse now by the political attack being waged against the 2SLGBTQIAP+ community.

“As we’ve seen in the U.S., but also globally, these are wedge issues that represent a particular form of reactionary conservatism,” she says. “And with Donald Trump and his supporters, it’s a dog whistle that signifies their views. It’s clickbait friendly, and sends people down a rabbit hole to various right-wing organizations and media,” says Korinek.

If one heartening thing has emerged from this sad spectacle, it’s that through elections, media coverage and activism people are making it clear those views don’t enjoy wide support.

It’s even been suggested they’re the last gasp of a dying culture.

“I would love to think it does represent a last gasp but I can’t get there yet,” says Korinek. “There is some truth though, as when we look at Trump voters, they do skew older. Hopefully those views will eventually die the death they need to.”

Meanwhile, there’s that famous, misattributed warning.

“Sometimes people have a tendency to view civil rights as something governments gave or extended as a logical evolutionary progression. That, historically, is wrong. These are changes that people demanded through court cases, protests and lobbying. Government didn’t bestow those rights. People had to stand up and demand change,” says Korinek.

“That’s one thing I wanted to highlight in Prairie Fairies — how hard those activists worked in the 1970s. They were enormously energetic and focused. At this moment when we are facing some challenges, people need to realize that we can’t sit back and think it will all work out.

“Because it won’t! We need to stand- up and speak-out.” ■

*     Incidentally, former Alberta UCP premier Jason Kenney once boasted about his part fighting a spousal visitation law protecting same-sex couples in the United States. At a Canadian Alliance convention in, Kenney bragged about leading a petition drive as president of his campus’ pro-life group to repeal the 1989 San Francisco law. After video of the speech became public in 2018, Kenney said he regrets this past anti-LGBTQ+ activism.


Timeline: Landmark Moments in Canadian Queer Activism

1969 The federal Liberal government passes Bill C-150, which partially decriminalizes same-sex sexual activity. Further reforms are introduced by Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative government in 1985.

1971 The first major gay rights march in Canada, We Demand, is held in Ottawa. A second rally is held in Vancouver. Both feature prominently in the debut issue of the influential queer magazine The Body Politic which begins publishing in Toronto.

1977 Quebec becomes the first province to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. Saskatchewan does so in 1993.

1981 Canada’s first official Pride parade is held in Vancouver. Regina and Saskatoon hold their first parades in 1990 and 2001.

1996 The Canadian Human Rights Act is amended to include sexual orientation. The change covers areas under federal jurisdiction such as banks, airlines, government departments and agencies, the armed forces and radio/TV stations.

1996 B.C. becomes the first province to allow same sex-couples to adopt. Saskatchewan follows in 2001.

1998 The Supreme Court rules in Vriend that Alberta’s exclusion of sexual orientation from its human rights act violates the Charter’s s.15 equality right. Some PC MLAs urge premier Ralph Klein to use the Notwithstanding Clause to block the Charter, but he eventually opts not to, bringing Alberta into line with the rest of Canada.

2005 Parliament enacts the Civil Marriage Act to legalize same-sex marriage. That follows several cases where courts said restricting marriage to heterosexual couples violated the Charter.

2017 Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issues a formal apology to the 2SLGBTQIAP+ community in Parliament.

2018 Royal assent is given to the Expungement of Historically Unjust Convictions Act which allows people convicted of certain homosexual acts prior to 1969/1985 to have their convictions expunged.

2020 Canadian police chiefs formally apologize for decades of oppression and opposition towards homosexuality and 2SLGBTQIAP+ rights.

2022 Parliament gives unanimous consent to a bill banning conversion therapy.