By Madeline Baker, Times Chronicle
While most people will be aware of the fact June is Pride Month, how it came about is likely far less familiar. The most commonly-cited impetus behind Pride marches and celebrations in North America is New York’s Stonewall Riot in 1969, a summer that also saw similar but lesser-known uprisings in Los Angeles and San Francisco caused by ongoing police harassment and violence.
What many people outside the LGBTQ2SIA+ community do not realize is how many times this pattern of police harassment led to riots that then developed into Pride celebrations, even here in Canada.
Police forces in major Canadian cities have conducted violent raids of what they called “bawdy houses” from the 1960s through to the modern day, with one of the most recent occurring in 2004 in Hamilton, Ontario.
Montreal has a particularly high number of notorious bathhouse and gay/lesbian bar raids in its history. To “clean up” the city for the 1976 Olympic Games, the entire Stanley Street gay village was closed down in a series of raids that reportedly involved police hacking through the walls of some venues with axes.
Only one year later, 50 police officers in bulletproof vests and armed with automatic weapons, stormed two Montreal gay bars and arrested 146 people. This was the largest mass arrest the city had seen since the October Crisis, a domestic terrorism incident involving Quebecois separatists.
Even after Quebec included sexual orientation in its Human Rights Code in 1977, mostly in response to the brutality of the raid earlier that year, police saw fit to raid further “bawdy houses” and make mass arrests throughout the years. One such raid in 1994 occurred mere weeks after the Human Rights Commission singled out police for their repression of gay communities.
Toronto also has several infamous incidents in its history, including one called Operation Soap that has earned the reputation of “Canada’s Stonewall” that saw nearly 300 people arrested, the “Brunswick Four” arrests in which officers swapped hats and badges to make them harder to identify accurately, and a 2000 raid on a queer event hosted by Club Toronto that was condemned by a provincial court judge two years later.
A 1981 raid in Edmonton gained particular notoriety when the names of those arrested at a spa and bathhouse were run by a news broadcast on a local tv station, “outing” them to a society in which gay people often lost their jobs, housing, and even their physical safety as a result of public identification.
However, while these club and bathhouse raids were common in many other cities throughout Canada, they were not the only tactic employed against queer peoples’ gathering places. Many cities including London, Hamilton, Halifax, Winnipeg, Fredericton, simply ignored or rejected requests from their citizens to recognize or publicize Pride-related events.
Censorship was also rife. Vancouver’s Little Sisters bookstore had to fight the frequent seizure of its products at customs for almost 15 years before the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in their favour, and some queer bookstores claim that customs officers still find ways to confiscate material on the basis of queer content.
The widespread, unchecked violence of the 1970s and 80s eventually gave way to waves of litigation in the 1990s to protect Canadians who were facing more covert forms of homophobia. While homosexuality had already been decriminalized in 1969, there were many other legal struggles to be fought in the interests of simple quality of life.
Quebec was the first province to add sexual orientation to their human rights code in December 1977, followed by Manitoba in 1987 and Ontario in 1992, at which point it was read into the human rights code of Canada. It was officially added to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1995 and, with royal approval, the Canadian Human Rights Act in 1996.
Immigration had lifted its ban on gay immigrants in 1978 but in 1993, persecution on the basis of homosexuality was declared grounds for refugee status. Two years later, Ontario set a precedent by allowing same-sex couples to adopt, paving the way for British Columbia, Alberta, and Nova Scotia to follow suit.
However, even as same-sex couples gained more rights and had them codified by the Supreme Court, legal marriage remained a sticking point. The federal government voted against same-sex marriage in 1999, which prompted Ontario to grant all rights of married couples to same-sex couples and Alberta to ban redefinition of marriage altogether a year later.
The rights and benefits of common-law couples were extended to same-sex couples in 2000, but the country stood firm on its definition of marriage until 2005. A new Conservative government promptly attempted to reopen the debate in 2007 but were voted down by members of their own party who crossed party lines to do so.
In the wake of these many legal victories sprung up countless official Pride celebrations. Large-scale protests had occurred since 1971 and Pride-based events since 1973, but early parades often faced heckling and protests and required participants to hide their faces. Not until 1981 did then-mayor Mike Harcourt agree to proclaim the first official Pride Parade in Vancouver.
Nowadays there are events for Lesbian Pride, Trans Pride, Bi- and Pansexual Pride, Asexual Pride, and even Two-Spirit Pride to celebrate the traditional spiritual role within the Indigenous community. A proliferation of communities and identities that were once contained beneath the “gay” umbrella have begun to carve their own paths, which has meant more battles for legal recognition.
It has also meant more widespread discrimination, violence, and a refreshed struggle for understanding and acceptance. To a public that saw one singular group argue for and win their own rights, it can often feel confusing and overwhelming to watch new ones surface from within that group and do the same.
“Why do you still need to do this?” is a common question during Pride Month, along with “why does everyone need a special identity now?” and “when will you finally stop making demands?”
For some people within the LGBTQ2SIA+, those same questions ring true for them. Why do they still need to fight to be recognized as people? Why is their identity the one that has been deemed unacceptable? And when will demands no longer need to be made in the interests of simple quality of life for queer people?