While it’s been quite a cool start to the summer here in St. John's, it appears warmer sunny weather has finally arrived, just in time for Gay Pride Week.
This is a significant year in the history of the gay rights movement in this country because 50 years ago, a federal law was passed that decriminalized homosexual acts. Previous to this, anyone who was found to be engaging in sexual activity with someone of the same gender could be arrested, jailed and, usually, publicly exposed, which led to a broad range of consequences, including loss of employment, housing and even family for many. The recognition by then-Justice Minister Pierre Trudeau that the state “... has no business in the bedrooms of the nation,” provided a critical boost to advocates for change which is still being felt today.
In today's era where gay pride has become so accepted that it occurs in a large number of communities across the country – large and small – it may be difficult to imagine a time when gay people lived in virtual invisibility. I can only imagine the courage and sacrifice exhibited by those who spoke out publicly before the law changed in 1969 and whose work laid the groundwork for this legislation. While some of them are known, they remain the forgotten heroes of this movement and many of their stories have been lost to history. This is a shame as history is a vital tool in education and it is important that those who did not live through this era be aware that there is more to the gay pride movement than the colourful, public and often commercialized celebration that occurs now.
The journey to where we are now may have gotten a boost from decriminalization but the struggle for equality still had a long way to go. While you could no longer be jailed for engaging in sexual activity with a same-sex partner, you could still be fired from your job, lose your housing or not qualify for any number of social benefits that your taxes paid for. These battles have been fought and won over the past 50 years and we are now to the point with the arrival of same-sex marriage that our relationships have equal standing with all other citizens of Canada. In 2019, the discussion in Canada is around criminalizing conversion therapy – a discredited program that seeks to change sexual orientation or gender identity – which has caused considerable damage to the mental health of those who have gone through it, yet still is being practised in certain parts of the country. What an amazing transformation from being persecuted under the laws 50 years ago to being protected under our laws today!
In commemoration of the decriminalization of homosexuality 50 years ago, earlier this year the Canadian Mint released a special toonie which is now in circulation. This marks a recognition that this was a significant occurrence in Canadian history and reflects a positive change that has occurred in Canadian society. The task that remains for us now is to do our utmost to identify and record the remainder of our history before those who lived through it have passed away. Because so much of our history was hidden due to the repressive laws of the time, it may be difficult to find this information. Once we do, we need to ensure it forms a part of the history lessons that are given to children in the classrooms of this nation, so they may have a better understanding of the struggle that went into the equality rights that we now consider a core Canadian value.
History is much more than the facts around what happened; the context around these facts is what makes history meaningful. It is important during gay pride and throughout the rest of the year that Canadians be aware of this context and the inclusion of our history into the Canadian mosaic.
Brian Hodder is an LGBTQ2 activist and works in the field of mental health and addictions. He can be reached at [email protected].
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