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Upon reflection — Why Pride month is still a protest

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It is readily acknowledged that the origins of “Pride” started on June 28, 1969, when police officers raided New York City’s Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, beating and harassing bar patrons and arresting 13 employees who were considered in violation of various gendered state legislation. This was the manifestation of increasing social unrest and anger within the 2SLGBTQI+ community against police harassment, discrimination, and brutality, “… a means to defy the belief that homosexuality was a sin, an illness and a crime, that gay people were subhuman.”1 Crowds soon began to appear outside the Inn, resulting in a violent riot involving hundreds of people, and led by Marsha P. Johnson, a Black Trans woman. It was one year later, on June 28, 1970, when many thousands of people took to the streets of New York City, marching from the Stonewall Inn uptown to Central Park. At the time, this was called “Christopher Street Liberation Day,” in what was considered the first gay pride parade in the United States. It marked a turning point in the visibility and presence of queer2 communities, and a backlash against systemic and institutionalized forms of oppression against sexual, non-binary, and gender-diverse individuals.

Canada’s own history and progress towards our contemporary Pride month has been equally challenging, non-linear, and deserving of critical and compassionate reflection. Between the 1950s and mid-1990s, LGBT members of the Canadian Armed Forces, the RCMP, and the federal public service were “systematically discriminated against, harassed, and often fired as a matter of policy and sanctioned practice.” In what came to be known as the “LGBT Purge,” people were followed, interrogated, abused, and traumatized by their own government.3 The thinking was that non-heterosexual individuals were at automatic risk of blackmail by foreign adversaries due to an inherent “character weakness.” In his 2017 apology to the 2SLGBTQI+ community, Prime Minister Trudeau stated, “This thinking was prejudiced and flawed. And sadly, what resulted was nothing short of a witch hunt.” He went on to describe how these federal employees “lost dignity, lost careers, and had their dreams – and indeed, their lives – shattered.”4

In August 1971, the first protests for gay rights took place in Ottawa and Vancouver as citizens demanded an end to all forms of state discrimination against gays and lesbians. Coinciding with this were the first picnics and protests at Hanlan’s point on the Toronto Islands, hosting several hundred people. Themes of equal rights and human dignity, sexual liberation, protection from police brutality and state-endorsed, systemic discrimination evolved. Two years later, in 1973, Pride Week grew into a national LGBT rights event held in several Canadian cities including Toronto, with political and arts-based programming focused on advocacy, raising awareness, creating safe spaces, reducing social stigma, and lobbying for change. The following year, the itinerary for “Gay Pride Week” in Canada (August 17-25, 1974) stated its purpose was, among other things, to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the passage into law of the 1968-69 Criminal Code Amendments, which began the process of removing the state from ‘the bedrooms of the nation.’ In 1978, the Pride programme agenda, created by The Body Politic Free the Press Fund (“The Body Politic”), was entitled, “Can police power muzzle the gay press? Can the bigots take away our rights?”5 It discussed how, on December 30, 1977, after a “hate campaign” in the Toronto Sun, the office of The Body Politic was raided by the police and materials were seized “in efforts to close Canada’s only national gay newspaper.” Issues related to police violence, bigotry, and social stigma continued, and coordinated activism countering these forms of hate and discrimination grew stronger.

On February 5, 1981, in what is widely considered to be the catalyst for Toronto’s current-day Pride events, “Operation Soap” marked a turning point for Toronto’s gay community.6 On that evening at 11:00 pm, four downtown bathhouses were violently breached by a coordinated series of police raids. Plain clothed officers subjected patrons to excessive use of force and hateful behaviour including verbal taunts about their sexuality. Pride Toronto describes the scene:

…Many men inside were near-naked, restricted from gathering their clothes. Police also used crowbars and sledgehammers to open patron lockers with police wearing red dots on their clothing to show, according to one officer, “who are the straights.”Police compiled large amounts of personal information about the men rounded up, including the names of their work superiors and, for those who were married, the names and phone numbers of their wives.
Police went on to out some of the men to their family and employers. When the night was over, 286 men were charged for being found in a common bawdy house (a brothel), and 20 were charged for operating a bawdy house. It was, up to that time, the largest single arrest in Toronto’s history…7

It wasn’t until 1991 that Toronto City Council officially recognized Pride Day, and only in 2016 was Justin Trudeau the first sitting Prime Minister to attend Toronto Pride. From a statutory perspective, Canada’s legislative protection of 2SLGBTQI+ individuals is also relatively recent. For example:

  • Same-sex practices between consenting adults was criminalized until 1969;
  • In 1973-74, “homosexuality” was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the “DSM”), which classifies mental health conditions (termed “mental disorders”) published by the American Psychiatric Association;
  • Benefits for same-sex couples residing together for over one year was enshrined in legislation in 2000;
  • In 2005, same-sex marriage was finally legalized across Canada; and
  • In 2017, Bill C-16 updated the Canadian Human Rights Act and Criminal Code to include the terms “gender identity” and “gender expression.” That was only five years ago.

We find ourselves in an interesting and urgent time for the recognition, advancement, and protection of 2SLGBTQI+ rights. For example, in the summer of 2018, a review was ordered following the disappearance of eight men of colour from Toronto’s Gay Village and the inadequate investigation conducted by the Toronto Police Service into serial killer Bruce McArthur. In her final report, Justice Epstein found that some police officers held misconceptions or stereotypical ideas about the 2SLGBTQI+ community, and that they failed to keep the public informed. She succinctly stated, “‘Intent’ to discriminate is not the issue here. Proper missing persons investigations should not depend on whose voices are the loudest or most empowered in sounding the alarm,” and offered 151 recommendations for improved relations and communication between police services and 2SLGBTQI+ community members.8

Recently, we have seen legal victories surrounding employers’ obligations for proper pronoun use;9 challenging the constitutionality of exemptions in the Criminal Code that permit “normalizing” aesthetic surgeries on Intersex infants and children;10 and affirming that longstanding principles governing consent to medical treatment for mature minors apply without difficulty to gender-affirming medical care.11 The passage of Bill C-4,12 which amended the Criminal Code, now prohibits forcing someone to undergo conversion therapy and makes it a crime to provide or promote services intended to change or repress a person’s sexual orientation or gender expression.13 The Accepting Schools Act enshrines the right in Toronto District School Board (“TDSB”) schools to create and maintain “gay-straight alliances”14 as part of promoting acceptance of and respect for others in the creation of a safe and positive school climate.

We are far more cognizant of the concerning rates of depression, precarious housing, self-harm, poverty, and suicidal ideation amongst 2SLGBTQI+ individuals, and how social determinants of health disproportionately impact queer communities. Statistics Canada publishes annual demographic and social analyses of Canada’s 2SLGBTQI+ community, offering additional insights into issues of public safety, same-sex marriage, and economic vulnerability, as well as concerns that remain among community members in terms of acceptance, mental health, and well-being.15 The statistics offer concrete evidence of the above and you can read more about them here.

Enhanced studies on understanding intersectional forms of oppression have highlighted the ways 2SLGBTQI+ individuals may experience myriad forms of marginalization or disadvantage simultaneously. For example, people in these communities often experience intersecting forms of marginalization due to their sexual orientation, racialization, gender, disability, and/or income (poverty), alongside transphobia or homophobia. This information has led to more comprehensive public health policy contemplating a wide array of gender identities, expressions, and barriers.

For those who conduct workplace investigations or who are tasked with managing people in this day and age, understanding the complex terrain of intersectional discrimination for members of these communities requires nuance, compassion, openness, and a critical lens. For investigators in particular, a trauma-informed approach to speaking with 2SLGBTQI+ individuals may include incorporating non-gendered language including pronoun choice, the consideration of myriad forms of identity and self-expression, and the presence of a support person throughout the investigative process. Further, employing a critical lens cognizant of the systemic and/or institutional history of certain myths or misperceptions around 2SLGBTQI+ people may offer additional insights into workplace interactions and subjective experiences of discrimination or harm. Upon reflection, we are now tasked with genuinely practicing open awareness to others’ lived experiences, in efforts to harmonize more disparate work environments, to respect the rights enshrined in the Ontario Human Rights Code, and to demonstrate an authentic commitment to the principles of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion.

Fast forward 51 years, from those first demonstrations in August 1971. Knowing the history, we can look at the passing of this year’s Pride month, held in June, as a point in time emblematic of protest, activism, and grassroots movements. Though we have clearly seen a steady evolution in the movement(s) for “gay liberation” and 2SLBGTQI+ rights, there remain profound obstacles to the full recognition of queer rights – especially within BIPOC, Trans, and other communities with precarious finances, housing, and/or immigration status. As we navigate new legal and social terrain ahead, nothing can be taken for granted in the quest for equality, civil liberties and social justice for 2SLGBTQI+ individuals and their allies.

We now hold Pride month celebrations in honour of the accomplishments of queer community members, of vibrant, diverse, and dynamic gender identities and forms of sexual expression; we work to create safe spaces for those who have experienced trauma, marginalization, harassment and discrimination; and we offer visibility to people who have systemically been held to the periphery of society. As it was said, though, “Discrimination against [2SLGBTQI] communities is not a moment in time, but an ongoing, centuries-old campaign,” and upon reflection, there is still much work to do.16

1 Andrew Solomon, “The First New York Pride March Was an Act of Desperate Courage,” June 27, 2019, The New York Times, online: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/27/nyregion/pride-parade-first-new-york-lgbtq.html

2 The term “Queer” has been reappropriated and used in this context as a multifaceted and pluralistic spectrum of identities and communities as a form of empowerment.

3 See “About” page of the LGBT Purge Fund, online: https://lgbtpurgefund.com/

4 “Remarks by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to apologize to LGBTQ2 Canadians,” November 28, 2017, online: https://pm.gc.ca/en/news/speeches/2017/11/28/remarks-prime-minister-justin-trudeau-apologize-lgbtq2-canadians

5 Morgan Cameron Ross, “Historical photos of Toronto’s pride parades over the years,” June 25, 2022, Toronto Life, online: https://torontolife.com/city/historical-photos-of-torontos-pride-parades-over-the-years/

6 “Gay” community is more historically accurate than 2SLGBTQI+ and so is used here in this context.

7 “Operation Soap – 40th Anniversary,” February 5, 2021, Pride Toronto, online: https://www.pridetoronto.com/2021/02/05/operation-soap-40th-anniversary/

8 The Honourable Gloria J. Epstein, Ombudsman’s Statement on Missing and Missed: Report of the Independent Civilian Review into Missing Person Investigations, Office of the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime, online: https://www.victimsfirst.gc.ca/media/news-nouv/nr-cp/2021/20210430.html

9 EN v. Gallagher’s Bar and Lounge, 2021 HRTO 240 (CanLII).

10 R. (Attorney General of Canada) v. Egale Canada, Morgan Holmes, and Janik Bastien-Charlebois, Ontario Superior Court of Justic (unreported), June 15, 2021.

11 [11] A.B. v. C.D., 2020 BCCA 11 (CanLII).

12 Bill C-4, An Act to amend the Criminal Code (conversion therapy), online:  https://www.parl.ca/DocumentViewer/en/44-1/bill/C-4/royal-assent

13 Ibid.

14 Accepting Schools Act, 2012, S.O. 2012, c. 5 – Bill 13, online: https://www.ontario.ca/laws/statute/s12005

15 “A statistical portrait of Canada’s diverse LGBTQ2+ communities,” June 15, 2021, The Daily, Statistics Canada, online: https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/210615/dq210615a-eng.htm

16 “Remarks by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to apologize to LGBTQ2 Canadians,” November 28, 2017, online: https://pm.gc.ca/en/news/speeches/2017/11/28/remarks-prime-minister-justin-trudeau-apologize-lgbtq2-canadians

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