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November 1, 2011

Queer Rights and Liberation

SS Editorial

Jamie Hubley

Jamie Hubley, 15 and openly gay at his Ottawa high school, couldn’t take the bullying. He killed himself this fall. Jamie is part of the 75 percent of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered (LGBT) youth who feel unsafe at school; and one of those LGBT teens who are three times more likely to attempt suicide than their peers.

Despite the achievement of formal equality, homophobia is a powerful negative force in Canadian society that leads to minority discrimination – and the fostering of hateful divisions among the majority.

Why does this hatred continue and what can be done about it?

Queer Oppression

Class society is premised on private property in the means of production by a minority who control wealth to invest in what makes profit. As biological and social beings, we physically reproduce the next generation into a web of social relations that, until very recently in Canada and what is still reality for most internationally, guarantees the transmission of wealth and the next generation of workers by the private, patriarchical, and heterosexual family.

The fact that human sexuality functions along a spectrum of gender biology and behaviour has been largely denied in human history – and ruthlessly oppressed to maintain minority class privilege.

In Canada, the Criminal code defined homosexual behavior as of a ‘criminally sexual psychopathic’ nature. Anyone found guilty in the nineteenth century could be punished by death. After 1892, one could go to jail for an ‘indeterminate’ period. In this culture of repression, homophobia – the expression of fear and hatred towards sexual minorities – flourished. In the 1950s and 1960s the RCMP developed the ‘fruit machine’ to identify sexual minorities to purge the federal government of potential security threats.

Queer Rights

In the spring of 1969, Pierre Trudeau, Justice Minister and future Liberal Prime Minister, introduced Bill C-150 to partially de-criminalize queer sex. Consenting adults from the age of 21could have gay sex in private. As Trudeau famously said, “the state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation’.

De-criminalization of gay sex was part of a broader movement in the reform of gender relations in also de-criminalizing birth control – which reflected the entry of women into the waged workforce on a massive scale. In other words, as the gender shape of the capitalist labour market fundamentally changed, it was possible to challenge the patriarchical and heterosexist family in a variety of ways – including queer oppression and homophobia.

The political space that opened in the 1970s saw a series of struggles by gay activists and allies to demand that there be positive human rights protection on the grounds of sexual orientation. In particular, Toronto City Council in 1973 went on record to oppose such discrimination and, as a global precedent, the new Parti Quebecois government amended the province’s human rights code to ban discrimination.

Quebec’s action had a powerful effect negotiating a new constitution that was meant to be inclusive of French Canada. In 1982 the Canada Act was complemented by a Charter of Rights and Freedoms that implicitly assumed the full equality of all citizens.

In 1985 two court cases arose over accessing public spousal benefits. It was ruled by the Supreme Court that denial of access on the grounds of sexual orientation was not consistent with the Charter. English Canadian provinces then amended their human rights acts to ban sexual orientation discrimination, with Ontario leading the way in 1986 and with Alberta being compelled to do so by a Supreme Court order in 1998.

The next big step was to fight for a positive right, relationship recognition such as adoption rights or same sex marriage. In 1999 one partner in a lesbian relationship sued for support payments. The Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the legal definition of marriage as being one between a man and a woman was inconsistent with the Charter. The Chretien Liberals subsequently changed the law to acknowledge the legal equality of same sex relations with common law marriages – without addressing the definition of state sanctioned marriage. However, provincial Appeal courts ruled that same sex partners could legally marry in 2003-4.

Despite Stephen Harper moving a parliamentary motion to restrict marriage to only being between a man and a woman, the motion failed 137 to 132, the Martin Liberal government passed bill C-38 to legalize same sex marriage in 2005.

Canada became only the fourth country in the world to recognize same sex marriage, along with the Netherlands, Belgium and Spain.

It is important to note that while the formal struggle for equality occurred largely in the courts, every major gain was preceded by public mobilizations and union contract gains that shaped the political climate of state decisions.

Achieving equality?

Despite this record of formal equality, homophobia continues as a powerful negative force in health, education, and full legal equality.

In June 1982 the American Center for Disease Control reported that five gay men had died from cases of severe pneumonia that appeared to be caused by the breakdown of their immune systems. This medical problem was later diagnosed as HIV-AIDS. In Canada, by 1986, some 830 cases were identified, of whom 683 were gay men. But governments refused to act as if this was a public health crisis. The BC Socred government even proposed to scapegoat HIV cases by moving them to an ex-leper colony.

The gay community got organized as the Aids Action Now!(AAN) and later, when direct action seemed the only way to get public attention, as Act Up! to force treatment. From demonstrations to lobbies, to storming the stage of the 5th International Conference on Aids in 1989 when Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney tried to claim credit for finally acting, to forcing the Ontario NDP government add anti-viral drugs to public health insurance in 1994, the gay community found that only direct pressure on the whole political spectrum, from right to left, worked.

One of the most unsafe places for gay people is schools. In 2009 the national gay rights organization Egale conducted the first National Climate Survey on Homophobia in Canadian Schools. It reported that 75% of queer students felt unsafe and that 60% had suffered verbal abuse and 25% physical abuse. It also reported that only a minority of school districts had policy to deal with hate behavior and that only 20% of teachers and administrators intervene most of the time when abuse is reported.

What has happened in a positive way is the formation of Gay-Straight (Alliance or Rainbow) student clubs (which have been banned in Catholic schools) and Teacher union education and activism. Only Quebec, since 2009, has actively waged an anti-homophobia campaign that supports student and teacher initiatives.

Legally, there is still persecution of sexual behavior that doesn’t fit monogamous class norms as seen in repeated bathhouse raids, from the 1970s onwards, the censorship of gay sexual literature and images with Canada Customs harassment, and age of consent laws that openly discriminate between heterosexual (age of 16) and queer youth (age of 18). But what can you expect from a Conservative government that raised the age of consent from 14 to 16 in 2008.

Queer Liberation

Much has changed since 1969 and de-criminalization. But much remains to be done to achieve equality in practice – to address queer youth, hate crimes like gay bashing, the mixing of other forms of oppression (such as aboriginal oppression and Aids), and the class differences within the gay community over who can afford to exercise equal rights.

But a larger question is what about liberation, full sexual self-determination? As Tom Warner says about the limits of formal equality in his book Never Going Back, ‘what about the revolutionary struggle to eradicate heterosexism and overthrow the dictatorship of compulsory heterosexuality’? That is a question about challenging the norms of class society itself in using sexuality as a tool of exploitation and oppression.

For a more in depth look at the struggle for gay rights in Canada and the debate about sexual liberation see: Gary Kinsman, The Regulation of Desire, Peter Knegt, Queer Rights, and Tom Warner, Never Going Back: A History of Queer Activism in Canada.