Before we begin, it’s necessary to define some terms. In particular, understanding the difference between sexuality and gender identity is key for this module. While trans identity is included in the LGBTQ2S umbrella, gender identity is distinct from sexuality.

A trans-feminine non-binary person and a trans-masculine gender-nonconforming person kissing.

Sexuality refers to attraction. What kinds of people capture your sexual desire? The answer to this question describes your sexuality. 

There are many ways a person can identify sexually: straight, gay, lesbian, queer, bisexual, or pansexual are just some ways people identify.  Sexuality is separate from gender, but related to gender.  That is, the binary sex/gender system, which separates people into two categories (male/female) and presumes corresponding gender identities (masculine/feminine), also presumes opposite sex attraction. For example, for men (sex), heterosexuality (sexuality) is a fundamental part of being masculine (gender). 

A young transgender woman looking at her reflection in a bathroom mirror

To be trans or transgender means that a person’s gender identity — meaning their ‘felt’ experience of gender — does not correspond with their sex assigned at birth in the manner expected based on gender norms.

The word ‘trans’ is an umbrella term that captures different forms of ‘gender crossing’ or deviation from gender norms, from cross-dressing to gender reassignment surgery.  The language used to describe trans identity has changed over time, and continues to shift according to the language preferred by trans communities and scholars.  While gender identity is often conflated with sexuality, trans identity and experience is distinct from gay, lesbian, bisexual, and queer experiences. 

Are trans people ‘born in the wrong body’?

Pop culture and media representations of trans people tend to emphasize the narrative of being “born in the wrong body”, but this is not every trans person’s experience. Some trans people want surgery or hormones to affirm their gender identity, but a person can be trans without having surgery or taking hormones.  Trans people might take hormones but not have surgery, and some trans people will use neither hormones nor surgery.   The words ‘transgender’ and ‘trans’ refer to the multiple ways people eschew the gender binary. 

Remember: not all trans people transition!

Cis means same.  A cisgender person’s felt gender identity corresponds with their sex assigned at birth.

Current medical and scientific approaches to trans healthcare are rooted in the field of sexology, meaning the study of human sexuality, which emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century to study those who deviated from ‘normal’ sex and gender expression.  Many sexologists treated forms of deviance from ‘normal’ sex and gender identity and expression as pathological, meaning a form of disease.  In Psychopathia Sexualis, Richard von Krafft Ebing, a German-Austrian sexologist, conflated sexuality and gender, positing that a man who is attracted to other men must have a pathology wherein he thinks, acts, and feels like a woman.  His ideas influence the ways that we continue to understand cisgender and heterosexual behaviour and identity as ‘normal’, and anything that deviates from these models as abnormal.  Gender dysphoria is still listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder (DSM), which some trans people argue unnecessarily pathologizes their identities. 

Today, the field of trans studies seeks to take back studies of trans identity and experience from the fields of medicine and science, which have often treated being trans as a form of disease.  Trans studies scholars emphasize that trans people themselves have important knowledge that is crucial to understanding their identity and experience.  Trans studies is a crucial part of any gender and social justice education, but it is a field of scholarship in its own right; as such, this module only provides an introduction to some of the key thinkers, issues, and theories in the field.


This lesson presents the history of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans rights in Canada from the 1960s to the early 2000s. Work through the lesson, taking notes in your own words, watching videos, and completing activities as you go. Definitions of key terms and concepts are highlighted.

We begin this module in the late 1960s when lesbian, gay, and trans folks begin organizing in resistance to state-sanctioned homophobia.  The notion that gay, lesbian, and trans identities were forms of mental illness and sexual deviance forced queer and trans people to conceal their identities and relationships.  Pervasive homophobia meant that lesbians, bisexual folks, trans folks, and gay men could not live their lives in public, forced to hide their relationships from their friends and families, and keep displays of affection to the private realm or in ‘private’ public spaces, like cars. 

In the midst of the Cold War, fears of national traitors led to an intensification of homophobic attitudies.  Communists were not the only people labeled ‘deviant’, ‘subversive’, or potentially traitorous.  Lesbians and gay men were also perceived as socially and politially deviant and likely to betray the nation.  Throughout the Cold War era, the Canadian state engaged in surveillance of its own citizens out of fear that members of the public service, including government, the military, and the RCMP,  were sharing state secrets with the Soviet Union.  The Canadian state targeted lesbians and gay men as potential ‘deviants’ or ‘subversives’, suspecting that queer and trans people suffered from a fundamental moral weakness that made them potentially disloyal to Canada, particularly susceptible to Soviet blackmail, or more likely to share state secrets out of fear that their ‘secret’ lives would be revealed.  The RCMP used the so-called “fruit machine” to try to identify gay and lesbian members.  In what is known as “The Purge”, the Government of Canada fired gay, lesbian, and trans people from their jobs in government, the military, and the RCMP. Watch this video, describing a documentary about the purge.

The Fruit Machine: Canada’s Cold War Gay Purge
View Time: 2 minutes 38 seconds

The 1960s are characterized by competing realities: on one hand, prevalent homophobia meant the exclusion of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people from political, social, and cultural institutions and on the other hand, and an emerging gay and lesbian rights movement challenged heteronormativity and homophobia. In the aftermath of World War II, there was an emerging consensus in the international community of the necessity to enshrine and protect human rights.  Anti-war activists, civil rights leaders, decolonization movements, environmentalists, and women saw an opening, and organized to pressure the political establishment for social change.  In this context, gay and lesbian folks began organizing against discrimination and exclusion in society, law, and policy.  For example, in Canada, the Vancouver-based Association for Social Knowledge (ASK) formed to challenge exclusion and homophobia. Yet, organizing against homophobia was difficult in the 1960s, because this involved being potentially ‘outed’ to family, friends, and employers.  

1969: The Stonewall Riots

The Stonewall Riots in 1969 catalyzed a movement. In a context of state surveillance, homophobia, and transphobia, police consistently raided queer spaces, harassed and assaulted patrons, and arrested them. The following excerpt from Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues is a fictional account of a police raid during a drag show. The scene is narrated by the main character, Jess:

None of us saw the red light flashing. 

The music died and everyone groaned.  Then the police flooded into the club.  I held my hand up to shield my eyes from the spotlight, but I still couldn’t see what was happening.  I heard shouting and tables and chairs overturning.  I remembered there was only one door — there was no escape this time.  At sixteen years old I was still underage. 

I slowly took off my new blue suit coat, folded it neatly, and put it on the piano at the back of the stage.  For a moment I considered taking off my tie, thinking somehow it might go easier for me if I did. But of course, it wouldn’t have.  In fact, the tie made me feel stronger in order to face whatever lay ahead of me.  I rolled up my sleeves and stepped off the stage.  A cop grabbed me and cuffed my hands tightly behind my back. Another cop was smacking Booker, who was sobbing. 

The police van was backed right up to the door of the club. The cops roughed us up as they shoved us in. Some of the drag queens bantered nervously on the way to the precinct, making jokes to relieve the tension. I rode in silence.

We were all put together in one huge holding cell. My cuffed hands felt swollen and cold from lack of circulation. I waited in the cell. Two cops opened the door. They were laughing and talking to themselves. I wasn’t listening. “What do you want, a fucking invitation? Now!” one of them commanded.

“C’mon, Jesse,” a cop taunted me, “let’s have a pretty smile for the camera.􏰸􏱏􏱆􏰯􏰚􏰢􏰵 􏰊You’re such a pretty girl. Isn’t she pretty, guys?” They snapped my mug shot. One of the cops loosened my tie. As he ripped open my new dress shirt, the sky blue buttons bounced 􏰤􏰢􏰨􏰽􏱀􏰬exposing my breasts. My hands were cuffed behind my back. 􏰯􏰮 “I don’t think she likes you, Gary,” another cop said. “Maybe she’d like me better.” (pages 64-65)

“The Stonewall Inn” by Hobo Matt is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

When the police raided the Stonewall Inn in New York City’s Greenwich Village the night of June 27th, 1969, trans women of colour — especially Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera — led the bar’s patrons in resistance.  The Stonewall Riots galvanized a broad movement contesting state surveillance and repression and demanding space for lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer and trans people to exist in public, free from violence. A direct challenge to police violence, the Stonewall Riots gave birth to the pride protest movement and gay and trans liberation movements, wherein trans, queer, gay, lesbian, and bisexual people took their lives into the public sphere, demanding inclusion on their own terms.  Further, they demanded basic human rights in the areas of housing, employment, and healthcare.  

The influence of the Stonewall Riots crossed the Canada/US border. As in the United States, police frequently raided queer establishments in Canada. For example, in ‘Operation Soap’ in 1981, Toronto police raided four gay bathhouses, arresting over 300 people.  Police have raided queer establishments in Canada as recently as 2002. In response to police raids, LGBTQ2S communities organized pride parades as forms of protest. In the video below, queer women and trans folks describe the significance of the queer women’s bathhouse community as a form of sexual expression.  

Next, Listen to this episode of CBC’s The Current with Mark Segal, who was at the Stonewall Inn when police raided the bar on June 27th, 1969.

50 years after Stonewall riots, LGBT rights are in ‘midst of a backlash,’ says activist, CBC The Current
Listening Time: 19 min 45

1969 Criminal Code Reforms

Police raided queer spaces on the basis that queer sex was criminal.  That is, police used sections of the Criminal Code related to “gross indecency”, “buggery”, “vagrancy”, and the “bawdy-house law” to criminalize gay sex.  This meant that people like Everett George Klippert were criminalized for having consensual sex.   A gay man, Klippert was convicted of ‘gross indecency’ for having consensual sex with other men, sentenced to jail, and declared a dangerous sex offender. He challenged his conviction at the Supreme Court of Canada, but the court upheld his conviction. Public outrage led Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s Liberal government to pass a series of Criminal Code reforms in 1969.  The 1969 Criminal Code reforms were part of Prime Minister Trudeau’s vision of a “Just Society” in which the state would not encroach upon people’s intimate lives, a sentiment captured in his famous phrase: “The state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation”. 

The Government of Canada commemorated the 1969 Criminal Code reforms and the “50th anniversary of the decriminalization of homosexuality in Canada” in 2019. Tom Hooper, Gary Kinsman, and Karen Pearlston explain here, however, that the notion that Canada decriminalized homosexuality in 1969 is a myth. In fact, they argue that gay sex was not decriminalized in 1969. The Criminal Code reforms of 1969 did not decriminalize homosexuality; rather, the reforms focused on two sections: “buggery” and “gross indecency”.  Trudeau’s reforms enabled two adults over the ages of 21 to engage in “buggery” and “gross indecency” in private.  When Trudeau argued that “the state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation”, he meant that adults could do what they want in private — a very limited form of ‘liberation’.  Whereas the age of consent for gay sex was 21 years of age, the age of consent for most forms of heterosexual sex was 14. In fact, Hooper and his colleagues explain that “charges for consensual queer increased after 1969”, including through bath house raids.  In 1971, gay and lesbian activists assembled on Parliament Hill to protest the 1969 reform.  Klippert remained in jail for two years after the reforms. He was released in 1971.

The 1970s: Gay Liberation

The 1970s were focused on gay liberation.  The movement organized to challenge heteronormativity and to advocate for human rights. When they demonstrated on Parliament Hill in 1971, they demanded:

  • the removal of  “gross indecency” and “buggery” from the Criminal Code
  • equal sexual assault penalties for gay and straight sex 
  • the same age of consent for gay and straight sex 
  • that gay and lesbian immigrants be allowed to come to Canada
  • an end to employment discrimination 
  • an end to sodomy and homosexuality as grounds for divorce or denail of child custody 
  • enabling lesbians and gay men to serve in the Canadian Forces
  • a public report on the RCMP’s surveillance of gay and lesbian public servants
  • equal status for gay men and lesbian women in marraige, pensions, and income tax
  • human rights protection based on sexual orientation

Whereas public policy change did not follow, the 1970s were an important decade in terms of the development of queer subcultures.  Lesbian and gay communities formed in major Canadian cities, including Chuch/Wellseley in Toronto, the gay villiage in montreal, and Vancouver’s West End.  The develpoment of queer public space is significant because it enables queer people to exist in public spaces in ways they had not previously been able.

The word heteronormativity combines two words: heterosexual and normative. Normative means a standard by which things are typically done or by which things should be done. Heteronormativity refers to the presumption that one is, from the start, heterosexual, or that one should be heterosexual. Social, cultural, political, legal, and religious institutions revolve around an assumption of heterosexuality, which naturalizes heterosexuality.  Queer scholar Miriam Smith offers this definition of heteronormativity:

“Heteronormativity means that social organization is structured around the assumption that heterosexual sexual preference and heterosexual coupling is the dominant mode of sexual, intimate, and family organization and that homosexuality is deviant.  Even when dominant norms are not homophobic or hostile towards homosexuality, lesbian and gay people are outside of the ‘norm’”

Miriam Smith (2008) “idENTITY AND OPPORTUNITY”

The heterosexual questionnaire illustrates the ways that social organization is structured around heterosexuality. Reflect on what your own responses to these questions might be.

1980s: HIV/AIDS

The HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s took almost all of the energy the gay rights and gay liberation movement had.  Members of the gay rights and liberation movement either died, or mourned the loss of friends and loved ones.  Because the state did not recognize same-sex relationships, partners were often left out of decisions about health care and funerals.  Meanwhile the notion that HIV/AIDS — originally called Gay-Related Immune Deficiency (GRID) — was a disease caused by or inextricably linked to gayness prompted a backlash against gay men and an intensification of homophobia.  As Miriam Smith writes:

 “The idea of open sexual expression became problematic as some argued that traditional gay spaces such as washrooms, parks, bars, and bathhouses should be regulated in the interests of public health.” (182)

Governments and medical and scientific communities were slow to act as gay men died.  To protest government and medical inaction, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACTUP) used direct action tactics including “die ins”.  The documentary How to Survive a Plague depicts ACTUP’s struggle to get governments, researchers, and doctors to pursue treatments for AIDS. In Canada, gay rights leaders formed organizations across the country to advocate for patients and their partners and to promote education about safe sex.  Former Edmonton City Councillor and University of Alberta Board of Governors Chair Michael Phair formed Edmonton’s AIDS Network to respond to the crisis.  When no real estate firm would provide Phair with a space to lease to run the Edmonton AIDS Network, he ran it from his home. Learn more about Michael Phair by watching the short video below.

1990s: Human Rights

In the 1990s, lesbian and gay organizations focused their activism and advocacy on human rights and freedom from discrimination.  In 1982, when Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau embarked upon his goal to  bring the constitution home to Canada and entrench within it constitutionally guaranteed individual rights, many groups, including Indigenous peoples, women, disabled people, and immigrant communities organized to ensure that the Prime Minister and the provincial premiers would include their rights in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  Yet, the lesbian and gay rights movement did not have a strong organizational capacity to mount a challenge to the Charter. The only openly gay Member of Parliament at the time, Svend Robinson, advocated for the inclusion of sexual orientation in the Charter, but alas “sexual orientation” is noticeably absent from section 15 of the Charter, which reads:

Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.

s. 15 of the charter of rights and freedoms

While the Charter of Rights and Freedoms did not enshrine freedom from discrimination based on sexual orientation in law, the new constitutionally entrenched bill of rights did sugest the potential for making human rights claims based on sexual orientation.  Two ‘Charter’ cases exemplify major gains in the 1990s in terms of human rights law. 

First, the Egan case, depicted in a Historica Canada Heritage Minute below, revolved around the case of Jim Egan and his partner of nearly 40 years, Jack Nesbit. When Egan filed for spousal allowance benefits under the Old Age Security Act, the Government of Canada denied his claim because they were a same-sex couple.  Egan argued that this reflected descrimination based on sexual orientation. In 1995, the Supreme Court of Canada argued that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms does imply protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation. 

Second, In 1996, The King’s College fired Delwin Vriend, who worked there as a lab instructor, because he was gay. The Alberta Human Rights Act did not protect against discrimination based on sexual orientaiton. When Judge Anne Russell ruled that the Alberta law was unconstitutional — meaning it contravened the Charter of Rights and Freedoms — the Alberta Government, under Premier Ralph Klein, appealed the case, which wound its way to the Supreme Court of Canada in 1998.  In Vriend v. Alberta, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that human rights legislation should protect people from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.  They argued that courts should ‘read in’ sexual orientation in the Alberta Human Rights Act and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The decision set an important precedent for legislative and policy change in the areas of pensions, adoption rights, inheritance, and marriage.

2000s: Marriage & Beyond

In 2000, the Government of Canada under Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien passed the Modernization of Benefits and Obligations Act, which gave same-sex couples the same kinds of benefits as heterosexual couples. Meanwhile, same-sex couples in Quebec, British Columbia, and Ontario challenged laws stipulating that they could not marry. In Halpern v. Canada, the Ontario Court of Appeal found that same-sex marriage was constitutional.  The Government of Canada followed suit in 2004, asking the Supreme Court to rule on the question of whether same-sex marriage infringes upon religious freedom, which the court decided it did not. When Paul Martin of the Liberal Party of Canada assumed the position of Prime Minisiter in 2005, same-sex marrage became law.  Opponents of same-sex marriage argued that marriage was fundamentally a heterosexual instituion. Religious conservatives, especially Evangelical Christians, argued that same-sex marriage would be the end of the traditional nuclear family, and that enshrining the right to gay marriage in law amounts to support for an ‘immoral’ and ‘deviant’ lifestyle.  

While same-sex marriage, is, in some ways, perceived as the pinnacle of the LGBT rights movements — the natural culmination of the argument that ‘love is love’ — there is tension within LGTBQ communities over marriage.  The Stonewall Riots and the pride movement that followed were about challenging social norms and traditional relationship models.  For some, same-sex marriage represents tradition, reinforcing the hetero-patriarchal nuclear family structure.  Queer critics of same-sex marriage argue that this legal change does very little for queer and trans people experiencing marginalization and discrimination in the areas of housing, employment, healthcare, police violence, or racism.

BIG IDEA: Queer politics

Queer Politics
Listening Time: 10 min 33

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