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Since the late 1960s, the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and Queer (LGBTQ) communities in Canada has seen steady gains in rights. While discrimination against LGBTQ people persists in many places, major strides toward mainstream social acceptance and formal legal equality have nonetheless been made in recent decades. Canada is internationally regarded as a leader in this field.
Britain held immense sway over Canadian policy throughout the many years in which homosexuality was criminalized. Dating from the early colonial era, homosexuality was officially illegal and the penalty for “the abominable act of buggery” (also known as sodomy) was punishable by death. In 1861, that law was moderated slightly, when the sentence became imprisonment for a period of 10 years to life. For the next century, however, the laws governing “homosexual acts” in became more and more stringent. They were almost always targeted at men, and by using consistently ambiguous language tended to give a tremendous amount of discretionary power to law enforcement. Beginning in 1890, accused gays were usually charged with the crime of “gross indecency.” Amendments to the criminal code were made in 1948 and 1961, which further criminalized homosexuality through the invented categories of “criminal sexual psychopath” and “dangerous sexual offender.”
Two important events precipitated the liberalization of Canadian laws and attitudes in the late 1960s. The first of these was the imprisonment of Everett George Klippert, a mechanic from the Northwest Territories arrested in 1965 on charges of “gross indecency.” After being deemed a “dangerous sexual offender” by prison psychiatrists, his prison term was extended indefinitely — a ruling that was scrutinized and criticized in the mainstream press.
The second was the British parliament’s decision to decriminalize certain homosexual offenses. Debate on the issue had been escalating in both British and Canadian media through the previous decade, following the release in 1957 of a public inquiry known as the Wolfenden Report, which recommended decriminalization. In the summer of 1967, those recommendations were finally adopted, and with the embarrassing Klippert controversy still ongoing, several members of Canada’s parliament, including Justice Minister Pierre Trudeau, began calling for reform. Following Trudeau’s election to the prime minister’s office, his government passed Bill C-150 in May 1969, decriminalizing gay sex for the first time in Canada’s history.
Gay Liberation in the 1970s
The modern gay liberation movement in North America began in the summer of 1969 with New York City’s unprecedented Stonewall Riots, which took place in the early morning of 28 June. The New York Police Department had attempted a raid on a popular gay bar in the heart of Greenwich Village that night, but the bar’s patrons fought back forcefully, resulting in a humiliating defeat for the police and garnering nation-wide media attention. On the first anniversary of the riots, marches took place in New York, Boston, Minneapolis, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles.