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social sciences

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Trudeau and Decriminalization of Homosexuality

The impetus for revising the "buggery" and "gross indecency" clauses of the Criminal Code came from then-Justice Minister Pierre Trudeau, who urged the changes in December 1967, several months after Britain had decriminalized homosexuality with an amendment to the Sexual Offences Act.

As Justice Minister, Trudeau was not successful in effecting a change in the Code, but upon becoming Prime Minister in 1968 he renewed his efforts as part of his program for a "Just Society" and as part of his agenda for transforming Canada into a modern, less stodgy nation. The omnibus bill that his government presented in 1969 included proposals that decriminalized consensual same-sex sexual activity.

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The youthful and charismatic Prime Minister was deeply committed to making Canada a society that was truly just. In 1968 he described his vision: "I've always dreamt of a society in which each person would be able to fulfill himself to the extent of his capabilities as a human being, a society where inhibitions to equality would be eradicated." With respect to consensual homosexual activity, he famously said, "The state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation."

While some extremely conservative members of parliament from Quebec attempted to block Bill C-150 with a filibuster and arguments that decriminalizing homosexuality was offensive to their Roman Catholic constituents, most members of parliament, including some in the Conservative party, favored the legislation. Although debate on the measure was heated at times, Bill C-150 was easily approved on May 14, 1969 by a margin of 149 to 55.

Twenty-five years later, Armand Monroe, who was employed at a Montreal gay bar at the time of the historic vote, remembered, "Trudeau was the hero of the day."

The 1970s

In the 1970s both the gay rights and women's movements emerged as forces in the national political discourse. Numerous gay rights groups were founded, including GATE (Gay Alliance Toward Equality) Vancouver, GATE Toronto, the Coalition for Gay Rights in Ontario, the Association pour les droits de gais du Québec, Gays of Ontario, and an umbrella organization, the National Gay Rights Coalition (NGRC, later known as CLGRC, the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Rights Coalition).

In Toronto's feisty, politically radical, and extremely literate journal, The Body Politic, established in November 1971 and published until 1987, Canada found a national voice of gay liberation. In the 1970s, student groups were formed at universities across the country. Gay liberation bookstores, theaters, and other cultural venues were added to the increasing number of gay bars, restaurants, baths, and other businesses catering to glbtq consumers. In Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver, vibrant gay communities emerged as significant--though sometimes beleaguered--elements of social and civic life.

In the 1970s and 1980s, gay activism was countered by numerous attempts at repression, including police raids of bars, baths, and bookstores, harrassment of gay activists, crackdowns on gay cruising areas, and censorship of books and magazines imported from the United States and Europe.

Nevertheless, the movement toward equality gained a great deal of traction during the period, garnering the support of politicians and opinion makers, as Canada gradually became a more diverse and tolerant society. Openly gay or gay-friendly politicians began to win elections during the 1970s, including Svend Robinson who was elected to the House of Commons from British Columbia in 1979 and served continuously until 2004.

Many lesbians played an active role in feminist organizations but were frustrated by the tendency of heterosexual women to distance themselves from lesbian concerns for fear of adverse public reaction. Some who joined the gay liberation movement felt that the organizations focused disproportionately on issues important to gay men.

The tensions that attended the formation of combined gay and lesbian organizations reflected the fact that the social circles in which the participants had previously moved were typically exclusively male or female. Some women responded by calling for an autonomous lesbian movement and founded groups such as the Lesbian Organization of Toronto and the Lesbian Mothers' Defence Fund.

Apart from NGRC/CLGRM (1975-1980), there was no nationwide gay and lesbian rights organization during the 1970s. One result of the differences in strategies and strength of various glbtq associations was that legal change occurred in a patchwork fashion across the country. In 1977 Quebec became the first province to extend its Human Rights Code to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation.

AIDS Activism

The political successes of the 1970s, especially in Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver, helped pave the way for AIDS activism in the 1980s. With prodding from the glbtq communities, Canada's public health system responded to the AIDS crisis more humanely and more effectively than in most areas. AIDS organizations across the country mobilized to provide accurate information and much needed care and support to those affected by the disease.

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