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From Protests to Celebration – The Evolution of Pride

Updated: Apr 29

by Capt Sloan


Today, Pride season is frequently called a “celebration”; the most well-known aspects are the parades and the colorful, music-filled events that surround the season, to include drag shows, dance parties, and an overall festival atmosphere. It is our privilege as Canadians to be able to have this joyful approach to our Pride seasons and truly celebrate the freedom that 2SLGBTQI+ identifying people have to live their lives honestly and without fear of jail, or personal injury, for simply being themselves – this was not always the case for our country, and is not the reality for many 2SLGBTQI+ members around the world who live under government rule or within cultures that still vilify non-heterosexuals and non-cisgendered people. This begs the question – when did we move from protests to celebration? For the purposes of this article, we will be using the term “queer” as an all-inclusive term to encompass all the gender and sexuality spectrums of non-heterosexual, non-cisgendered persons.

 


 

The first Pride events were marches that protested discriminatory laws, with the acute catalyst being the Stonewall uprising; little known to many is that Canada had their own pinnacle events that spurred Pride gatherings around the country. While notable queer rights protests took place in Ottawa and Vancouver in 1971 to end government discrimination of queer Canadians, the first official “Pride Week” was held in August 1973 and was a national LGBT rights event that several major cities participated in, including Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa, Montréal, Saskatoon, and Winnipeg; Pride Week 1973 saw an art festival, dancing, picnicking, documentary screenings, as well as a rally for gay rights that occurred concurrently in all the participating cities. This milestone event saw the emergence of the concept of “pride”, as in proud to be yourself, for the queer communities around Canada.

 

One of the key politicizing events for the queer liberation movement that was building up within Canada happened in Toronto on 05 Jan 1974 at the Brunswick Tavern when the “Brunswick Four”, four lesbian women, were arrested while patronizing the tavern; the women brought charges against the officers who had arrested them, accusing them of verbal and physical police harassment (homosexuality having been decriminalized in 1969), and this proved to be the first time extensive media coverage was given to a queer topic in Canada, bringing the struggle of the 2SLGBTQI+ community into a public light.

 

In 1976, Montréal experienced a rash of police crackdowns on queer bars in the gay village; the raiding continued with two bars being raided in Oct of 1977, which instigated a 2,000-person strong protest the next day. Following this, Quebec became the second jurisdiction in the world (Denmark being the first) to pass a law banning discrimination based on sexual orientation; this momentous occasion was followed by the Canadian Immigration Act being amended to lift the ban prohibiting gay men from immigrating into Canada. In 1979, Vancouver and Montréal became the first Canadian cities to host an official Pride march and festival, followed by Edmonton hosting their first ever Pride festival in 1980.

 

Toronto Pride, now the largest Pride event in Canada, was spurred on by an event that is startlingly similar to the Stonewall Uprising in 1981: “Operation Soap”, so deemed because it was a raid on four gay bathhouses in the city, saw the arrest of just under 300 men. While most had charges dropped or dismissed, protests and rallies were organized to respond to the discriminatory arrests, and these protests evolved into the first Toronto Pride celebration.

 

Winnipeg held it’s first-ever Pride on 02 Aug 1987, when 250 2SLGBTQI+ members, supporters, and allies gathered; even with the size of the group, the fear was palpable, and some members who attended wore paper bags over their heads so they could not be identified out of fear of reprisal. 37 years later, Winnipeg pride has become a much looked forward to event with an average attendance of over 35,000!

 

Despite all the progress, Montréal experienced their own version of Stonewall on 15 July 1990: the police raided a gay bar within the city, and 36 hours of violent clashing between Montréal’s 2SLGBTQI+ community and the police force was incited, with the community accusing the police force of maintaining a culture of directed homophobia. This event saw the politicization of a generation of 2SLGBTQI+ activists, and the uniting of gays and lesbians, Anglophones and Francophones, onto a common front, who then worked to create political-action groups and Pride marches that successfully fought for civil rights and improvement in life for the city’s queer population.

 

This is quickly followed in the next ten years by several key victories for 2SLGBTQI+ members, including: the Federal Court lifting the ban on gays and lesbians in the military (1992); the Supreme Court ruling that gays and lesbians could apply for refugee status based on persecution within their countries of origins (1994); the Supreme Court ruling that “right to equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination” should include sexual orientation despite this not being specifically listed and Ontario courts ruling that same-sex couples are allowed to adopt children (1995); sexual orientation is added to the Canadian Human Rights Acts (1996); the Supreme Court rules that same-sex couples must be afforded the same rights as opposite-sex couples in common-law relationships (1999).

 

While there were still battles to be had, such as when protests began in Toronto after six male police officers raided Club Toronto during an all-female queer and trans event in September of 2000 – resulting in a $350,000 settlement, formal apology in writing, and the requirement to establish cultural competency training for all members of the police force – positive movement continued with provincial Superior Courts beginning to recognize how unconstitutional denying marriage rights to same-sex couples was as early as 2002 (Ontario), the first same sex couple marrying in 2003, and federal Bill C-38 granting marriage rights to all Canadians in 2005 (the fourth country to have done so).

 

While people who identified as gay or lesbian were seeing positive movement in their rights and recognition as equal Canadians, transgender Canadians would have a far longer wait to be recognized by our laws and regulations in the same way. Human rights protection of transgender Canadians wasn’t officially granted within the House of Commons until 2013. In 2017, one year after Parliament Hill raised the Pride flag for the first time, the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code were updated to include the terms “gender identity” and “gender expression”, making it illegal to discriminate based on these two facets of a person, as well as including them in prohibited hate speech laws. This was followed by the World Health Organization removing “transgender” from the list of designated mental health disorders in 2019, a far slower timeline than “homosexuality”, which was removed as a “disorder” in 1973.

 

Now, as we see our community’s official acronym expand and evolve, other expressions of sexual and gender identity are entering the conversation more frequently, including two-spirit, asexual, and bisexual persons raising their voices to be recognized in both the wider community as well as the queer community, in as fulsome a way as lesbians and gays have been.

 

The shifts in federal government thinking regarding non-heterosexual and non-cisgendered Canadians have been mirrored by the CAF as a whole; the future is bright thanks to the dedicated sacrifice of political activists within our country that didn’t allow the governing bodies to continue to marginalize Canadian citizens that didn’t “fit”, and has ushered in a much-needed era of truly respecting the dignity of all persons, regardless of their identity. The change in dress regulations to abolish the long-held binary gender dress standards, the establishment of advisory groups (Defence Team Pride Advisory Organization, for instance), as well as engagement at the higher levels of command within Wings and the CAF during local Pride celebrations, are demonstrative of the relinquishment of discriminatory and prejudicial thinking towards minority groups in general, and the 2SLGBTQI+ community specifically.

 

We are fortunate to live in Canada, where Pride has largely evolved from being small pockets of protest and demand for needed change to a much looked forward to time to gather with the queer community and its allies. We can safely commemorate the people who made change possible, celebrate the freedom we now have as Canadians to be recognized by our lawful authorities as persons no matter our sexual or gender identity, and bring attention to marginalized members of our communities that need support in continuing to fight for equality - including the 33% of the world’s countries that continue to criminalize homosexuality. Pride is not just a party, but a show of support to both the local queer communities, and the global queer communities that continue to fight for safety and freedom – so come on out and support your local Pride celebrations if you’d like to be a part of positive and lasting change!

 



 

Sidebar:

 

1.     14 May 1969, Canada decriminalized homosexual acts; royal assent given 27 June 1969 – one day prior to the Stonewall uprising in New York.

 

2.     In 2014, Toronto hosted “WorldPride”, an international Pride event that is held in a different city every celebration: from Rome, Italy - who hosted the first WorldPride event despite being unequivocally opposed by the Pope - in 2000 to Amsterdam, Netherlands, the intended hosts for 2026.

 

3.     Operation Soap (05 Feb 1981) remains one of the largest mass arrests in Canada; the Toronto police chief formally apologized for the raids in 2016.

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