Through the years, Canada has moved progressively towards acknowledging and supporting transgender rights (or the lack thereof). From a country heavily influenced by Britain in criminalizing homosexuality to emerging as a champion for the LGBT+ community.
Let’s take a look at the pivotal milestones in the history of transgender rights in Canada to see how far we have come and how much further we need to go.
It is critical to recognize that before the European colonization, the Indigenous peoples in Canada, particularly in Turtle Island, have high regard for sexual and gender diversity. Two-Spirit people who identify with both a masculine and feminine spirit serve esteemed positions in the Indigenous culture as healers, leaders, matchmakers, and teachers. However, not all Indigenous people who identify beyond conventional gender orientation are Two-Spirit. The majority of them identify themselves as LGBTQ+.
But as this goes against the Western colonizers’ religious values and mainstream beliefs, the Indigenous people were forced into cultural assimilation, which means any form of gender diversity was condemned. Many Two-Spirit people who refused to obey were persecuted or forced into hiding. It’s perhaps the earliest and most blatant example where the prevailing transgender rights in Canada were violated.
During the early colonial era, homosexuality was deemed a criminal offence. Sodomy, also known as the act of buggery, was punishable by death until 1869 when it was amended to life imprisonment. But sodomy laws were replaced with crimes of “gross indecency,” “criminal sexual psychopath,” and “dangerous sexual offender.” All of which had intentionally vague definitions to target men who show any sign of affection towards the same sex.
Samuel Moore and Patrick Kelley were the first gay men in Canada to go down in history for being convicted for sodomy in 1842. Despite being two consenting adults, they were sentenced to death. It was later revoked and changed to life imprisonment as the buggery laws were revised. Eventually, they were both set free in 1849 and 1853, respectively.
Jim Egan was the first openly gay writer, politician, and staunch activist for transgender rights in Canada. He began publishing pieces in newspapers fighting back against degrading slurs hurled at queer people and how the community is misrepresented in the media. He continues to write letters prolifically and would later become a co-plaintiff in Egan vs Canada.
In 1965, Everett Klippert, a mechanic’s assistant in Northwest Territories, was called in for police questioning for a totally unrelated crime wherein he admitted that he is, in fact, gay and has had sexual encounters with men over the last 24 years. He also told the police that he was unlikely to change.
Because of this, he was labelled as a “dangerous sex offender” even though psychiatrists testified in court that Kliffert had no pedophilic and aggressive tendencies and recommended that he receive psychiatric care. Nevertheless, he was sentenced to imprisonment without any proper legal representation.
The unfair treatment of Klippert’s case sparked outrage among the public. Bud Orange, a member of the Parliament, condemned the incident in the House of Commons. He was quoted saying, “It’s ridiculous that any man… would be put into jail because they are affected by [a] social disease,” in a CBC interview. At that time, homosexuality was categorized as a mental condition that can be improved through a series of treatments.
Inspired to continue the fight for transgender rights in Canada, gay-positive organizations ASK (Vancouver) and GAY (Toronto) were also founded during these years.
In response to Klippert’s case, then Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau pushed for Bill C-150, which contained a much-needed amendment to the Criminal Code. It specifically decriminalized “gross indecency” and “buggery” when committed privately by two consenting adults over the age of 21. Aside from transgender rights, it also had reforms on laws for abortion and divorce. Trudeau’s most iconic statement was, “[There is] no place for the state in the nation’s bedrooms.”
Inspired by New York City’s Stonewall Riots, the first transgender rights protest in Canada took place in Ottawa and Vancouver. The demonstrations called for the end of all forms of discrimination against gays and lesbians.
Klippert was also set free in 1971.
The 1970s have seen vast improvements for transgender rights in Canada. One of the most important ones is the provision allowing gay or transgender immigrants to enter the country.
On February 5, 1981, the Toronto Police Service raided four bathhouses. Dubbed as the Operation Soap, it saw the arrest of 286 individuals. It prompted 3,000 people to take the streets to protest what was deemed as yet another assault against transgender rights in Canada.
The 1980s saw the skyrocketing of AIDS and HIV-positive cases in the transgender community. Under the impression that their health and welfare were being taken for granted by the government, organizations advocating for transgender rights in Canada worked proactively to provide the necessary care.
AIDS Vancouver became Canada’s first AIDS service organization. Toronto, Gays in Health Care, the Hassle-Free Clinic, and The Body Politic followed the lead and formed the AIDS Committee of Toronto, formerly known as the Toronto AIDS Committee.
In 1988, AIDS Action Now (AAN) was established with the mission to pressure people from the Canadian government to take concrete measures to address the looming health crisis.
The surge in sexually transmitted diseases, such as AIDS and HIV, triggered further stigmatization and violation of transgender rights in Canada.
In 1985 Health Canada, released a new policy on donor referral that prohibits men who have sexual relationships or who have had sex even once with another man from donating blood for the rest of their life.
British Columbia MP Svend Robinson came out as Canada’s first openly gay member of Parliament in the spring of 1988.
The World Health Organization (WHO) takes out homosexuality from the International Classification of Diseases (ICD), which means being queer is no longer considered a mental disorder.
Tim Stevenson is appointed into the Legislative Council of BC, thus becoming the first openly gay cabinet minister in Canada.
Anne and Elaine Vautour married in Ontario a couple of years before same-sex marriage was officially legalized in the province.
The federal Civil Marriage Act was passed or given royal assent, the formal method of legislature approval by the Sovereign, officially making same-sex marriage legal across the country. It was hailed a major victory for transgender rights in Canada.
The Declaration of Montreal was launched, calling on the United Nations and all states to celebrate May 17 as the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia.
Jamie Hubley, son of Ottawa City Councillor Allan Hubley, commits suicide because of trauma from anti-gay bullying at his high school. His death leads to the establishment of Accepting Schools Act by the Government of Ontario, which enforces more transparent and stringent measures against bullying and mandates public schools to allow GSA (Gay-Straight Alliance or Gender and Sexual Alliance) organizations for queer students.
Formally known as Bill 33, Toby’s Law was passed in the Legislative Assembly in Ontario, giving citizens the right to be free from any form of harassment or marginalization when they express their gender identity.
Toronto hosted WorldPride 2014. Over 12,000 marches attended it. It was the first WorldPride in Canada and the fourth parade across the world.
Trans March in Toronto shatters records for holding the biggest Trans March celebration in the world. In 2016, Black Lives Matter (BLMTO) led the march, and participants occupied the street intersection at Yonge and College.
Manitoba called to abolish anti-LGBTQ+ conversion therapy throughout the province. Ontario starts to issue health cards without a gender marker to acknowledge non-binary, intersex, and transgender people.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized and acknowledged that decades of systematic state-sponsored laws and policies by his predecessors paved the way for discrimination, violence, and trampling of transgender rights in Canada.
Parts of his historic formal apology delivered to the LGBT people in Canada in the House of Commons in Ottawa:
“You are professionals. You are patriots. And above all, you are innocent. And for all your suffering, you deserve justice, and you deserve peace. It is our collective shame that you were so mistreated. And it is our collective shame that this apology took so long – many who suffered are no longer alive to hear these words. And for that, we are truly sorry.”
Trudeau’s apology comes after two years of passionate activism of We Demand An Apology Network. It also prompted the release of up to $100 million to compensate the approximately 700 plus victims devastated by the government’s vicious gay purge, who are still seeking professional help because of the painful trauma it has caused them.
McLean Clinic is an advocate for transgender rights in Canada and upholds the highest level of excellence in delivering FTM top surgery and other gender-confirmation procedures. For more information on how we can help you with our journey, don’t hesitate to reach out to us. A friendly member of our team will be more than happy to assist you.