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The decriminalization of homosexuality

The decriminalization of homosexuality

As important as Stonewall was, it may be argued that Canadian gays and lesbians owe more to their federal Parliament which, six weeks before the New York riots, passed a bill that signaled the beginning of the modern era of gay and lesbian rights in Canada.

The background to the bill was dramatic: on Dec 11, 1967, the Supreme Court of Canada, in a 3-2 decision, dismissed an appeal by Everett George Klippert, who had been sentenced to an indefinite period of preventive detention as a dangerous sexual offender two years earlier. The decision made any practicing homosexual in Canada liable to imprisonment for life. Klippert’s member of Parliament, Liberal Bud Orange, was indignant: “It’s ridiculous that any man…would be put into jail because they are affected by social disease. I hope the ridiculousness of this situation forces the government to make a move in this regard.”

Despite an initially coy response by then Justice Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau to the Supreme Court decision, “I just told you I wouldn’t answer that question,” six weeks later he introduced bill C-150 to the lower house, declaring: “It’s certainly the most extensive revision of the Criminal Code since the 1950s… It’s bringing the laws of the land up to contemporary society I think. Take this thing on homosexuality. I think the view we take here is that there’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation. I think that what’s done in private between adults doesn’t concern the Criminal Code. When it becomes public this is a different matter, or when it relates to minors this is a different matter.”

Bill C-150–nicknamed the Omnibus bill because of its scope and size–proposed extensive amendments to the existing Criminal Code, including provisions on homosexuality, abortion and divorce. It was not an easy sell for a minority government, and in a CBC interview, Trudeau calmly discussed the bill’s chances of failing, “I always feel that if you’re on the Liberal side, you should…take risks on the side of progress, and if you’re going to be beaten you should be beaten because you’ve been too progressive.” It never came to that. In the interim, Prime Minister Lester B Pearson retired, paving the way for a successful leadership bid by Trudeau, who then immediately called an election, leaving the Omnibus bill to die on the order paper. During the subsequent election campaign, Trudeau’s bill provided his opponents with ammunition to use against the Liberal leader, as witnessed in this exchange between the inimitable Réal Caouette and he in a televised debate between party leaders:

Caoutte: It would create tremendous problems in Canada, since a mature man could, in the future, marry another mature man. This would create problems for the government for the maintenance of the children born of these unions.

Trudeau: The bill doesn’t deal with homosexuality. The bill speaks of gross indecency… Unnatural acts. All we have said…in the amendment… is that what goes on in private between two consulting adults is their own private business…it doesn’t concern the police. We are separating the idea of sin and the idea of crime.

Later in the same debate, Tommy Douglas, leader of the NDP and supportive of the bill, stated, “If ever we needed in this country to adopt a new attitude towards homosexuality, this is the time. Instead of treating it as a crime, and driving it underground, we ought to recognize it for what it is: it’s a mental illness, it’s a psychiatric condition which ought to be treated sympathetically by psychiatrists and social workers. We’re not going to do this by tossing people into jail.” There was the rub. There would be no recognition of homosexuality as a legitimate sexual and affective identity for a large number of Canadians. After a sweeping Liberal victory, the new Justice Minister, John Turner, re-introduced the Omnibus bill and defended it in the following terms: “There is nothing in the bill which would condone homosexuality, endorse it, advertise it in any way whatsoever.”

In this, he and other politicians were merely reflecting popular sentiment: a Gallup poll taken at the time revealed that 41 percent of Canadians thought that homosexual acts between adult, consenting males should be considered a crime, only one percent less than those who thought that they should not.

In the late afternoon of May 14, 1969, after a marathon debate, the lower house passed bill C-150 by a vote of 159 to 55, with Conservative leader Robert Stanfield and a dozen members of his party voting in its favour. After successfully passing the upper house, the new law went into effect on Aug 26, 1969. Klippert was released from jail on Jul 20, 1971.