Gay liberation in Canada began with a demonstration on Parliament Hill in Ottawa 30 years ago.
“It was pissing down rain,” recalls George Hislop, at 74 Toronto’s eminence grise of the gay rights movement. A bus arrived from Toronto at the Parliament buildings on Aug 28, 1971.
“It was the weekend, there was no one in the building. An RCMP officer was our sole audience. An American war protester got ahold of our microphone and started haranguing us, the world at large, and the United States congress.”
But Hislop says it was a success. “It didn’t last very long, but it made the six o’clock news, and that was the point…. We were proposing social revolution.
“The main purpose was that we be seen and heard. Thirty years ago we were still a novelty, freaks who dared come out of the closet. It was a heady experience.”
The Liberal government had decriminalized oral sex (which fell under gross indecency) and anal sex (buggery) for those 21 or over after, Hislop recalls, police looking through a window charged a Winnipeg woman with giving her husband a blowjob on their kitchen table. Hislop says the demo (about 150 attended) was held on the second year anniversary of a law that decriminalized gay sex by accident.
Hislop says the trip was organized by Toronto Gay Action, itself a splinter group of the larger Community Homophile Association Of Toronto, which came out of the University Of Toronto student group. “We were like amoebas, dividing all over the place,” laughs Hislop. A radical women’s group, The Cunts, was another offshoot.
There was a demonstration the same day in Vancouver, also. “I don’t believe we had any violence, or threats of violence,” recalls Vancouver’s Roedy Green.
Green was one of the west coast’s first gay activists, and a key member of the Gay Alliance Towards Equality (GATE), the Vancouver group that organized the demo.
Activists had formed GATE itself only three months before.
GATE and Toronto Gay Action came up with a 10-point list of demands for the federal government, read out in Vancouver and Ottawa.
The Vancouver protest – held in Robson Square on the steps of what was then the courthouse – attracted no more than 20.
Recalls Green: “The gay people were really upset about us. They felt safe because they were hidden. Everybody in Vancouver thought there are no gay people in Vancouver, they live in New York or some place, not beautiful clean wonderful Vancouver. I was getting 300 abusive phone calls a day, and three murder threats a day during this time.”
You could be evicted if your landlord found out you were gay. The federal government could bar homosexual immigrants.
Says Vancouver author Stan Persky: “It was scary to be gay. In some cases now, if you live in the suburbs or go to a high school run by a religious school board, it’s still scary. But at that time it was scary for everybody.”
Even a man at the forefront of the movement like Persky reports he knew no more than four out gay men at that time.