Not Anti-Coin, Just Anti-Myth
Canada’s new LGBTQ coin perpetuates a myth that the persecution of LGBTQ Canadians stopped 50 years ago
In 1969, the Canadian government, under the direction of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, amended the Criminal Code and began the process of decriminalizing homosexuality in Canada. This came two years after Trudeau famously stated, “there’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.”
To mark the 50th anniversary of this event, the Canadian government is overseeing a variety of initiatives.
One of the most notable is the Royal Canadian Mint’s release of a new $1 coin, named the Equality Dollar, unveiled on April 23, 2019.
The coin, designed by Vancouver-based artist Joe Average, is a rendering of two overlapping faces within a large circle connected at the lips. The background features the rainbow colours of the LGBTQ+ flag, and the words “equality” and “égalité.” It also places the dates 1969 and 2019 on each side of the coin. The coin comes in the standard embossed single colour or in a special edition colourized silver coin.
During the unveiling, Finance Minister Bill Morneau noted,
“For too long, people didn’t listen. They didn’t extend compassion or empathy or understanding. Because of that, years ago, people made it a crime to love in Canada. We made being yourself a punishable offence.”
While representation and commemoration of legal milestones are important for any marginalized community, the narrative surrounding this coin is troubling. It is a vast oversimplification of the struggle and prejudice, both past and present, faced by Canada’s LGBTQ+ community.
The coin’s unveiling ceremony perpetuated a myth that the persecution of LGBTQ Canadians stopped 50 years ago, and confines the rights movement to the past.
The 1969 changes did little to actually repeal the criminalization of sex acts between members of the same sex. Most laws used to arrest and charge gay and lesbian folks were criminalized under a number of Victorian-era laws, some of which — such as gross indecency — are still on the law books to this day.
Homosexual sex acts were not directly repealed criminally, rather, an exception clause was added to the criminal code in 1969. This clause allowed two consenting adults, 21 years of age or older, to engage in gay sex provided they confined it to a private space.
The vagueness of the term ‘private space’ and the fact that homosexual sex remained illegal, allowed the arrest of gay men for decades to come.
After the exception clause was added in 1969, arrests of gay men not only continued, they increased. Within the LGBTQ community, the amendments were mostly met with anger as they did little to limit the threat of arrest. The clause also had no retroactive effect leaving many gay men imprisoned. It was not until 2017 that the government offered pardons to many folks charged with homosexual sex acts.
A famous example of this is the case of Everett George Klippert. In 1965, Klippert was arrested and charged on four counts of “gross indecency” after he voluntarily admitted to having consensual sex with four different adult men. There have been suggestions over the decades that police effectively threatened Klippert into ‘confessing’ by implying they would charge him in an arson case to which he had no connection only that he had been in the area at the time of the fire.
In 1967, Klippert appealed to the Court of Appeal for the Northwest Territories but his appeal was overturned. While his case brought widespread attention and was a contributing factor to the introduction of the 1969 amendments, he was forced to remain in prison until 1971 and was categorized as a sex offender until his death in 1996.
Due to the vagueness of the term “private space” in the 1969 clause, Klippert was unable to appeal again as at least one sex act he was charged with took place in a car parked in an abandoned parking lot.
Since many of the 19th-century criminal laws surrounding homosexuality remained intact arrests continued to spike after 1969.
The raiding of LGBT establishments continued well into the 1990s in Canada’s major cities. The most famous example of this is the Toronto Bathhouse Raids of 1981. On the night of February 5, 1981, Toronto Police raided four gay bathhouses resulting in the arrest of more than 300 men, one of the largest mass arrests in Canadian history.
Editor’s note: you can watch the documentary, “Track Two”, a film about the 1981 Toronto bath house raids and riots and the events that precipitated them. This is a rare and unique record of a watershed moment in the gay liberation movement in Canada.
The targeting of LGBTQ folks by police continues to this day.
In 2016, it came to light that Toronto Police had assigned officers to Etobicoke’s Marie Curtis Park. Undercover officers would enter the park and arrest and charge men who allegedly solicited the officers for sex. It was discovered, however, that in a number of cases officers would initiate the soliciting only to turn around and arrest the men.
While one can argue that the coin commemorates a small step in the process towards greater LGBTQ rights and freedoms, it is perpetuating a myth that simply does not exist. Homosexuality was not decriminalized in 1969, nor was it all sunshine and roses from that day on.
The narrative at the coin event was simplistic, a minimization of the actual events of the past 50 years. While it does have the positive effect of getting people talking about the LGBTQ community in Canada, it downplayed the reality that the struggle for inclusion continues to this day. Indeed, the mere idea of an LGBTQ coin has itself been met with anger and opposition from several conservatives groups.
LGBTQ Canadians continue to face prejudice and marginalization today. This is particularly true as Canada continues to take a worrying political shift to the right.
With the exceptions of British Columbia, Nova Scotia, and Newfound and Labrador, every province in the country has elected conservative governments. It is also increasingly apparent this trend is playing out on the federal level, with the Conservative Party narrowly leading Trudeau’s Liberals in the polls.
Even Prime Minister Trudeau, who is arguably the most pro-LGBTQ Prime Minister in Canadian history, has made questionable moves at times. Earlier this year, he refused to legislate a nationwide ban on conversion therapy with no logical explanation as to why he opposes such a move.
While not unwelcome, perhaps there would have been a better way for the Federal Government to commemorate the actual history of Canada’s LGBTQ community. Why not mark the anniversary with more inclusive policy moves? They could have criminalized conversion therapy, or ended the ban on blood donations from sexually active gay men. A coin is nice, but there is a lot of work left to be done.