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In shift on LGBTQ rights, The Globe helped the state leave the bedrooms of the nation - The Globe and Mail

Rachel Giese                                                                             3 June 2024



Published 4 hours ago Updated 58 minutes ago


This is an excerpt from A Nation’s Paper: The Globe and Mail in the Life of Canada, a collection of history essays from Globe writers past and present, coming this fall from Signal/McClelland & Stewart.

To have been queer in Canada before the 1960s meant living in the shadows. You might have found your way to a spot frequented by others like you (a nightclub tucked away in a downtown hotel, a wooded area in a neighbourhood park). You might have recognized something of yourself in the works of James Baldwin, Gore Vidal and Djuna Barnes, or in dime-store pulp novels with titles such as Twilight Lovers and Women’s Barracks. You might have heard rumours about a certain confirmed bachelor uncle or spinster aunt. Or maybe you were part of one of the very small, very brave early groups of homophile activists, who came together in the 1950s to fight for dignity and respect.

In daily newspapers during the early Cold War era, you were all but invisible. Your existence had to be read between the lines: no acknowledgement of your culture, desire, love save for the occasional quote from a doctor on the pathology of homosexuality and its potential cures, or a police blotter report detailing raids on gay venues. You might have spotted a hint of gay sensibility in the arts pages – sections of newspapers then referred to as “the pansy patch” – but even that was sparing.

The Globe and Mail was no exception. Deep in the paper’s library of print archives, in the files of pre-1969 coverage of gay issues, rests an envelope labelled “Homosexuals – Editorial. Previous to Sept 1969 See: Sex Perverts.” In an essay from the 2017 history anthology Any Other Way: How Toronto Got Queer, Stephanie Chambers, one of the newspaper’s researchers, writes of the pain that struck her coming across the file, noting, “that those long-forgotten colleagues classified queerness in this way reveals much about their era.”

There’s a wealth of research suggesting that the way news media frame issues – from the approach of the storytelling and the selection of sources to the weight and space given to a subject – influences public attitudes and opinions. This effect can be even stronger if the audience’s knowledge of, and direct experience with, the subject is limited.

And much of what Canadians knew about LGBTQ people in the early Cold War period they learned through lurid news coverage. This time of conformity and paranoia was ripe for media-fuelled moral panics about threats to the nuclear family, traditional values and national security. Nothing was more taboo in Canada than the acts committed by the deviants, degenerates and perverts, as they were portrayed in The Globe. No one was a more convenient scapegoat for society’s real or perceived ills than the homosexual.

But even as news media reports influenced attitudes that led to a life sentence for one convicted homosexual, and encouraged a purge of LGBTQ workers from the federal services, newspapers also started moving public opinion toward acceptance. As The Globe took up these stories, it helped to shift the conversation on LGBTQ rights, just as the movement for LGBTQ rights helped reshape the paper itself.


In 1981, protests at Yonge and Wellesley Streets denounce the Toronto police after co-ordinated raids on gay bathhouses. A Globe editorial denounced the ‘heavy hand of the law’ and questioned why heterosexual bawdy houses were not similarly targeted. Barrie Davis/The Globe and Mail

Marchers in the 1993 Toronto Pride parade lift signs demanding action on AIDS. The virus, first found in humans a decade earlier, deepened the stigma against LGBTQ people as the pandemic killed millions around the world. Peter Tym/The Globe and Mail

Michael Leshner and Michael Stark kiss after their wedding at Toronto City Hall in 2003, made possible by an Ontario court ruling that made same-sex marriage legal. Darryl James/The Globe and Mail

Counter-protesters wave the transgender flag at Queen’s Park in September, 2023, at a rally against gender-identity education in schools. Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail


Here’s what a reader might have learned about queerness as it was reported in The Globe in the years after the Second World War: A 1947 story by columnist John Verner McAree headlined “Scientific Treatments for Sex Perverts” opens thus: “What are called sex crimes are increasing in Canada and the United States, and confronted with them the lynching spirit stirs itself.” A 1963 interview with the leader of Toronto’s morality squad is headlined “Degenerates parade, inspector says: blames lack of public disgust for growth of homosexuality.” A year later, a news brief reported on police concerns that downtown bars that provided “a gathering place for homosexuals” offered “a chance for homosexuality to be spread by introduction.” And another article from 1966 warned of undesirables in Toronto parks, the “exhibitionists, homosexuals, drunks, vandals and thugs.”

In this period of silence and shame, there was scant attention or sympathy for those persecuted for their sexuality or gender identity. And it was within this silence that LGBTQ people in Canada faced the most virulent, state-sanctioned homophobia in the nation’s history.

Beginning in the 1950s, the Government of Canada instituted a policy to root out members of the armed forces, the RCMP and the federal public service who were suspected of being gay. Thousands were surveilled, harassed, interrogated and fired; thousands of careers, reputations and lives shattered. At the same time, police staked out cruising spots to entrap men seeking sex with other men, oftentimes going undercover as a potential connection.

Once caught, these men might be taken somewhere remote and beaten up, arrested on charges of gross indecency or buggery and have their names publicized – thousands more careers, reputations and lives shattered.

Then came the prosecution of Everett George Klippert. Arrested in Calgary in 1960, the bus driver confessed to 18 counts of gross indecency and served four years in prison. In 1965, after confessing to similar acts in the Northwest Territories, he was declared a dangerous sexual offender – in effect a life sentence – which the Supreme Court upheld two years later. But if Klippert’s sentence marked the peak, or nadir, of the persecution of homosexuals in Canada, it also marked the beginning of change.

Even by the standards of the time, Klippert’s sentence was seen as cruel and excessive. “It’s ridiculous that any man … would be put into jail because they are affected by [a] social disease,” Liberal MP Bud Orange, who represented Klippert’s riding, told the House of Commons. “I hope the ridiculousness of this situation forces the government to make a move in this regard.”

A Dec. 12, 1967, editorial in The Globe argued that “homosexual acts committed privately between consenting adults should not be a crime, just as fornication between consenting adults is not a crime.” What’s more, the state’s responsibility “should be to legislate rules for a well-ordered society. It has no right or duty to creep into the bedrooms of the nation.”

Justice minister Pierre Trudeau cribbed that last bit – “there’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation,” he told the press – when he introduced a sweeping omnibus crime bill one week later that, among other reforms, decriminalized sex in private between two men over the age of 21. (Lawmakers at the time were seemingly oblivious to the existence of queer women, who were absent in laws and in public discussions.) The bill became law under Trudeau, who was by then prime minister, two years later.

Globe editor Richard Doyle, left, confers with colleague Clark Davey in 1961.John Young / The Globe and Mail


In arguing for partial decriminalization, the paper may have been influenced by an earlier battle against police overreach waged by its editor Richard Doyle. A freethinker who embraced the old newspaper adage about afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted, Doyle challenged the paper’s long-standing establishment biases.

In a 1964 editorial, he took aim at proposed Ontario legislation that would have empowered police to summon any person for questioning in secret, deprive them of legal advice and hold them indefinitely if they refused to respond to questioning. “For the public good,” the editorial argued, Ontario “proposes to trample upon the Magna Carta, Habeas Corpus, the Canadian Bill of Rights and the Rule of Law.” The bill was withdrawn. Three years later, the paper was advocating for the partial decriminalization of homosexual acts.

The same year the decriminalization bill passed, continuing police raids at the Stonewall Inn and other gay bars in New York provoked hundreds of protesters to take to the streets in an uprising now viewed as the genesis of the modern LGBTQ rights movement. Support and advocacy groups, as well as annual Pride Day celebrations marking the Stonewall uprising, soon sprang up throughout the U.S. and Canada.

Dozens of LGBTQ activists brave the rain at Parliament Hill on Aug. 30, 1971, for the first large- scale protest of its kind in Canada.The Canadian Press


In 1971, 200 people gathered on Parliament Hill in Ottawa for the “We Demand” Rally, the first large-scale LGBTQ rights demonstration in Canada. One of the group’s concerns was that the law decriminalizing only sexual acts in private between two men over the age of 21 might lead to greater persecution of other forms of gay sex. The escalating raids of bathhouses in the decade that followed proved them right. Also in 1971, The Body Politic, a provocative gay liberation magazine, arrived in Toronto, providing a voice for the community. Part of the community, anyway – its publishing collective was made up almost entirely of white, gay men.

The Globe’s coverage of LGBTQ issues in the 1970s was marked by guarded encouragement and support for some gay rights. The paper covered individual cases of discrimination relatively sympathetically, such as the 1975 firing of horse-racing steward John Damien, who lost his job for being gay. Language changed, too. Gone were “perverts” and “degenerates.” Instead, the paper standardized the use of the more neutral “homosexual.”

Ed Jackson, a long-time Toronto LGBTQ activist and organizer, credits Doyle’s influence and the presence of gay reporters – such as film critic Jay Scott and dance critic Lawrence O’Toole – for helping to shape the paper’s stand on homosexuality at this time, especially as the LGBTQ rights movement was becoming more empowered. “Having gay staff might not have necessarily led to more open coverage,” Jackson says, “but I do think it had a dampening effect on publishing the egregiously homophobic stories that ran in the past.”

However, sociologist and author Gary Kinsman notes that The Globe, while broadening its coverage on queer issues in those years and later, misunderstood the broader context of the queer movement. “What often happens with the mainstream media is that the struggles that lead up to particular events are not covered,” Kinsman says, and then one person’s experience “is covered as an isolated event or like something that just fell from the sky.”

The Globe’s more open, though still imperfect, approach was already apparent in the paper’s coverage of the Toronto bathhouse raids in February, 1981, when in a co-ordinated crackdown at four establishments, police taunted and brutalized patrons and arrested 286 men for being found in a common bawdy house. It was one of the largest mass arrests in Canadian history.

The Globe extensively covered the raids and the mass protests that followed – one story took readers on an intimate tour of a bathhouse, even alluding to what occurs inside (not exactly common news fare at the time) – while an editorial railed against the “heavy hand of the law,” noting that there had never been similar raids on other private clubs or on heterosexual bawdy houses in the city. “This flinging of an army against the homosexuals,” the paper argued, “is more like the bully-boy tactics of a Latin American republic attacking church and lay reformers than of anything that has a place in Canada.”

HIV-AIDS activists disrupt the opening speech of prime minister Brian Mulroney at a 1989 conference on the disease.Ian Barrett/Reuters


Just as gay-rights activists were fighting for greater acceptance, and receiving at least partial acceptance in the pages of The Globe, news reports in the early 1980s began warning of the sudden rise of a rare form of cancer called Kaposi’s sarcoma and other opportunistic infections among gay men with mysteriously compromised immune systems. HIV-AIDS had arrived.

As it struggled to cover the crisis, The Globe’s treatment of LGBTQ issues began to transform. Increasingly, feature stories about HIV-AIDS focused on the voices of real people grappling with the ravages of the disease, not just the voices of medical experts. Early on, the illness was referred to as “the gay plague,” and people who had been infected with the virus were labelled “diseased,” yet the paper did cover HIV-AIDS as both a health crisis and as a political issue.

In 1983, Yves Lavigne’s story “Gays afraid AIDS spells repression” looked at rising homophobic sentiment and quoted activists, including Jackson, about fears that gay sex would be stigmatized through moralistic public-health campaigns. “There are groups who would like to use this as a means of controlling the gay community and denying us our civil rights,” he warned.

Michelle Douglas, shown in 2017, was honourably discharged from the Canadian Forces because she is a lesbian.Blair Gable/The Globe and Mail


Yet even as greater numbers of LGBTQ people were coming out publicly, fighting for – and winning – further rights and protections, the systematic purging of suspected LGBTQ people from the armed forces, the RCMP and the federal civil service continued, largely in silence under the guise of national security. Michelle Douglas, an officer with the Special Investigations Unit in the Canadian Forces, finally outed the military when she sued after being honourably discharged in 1989 because of her sexuality. “There weren’t that many openly lesbian women at the time willing to have their name attached to something that was deemed a landmark case,” Douglas says. The Globe and other media treated her case sympathetically. “I think there was genuine shock among some journalists and most Canadians that this had unfolded, that this was still going on.”

Douglas never had her day in court. In 1992, the military settled, and the Federal Court of Canada ruled that the Canadian Forces could no longer ban LGBTQ people from serving in the military. The decade that followed saw a cascade of further legal and political victories: protections for domestic partners, adoption rights and marriage equality.

Unfinished business remained, however. An older generation of queer people had unresolved trauma; a younger generation was largely unaware of their elders’ past battles. On Nov. 28, 2017, after years of community activism and in the wake of a series of Globe stories about Klippert and about the persecution of public servants – which had prompted a class-action lawsuit – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rose in the House of Commons to formally apologize for the federal government’s role in “the systemic oppression, criminalization and violence against the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and two- spirit communities.”

“When a prime minister rises to apologize for the actions of past governments,” The Globe’s John Ibbitson wrote, “he or she is saying not that we are better than that now, but that we should have been better than that then. That even then, voices were warning that this was wrong, but we ignored those voices and so people suffered. In that apology, we promise to listen to voices who warn us today of injustice: against women, against racial minorities, against sexual minorities.”

'Stop gender ideology,' reads a protester's sign for parents' rights at Queen's Park in 2023.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail


But battles for rights and recognition remain, particularly for those who are transgender or non-binary. Trudeau put forward legislation prohibiting discrimination against trans people, which Parliament passed in 2017. In response to support for trans rights and protections, many on the right have returned to stoking moral panic over the safety of children, falsely claiming that trans activists are psychologically manipulating, chemically dosing and surgically mutilating confused children.

In the midst of this debate, The Globe has spoken out in defence of trans rights. As a June, 2023, editorial put it: “Almost 60 years ago, when committing a homosexual act was a serious felony in Canada, this newspaper declared, in support of a bill to decriminalize such acts, that the state ‘has no right or duty to creep into the bedrooms of the nation,’ and Pierre Trudeau, then minister of justice, famously rephrased that declaration as ‘there’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.’

“Now, a new struggle to protect the rights of LGBTQ Canadians is emerging. And this newspaper wishes to be just as emphatic today as we were then: The state has both a right and a duty to protect sexual and gender minorities across this nation.”

We are a long way from the dark, furtive days and cruel language of the 1950s. But LGBTQ rights are never permanent ones; there are people who would claw back what has been gained. All of us, including this newspaper, have a duty to protect the vulnerable, however they identify and whomever they love.

Rachel Giese is a deputy national editor at The Globe and Mail.


The Globe and Mail


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