Nowadays, Gay Pride is seen as a week-long celebration of gay culture, but in its early days, Pride was about giving gay people a voice to advocate for their rights.
It is easy to forget that what led to parties and parades were, in fact, acts of resistance from marginalized people, trans people, and people of color. So we may never take the rights of LGBTQI+ community members for granted, let us remember the history of Pride and the events that led to these celebrations.
Fifty years ago, in the early hours of June 28, 1969, police raided a New York tavern called the Stonewall Inn. It was a time when gay people were widely perceived as criminals or delinquents. This tavern – which did not have even a liquor license or running water – was a safe space where members of the LGBTQI+ community could meet and express themselves without being harassed. Back then, the police had the right to arrest and detain anyone who appeared to be a man in drag as well as anyone they perceived as a woman if they were wearing less than three items of so-called “feminine” clothing.
During this particular police intervention, which empowered police to identify and physically verify the gender of the 200 patrons gathered inside the tavern, one particular trans women and drag queen has had enough! Marsha P. Johnson – an African American trans woman who is widely recognized as an LGBTQI+ rights icon today – decides to purposefully throw her drink at a mirror. This gesture of protest sparks a revolt that will last several days and lead to the birth of the modern LGBTQI+ rights movement and the first Gay Pride march in the United States in 1970, organized by Brenda Howard. It was Ms. Howard’s idea to spread the activities over a week, a format still in use today.
In Canada, during the same era, the LGBTQI+ community rights movement began. In 1969, homosexuality was decriminalized and two years later the first gay rights demonstration took place in Toronto. Despite decriminalization, during the 1970s and 1980s, police raids were proliferating and became catalyst events for the liberation of members of the LGBTQI+ community. These events marked a turning point and brought about important cultural changes.
The repeated raids on public bathhouses – often frequented by gay men – radicalized the movement. In 1974, four people were arrested in a public bathhouse in New Brunswick. This was one of the first times the Canadian press picked up on the gay and lesbian factor. In 1975 and 1976, raids were a common thing in Montreal, under Mayor Jean Drapeau, who wanted to “clean up” the city before the 1976 Olympics. A year later, 146 people were arrested by 50 police officers in a bar called the Truxx in Montreal during a military-style operation. These “offenders” were even kept from contacting their lawyers. Then, in 1981, one of the largest mass arrests in Canadian history took place when 300 people were arrested in four public bathhouses in Toronto during the now famous “Operation Soap”. This police action at Truxx marked a turning point in Quebec and “Operation Soap” is considered the equivalent of the Stonewall revolt in Canada.
Despite numerous police raids across the country, the first Gay Pride Week was held in 1973 in several major Canadian cities. The program included an arts festival, a dance, a picnic, the screening of several documentary films, and a gay rights rally. This movement marks the emergence of the concepts of gay liberation and gay pride, formerly known as “gay power”.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the LGBTQI+ community called for the recognition of their rights during pride marches. They demanded legal changes that would revolutionize public perception and bring wider support to the cause. The first Lesbian Pride March took place in 1981.
By 1973, homosexuality was no longer considered an illness according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. In 1977, following the Truxx bar raid, Quebec became the first province to include sexual orientation in its Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms. Henceforth, it was illegal to discriminate against homosexuals in the workplace and in housing rights.
During the 1990s and early 2000s, Canada accomplished a great deal in the application of gay rights. In 1992, the Federal Court allowed gay and lesbian people to join the military, and, the following year, the Supreme Court ruled that gays and lesbians could apply for refugee status if their home country persecuted them. Then, in 1995, same-sex couples could legally adopt children in Ontario, and sexual orientation was included in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In 2003, the Civil Marriage Act finally allowed same-sex couples to marry. In 2019, the World Health Organization removed transsexualism from the list of mental illnesses. And, in 2020, the Liberals introduced Bill C-8, which aims to criminalize conversion therapy practices; Quebec also has tabled a similar bill with the same objective. Because of these changes and progress, Canada is now among the best countries in the world for gay rights although there is still a long way to go.
Gay Pride festivals around the world choose relevant themes and ambassadors that reflect their communities. Gay Pride is an annual reminder of the importance of continuing to defend the fundamental rights of LGBTQI+ people. The groundwork was laid by exceptional individuals who fought against systemic discrimination, police brutality, physical violence, and public perceptions. It is in their honour that Gay Pride is celebrated each year.