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Human Rights Milestone Remembered By Toronto’s Queer Community

Twenty-five years ago, the Ontario Human Rights code was extended to provide protection based on sexual orientation.

Nick Mulé is chairperson of Queer Ontario. He says while progress has been made, there are still battles to come.

Last Friday the anniversary of an important milestone in queer history quietly slipped past: the inclusion of sexual orientation into the Ontario Human Rights Code 25 years ago, on December 2, 1986. The change meant legal protection against harassment and discrimination based on sexual orientation at a time when being fired for being gay was not uncommon, and employees so fired were without recourse.

The victory wasn’t won easily, with conservatives and the religious right arguing that inclusion would lead to moral and social decline—the same arguments that have been trotted out anytime queer rights are involved (cf. same-sex marriage and gay-straight alliances).

Naturally, giving more citizens wider protection has done nothing of the sort.

Queer Ontario marked the occasion with a small gathering on Sunday at Buddies In Bad Times theatre. Among those in attendance was activist Tom Warner, who spoke about his work for the Bill 7 campaign (named after the legislation that was put forth) that led to the change in the Human Rights Code. “We had no grand illusions that the world would change with those two words being added,” he told the crowd, “and, while there was still homophobia and transphobia, we were wrong—the world did change for the better.” It was his belief that the legislation laid the groundwork for further victories, including the right for same-sex marriage.

Nick Mulé, chairperson for Queer Ontario, echoed Warner’s words. “It is very important to remember [the anniversary] because in essence having Bill 7 pass and having sexual orientation inserted into the Ontario Human Rights code provided us with an opening to address a lot of the, at minimum, legal rights and social rights for our communities,” he noted. “Had that not happened 25 years ago, we wouldn’t be able to look at more progressive, nuanced issues today, such as the trans population and what’s happening in the school system.”

The recipients of the 2011 John Damien award were participants of Catholic Students For Gay-Straight Alliances (CS4GSA).

In Ontario, the fights for trans rights and for queer youth are shaping up to be the defining issues for this era. Addressing imbalances with regard to the trans community, community leader Susan Gapka spoke about the need to extend protections to include gender identity and gender expression. Her statements come a year after a bill to do just that was introduced by NDP MPP Cheri DiNovo in 2010, but was shot down by then-Attorney General Chris Bentley because, he said, protection was “implied.”

With the unveiling of new legislation from the McGuinty government, more progress is being seen with regard to protecting queer youth with Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) in schools. Credit for this work lies in large part to the advocacy being done by students at Catholic schools, who have clashed with a school board that does not want organized groups that refer specifically to sexual orientation under religious grounds. The students, who have now banded under a group called Catholic Students for Gay-Straight Alliances (CS4GSA), were given the John Damien Award For Outstanding Activism for having “caused a major stir this year,” notes the Queer Ontario website description.

The award is fitting given Damien’s role in Ontario queer history: the Torontonian was the impetus for the Bill 7 push when he was unceremoniously fired from his job as a racetrack official, out of fear that his homosexuality left him or his employers at risk of blackmail. If such a thing were to happen now in Toronto, it would seem outdated. We wonder how things will look in another 25 years’ time and if the same will be thought of current inequalities. As Mulé summed up: “It has been a quarter of a century: there has been a lot of progress and it did affect a major change in our community, but it also speaks to the fact that social justice isn’t one issue and the even when you get the rights, the battles do continue.”

Photos by Jaime Woo/Torontoist.

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