A legal scholar shares what Pride means to him, and how it's about looking forward to issues that continue to affect LGBTQ individuals.
Kyle Kirkup is a 2013 Trudeau Scholar at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law. His research examines the role of contemporary Canadian criminal law in regulating queer and trans people. Kyle has written about the criminalization of sex work and HIV non-disclosure, along with the legal regulation of trans people in Canadian prisons. Here’s what Pride means to him.
The first Pride was a riot.
On June 28, 1969, the New York Police Department—like they had so many times before— raided the Stonewall Inn, targeting queer and trans people for having the audacity to gather together.
But something remarkable happened that night. Our communities fought back. The riot—led by trans women of colour, many of them sex workers—played a key role in bringing the contemporary queer-rights movement to life.
Twelve years later, Toronto had its own Stonewall moment. On February 5, 1981, 150 police officers carrying crowbars and sledgehammers raided four bathhouses throughout the city. The police could be heard screaming homophobic slurs as they broke into locked cubicles and sent naked men onto the street in the middle of winter. Over the course of a single evening, the Toronto police arrested close to 300 men — almost all of the charges were later thrown out in court. Following the raids, our communities organized a series of massive protests against the police.
We continue to celebrate Pride every June as a reminder of moments like these. But Pride is not just a backwards-looking exercise. It is also a time to reflect on the future directions that our movement might take.
I came to my first Pride not as a revolutionary, but as a witness.
In my early 20s, as I was still coming to terms with my own sexuality, I made my way to Toronto with a group of friends for Pride. It was 2004. There I was, this awkward, self-conscious person, quietly observing the more liberated people around me from the sidelines.
The experience was transformational.
Never before had I been in the presence of so many queer and trans people, representing every version of what life might look like. I realized that I could no longer remain a witness, one who sat on the sidelines as activists around me did the heavy lifting. I wanted to become a participant. I wanted to start playing an active role in the struggle for queer and trans liberation.
During the early 2000s, many advocacy organizations were fighting for the legal recognition of same-sex marriage in every province and territory in Canada. The federal government introduced legislation that did just that in 2005. The work of these activists underscored both the perils and possibilities of using the law to bring about liberation for our communities.
As I have slowly moved from being a witness to a participant, my own research and activism has tried to imagine queer and trans futures that go beyond the dominant framing of relationship recognition.
Instead, my research takes us back to the future, examining questions about how the criminal legal system continues to be used to target members of our communities. In undertaking this research, I have worked closely with sex worker organizations, HIV/AIDS activists, and trans community members.
Take, for example, the criminalization of HIV non-disclosure in Canada. In the aftermath of two Supreme Court of Canada decisions, people living with HIV have a legal duty to disclose their status whenever there is what the law calls a “realistic possibility that HIV will be transmitted.” The law treats failing to disclose one’s status as one of the most serious offences in the Criminal Code—aggravated sexual assault. The offence carries with it the maximum sentence of life in prison, along with a mandatory designation as a sex offender. Given our collective history with HIV/AIDS, one that extends to the present, challenging the criminalization of HIV non-disclosure will continue to be a central focus of our activism.
In addition, consider the legal regulation of trans women in Canada’s federal and provincial prisons. Unless they have undergone gender-affirming surgery, trans women are regularly placed in men’s prisons. While in men’s prisons, trans women experience extraordinarily high rates of violence, sexual assault, discrimination, and harassment. In the face of these stark realities, prison administrators often place trans women into solitary confinement “for their own safety.” Solitary confinement has devastating mental health implications—the United Nations Special Rapporteur has even called its prolonged use a form of torture. Challenging this policy, along with the law and order agendas that put trans women in prisons in the first place, is another key site for our activism.
Every June, Pride is an opportunity to reflect on the fearless queer and trans activists who came before us. At the same time, it is a moment to reflect on where, as a movement, we go next.
At this moment in our history, it is time to return to the activism that inspired the Stonewall Riots and the Toronto bathhouse protests. It is time to refocus our efforts on challenging the everyday criminalization of our communities.