Royal Canadian Mint is releasing a commemorative dollar coin, or “loonie,” at the end of April to celebrate what the Mint claims is the 50-year anniversary of homosexuality being decriminalized in Canada. There will be three million coins going into circulation across a country of 37 million people. In effect, Canadian youth struggling with their sexuality or gender identity may come across the loonie and see that the government has their back.
But the initiative is being overshadowed by one important detail: Canadian activists like Gary Kinsman claim that this isn’t the 50-year anniversary at all, and that serious pinkwashing—pro-LGBTQ marketing used to distract from other, less progressive policies—and politicking is going on, so much so that it calls into question whether this coin will actually help the community that it’s honoring or hurt it.
The Late 1960s
In 1967, the soon-to-be-elected Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau (father of current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau), famously said to reporters, “There’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation,” when referring to homosexuality. He went on to say, “When it becomes public, it’s a different matter.”
While the first part of Trudeau’s quote marked a distinct moment of LGBTQ progress in Canada, when discussed today, the second part is often omitted. Whether Trudeau was referring to gay sex as problematic in public or whether he meant homosexuality in general, remains up for debate. However, in 1969, two years later, gross indecency and buggery—two offenses used against queer people—were reformed: As long as someone 21 years of age or older was having gay sex in private and with only one other person (and no more) who was also 21 years of age or older, then it was legal.
“The government of the day removed a provision in the criminal code that prevented people from loving who they wanted to love,” Randy Boissonnault, a current member of Parliament and special advisor to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on LGBTQ issues, tells NewNowNext. “That to me is decriminalization.”
What he’s saying isn’t untrue, but this reform still ruled out gay sex in state-defined public places—behind a closed door at a bathhouse or sex club, for instance—as criminal. Group sex was illegal, too, even in private, since the exemption only applies to two people.
Indecent acts, vagrancy, and the bawdy house law were not reformed and were used against queer people after 1969. From 1970 on (and until 2004), approximately 1,185 queer people were arrested in a “common bawdy house,” meaning places like a bathhouse or sex club, and 86 owners and employees of these establishments were arrested, as well. Additionally, at least 53 people were arrested for indecent acts. There was also a purge of LGBTQ people from federal public service that went into the 1970s and 1980s, and the Canadian military purge that continued through the early 1990s.
“Partial decriminalization” may be a more accurate term for what happened in 1969, but Boissonnault disagrees. He still sees it as full decriminalization, though he acknowledges the provisions that negatively affected queer people and that the purge is a “horrible stain on Canada’s history.” Boissonnault was even involved in the prime minister’s 2017 apology in the House of Commons to the LGBTQ Canadians who had suffered from this unjust treatment.
Nevertheless, Boissonault contests, “When you take a look at great milestones in [LGBTQ] history and in the movement of human rights in Canada, 1969 decriminalization of homosexuality is a big milestone… full stop.”
Based on the mock-up for the coin, the dates 1969 and 2019 will likely appear. The coin will also have the word “equality” written in English and French. Although queer people were far from equal in 1969 (some would say that they still aren’t in 2019), Boissonnault argues that the Mint sees the 1969 reform as “a milestone in the march towards equality.” He doesn’t believe that anybody is claiming that Canada’s community reached full equality that year.
A Different Story
“1969 in the Canadian context is not insignificant,” says Kinsman, “but you can’t claim it was about things it wasn’t.”
Kinsman is one of the organizers of the Anti-69 forum taking place later this month at Ottawa’s Carleton University. The forum will look at the mythologies around the 1969 criminal code reform; he argues that homosexuality wasn’t even partially decriminalized in 1969.
“Everything else remained criminalized,” he says, “and the number of people charged for consensual homosexual acts increased in the 1970s and early 1980s.”
Some of the laws that were used to criminalize LGBTQ people back then are still on the books today, too, like the bawdy house law and vagrancy policy. Consensual gay sex is still being criminalized in some cases, as well.
What’s Canada’s official interest in fighting for this queer narrative? Federal elections are coming up this October, and Trudeau is up for re-election—Kinsman believes this plays a role in the initiative. He also claims that the Liberal Party and the federal government see this myth as a big reason to label themselves as progressives, and link this progressiveness back to Trudeau senior.
“One of my fundamental problems with the coin itself is that it creates a very false sense of history, number one,” says Kinsman. “But number two, it suggests that we haven’t accomplished these transformations ourselves through our own struggles and through our own movements, which to me, would be the most empowering message for people just coming out.”
Despite Boissonnault and the Royal Canadian Mint referring to 1969 as the year homosexuality was decriminalized, the government of Canada’s website celebrating the anniversary calls the reform a “partial decriminalization.” It doesn’t make mention of Trudeau junior or senior, or the Liberal Party, either. Instead, it links to a comprehensive history of LGBTQ rights in the country, though there it discusses 1969 as the year homosexuality was decriminalized in Canada, rather than calling it a “partial” decriminalization. The official stance is a bit blurred.
On the Bright Side…
Jeremy Dias, executive director of The Canadian Centre for Gender and Sexual Diversity, explains that the center was consulted about the coin. However, according to Dias, the consultation was brief, and they ended up excluding many of their suggestions. The center had also brought up its concern about the accuracy of the anniversary date.
That said, Dias sees a silver lining in having a queer coin, especially given that a homophobic, “Say No to a ‘Gay’ Loonie!” petition has received 41,745 out of the targeted 50,000 signatures (as of publication). “There’s something really powerful there behind symbols… I mean, these coins are going to be in circulation for a really long time,” he says.
Whether 1969 was the year that homosexuality was decriminalized fully, partially, or otherwise remains unclear and will continue to be debated. In any case, this moment marks an opportunity to talk about the nation’s LGBTQ history, as Boissonnault points out, and perhaps that’s more the point.
If Kinsman had the power, he would change the messaging of the coin by placing activism front and center. He’d celebrate 50 years of resistance and suggests commemorating the Stonewall Riots, which happened in the same year, since the event had a huge impact on queer activism in Canada. Then, not only would Canadian youth struggling with their sexuality or gender identity come across a coin and understand that, in addition to the government having their backs, it’s the activists, too, who have worked tirelessly for decades.
“Full props to the activists,” says Boissonnault. “We don’t get anywhere without their work. But we can’t get anywhere in changing laws without people in elected office pushing inside.”
“Government is imperfect at best,” he adds, “but we’re certainly heading in the right direction.”