Consider the butterfly effect. Wings flap and set off a hurricane. Similarly, Canada's most dramatic civil rights movement was set in motion by one man who quietly and privately pursued his carnal pleasures. His libido ignited a chain of events that continue to profoundly shape and redefine sexual, gender and cultural identities today. The butterfly in question was a mechanic in the Northwest Territories named George Klippert.
Two years ago, I began researching his and many other stories for a book I'm developing on Canadian LGBTQ+ history. I have subsequently discovered a motherload of truly riveting but little-known -- and in some cases, never-before-told -- stories about people like Klippert.
Understanding how one man led to a revolution requires a brief primer on gay sex and the law in Canada. For centuries, amorous activities between men were illegal in this country under any circumstances -- period, full stop. Penalties included, until the mid-nineteenth century, capital punishment and, until 1969, incarceration. There were no laws targeting sex between women, but that's a story for another time.
Unfortunately for Klippert, when he flapped his wings he landed in jail. He was sentenced twice, in 1960 and 1965, for having sex with another man. His multiple convictions led to his being declared a dangerous sexual offender in 1966 and sentenced to an indefinite period of detention.
At the time, the Baby Boomers were coming of age. They were setting off a tidal wave of liberal thinking that was washing away narrow-minded ideas, including the view that gay sex was a crime. Consequently, Klippert's case set off a public outcry that led to the decriminalization of sex between men in 1969. However, charges could still be laid if more than two men were getting in on the action, or if they chose a location outside their residence. Even kissing in public remained subject to arrest.
While this amendment to the Criminal Code was heralded at the time as a major advancement for gay rights -- which it was -- it hardly made homosexuals equal in the eyes of the law. Nevertheless, the closet door was finally cracked open wide enough for some gays and lesbians to feel safe enough to step out. Amongst those who did, a few began to boldly venture, for the first time, into the political arena with an ambitious agenda that demanded equal rights.
Prior to 1969, there were six short-lived groups across Canada cautiously and quietly making limited attempts at advocating on behalf of gays and lesbians. Emboldened by the 1969 amendment, 21 new organizations subsequently burst onto the scene over the next two years. These groups plotted a vocal and aggressive strategy that would have been considered unthinkable just a few years earlier.
In 1971, a coalition of these earliest gay and lesbian political groups banded together to develop a national strategy for action. They produced a document, entitled "We Demand," that contained 10 points calling for law reform and changes in public policy. The demands addressed some of the most egregious ways in which it was still perfectly legal to discriminate against people because of their sexual orientation.
We Demand served as the guiding manifesto for Canadian gay and lesbian activism during its formative years in the 1970s and therefore has tremendous historic value. So, imagine my surprise when I made an exciting discovery among the holdings of the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives, where I've done much of my research. I stumbled upon a previously unknown -- and likely only surviving -- draft of We Demand. The document was never catalogued and therefore hidden from view when it should have been prominently displayed.
On August 28, 1971, a week after We Demand was submitted to the federal government, a group of 100 or more people (accounts differ on the exact number) assembled on Parliament Hill to publicize the document. Along with a smaller related march that day in Vancouver, this was the first large-scale demonstration of its kind held in Canada. The march marked the beginning of an unstoppable movement that took flight while Klippert, it should be noted, continued to be locked behind bars with his wings clipped.
A number of speeches were made at the march, including one by an activist named Charlie Hill. He stated:
"Throughout Canada's history, our sisters and brothers have been thrown into jail, hounded into hospitals, forced to hide [...]. Even today Canadian homosexuals are having their careers ruined, being kicked out of their churches, having their children taken away from them and being assaulted in the streets of their own cities."
"Today marks a turning point in our history. No longer are we going to petition others to give us our rights. We're here to demand them as equal citizens on our own terms." (Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives, Accession 89-038/01, August 28, 1971 Demonstration in Ottawa).
In preparation for this blog, I interviewed my neighbour John Stewart who, as chance would have it (I couldn't believe my luck!), was at the We Demand march. He was only 20 years old at the time, and a founding member of one of the earliest gay/lesbian groups in Canada, the Waterloo Universities' Gay Liberation Movement. Part of his motivation for becoming involved was seeing his friend kicked out from university residence because he was gay.
Despite the historic nature of the We Demand march, John explained that this was not apparent to him at the time. The event was relatively low-key. However, he said:
"To be out marching that day and to allow ourselves to be photographed by the media was something entirely new. We did it because people were not speaking up and sticking up for their rights. Someone had to start it."And, start it they did!
Photo credit: Jearld Moldenhauer
Demonstration on Parliament Hill, Ottawa, August 28, 1971. From left to right, Charlie Hill (with "Hire a queen" sign) and John Stewart (with "Jesus loves homosexuals" sign).
Photo credit: Ron Levy
John Stewart being interviewed for this blog on my patio.
Photo credit: Ron Levy, with permission from Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives
Original draft of We Demand I found.
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