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Gay MPs, such as Randy Boissonnault, are celebrating the Trudeau government’s plans to pardon thousands of men who were convicted of sex crimes because they were gay. (Amber Bracken for The Globe and Mail)
Gay MPs, such as Randy Boissonnault, are celebrating the Trudeau government’s plans to pardon thousands of men who were convicted of sex crimes because they were gay. (Amber Bracken for The Globe and Mail)

Canada’s swift shift from criminality to acceptance of homosexuality Add to ...

The half-dozen openly homosexual members of the 42nd Parliament are quietly celebrating the Trudeau government’s plans to pardon thousands of men who were convicted of sex crimes simply because they were gay.

“It’s awesome,” said Sheri Benson, the newly elected NDP MP for Saskatoon West. The move, she said in an interview, reminds those campaigning for the rights of sexual minorities, “that we’re here because of the sacrifices of other people.”

It is also causing the members to reflect on how swiftly Canadian society has moved from criminal sanctions against homosexuality to moral condemnation to acceptance. For these MPs, it’s personal.

“I hit the floor,” said St. John’s South-Mount Pearl MP Seamus O’Regan Tuesday when he heard of the planned pardons. “What hits you is that within your lifetime this has happened.” Mr. O’Regan and his husband, Steve Doussis, were married six years ago, 41 years after homosexual acts ceased to be a felony.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s decision to review, with the intent of pardoning, an estimated 6,000 homosexual men who were convicted of gross indecency or buggery followed on The Globe and Mail’s investigation of the circumstances surrounding the imprisonment of Everett Klippert. In 1966, Mr. Klippert was designated a dangerous sexual offender – effectively a life sentence – because he refused to stop having sex with men. He was released in 1971, after spending a total of a decade behind bars.

The controversy surrounding his sentence prompted Pierre Trudeau to introduce legislation decriminalizing homosexual acts in private between two adults, which became law in 1969. Now his son has decided to pardon Mr. Klippert, who died in 1996, and to order the review.

Digging up all this ancient history painfully reminds older members of the gay and lesbian community how difficult it was, until relatively recently, to openly express their sexuality. After all, Chief Justice John Cartwright, while vigorously dissenting against the 1967 Supreme Court ruling that upheld Mr. Klippert’s designation as a dangerous sexual offender, prefaced his remarks with: “However loathsome conduct of the sort mentioned may appear to all normal persons…” In 1968, NDP Leader Tommy Douglas described homosexuality as “a mental illness … a psychiatric condition,” which at the time was considered progressive.

Even after decriminalization, police remained hostile to the gay community, raiding bathhouses and setting up sting operations in public washrooms. Gay bashing was a constant risk. And in the 1980s came the scourge of AIDS, which Don Valley West MP Robert Oliphant remembers as “the second wave of stigma.”

No wonder Randy Boissonnault, growing up in small-town Alberta in the 1970s and eighties, stayed closeted. “I thought if I came out, I wouldn’t be loved,” the rookie Liberal MP for Edmonton Centre recalls. “There would always be this part of me that would have to be secretive and quiet.”

But when Mr. Boissonnault returned to Canada from Oxford University in 1996, “it was as though the world had passed through this portal.” There were sympathetic gay characters on television and in film. Svend Robinson, who in 1988 had become the first openly gay MP, was championing same-sex rights in Parliament. A few other gay politicians had managed to get themselves elected here and there. In 1998, Mr. Boissonnault announced to his family that he would be bringing his partner to his brother’s wedding.

The speed of change was unlike any other social phenomenon in history. Thirty-two years after the Supreme Court affirmed Everett Klippert could spend the rest of his life in jail because he was gay, the court declared in M. v. H. that unequal treatment of same-sex couples violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In 2005, Parliament passed legislation making Canada the first G-20 nation to legalize same-sex marriage. Today, there are gay and lesbian mayors and cabinet ministers and two premiers.

Liberal MP Scott Brison came out publicly when he ran for the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party in 2003. (He was the first and so far only gay Conservative MP). “It’s just mind-boggling how much progress we’ve made in such a relatively short period of time,” the President of the Treasury Board marvels.

There are still battles to be won. Bullying is still a big problem. Armed Forces personnel who were dishonourably discharged for being homosexual have no access to pensions. Ms. Benson’s biggest priority is ensuring adequate health care for transgender citizens, especially in smaller jurisdictions such as Saskatchewan.

Still, all the MPs are amazed at how far, how fast, the gay community had advanced. Robert Oliphant finds himself bemused when he listens to the confident young gay and lesbian men and women, who know nothing about the days when homosexuality was illegal, and little of the dark years when there was no treatment for HIV-AIDS.

But “I’m thrilled that they don’t know what it’s like,” he adds. There was nothing good about those old days.

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