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Homosexuality: a psychiatric "problem" in 1959

It was a time of protests, legal fights and backlash. With a growing sense of solidarity, gays and lesbians became more visible in Canadian society in the 1960s, '70s and early '80s. Homosexuality gradually became more accepted as more Canadians came out of the closet to demand equality under the law.

media clip
It's 1959, and homosexuality is a topic few are willing to discuss. Like some of the people interviewed on the street in this CBC Television clip, many believe that homosexuals should be locked up. Most in the medical profession believe homosexuality is, at best, a psychiatric problem. But a gay man -- interviewed in silhouette to protect his identity -- says society has to get used to homosexuals, and not the other way around.
• In 1948, Dr. Alfred Kinsey of the University of Indiana published his report on male sexuality. His findings were that of all men, 37 per cent had had at least one homosexual experience, 10 per cent were mostly homosexual and four per cent were exclusively homosexual. Those numbers have been the subject of debate ever since. Kinsey's report created a stir, bringing the topic of homosexuality into the open in North America.

• Kinsey released a similar report on female sexuality in 1953. It found that one to three percent of women were exclusively homosexual, two to six per cent mostly homosexual, and a total of 13 per cent had had at least one homosexual experience.

• Many doctors believed homosexuality was triggered by an event in a person's childhood, or attributed it (in men) to domineering mothers and weak or nonexistent fathers. The American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (also used by Canadian doctors) classified homosexuality as a mental illness until 1973.

• A 1953 amendment to Canada's Immigration Act prohibited homosexuals from entering the country. Parliament repealed the ban in 1977.

• In the 1950s, Canada's civil service began monitoring employees it suspected were gay, including those in the military and RCMP. Officials later said that in the atmosphere of the Cold War, they were concerned that gays and lesbians would be vulnerable to blackmail by enemy agents. Hundreds of people were dismissed from their jobs without explanation, and many say an intolerance of homosexuality was the real reason they were fired.

• The only public gay activist in the 1950s was Jim Egan of Toronto, who from 1949 to 1964 wrote letters to newspapers and magazines calling for law reform and challenging negative perceptions of homosexuality. Egan re-emerged in British Columbia in the 1990s, suing the government for the right to claim a spousal pension for his partner of almost 50 years. The Supreme Court ruled against them, but also said people can't be discriminated against because of sexual orientation.

• Canada's first gay organization was the Association for Social Knowledge, founded in Vancouver in 1964. It published a newsletter and opened a community centre in 1966, but disbanded in 1969.
Medium: Television
Program: Consensus
Broadcast Date: Oct. 16, 1959
Guest(s): John Fornataro, H.A.D. Oliver, Dr. R.J. Richmond
Host: Ted Bissland, Tom Hill
Duration: 26:40

Last updated: October 17, 2014

Page consulted on October 17, 2014

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