We Demand: 50 years after our first major rights rally, this is what queer Canadians say we need today

1971's We Demand Rally revolutionized rights for LGBTQ people in Canada. We asked artists and writers what we should be demanding now.

1971's We Demand Rally revolutionized rights for LGBTQ people in Canada

The We Demand protest on August 28, 1971. (Jearld Moldenhauer, “Ottawa March Demonstrators,” The ArQuives Digital Exhibitions)

Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries 2SLGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.

On August 28, 1971, roughly 200 activists came together in Ottawa for the first large-scale gay rights demonstration in Canadian history. It would become known as the "We Demand Rally," as it centred around the demonstrators presenting a 13-page document to Parliament that contained a list of 10 demands for gay and lesbian rights.

The rally was organized by two pioneering rights groups, Toronto Gay Action and the Community Homophile Association of Toronto. The groups collaborated with 12 other organizations from across Canada (under the name "August 28 Gay Day Committee") to draft the demands: 

  1. Remove and replace "gross indecency" and "indecent acts" from the Criminal Code; change "in private" in the Criminal Code to mean "a condition of privacy." 
  2. Remove "gross indecency" and "buggery" as grounds for arrest as a "dangerous sexual offender." 
  3. A uniform age of consent for all female and male homosexual and heterosexual acts. 
  4. Change the Immigration Act so that it does not reference homosexuals or "homosexualism." 
  5. The right of equal employment and promotion at all government levels for homosexuals. 
  6. Change the Divorce Act be amended so that homosexual acts cannot be used as grounds for divorce; allow equal right of child custody to both parents, regardless of sexual orientation. 
  7. The right of homosexuals to serve in the Armed Forces without being convicted of misconduct or illegal acts. 
  8. Investigate whether the RCMP has a practice of targeting homosexual individuals working in public service in order to let them go, and if so, to end the practice and destroy any records that were collected. 
  9. Equal legal rights for homosexuals and heterosexuals. 
  10. All public officials and law enforcement agents to do everything they can to address negative attitudes and discrimination against homosexuals.

The demands ultimately played a critical role in the history of the Canadian 2SLGBTQ rights movement. As a direct result of We Demand, the Immigration Act was amended, removing the ban on gay men from travelling and immigrating to Canada. It also led to the creation of The Body Politic, a monthly magazine that would come to inform and galvanize 2SLGBTQ Canadians for nearly two decades

In the years following the rally, Canada would see a momentous surge in regional and national organizing, laying the foundation for the (very) slow march toward all 10 demands finally being met. The last domino to fall arrived just two years ago, when the age of consent was amended to be equalized between heterosexual and homosexual acts. 

So how shall we commemorate half a century of demanding more for the 2SLGBTQ people of this country? By considering both how far we've come, and how far we still have to go.

We reached out to notable 2SLGBTQ artists and writers across Canada (since this is CBC Arts, but also because many of the activists who rallied 50 years ago were writers and artists themselves) to ask what they would include on a list of demands today. Here are their answers. May it not take 50 more years for them all to be met.

Demonstrators at the We Demand rally, August 28th, 1971. (Jearld Moldenhauer/The ArQuives Digital Exhibitions)

We demand an expedited process for LGBTQ+ identifying refugees to find a home here in Canada. In a world where home countries, host countries, and refugee camps are never a safe place for queer and trans refugees, we demand that they find a safe home in Canada. 

We call for an after-arrival support system for queer and trans refugees, taking into considerations their sexual orientation, gender identity, racial background, religious beliefs and community connections — a system that doesn't discriminate against folks who don't fit the white-centric idea of what a gay refugee is or what a trans person looks like. 

We call for an active, continuous and meaningful advocacy internationally for the protection and legalization of LGBTQ+ folks in their home countries: through education, support of the on-ground efforts, and, if need be, political pressure - Danny Ramadan

We demand recognition and the right to safety for all trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming bodies, in all public spaces. We demand the right to identify our gender as we choose, on all documentation and any service-based spaces. - Mx Wolverine

We demand an end to ongoing studies and investigations on things we already know to be true. We know police brutality targets QTBIPOC populations. We know that environmental collapse is imminent. We know that our nation was built on genocide. We have been given clear attainable calls to action from Black Lives Matter and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Rather than sidestep action by investing in needless investigations and performative allyship, we must adopt the queer model of community organization by asking ourselves, "How we can we do better in the ways we share resources, the ways we love, the ways we move through difficult relationships?" Then, just like QTBIPOC activists full of plucky initiative and unstoppable determination, let us take action for fuck's sakes. - Catherine Hernandez

We demand an end to campaigns for normativity. We demand acceptability beyond respectability. We demand the elevation of voices that defy conformity, defy beauty standards, defy capitalist models of success. We demand an end to productivity. We demand mandatory daydreaming. Refuse norms. Consume love. Operate with less. - Et tu, Machine (Alexis O'Hara & Atom Cianfarani)

We demand more protective measures against harassment and bullying for 2SLGBTQ people online and on digital platforms. - Vivek Shraya

We demand affordable housing for 2SLGBTQ people and all those who need it. - Casey Mecija

Draft of the brief given to federal government with handwritten notes. (The ArQuives Digital Exhibitions)

We demand that the people of Canada address the 32 2SLGBTQQIA+ Specific Calls for Justice about two-spirit people outlined in the MMIWG2S National Action Plan. - Bretten Hannam and the Wabanaki Two Spirit Alliance

We demand that the agenda of what queer leadership looks like be given to queer and trans Indigenous people in particular. If we're thinking about the future, in all of our movements, we should be giving the leadership to Indigenous peoples if we really want to take decolonization seriously. And that includes the queer and trans movement. - Kama La Mackerel

We demand the right for sex workers to work safely and work how they choose. - Casey Plett

We demand an end to the billionaire class. - Jordan Tannahill

We demand the upholding of the charter of rights in public health care in Canada. Despite sexual orientation being added to the Canadian Human Rights act in 1998 and gender identity being added in 2017, little has changed in health care and long-term care settings. LGBTQ2S people are neglected and harassed daily within the medical system. We are more likely to become sick and have worse health outcomes because of oppressive systems. We demand all healthcare, prescriptions, long term care, mobility aids, costs and medical implements to be free to anyone who tries to access them of any citizenship.

We demand the right for all people in Canada to choose a third option for gender on their health and identification cards. All computers within the health care system should recognize all sex indicators. All health care administration and providers should be familiar with the different choices.

We demand education of all health care staff on the importance of equal treatment of LGBTQ2S people. We demand mandatory gender and sexuality training workshops on topics like using correct pronouns, not gendering, and not assuming heteronormative or cisnormative narratives. We demand real consequences for human rights violations and safe ways to report incidents. - Rae Spoon

Demonstrators at the We Demand rally, August 28th, 1971. (Jearld Moldenhauer/The ArQuives Digital Exhibitions)

Making demands is exhausting. Ages ago, I had this bit about being so tired of the world's white supremacist heteronormative dominance with its rigid gender binary that, if I had my way, I'd invert it all and make everything as "super gay" as it is now ultra-straight. Suddenly, "othered" would be the planet's resting state. Rainbow flags tout le monde! Of course, we'd be tolerant of the uptighty-cis-white-y community — they didn't choose it, after all! We'd support them on their day, marching proudly with their beige flags, chanting, "I like average!" Silly stuff, for sure, poking at the wonderbread status quo.

Actual demands are persistent and never met quickly, deeply, or meaningfully enough, but queerness finds a way — and with it, joy. What I've seen and felt these past 50 queer years is the community widening the circle, taking up space, owning it, expanding it and, most powerfully of all, revelling in it. That is so much more potent than shame. It's revolutionary. And an incredible way to move forward: boldly! brazenly! buoyantly! In 2021 and beyond, may "We Demand" always have a plus-one: joy. - Elvira Kurt

We demand our birthright to metaphor and symbolism. To tend to our bodies and comfort our spirits in the safety of others with language that embodies queer joy. To reconcile the parts of ourselves that have been walled off in protection or self-defence. To practise beliefs outside the Empires of faith, in defiance of those who profit by policing othered bodies, communities, and physical expressions of queer love. We demand the time and space to heal. - Shawn Hitchins

We demand the official recognition of foundational kin relationships, and we demand that these relationships be recognized by all levels of government.

We demand the recognition of family relationships that are not based on blood, marriage or common-law status. Chosen family is real family, and queer people should be able to extend familial rights (including insurance and bereavement benefits) to our chosen kin.

We demand the recognition of watersheds and ecosystems as kin, with rights that cannot be compromised for the sole short-term benefit of humanity and the irreparable losses of our kin. This society struggles to find official ways of actioning protections of our kin based on evidence presented by science. If given legal tools, perhaps we can fight for our relations who maintain our survival but are unable to speak for themselves. - Adam Garnet Jones

Members of Gay Action Committee and supporters heading to the bus for the demonstration from Toronto. (Jearld Moldenhauer/The ArQuives Digital Exhibitions )

We demand that every 2SLGBTQ person can access the mental and spiritual health care they need. - Thomas Leblanc

We demand an end to the lateral violence permeating and festering within our Indigenous and arts organizations. We can't forget who is the oppressor and who we should be fighting against (it's not each other). We demand safe and welcoming spaces within our own communities and beyond. - Preston Buffalo

We demand a stop equating HIV and COVID-19 as the same. Not only is this insensitive and unintelligent, it erases the lives of those who experience being HIV-positive. - Keith Cole

We demand freedom, justice and the chance to live a life full of joy and love. We will fight in this fiery revolutionary moment and we will transform the conditions of our social world. We will win, as Assata reminds us. 

We demand a commitment to the Land and a shifting away from extractive resources and toward a life on this planet that is liveable long term. We will cherish all life here and will be committed to our mutual survival.

We demand an end to policing and to the targeted terror squads that roam our streets and surveil and pick up activists, BIPOCS, queer and trans community members, Mad folks, all of us living on the margins. We can lean into abolition and turn away from carceral practices that do not serve us. We can respond to conflict, crisis, and harm in new and ancient ways. 

We demand a world where trans people get to live long enough to become elders, where Deaf, Mad, and disabled folks are able to thrive and be supported in doing so, and where we root our work in interdependence and collective care. 

We demand better than these current conditions for our children and their children. We can have so much more, live so much better than we currently are. What we demand is possibility — the chance to live. 

We demand a future. - Syrus Marcus Ware

The first gay march

50 years ago
Gays and lesbians march on Parliament Hill for "gay day," demanding an end to discrimination. 1:42


Peter Knegt (he/him) has worked for CBC Arts since 2016, writing the LGBTQ-culture column Queeries (winner of the 2019 Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada) and spearheading the launch and production of series Canada's a Drag, variety special Queer Pride Inside, and interactive projects Superqueeroes and The 2020s: The Decade Canadian Artists Stopped Saying Sorry. Collectively, these projects have won Knegt four Canadian Screen Awards. Beyond CBC, Knegt is also the filmmaker of numerous short films and the author of the book About Canada: Queer Rights. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter with the same obvious handle: @peterknegt.

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