Gay and Lesbian Activism

Gay pride parade, Regina, 2003.
David McLennan

Saskatchewan is not a place one commonly associates with gay and lesbian activism - and with good reason, for, with its small population base, larger percentage of rural and small-town dwellers, and ample number of religious adherents, it would not appear to have the necessary ingredients for such activism. This is a stereotype that needs revision. Not only did Saskatchewan have pockets of activism and produce gay and lesbian activists who would become prominent nationally, but for a time in the mid-1970s, it appeared that Saskatchewan would lead the way for Canadian recognition of sexual diversity.

Formal gay activism, as opposed to informal lesbian and gay socialization networks, had existed since the end of World War II and arrived in the province in March 1971. Saskatoon's Gens Hellquist placed an advertisement for “Saskatoon Gay Liberation” in Vancouver's alternative publication The Georgia Straight. Slowly, a few men and one lone woman wrote to Hellquist asking for information. This group, supplemented with other members of Hellquist's social circle (a diverse group that included University of Saskatchewan professors, university students, professionals, and a few working-class men and women) met to formally discuss plans to organize the city's gay community. These discussions led to the creation of the Zodiac Friendship Society, an umbrella organization that would be devoted to gay political issues (or “liberation” as it was known in the 1970s), education, counselling and support groups, and, most popular of all, a social club - the Gemini Club. The money generated at the weekly dances, initially held at the Unitarian Centre, eventually resulted in sufficient funds to open a Gay Community Centre in March 1973. The Saskatoon Gay Community Centre was located on prime downtown real estate. The only other Canadian city to have a dedicated gay centre then was Toronto, and Saskatoon's achievement was a point of considerable pride for local activists.

In the early years, a number of short-lived activist groups, including Saskatoon Gay Alliance Toward Equality (GATE) and Gay Students Alliance, had existed in the city. These were eventually amalgamated into Saskatoon Gay Action (SGA), which sought to “bring about the total liberation of the gay community.” Regina activists launched GATE Regina and the University of Saskatchewan Homophile Association (Regina Campus), but these proved very short-lived and struggled for membership. That pattern would be repeated throughout the next twenty years, as Regina groups came and went, while Saskatoon's core group demonstrated remarkable continuity. The primary focus of the Regina gay and lesbian community's energy was its social club, which was created in 1973. Originally called the “house on Smith Street,” the Gay Community of Regina (GCR), a co-operative, has successfully run a social club until the present day, earning the distinction of operating the longest serving gay social organization in the country.

In 1973, members of Saskatoon Gay Action met with the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission (SHRC) to present a brief outlining homosexual discrimination which urged them to recommend the inclusion of sexual orientation into the human rights code. Favourably impressed by the brief and convinced of the importance of including sexual orientation in the code, the Commission recommended to the Attorney General, Roy Romanow, that sexual orientation be added. Building on this success, SGA delegates were offered a meeting with Romanow's assistant. Press reports indicated that the Attorney General “felt positively” about this document. Had the legislative change occurred then, in 1973-74, the Blakeney NDP government would have led the way for Canadian gays and lesbians. However, in the fall of 1974 the government began backtracking, worried about the impact such changes would have upon the rural areas, and upon more conservative voters. Instead, the first province to amend its provincial human rights code was Quebec, in December 1977.

Another key step in Saskatchewan gay activism was the publicity given to the Doug Wilson case at the University of Saskatchewan. The positive media portrait of Wilson's struggle against the discriminatory practice of the administrators was an important educational opportunity for the province's gay activists. It marked a turning point, where it became evident that people's attitudes and awareness were beginning to change with respect to the treatment of lesbians and gays. Wilson leveraged such goodwill in a host of volunteer and paid political roles. In March 1977, he was one of the leaders of a 125-member protest rally at the legislature, where chants of “gay rights now” and “talk is cheap” amplified the urgency of the written document which demanded the immediate addition of sexual orientation to the human rights code. The success of this rally led Wilson and others to begin discussions about a provincial group, and in December 1977 Saskatchewan Gay Coalition (which included members from Regina, Saskatoon, Prince Albert and Moose Jaw) was formed. In SGC's four years in existence, its monthly newsletter, Gay Saskatchewan, was sent to people throughout the province, concentrating on the small towns and the countryside. This was an important act of grassroots politicizing that would, eventually, assist in demonstrating province-wide support for change. SGC presented a brief to the government in January 1979. Additionally, the Attorney General met with gay activists to receive the document and to hear firsthand of the need for human rights protection. Whatever goodwill the NDP Cabinet had towards the issue was nullified by a letter-writing campaign initiated by the evangelical churches, which successfully pressured the government not to officially recognize “sinful” behaviour.

The election of the Progressive Conservative government, under Premier Grant Devine, was a blow to provincial gay activism. The years 1982-91 represent an interregnum, when few overtly gay organizations or activists risked public exposure to counterbalance the frequently homophobic pronouncements from members of the government, the media, and their supporters. One exception was a small group called the Coalition for Human Equality (CHE), which was founded by Don McNamee. Initially CHE was a coalition of gay and lesbian activists from Saskatoon and Regina, but when the Regina contingent left to join the national gay lobbying group, EGALE, the Saskatoon activists continued. CHE members worked tirelessly, lobbying individual NDP MLA's and holding fund-raising socials, as well as exchanging information and strategy with their counterparts in Alberta and Manitoba.

Within the national context, by the time the NDP government, led by Roy Romanow, returned to office in 1991 the situation was dramatically different than in 1979. By 1991, four provinces (Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba and Nova Scotia) and the Yukon territory had recognized sexual orientation in their human rights codes owing primarily to successful court challenges originating from the 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms. New Brunswick and British Columbia would both amend their codes in 1992. So, in 1993, when the Saskatchewan government introduced and eventually passed Bill 38, which included sexual orientation in its rights code revisions, this reflected not only the twenty years of gay and lesbian activism in Saskatchewan, but also the changed Canadian legal realities. As the seventh province to include sexual orientation as a protected category in its human rights code, Saskatchewan began the process of official, legislative recognition of gays and lesbians that members of the Saskatoon Gay Coalition first requested in 1973. Subsequently, in the ensuing ten years the province has begun a process of complying with and quickly ratifying any subsequent federal legislative changes regarding lesbian and gay “rights,” including same-sex pensions, common-law recognition, and adoption rights. Most recently, Premier Lorne Calvert has offered a positive endorsement of the federal government's decision to recognize same-sex marriage. While precedents elsewhere might appear to drive Saskatchewan decisions on such matters, it is important to realize that provincial gay and lesbian activism has played an important role in lobbying and educating Saskatchewan residents to the invisible minorities in their midst.

Valerie J. Korinek

Further Reading

McNinch, James, and Mary Cronin (eds.). 2004. I Could Not Speak My Heart: Education and Social Justice for Gay and Lesbian Youth. Regina: Canadian Plains Research Center.