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Let Me Be Perfectly Queer: Why Pride?

Our writer on Queer issues, Dr. Laur O’Gorman digs into the history of Pride events
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Hundreds of people turned up to participate in Sudbury’s Pride March in downtown Sudbury Saturday, one of the highlights of a full week of events planned by Fierté Sudbury Pride for 2022.

Why does Sudbury have a Pride march?

Every summer, in most major cities and many small towns, you can find a sea of rainbow-clad people walking, marching or dancing through the downtown streets celebrating gender and sexual diversity.  

But where does this tradition come from? And why isn’t there a straight pride parade? In this month’s edition of Let Me Be Perfectly Queer, I will tell you about the events that led to Pride celebrations, including here in Sudbury. 

The first Pride march

Everytime I write about the history of Pride, I have trouble deciding where to start. 

I could start with how sex acts that we think of as gay were common in many places, including in Canada. I could start with how Europeans introduced laws forbidding same-sex activities throughout the world. Or, with early protests against the arrests of gay men and lesbians in the 1950s, where men dressed in suits and women in skirts asked that homosexuality be considered a mental illness instead of a crime. 

But, in the interest of time, I will start in June 1969, at a small bar in Greenwich Village, New York City. 

At his time, sex acts between men were a criminal offence in Canada and the United States. Even serving alcohol to gay people was a crime. But the Stonewall Inn, operated by members of the mafia, would pay the police department to allow the bar to operate. 

Frequented by low-income, homeless, transgender, immigrant and racialized queer people, the Stonewall Inn provided a small degree of safety for some of the most marginalized queer people in New York City. 

It was very common for police to raid bars they suspected of catering to gay men. Police would enter the building and have all of the men line up on one side and the women on the other. 

Everyone would have to show their ID. Police would take their names and home addresses, which would then be posted in local newspapers. These men would often lose their jobs — homosexuality was an automatic dismissal from any government job. 

If they belonged to a registered profession, such as doctors, lawyers or accountants, they could lose their licence to practise.

The women had to undergo a genital inspection. The police used laws against costumed dress to make cross-dressing effectively illegal. Police officers would visually or manually inspect the genitals of the people in women’s clothing and deem if they were, in fact, women. 

Trans women, cross-dressers, drag queens, and even intersexed people would be charged with a crime. 

On June 28, 1969, on a busy Saturday night, police raided the Stonewall Inn. But this time, the raid did not go as expected. The people in the bar vastly outnumbered the police and refused to be carted off to jail for their clothing or sexuality. 

Instead, they fought back. The riots lasted several nights. By the second night, there was support from people outside of the local community, such as feminist, anti-war, and Black Power activists. And by the fourth night, there were thousands of people demanding an end to police raids against gay people.

One year later, the folks involved in the Stonewall riot commemorated the event in a march from the Stonewall Inn to Central Park in what is now considered to be the first Pride march. 

Canadian Context

You may hear people say that pride started as a riot, and if Stonewall is marked as the catalyst for Pride, then there is clearly a lot of truth to that statement. 

But Stonewall was not the first time the queer community pushed back against policing, and it certainly was not the last. While there were gay rights protests in Canada in the 1970s, and Vancouver had a gay pride parade in 1978, the first major Pride celebrations began in Toronto under circumstances not that different from Stonewall.

On Feb. 5, 1981, police raided several Toronto businesses frequented by gay men. More than 280 men were arrested that night while others began protesting outside. The following night, thousands of people gathered to protest the arrests, including politicians and celebrities.

Sudbury Pride’s story is less flashy, but just as important. 

In 1996, there was a grocery store on Brady Street where the Steelworkers Hall now stands. Mary Ross, a local employee, was fired from her job at this store because of her sexuality. Local activists (many of whom are still involved in the local queer community), formed a campaign against employment discrimination. 

The timing is very important to the formation of Sudbury Pride, as well as to my own roots in activism. I was a teenager at the time, supporting my teachers who were facing the prospect of a strike. There was a powerful movement in Sudbury against the Harris government’s cuts to social programs, as well as support from the Sudbury Coalition Against Poverty, the Sexual Assault Crisis Center, the AIDS Committee of Sudbury (now Reseau ACCESS Network), and many others. 

Together, these groups decided to hold a Pride march in support of Mary Ross and the local queer community more generally. The queer folks participating in this march had concerns for their safety; violence against the queer community was not uncommon. But there was safety in numbers and more than 300 people came to celebrate gender and sexual diversity.

What does this mean for Pride in 2023?

Pride is here and it is as important as ever. It is a time to celebrate our achievements and to reflect on how we can continue to help all members of the 2SLGBTQ+ community locally and globally.

We have come a very long way since the Stonewall Riots, the Bathhouse Raids, and even since Mary Ross lost her job 26 years ago, and this is something we should celebrate. 

But we still have so far to go, as is evidenced by the recent attacks on drag queen story time events and the surge of anti-trans sentiment I have seen locally. The legal rights we have fought for can be taken back, as we’ve seen with the 500 recent anti-LGBTQ bills introduced into American legislatures.

So, next time you hear somebody ask why there isn’t a straight pride parade, you can tell them that it is because straight people have never been arrested simply for existing while straight. Or you can take my approach. Gather all the sarcasm you can muster, and inform them that they do have a straight pride parade. It is called traffic, but it isn’t nearly as fun as our parade.

Dr. Laur O'Gorman (they/them) is the co-chair of Fierté Sudbury Pride, former professor of Women, Gender and Sexuality studies, parent, writer, and activist. They currently work in the field of mental health. Let Me Be Perfectly Queer is a monthly column about issues that impact 2SLGBTQ+ people in Sudbury as well as their friends, family, neighbours and co-workers; why queer issues matter to everybody. O’Gorman uses the word “queer” as an umbrella term that includes understandings of gender, sexuality, romance, and families outside of what is most common in our culture. If you have any questions relating to 2SLGBTQ+ issues, please send them to [email protected].