The Canadian LGBT movement has had enormous success in gaining political and legal recognition for sexual minorities—as much as any of its sister movements in other countries. This is especially remarkable because the sexual repressiveness of the Canadian social and political climate remained largely in place until the 1990s. And although activist groups across the country have had challenges in marshalling resources, mobilizing beyond the regional level, and overcoming internal inequities, advocacy pressure has been effective enough to produce a political sea change with few precedents in other issue areas. Starting in the 1990s, Canada experienced a country-wide “takeoff” in the formal recognition of sexual diversity, most dramatically in the legal status given to same-sex relationships. Even if a vocal minority of the general public opposed such moves, the acceptance of sexual minorities as legitimate members of the Canadian mosaic has become politically normalized.
Sexual diversity is far from being fully accepted, and those communities traditionally under-represented in the LGBT movement still face marginalization in a period of growing socioeconomic inequality. But the movement has made impressive gains, aided by social and institutional factors that have allowed activist leverage when the political winds blew in their favor. This success, however, presents new challenges, creating complacency within and beyond LGBT circles and increasing the difficulty of mobilizing people and resources.
The decline of religiously conservative opposition to the public recognition of sexual diversity in Canada has also created room for the movement to become more fragmented than it has been in the past. And yet there is still much need for advocacy. Socially conservative politicians are still pandering to public anxiety about recognizing sexual diversity. Activist attention is still needed in areas such as schooling, policing, social service provision, and immigration. Trans people, “two-spirited” Indigenous people, and sexual minorities within Canada’s large ethnocultural and religious minorities are often on the margins of their own communities, the broader society, and the LGBT movement itself.
From the early 1970s through the mid-2000s, the Canadian movement’s trajectory was similar to activism elsewhere. A “liberationist” period generated a long-lasting strand of radicalism alongside a slowly growing current focused on seeking rights through mainstream political channels (Adam, 1987, 1999). The analysis to follow first points to distinctive elements of the Canadian social and political context and then traces the evolution of what would become the LGBT movement from these early stages and into a period of legal and political “takeoff.” It points to strong commonalities in movement agendas, even across imposing regional lines, but also recognizes the challenges of mounting coherent movement responses to remaining inequities in a political environment so marked by activist success.