It was 25 years ago this month, but the words uttered in the Manitoba legislature on a warm July day in 1987 still have the power to sting. The government of the day, led by Howard Pawley, wanted to include sexual orientation in the Human Rights Code. The official Opposition fought against it. There was dissent among the government members and it wasn’t certain the bill would pass. And if it did pass, what would Manitobans think of it?
It’s instructive to read the transcript of the debate. It’s often chilling, partly because it hurts to see what so many of our politicians thought, but also because it reflects the mindset of so many people at the time. Here’s what one MLA from Brandon said: “What used to be called Christian discipline, is now called unhealthy repression. What used to be called ‘disgusting’ is now called ‘adult.’ … What used to be called ‘perversion’ is now called ‘alternate lifestyle.’”
In 1987, Brian Mulroney was prime minister and a litre of gasoline cost about 50 cents. The AIDS epidemic had cast a cloud over the GLBT community, but it also brought a lot of people out of the closet. And they were fed up with being treated like second-class citizens. Manitoba already had a Human Rights Act – it became law in 1970. The four protected characteristics, or grounds, were: race, nationality, sex and religion.
To most Manitobans, that seemed like plenty of protection. But the GLBT community knew better. They knew that if they stayed in the closet it was easier to get a job, rent an apartment, get good service at a restaurant, find a doctor, get a promotion at work or adopt children. They also couldn’t get benefits for same-sex partners or get married. Enshrining sexual orientation in the Human Rights Code wouldn’t solve all those problems but it would be an important step in that direction. The government agreed.
During debate on July 7, 1987, one Winnipeg MLA stood up and said: “I don’t believe that this is appropriate. I don’t believe that gays should be lumped together with the handicapped, with racial minorities, women or any other group that has in the past, by virtue of visible differences in characteristics, been seen as a group that ought to have specific protection.”
The MLA went on to say “… rather than support the societal values of the majority of Manitobans, I believe that homosexuality strikes at the very heart of our society, the family … I do not believe that homosexuality and bisexuality should be put in because I do not believe that they are equivalent to heterosexuality.”
The justice minister, Roland Penner, disagreed and guided the legislation through until it became law. In the early years of this century, Gary Doer’s government added adoption rights and property rights to the code. Then came same-sex marriage. This year, Greg Selinger’s government has added gender identity and social disadvantage to the code. How necessary is this extra protection?
In late May, during Pride week, three members of our community, Chris Vogel, Scott Carman and Ro Mills, went on a radio talk show to discuss Pride and queer rights. The host, Richard Cloutier, was respectful. Some listeners weren’t. One e-mailed the station and curtly stated they should get the three guests off the air. Another said we shouldn’t hold Pride parades. A third challenged any need for government support of transgender services.
Well, well … it seems some things haven’t changed since 1987. So, yes, it’s necessary to put specific protections in the Human Rights Code.