Journal of the History of Sexuality 10.3&4 (2001) 587-588
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Lesbian and Gay Rights in Canada:
Social Movements and Equality-Seeking, 1971-1995
Lesbian and Gay Rights in Canada: Social Movements and Equality-Seeking, 1971-1995. By Miriam Smith. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999. Pp. xiv + 211. $50.00 (cloth).
The modern lesbian and gay rights movement can trace its origins to the massive social and political upheavals in the United States during the late 1960s. Within a few short years, however, lesbian and gay politics had become a transnational phenomenon, generating vibrant cultural and political work far beyond the urban enclaves of New York and San Francisco. Thirty years later, the legal protection of lesbian and gay rights in countries such as the United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada--not to mention most Western European democracies--outpaces by far those in the United States. As Miriam Smith aptly demonstrates in her invaluable study of the lesbian and gay rights movement in Canada, the last three decades represent a sea change in the legal standing of queer subjects and their protection from discrimination.
Smith's book seeks to understand the impact of the 1982 Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms on lesbian and gay social movements. Her principal point is that litigation involving the charter has become the determining factor in the organization and orientation of lesbian and gay political groups in Canada. In contrast to New Social Movement theories that emphasize the role of cultural expression, community development, and the politics of everyday life, Smith argues that formal relations with the Canadian state--through the courts and the instrumental opportunities for the expansion of civil rights presented by charter litigation--have determined the agenda of lesbian and gay political work. Thus charter rulings and not lesbian and gay social experience have been the principal determinant in the nation's queer politics over the last fifteen years. The charter initiated new organizations and, in Smith's view, transformed preexisting groups, bringing them in line with the "rights talk" and "equality seeking" generated by charter cases.
Smith's historical reading of lesbian and gay social movements in Canada is in the main accurate. She does, however, fall into a common trap of overemphasizing the radical components of liberationist politics and disregarding or underemphasizing the continued importance and appeal of the homophile tradition and its legacy of citizenship claims. Lesbian and gay liberation, even in its earliest days, had a significant rights component based on equality under the law. The very first lesbian and gay liberation protest at the Federal Parliament Buildings in Ottawa during August 1971 was organized around a series of political demands explicitly calling for equal treatment in terms of age of consent, immigration, and participation in the armed forces. In addition, analysis of groups such as the Community Homophile [End Page 587] Association of Toronto (CHAT) would have revealed a greater continuity between lesbian and gay social movements of the early 1970s and those in the postcharter period. Indeed, claims to citizenship and the view that lesbians and gay men were "just like everyone else" were rhetorical and political strategies among less radical lesbian and gay political activists.
Smith does an excellent job of illustrating the ways that the "increased power of the [Canadian] judiciary opened up a new channel for collective actors to influence the state." She provides wonderfully detailed individual cases and illustrates the way that charter challenges became the principal vehicle for the expansion of collective rights. Moreover, her claim that the charter moved lesbian and gay activism toward a more specific strategy of "rights talk" is without dispute. The charter has made "equality seeking" the overdetermined discourse among lesbian and gay social movement activists since the early 1980s. What I would question, however, is the sharp distinction Smith draws between the precharter and postcharter periods. Claims of equality under the law, of full citizenship, and of nondiscrimination have always been part of the lesbian and gay liberation movement. In addition, more...