Under the Rainbow: Canada’s History of LGBTQ Discrimination and Older Adults

April 27, 2022

By Tye Strachan, MSW Practicum Student, University of Calgary      

When it comes to LGBTQ rights, Canada has a lot to be proud of. LGBTQ indexes consistently ranks Canada among the top five safest places for LGBTQ people globally. According to Forbes magazine, Canada was ranked as the #1 LGBTQ friendly country to travel to as of 2021. Just this year Canada furthered its protections for LGBTQ community members by banning “conversion therapy”, a pseudo therapy which seeks to change LGBTQ members gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation (Hauser, 2022). Among my friends, family, and social work student peers, news of conversion therapy still being ‘a thing’ in Canada was shocking. Many had assumed the practice had long been banned in Canada. To them, and to many around the world, the image of Canada is one of rainbows flying tall and proud. However, this image subverts a history of violence and discrimination of LGBTQ people.

A lesbian, gay, or bisexual person born in 1950 (age 72 in 2022) survived laws that criminalized their sexuality until the were 19, had their sexuality seen as a mental disorder until they were 29, survived the “fruit machine” era, which saw public service, RCMP, and military LGBTQ employees targeted, investigated, and purged from their jobs until they were 40 (Fodey, 2018), would not have their human rights protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms until they were 45, and would not have legal rights to marry until they were aged 55 (Canadian Broadcast Corporation, 2012). For transgender older adults, the discrimination persisted. They would have their gender identity described as a mental health disorder until age 63 and would not have their human rights protected under the Canadian Charter until they were 67 years of age (Rau, 2014). Of additional concern the current cohort of LGBTQ older adults in Canada lived through the AIDS epidemic, resulting in tremendous death and loss while the Canadian government looked on, choosing to perpetuate discrimination that prevented them from acting quickly to save lives (Rodier, 2017).

Many LGBTQ older adults continue to experience the long-term effects of discrimination, one of the strongest and most impactful being economic vulnerability. LGBTQ older adults are more vulnerable to poverty than their heterosexual and cisgender peers (Kia et al., 2020). Due to this increased vulnerability to poverty, many older LGBTQ adults may find themselves reliant on income and rental supports and/or increasingly priced out of safe, affirming, and affordable housing. Recent research demonstrated the increasing financial pressure LGBTQ older adults (55+) are facing in order to maintain their housing (Gahagan, 2020). Amongst the 52 participants across five Canadian cities, 59% experienced rising rent, 30% moved neighborhoods due to housing unaffordability, and 28% indicated that within the last five years they had fallen behind on rent or mortgage payments (Gahagan, 2020). To put it into historical perspective, the generation that took to the streets to protest the Toronto bath-house raids, who cared for each other when governments didn’t during the HIV/AIDs crisis, and won my rights as a Queer and Transgender man to be protected under the Charter of Freedoms, are now at risk of aging into homelessness. Although Canada has made great progress in protecting the rights of LGBTQ people, the enforcement of these laws as it relates to housing and employment discrimination, particularly for older adults, remains murky at best.

What does this mean for Aging in the Right Place?

While economic vulnerability, and housing precarity are documented negative outcomes of discrimination against LGBTQ Canadians, this has been countered by significant community strengths. Against Canada ongoing discriminating against LGBTQ peoples, Queer and Trans people across have been organizing for social justice, supporting one another, and carving out spaces of joy (drag shows anyone?). When I hold my partner’s hand in public, access life-saving gender affirming care like testosterone, or watch as the world celebrates the brilliance of BIPOC trans artists like MJ Rodriguez, I remember the transcestors and queer heroes that came before me that made it all possible. However, I didn’t always know my history. The erasure of Queer and Trans people within history resulted in a childhood, adolescence and young adulthood disconnected from my communities’ history, and ultimately a disconnection from myself. Exploring my social location through art invited me to explore myself, my families’ history, and the history of Queer and Trans people in my hometown of Regina Saskatchewan and abroad. This exploration gave me a better understanding of myself, Canadian history, and my connection to a vibrant joyful and rebellious Queer and Trans history (that you can watch here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lJYO0y0qzYo (Strachan, 2022).

Within social work, we believe strongly in the connection of the personal and the professional. As a young, queer, transgender social work graduate student, the history of my community is at the front of my mind. When I think, read, or talk about Aging in the Right Place (AIRP) for older LGBTQ adults, I reflect on the political and economic discrimination experienced throughout their life course and its relation to housing insecurity and homelessness among other social determinants of health (Mulé, 2015; Redden et al., 2021). Whether you are a member of the 2SLGBTQ community, an ally, or on a journey to becoming an ally, knowing the historic and ongoing discrimination impacting the daily lives of Queer and Trans older adults is crucial to supporting AIRP. Older adults are embedded in the current political and economic context of today as well as a lifetime exposure to structural and systemic discrimination. Infusing this historical knowledge within our research, front-line work, and housing strategies in Canada is a foundational step to our work of supporting AIRP for LGBTQ older adults.


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