Marching with a Message
Marching with a Message
By: Scott Roberts
Date: June 26, 2005
Source: Roberts, Scott. "Marching with a Message." Toronto Star. June 26, 2005.
About the Author: Scott Roberts is a staff writer for the Toronto Star.
The United States and Canada share both a continent and a similar lesbian rights history. Until the 1960s, Canadian lesbians stayed in the shadows, fearful of persecution for their sexual orientation. In the late 1960s, a series of social and political developments pushed lesbians to leave the closet in search of greater personal and political freedoms.
In the 1960s, both Quebec nationalists and Native American activists began to agitate against the oppression that had been directed at them by the Anglo majority. At the same time, New Left student activists and the militant wing of the New Democratic Party provided training for the largely white, middle class women who started the women's liberation movement in English Canada. Many of these women, now conscious of oppression, then proceeded to found the lesbian rights movement in the early 1970s. This lesbian activism was prompted by the high-profile arrests of four lesbians at a Toronto bar for disorderly behavior in 1974, a raid by an official Toronto anti-pornography and morality squad on a gay news journal; and the firings of lesbian workers and soldiers. Mass protests against these injustices galvanized forces and politicized thousands.
In subsequent years, the lesbian rights movement has gotten stronger in Canada and has come to include a cultural element. Lesbians across the country launched their own newsletters and periodicals, formed all-female musical groups, started record companies, and set up large-scale lesbian musical festivals. The building of a strong lesbian community removed the sense of isolation that had long plagued lesbians. By 1998, Toronto had the second largest Lesbian and Gay Pride Day Parade worldwide after San Francisco's. Lesbians, however, worried about the loss of women-only spaces. The annual Dyke March serves as a way to show pride in lesbian culture and to reinforce the need for lesbian spaces.
It was not your typical wedding. There were no bridesmaids, no cake—not even a familiar face in the crowd. And that's just how Paula Kruse and Ann Hudson wanted it.
The lesbian couple from Denver, Colo., were married in a quickie ceremony yesterday in the thick of Pride Week festivities. At an altar lined with white roses, the two read their vows in front of hundreds of strangers in a ceremony they could not have south of the border.
When they sealed the deal with a kiss, onlookers showered the couple with bubbles and a rainbow of confetti in a show of support.
For these newlyweds, the first stop as a married couple was not a honeymoon suite or a catered reception. It was the Dyke March.
"We just thought it would be great to get married and then hop right into the Dyke March," said Kruse, dressed in her white wedding gown. "It's such a great event and we're happy to be part of it."
Celebrating its 10th year in Toronto, the Dyke March is a women-only affair, born out of a movement to give lesbians a distinct voice in the community. Each year the march precedes the massive Pride Parade by a day— a warm-up routine for the big show, if you will. But make no mistake, the Dyke March has an identity all its own.
For starters, it's not a parade. There are no floats, no marching bands, no clowns throwing candy. It's a march; a friendly protest that supporters say brings lesbian and women's issues into the limelight.
"This is an opportunity for women to come together for one day of the year and be a member of the majority and walk together," said Natasha Garda, co-chair of Pride Toronto. "It's a safe and positive space for women to voice their advocacy."
And that's where it differs from today's parade. Where the Pride Parade has become mainly celebratory, the Dyke March continues to be activist and grassroots. Student groups, AIDS activists and even church leaders marched in support of the lesbian community. Placards praising same-sex marriage legislation and gender equality were prevalent.
"Both of these events are celebrations but the Dyke March is also about empowerment," said Garda. "It's about solidarity and acceptance. It sends the message that we're here, we're queer and we're women."
Though the Dyke March has historically been more reserved than the flamboyant Pride Parade, several participants tried to spice it up yesterday.
One woman dressed as a butterfly weaved in and out of marchers while a drag queen handed out homemade cookies to pedestrians lining Church St.
The march began, as it always has, with members of the women-only Amazon Biker Club revving up their engines and leading the way north on Church St., west on Bloor St., then south along Yonge St.
Lisa Wunch and Edit Farun have marched in the event for the past seven years. This time they brought their three-year-old daughter Carly.
"She's very proud of the fact she has two moms," said Wunch. "We're here celebrating the diversity of our family."
The Dyke March has come a long way since being launched in 1996 by Lesha Van Der Bij and Lisa Hayes. With a budget of fifty dollars and a staff of four volunteers, the two managed to draw about 5,000 supporters to the city's inaugural march despite heavy rain and some disapproving hecklers.
Since then, the march has grown into a mainstream event, drawing tens of thousands of participants from across North America. But it hasn't been without its hardships.
In 1999, the event was nearly cancelled when interest in organizing the march faded. Hayes and Van Der Bij had put together three marches and were looking to pass on the responsibility.
Eventually community members volunteered to take up the torch and the march continued.
The Dyke March has been criticized for being exclusionary. Some go as far as saying it divides the gay community.
"Having a Dyke March promotes segregation not unity," said Dave McKee, who attended the march. "I think there should only be one Pride march."
Supporters of the Dyke March disagree with the argument and believe it helps instill equality.
"Men still dominate this world and the gay and lesbian community is no different than that," said Van Der Bij. "Women don't have the same kind of visibility in the gay community as men do. This is one single event dominated by women. And we think that's empowering."
Van Der Bij believes that lesbians have different interests and goals than gay men and it's important to acknowledge that.
"There's an assumption that the gay community is all one big group but we're not," she said. "There are differing issues and concerns for women that men don't have and vice versa."
For Kruse and Hudson, the only pressing concern may be getting used to married life.
The two are heading to Niagara Falls today before flying back to Denver tomorrow. It's not much of a honeymoon, but they don't seem to mind.
"It's just so exciting to be legally married," said Kruse, who got engaged to Hudson at a drag queen bingo.
"It's finally official. This is an opportunity for women to come together for one day of the year.…"
Natasha Garda, co-chair of Pride Toronto: "This is one single event dominated by women. And we think that's empowering?"
In 2003, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien proposed legalizing same-sex marriage throughout the country. After many delays and much discussion, Bill C-38, the authorizing legislation, eventually passed on July 19, 2005 and became law the next day. The vote for passage of Bill C-38 was relatively close in the House of Commons—158 to 133—but overwhelming in the Senate, which affirmed the legislation 47 to 21 with three abstentions. By the time of the victory all of the provinces and territories except Alberta, Prince Edward Island, the Northwest Territories, and Nunavut had already adopted laws enabling gay men and lesbians to marry. Chrétien's successor, Stephen Harper, has promised to revisit the vote with the aim of overturning it, but has yet to do so.
Some lesbians have criticized the pro-assimilation goals of the lesbian rights movement. However, there is agreement among Canadian activists that Canada is among the most progressive countries in the world on gay and lesbian rights. Legal gains in Canada have been more numerous than in the United States. Activists argue that this difference between the neighbors can be attributed to a much less powerful Christian fundamentalist right wing in Canada; the pro-gay efforts of the liberal New Democratic Party to redefine family and spouse both provincially and federally; cross-provincial organizing of gay and lesbian rights groups; and a long tradition of welfare-state provisions. The gains are not cemented though, as conservative groups continue to seek to overturn them.
Herman, Didi. Rites of Passage: Struggles for Lesbian and Gay Legal Equality. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994.
Kinsman, Gary. The Regulation of Desire: Homo and Hetero Sexualities in Canada. Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1996.
Ross, Becki. The House that Jill Built: A Lesbian Nation in Formation. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995.