Pride Month Edition: Remembering Jack Layton’s Activism

From all of us at the Foundation, we wish you a joyful Pride month filled with celebration and love. As we celebrate queer love, joy and success we must also take the time to reflect on the history that has led us to where we are today. 

Pride month is a celebration of the many victories that have been won for and by the  2SLGBTQ+ community that allow us to have the freedom to be who we are. Activism has always been at the heart of Pride. As we remember the activists who started Pride with the Stonewall riots, we must also reflect on how we can continue to support and uplift the 2SLGBTQ+ community. 

We thought we would take this time to take a look back on Jack Layton’s impact on the 2SLGBTQ+ community. Whether it was organizing against bathhouse raids, defending men with HIV/AIDS, or fighting for same-sex marriage, Jack showed up. Something that not many did, especially at that time.

Story of the Toronto Bathhouse Raids

It was 1981, when the first bathhouse raids took place in Toronto. It was a coordinated operation, where 200 police officers arrested close to 300 men. Those arrested were subjected to violence and homophobic remarks from the police. This was the largest single arrest in Toronto’s history at the time. 

Activists and the community did not take this lightly. They quickly started organizing and before they knew it, there were hundreds of folks on the corner of Yonge and Wellesley shutting down traffic, and protesting the cruel arrests. 

Bob Gallagher was a young gay community activist at the time [later becoming Jack’s chief of staff] who played a major role in organizing the protest. This is where Jack first met Bob and heard him speak. Jack was not elected at this time. He walked over to Bob and said “I'm Jack Layton, what you did was just amazing, if there is anything I can do to help I will be there.” Jack then introduced some of the activists to Councillor David White who had arranged for a community outreach phonebank. More demonstrations and rallies were organized – Jack showed up to each and everyone to hand out flyers and show his support. 

Those months were pivotal – “I knew something very big and different was happening. I knew I was now within a historic moment. It was a galvanizing moment that brought us out of a previous generation and now solidly into the new generation,” said Bob Gallagher. The show of support from hundreds of folks who were using their voices despite the backlash and fear marked the beginning of a shift in culture and challenged the ludicrous idea that queer folks were “deviant” and “exotic”. But rather, that they could begin to exist as who they are – humans.

After being elected to City Council in 1982, Jack spent the years of 1985-1991 as Chair of Toronto’s Board of Health during the AIDS crisis. He helped with response, with sex education, and with the distribution of condoms. He also called on the city to help create an AIDS special defence team. In ‘89 he supported the motion for anonymous HIV testing. In addition to this work Jack spent a lot of his time speaking out against the outright hostility towards those who had HIV/AIDS, and his support was appreciated.

“For decades, in both municipal and federal politics, Jack was a friend and ally to people living with HIV or AIDS and to various communities particularly hard hit by the epidemic. He was a fighter for human rights and social justice on many fronts of great relevance in the struggle against AIDS. From the beginning, he spoke out against homophobia and demonstrated time and again his support for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.”

- Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network

During his first speech in House of Commons as leader of the NDP in 2004, Layton closed with:

“Finally, I would like to mention that it is the location of a very special church called the Metropolitan Community Church. It is a church wherein the first gay marriage was performed in Canada [NOTE: On Jan 14, 2001]. I had the experience of being there and I am very proud to have been there. It is the home of the gay and lesbian community in many ways, and it is one that speaks out on the issues of human rights.”

Jack did not need the court’s approval to drag him kicking and screaming to do the right thing. He was ahead of his time and a steadfast ally. Furthemore, he did not allow homophobic views in his caucus as previous leaders did. 

When you’re walking in a pride parade, and you see leaders next to you, take note of whether they show up for you. Do they leave after the photo op? Are they working behind the scenes to defend queer folks? Are they denouncing hate-filled rhetoric towards trans kids? Are they pushing back against transphobic and homophobic policies? 

We have come a long way in advancing 2SLGBTQ+ rights, however we cannot become complacent. We are starting to see a rise in 2SLGBTQ+ hate in North America, specifically transphobia. We must continue to show up, as Jack did to stand in solidarity with the 2SLGBTQ+ community. Afterall, pride is political. 

If you would like to hear more of Jack’s story, listen to our interview with Bob Gallagher and Joe Mihevc, moderated by our Vice President Brad Lavigne:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i376U8vCyC8&t=838s

References:

“Toronto Bathhouse Raids (1981).” The Canadian Encyclopedia, February 3, 2013. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/toronto-feature-bathhouse-raids. 

Hannon, Gerald. “Jack Layton: 1950-2011.” Xtra Magazine, August 25, 2011. https://xtramagazine.com/power/jack-layton-1950-2011-6501. 

Staff. “Activist Looks Back 40 Years to Toronto’s Bathhouse Raids - the Flashpoint Moment in Fight for LGBTQ Rights in Canada.” Toronto Star, February 5, 2021. https://www.thestar.com/news/gta/activist-looks-back-40-years-to-toronto-s-bathhouse-raids-the-flashpoint-moment-in-fight/article_bde43aae-4418-506f-81e3-c5d1432fc245.html. 

Celebrate-Diversity. “Jack Layton’s Support to the LGBT Community.” Tumblr, August 23, 2012. https://celebrate-diversity.tumblr.com/post/30017443075/jack-laytons-support-to-the-lgbt-community. 




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