International Women’s Day honours and celebrates the social, economic, cultural, and political accomplishments of women and girls. It’s also a moment to increase awareness of the efforts still needed to achieve gender equality as well as the progress made in that direction.
In honour of this day, here are some great GSRD women who have impacted Canada:
Carole Pope first gained notoriety as the lead vocalist of Toronto-based 80’s rock band Rough Trade. The band’s 1980 song “High School Confidential” overtly alluded to same-sex desires and included controversial lyrics like “It makes me cream my jeans when she comes my way,” but Canadian listeners embraced Pope. The 1981 Most Promising Female Vocalist of the Year award and the 1983 and 1984 Best Female Vocalist Junos were given to the new wave legend. Unquestionably pushing the limit, Pope helped open doors for gay representation in the Canadian music business.
Michelle D. Douglas
In 1963, Michelle D. Douglas was born in Ottawa. She continued her education at Carleton University where she studied political science and law before enlisting in the military in 1986 at the age of 23. This was the start of a brief but distinguished military career; two years later, she was one of the first female officers in the Special Investigation Unit. But in 1989, she lost her job because she was thought to be a homosexual by the military police. Douglas’ activist career was spurred by this. She filed a lawsuit against the Canadian Armed Forces, claiming, “this is not simply for me. It’s for the people who are still in the Canadian Armed Forces and for those who never had the chance to take this to court.” She successfully challenged the military’s discriminatory policy, and ever since, she has supported numerous groups working to ensure the GRSD population is treated equally.
Jane Rule released Desert of the Heart five years before homosexuality was technically decriminalised in Canada, at a time when same-sex sexual conduct was still punished by a lengthy prison sentence. It was an important work of lesbian literature that set the bar high for how positively and audaciously it portrayed a lesbian romance. “I became, for the media, the only lesbian in Canada,” said Rule, who turned to the newfound fame to promote GSRD rights in Canada.
Mary Woo Sims, who arrived in Canada as a student, was born in Hong Kong in 1970. She decided to become an activist for human rights. She was the co-chair of the Campaign for Equal Families during the battle to enact Bill 167, the Ontario law that would recognise same-sex couples, and she played a significant part in the struggle for same-sex spousal rights.
Since being admitted to the bar in 1986, Susan Ursel has practised labour and human rights law. She was a founder and director of the Foundation for Equal Families, which introduced Bill C-23, ending discrimination against same-sex relationships on the federal level, and she battled for Bill 167’s passage in 1994, which would have recognised same-sex couples. She remains an GSRD rights activist and resides in Toronto with her partner Lucy McSweeney.
Chris Bearchell started a significant media career in 1975 as the lone lesbian contributor to Toronto’s Body Politic, which ran from 1971 to 1987. The magazine became the voice of the gay liberation movement in Canada as one of the earliest GSRD periodicals in the country. She also got involved with a lot of significant groups and organisations at the time, including the Coalition for Gay Rights in Ontario, the Lesbian Organization of Toronto (LOOT), and the defence of John Damien, a racing steward who was sacked wrongfully because of his sexual orientation.
Shawna Dempsey & Lorri Millan
Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millan, a Winnipeg-based duet, gained attention when they released the educational music video “We’re Talking Vulva” about female genitalia. The performance artists inject queer and gender politics into popular venues where they are generally not present. They were the driving force behind the 1997 One Gay City initiative, which featured bus shelter advertisements that mocked Winnipeg’s previous city slogan, “One Great City.” The agency in charge of the shelters objected to the ads, so they were never put up. This forced the artists to replicate the idea as a series of postcards (the dispute was the subject of a human rights challenge that ended in settlement). You may also be familiar with the performers from Lesbian National Parks and Services, an ongoing performance piece in which the two dress as forest rangers to parody the Canadian tourist stereotype of visiting national parks.