Gays and lesbians are full-fledged members of the great Quebec family, and it is perhaps time to reinvent and enlarge our family. ( Fo Niemi, Chair of the Consultation Committee reporting on Violence and Discrimination Against Gays and Lesbians, quoted in Quebec Human Rights Commission 1994)
During the 1990s, debates have raged throughout North America about the desirability of the explicit and specific enumeration of "sexual orientation" as a prohibited basis of discrimination in human rights laws. In the United States, this has often taken the form of intense struggles between the Christian Right, lesbian and gay activists, and the state (see generally Herman 1997). In Canada, at the federal level of government, the 1996 amendment of the Canadian Human Rights Act (which prohibits discrimination by both public and private actors within the federal government's jurisdictional authority) to include sexual orientation as grounds of nondiscrimination precipitated fierce disagreement and the articulation of vociferous social conservatism in the political arena.
Yet, as North Americans in an array of jurisdictions battle over the implications and meaning (both practical and symbolic) of laws that provide remedies against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation -- debates often framed in terms of whether such measures provide "equal rights" or "special rights" -- it is rarely noted that twenty years ago, in 1977, the Canadian province of Quebec became the first jurisdiction in North America to specifically outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation by both public and private actors, subject to some substantial limitations, in its provincial Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It is also seldom remembered that this amendment to the Charter was introduced and passed by
This chapter originally appeared as "Queer Nations: Nationalism, Sexuality and the Discourse of Rights in Quebec," Feminist Legal Studies V/ 1 ( 1997), 3-34, and is here reprinted by permission of Deborah Charles Publications.