Marching brave: 50 years of gay rights in Canada

Marching brave: 50 years of gay rights in Canada

Peter Bregg/The Canadian Press

Marching brave

To mark the 50th anniversary of Bill C-150—which amended Canada’s Criminal Code and represented a significant step forward for gay rights—Maclean’s looks back on five historic images from the past five decades, each of which highlights a key moment for the LGBQ community. (You may note a ‘T’ is missing from that familiar acronym. While the 1969 relaxing of prohibitions included expressions of sexuality, it didn’t extend to gender identity, and did little to improve issues faced by trans people.)


By k.d. lang · I was born in 1961, less than seven years before Canada decriminalized homosexuality. But growing up, I was just my natural self and didn’t even know the categories of gay or lesbian. Then, when I was 17, I came out to my mother. My older sister and brother are also gay, so I’ve been comfortable with it my whole life. And in a very, very small town like the one I lived in, you actually get to fully embrace your eccentricities and personality because there aren’t enough people for there to be cliques.

I’ve also had the good fortune of growing up in progressive Canada, with gay marriage being sort of the pinnacle of the movement—we were the third country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage nationally. And day-to-day acceptance on the street has been incredibly progressive since I came out.

Fortunately, I haven’t experienced any blatant discrimination, but I do believe my sexuality has limited my radio success. When my single The Mind of Love was released, I heard that a lot of advertisers called radio stations to say they didn’t want to hear a girl singing about a girl. My sexuality has also worked the other way, though. I don’t think Ingénue would have been so successful if Vanity Fair hadn’t come out in 1993 with Herb Ritts’s amazing cover photo of me in a barber’s chair and Cindy Crawford holding a razor.

I suppose things like that have had an impact. It brings me joy to think that I might have helped someone find their path. Acceptance is a chain, and if I’m one link in the chain, that’s a pretty beautiful thing to be.

But I am troubled by the rise of socially conservative politicians. Jason Kenney has talked about constricting gay-straight alliances in schools, and now his government has cancelled the group planning a ban on conversion therapy in Alberta. So there’s still a lot of work to be done to eradicate the tendency to use LGBTQ2 issues to polarize people, which is so easy to do. It’s much harder to have an unemotional conversation and really try to work through our differences.

The pendulum swings back and forth. But I urge the LGBTQ2 community not to cede to the hatred out there, to live with a compassionate heart and be educators of people. As a certain artist sang, “Even through the darkest phase / Be it thick or thin / Always someone marches brave.” 


By Stéphanie Verge and Sarah Liss · We’re queer. We’re here. We’re everywhere. And five decades ago, the Canadian government acknowledged that we shouldn’t be considered illegal because of who we are and how we live. On June 27, 1969, when a series of amendments made to the Criminal Code passed royal assent, homosexuality was no longer deemed an act punishable by imprisonment.

With Bill C-150, Pierre Elliott Trudeau may have philosophically banished the government from the bedrooms of the nation, but the legal shift didn’t result in universal liberation for sexual minorities. While some members of the queer community cheered the decriminalization, others protested that it didn’t go far enough: the omnibus bill simply allowed for sexual acts between only two men aged 21 or over. And even if (most) individuals were now entitled to do (mostly) as they pleased in private, their public identities—and the civil rights bound up in those identities—were another matter.

For some lesbians, gays and bisexuals, coming out would still mean sacrificing careers and livelihoods to the “moral” whims of a conservative bureaucracy. For others, the stigma that remained attached to so-called sexual deviance would result in the loss of children and the alienation of families. Cohabitating same-sex couples couldn’t claim tax benefits until 2000 or marry until 2005. Even today, men who have sex with men are only eligible to donate blood if they’ve been celibate for at least three months (prior to June 2019, they were required to abstain for a year or more). And the relaxing of prohibitions against alternative expressions of sexuality didn’t result in an extension of human rights protections related to gender identity. In large part, the struggle of transgender people for equality continues—and deserves its own record.

Over the years that followed the 1969 reforms, a series of hard-won victories would gradually improve conditions for the queer community. But these steps forward didn’t come without anger, heartache, violence, compromise, disappointment, protest—and yes, a healthy dose of hope. Today, as social-conservative factions threaten to chip away at the rights that so many lesbians, gays and bisexuals fought so hard to secure, it seems more urgent than ever to reflect on the grassroots protests upon which present-day Pride celebrations were founded. And as many LGBTQ2 individuals continue to face compounded stigma, discrimination and inequality because of the particular intersections of their identities, it’s a sobering reminder that true queer liberation remains out of reach as long as some members of the community are still oppressed.

On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the date when the Canadian government formally decided not to prosecute homosexual citizens on the basis of whom they loved, Maclean’s looks back on five indelible moments in the fight for LGBQ rights in this country. These images—one for each of the past five decades—tell stories that helped define their times, and the people in them describe experiences that helped define their lives.

Five portraits

Use this menu to navigate to the decade of your choice.

1970s: The battle continues

1980s: 'We were trying to save people's lives'

1990s: Remembering Stonewall

2000s: One historic kiss for marriage equality

2010s: Over the rainbow

John Wilson holding a sign stating 'End job discrimination against homosexuals' at the We Demand rally Jearld Moldenhauer/The ArQuives


The battle continues with We (Still) Demand

On Aug. 28, 1971, the first gay rights march in Canada was held on Parliament Hill. John Wilson travelled from Toronto to Ottawa to take part.

The We Demand demonstration on Parliament Hill was organized by a group called Toronto Gay Action, of which I was a member. CHAT—the Community Homophile Association of Toronto—supported the march, too. People drove in from other cities as well, like Kitchener-Waterloo and Montreal. Naturally, there was an Ottawa contingent, and Vancouver had a coordinated event happening on the same day.

John Wilson today Photograph by Jah Grey

On the bus ride from Toronto to Ottawa, I remember being a bit nervous, but we certainly didn’t think of it as a historic occasion at the time. When we got to the Hill, it was pouring rain. There were about 100 to 125 of us, a couple of news photographers and the RCMP. The police stayed as far away as possible—as if they thought we would contaminate them. There were a few speeches, and within an hour it was over. We went to the bar at the Lord Elgin Hotel for a drink, and took the bus back home.

The march was a way to demand changes to the Criminal Code, including the elimination of archaic “bawdy house” laws that allowed for raids of bathhouses and bars and were used to harass gay men and lesbians. We also wanted amendments to the Immigration Act, because gay men were banned from immigrating to Canada.

I was holding a sign that read, “End job discrimination against homosexuals.” At that point, you could be terminated if anyone suspected you were gay. I was working the night shift at the University of Toronto Press, where I was a pressman. I didn’t talk about that part of my personal life and no one bothered me, but I knew several people who were fired from their jobs at other places.

Forty years later, at the age of 71, I returned to Parliament Hill for a commemoration of sorts, called We (Still) Demand. It was organized by Queer Ontario, which I had a hand in founding. The organization represents, among other things, an updated version of the liberationist perspective of the 1960s and ’70s. In our opinion, the queer movement has deteriorated. It’s been co-opted and even corrupted, in a sense. The Pride marches used to be about community—now they’re about corporations and police presence and so on. I was in favour of the Black Lives Matter intervention in 2016 demanding that uniformed cops be banned from Pride. The police oppress queer people, racialized minorities, sex workers and the homeless.

Listen: John Wilson on the disadvantages of having queer leadership that seeks mainstream acceptance.

Pride now is an example of the “We’re just the same as everyone else, except for the fact that we have sex with people of the same gender” line of thinking. Well, that’s not really true. There is a gay culture, and before that there was a gay subculture. And it hasn’t entirely disappeared.

The people who currently run the LGBTQ2 establishment are overwhelmingly white and male and relatively privileged. The original movement in the ’70s had set up a national gay coalition that had conventions where delegates were the ones making decisions. It was democratic. That’s all gone now.

A lot of issues simply aren’t taken up by the current leadership. There are queer homeless people, queer sex workers, trans sex workers. There are all kinds of people dealing with serious issues that need to be addressed. And they’re ignored. The marriage discussion was an example of that. I’m certainly in favour of everybody being free to marry whomever they want, but the conversation is a distraction and one that tends to privilege certain types of relationships.

It’s a good thing to take steps toward legal equality, such as including sexual orientation in the Ontario Human Rights Code. But there should be no illusions that this will liberate people. That’s on paper. What happens on the ground is quite different. Equality isn’t always enforced. Legal recognition does not mean liberation, even if it can shift the public consciousness.

These days, I’m focused on issues related to education, whatever affects young people. In many rural areas, life isn’t necessarily much different than it was in the 1950s and ’60s. In smaller places, there aren’t always queer social or political organizations.

I’ve been an activist since I was 14, when I joined the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, the predecessor of the NDP. I found society very unjust then. That hasn’t changed.

That said, while there’s still a lot of homophobia, many of the younger people today have only a passing interest in sexual orientation. That indifference is progress and acceptance, rather than simply tolerance. In a very liberated society, people wouldn’t ask questions—unless they were personally interested.  

—as told to Stéphanie Verge

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Michael Welsh (left) with his friend Tim in the summer of 1989. Tim died of AIDS a few months later at the age of 39. Michael Welsh


‘We were trying to save people’s lives’

As a volunteer at AIDS Vancouver and a nurse at St. Paul’s Hospital, Michael Welsh was at the epicentre of AIDS care in the 1980s.

I moved to Vancouver from northern Alberta in 1974, when I was 27. By 1981, I was working as a nurse at St. Paul’s, the hospital downtown. We were one of the first places in Canada to treat patients with HIV/AIDS, though we didn’t know what it was yet.

AIDS Vancouver was formed two years later to disseminate information about this illness that was already such a serious concern in New York and San Francisco. I attended a public forum and decided to volunteer: I became the first coordinator of support services. The organization was talking to gay men about safe sex and using condoms, something I adopted immediately. Being aware of the possibility of transmission and its impact made me cautious. But I also think there was an aspect of luck. There were times when I wondered if I’d exposed myself to risk. Taking an HIV test always came with some concern for the result. I might have felt even more vulnerable if I hadn’t been so informed and involved.

Welsh: It's important to remember the many people who died so young of AIDS Photograph by Jackie Dives

There was still a lot we didn’t know about how the disease was transmitted, but we were aware of how virulent it was, how it devastated people within months. It presented a real challenge within a hospital environment: how do we deal with the infection? How can we deliver sensitive care to patients and not just shove them into unnecessary isolation?

There are a few patients who stand out in my mind, even after all these years. I remember one guy—he was so incredibly sick. His mother was profoundly faithful to him but was hiding his illness from their family back in Alberta. As a result, she was alone here. Before he died, I spent time with them and brought in books about things that interested him, like architecture and Italy.

My own mother supported me and the work that I did—she was a nurse, too. Caring for AIDS patients, I saw first-hand how critical that support could be. Some people were totally cut off from their parents or siblings. Sometimes hospital visitation became very difficult if the family didn’t want to be there or acknowledge a patient’s partner. One of the weekly support programs that we ran at AIDS Vancouver was for family and friends, to help them through the process.

Listen: Michael Welsh on the challenges that came with responding to AIDS in a hospital environment.

Running the helpline was among my main responsibilities during my first couple of years with the organization. It was really just a little office in my basement. After my shift at the hospital, I’d come home and check the calls, return them if people left numbers, and answer the line directly if somebody rang. I wanted to listen to callers’ stories, get useful information out into the community and try to talk people down from this cliff of fear. But it did interfere with my personal life—dating, certainly. I couldn’t devote my time to anyone while also answering the phone at any moment.

My friend Tim was part of the Buddy Support System, where a volunteer is assigned to help a person with AIDS. He later became a client when he got sick. We met in the early ’80s, dancing at a club called Playpen Central. We dated for a while and then continued as friends. I think Tim wanted more, but I wasn’t able to give that to him. He was such a special guy—very considerate, very sweet, very reserved. I was his executor when he died, and also for a number of friends and clients. It was emotionally challenging, but the least I could do was wrap up their lives for them. I had a couple of friends who always said they didn’t want to get old. Tim was one of them, and he died in October 1989, at 39. I don’t think that’s what he meant, you know?

I left AIDS Vancouver in 1989. I had to back away. For years after, I couldn’t go near anything having to do with AIDS—candlelight memorials, the movie Philadelphia. It had been a very intense six years, days and evenings and weekends. And there was the frustration of going to the provincial health minister for funding and being told our safe-sex pamphlets were filth. There we were, trying to save people’s lives, and the government didn’t even want to put a dollar on the table.

In many ways, I feel like I’m a connection to a generation of men’s stories because so many people died so young. I’ve been given this life, all these extra years. That’s why it’s really important to remember these guys, to say their names once in a while and to think about them. And to be thankful I’m still here.  

—as told to Stéphanie Verge

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Wendy Stephens being knocked down by police for the third time, as Dominic approaches to help her Linda Dawn Hammond/


Remembering Montreal’s Stonewall

In the early hours of July 15, 1990, police raided the Sex Garage loft party—and sparked a movement. Wendy Stephens was one of the people beaten that night.

I was 23 years old—a baby. Nicolas Jenkins, the video artist, was throwing an after-hours party at a loft in Old Montreal. I’d done work for him, modelling and such, and I ended up there with a friend. Nicolas’s parties were always funky and full of freaks—I mean that in the best way. There were contortionists with snakes, and everyone was very open and creative. There were maybe 400 of us, a proud bunch of misfits.

The police arrived at around 3 a.m. The music went off and the lights went up, but that part wasn’t unusual—these kinds of parties often attracted cops. They would come in asking about illegal alcohol or saying there was a noise complaint. My friend and I decided to head home. Leaving the building, we began to turn right on De la Gauchetière Street to where we’d parked. But the police made us go in the opposite direction instead, and corralled us up onto Beaver Hall Hill. We knew then that the raid was premeditated. That, and because they’d taken off their ID badges.

Stephens returns to Montreal for the anniversary: 'We shouldn't let our guard down' Photograph by Jessica Deeks

That’s when the cops—30 or 40 of them—tightened the circle around us. Everyone started running, so I did, too, and I got separated from my friend. But then I thought, why am I running? I didn’t do anything wrong. I turned and asked the cops, “What’s going on?” I paid for that. One of them punched me in the chest and slammed me down.

I got knocked down three times that night. The second time, a cop hooked his billy club in the small of my back and catapulted me through the air. The third time, when I was on my hands and knees on the ground, in shock, one of the police officers said, “Get up or I’m going to break your ribs.” 

I knew my face was cut, but I don’t remember feeling pain. Everything was happening so quickly and it was so violent that my mind switched off.

That’s when Dominic came to my rescue. He was my saviour. We’d never met before, but he picked me up and ran with me. We ran all the way up Beaver Hall to Sainte-Catherine Street, which took about seven minutes. I tried to stop at a window to see my reflection. I kept asking, “Something’s wrong with my face, right?” Dominic would just grab me and say, “Don’t look at yourself. Don’t.” The police were up on the sidewalks in their cruisers, chasing us. It was surreal.

We escaped by heading down to Place des Arts, which was blocked off for a festival—Just for Laughs, I think. That’s where a bunch of people, maybe 30 of us from the party, reconvened, on the steps of Place des Arts. It was complete insanity. Eventually we split up. One of the girls who was at Sex Garage was dating my ex-boyfriend, of all people. We went back to their place and he cleaned my face. He was freaking out. They finished tidying me up and then I walked home. I got in at around 6:30 in the morning.

A couple of hours later, the friend I’d been separated from came by to bring me to the hospital to make a report. I didn’t want the police to get away with it. But in the end, it was the eight partygoers who were arrested who had to pay a fine.

That night, there was a peaceful sit-in in the village, by Beaudry Metro, to protest the brutality. It dispersed after the police chief agreed to meet everyone downtown the next day, at Station 25.

I wanted to support the people who had been arrested, and I wanted to show my face. At the station, we blocked off traffic and sat down, but the police soon descended. Once I saw them in their riot gear, I had to move to the sidelines. I was still really fragile. I had bruises surfacing on my back from the billy clubs, and a fist print on my chest.

Listen: Wendy Stephens on how Montreal was special in the late 1980s and early ’90s, even with the violence.

There was so much brutality, this time in broad daylight. My neighbour got a club to the stomach. Another protester’s testicle was ruptured. People were dragged off by their hair. At Sex Garage, the only photos were taken by Linda Dawn Hammond, who’d been at the party. But this time there were news cameras and reporters. There were bystanders. And they were horrified. The public concern and outcry that emerged after the fact shamed the police and helped change things.

After the raid, my face was on the front page of the paper. I wasn’t even out to my family at that point. I went home to Wakefield, Que., to explain things. At first, my mom was confused, embarrassed by the media attention and worried about trouble with the police. But once she saw me and looked at the footage, she was in tears, shocked by what had happened to me and everyone else.

I took off for England less than a month after the raid. I’d wrapped up my studies in creative arts at Dawson College and just couldn’t be in Montreal anymore. I was so disillusioned. I went to Brighton, which is a gay mecca in the U.K. But I kept having nightmares about being in a safe space and then being attacked. I definitely had post-traumatic stress disorder, but I didn’t talk about it. Getting over it was a process. The silver lining is that it definitely made me a stronger person. More resilient.

One night when I was living in Brighton, I was at a dinner party and I still had scars from the lacerations on my face. People started asking me about Sex Garage—even there, they knew about it. Sex Garage is referred to as Montreal’s Stonewall (the 1969 uprising in New York’s Greenwich Village), and in many ways it was. It was a turning point for our community, which became more connected and inclusive. Something positive came out of something so negative. The raid was the catalyst for Divers/Cité, the LGBT festival started in 1993. We also got people on the police board to represent gays and lesbians.

The raid’s 25th anniversary was in 2015. I’m living in Wakefield again, where I own a boutique, but I went back to Montreal for the anniversary. I realized then that there are a lot of people, many of them queer, who know nothing about Sex Garage. I find that really sad. We shouldn’t let our guard down, especially with the possibility of a new government coming in. It’s crucial that people are aware of the past, and of what others have done to enable them to enjoy the rights they now have.  

—as told to Stéphanie Verge

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Michael Stark and Michael Leshner kiss in 2003, after becoming the first legally wed gay couple in Canada Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press


One historic kiss for marriage equality

It was the kiss seen around the world—a viral phenomenon in the pre-social media era. On the steps of a courthouse building in downtown Toronto, in June 2003, mere hours after the Ontario Superior Court had affirmed that the exclusion of same-sex couples from the definition of marriage violated Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Michael Stark and his brand-new husband, Michael Leshner—the first legally wed gay couple in the country—shared a smooch that would go down in history. Here the pair, now aged 61 and 71 respectively, reflect on their groundbreaking nuptials.

Michael Stark: We’ve been together 38 years. I never thought I’d live to see this much change. When I first came out—only a year before I met Michael—I thought life was going to be terrible: I’d be alone, I’d be miserable, I’d be discriminated against. The thought of meeting someone and spending a lifetime together never even entered into the equation for me back then.

Michael Leshner (left) and Michael Stark Photograph by Naomi Harris

Michael Leshner: It was a legal revolution at the same time that it was a social one. I think it was because I was a Crown attorney that a lot of people gave me a second look, a second chance. I filed a human rights suit in 1988, and then one in 1992, for pension benefits, which was the first time a gay couple was recognized as a constitutionally protected entity. I worked with colleagues who were married and had full benefits, and as an out gay man, the discrimination stared me in the face: after a year, Michael and I should have been entitled to the full benefits of common-law relationships—nearly the equivalent of marriage. And there was nothing.

MS: From those hardships, there are always some people who’ll rise to the challenge. It wasn’t me, per se. But Michael’s sense of injustice—he couldn’t let that go.

ML: I was an activist/catalyst who felt comfortable as an advocate, and who could speak to the press in a language they—and the public—understood. I always joked that I was influenced by the women’s movement, books and movies. And what moved me, watching as an adolescent in a darkened theatre, were these images of people who didn’t buckle and who succeeded at the end of the movie. Sure, I internalized homophobia, but I also internalized heroes and heroines. And in the end, heroes and heroines won out.

MS: It was mother’s milk to Michael. If I hadn’t been with him, there’s no way I would have been doing any of this on my own. I was this naive kid from Nova Scotia . . .

ML: And I channel Meryl Streep.

MS: There were some challenging years. I could have easily said, “You know what? I’m out of here. This is too much for me.” But the opposite happened. I think we grew closer together because of it.

ML: And Michael became stronger.

MS: You proposed to me when we won the first marriage case [Halpern v. Canada, which began hearings in November 2001 and was decided on July 12, 2002].

Listen: Michael Leshner on the most important aspect of gay rights.

ML: I decided in the moment and popped the question. I felt slightly nervous: What if he says no? I thought he might say, “I’ll tell you tonight,” or something. They’d said it would take two years for the government to address legislative issues [related to expanding the definition of marriage], which is part of why I’d asked him to marry me. My hope was that if he said yes, we’d be legally engaged as of that day, at least in the public’s mind.

MS: [Less than a year later,] they told us on the Thursday before we got married that the decision was coming out on Tuesday. Michael felt it was important that if the decision was in our favour, someone should get married right away, so there’d be one married couple. We thought the government would appeal right away.

ML: But if you already have one marriage in place, what are you going to do with that marriage? I didn’t think the Supreme Court would say no if we were married. Are they going to say no one else can get married, but this couple can? Does that sound like justice?

MS: Michael, with his usual flair, had lined up three judges to marry us in case the first two got hit by a bus. On the Thursday, when we knew it was coming up, we got our haircuts, we bought suits . . .

ML: I took Schmikey [the couple’s late dog, a photogenic schnauzer] to buy rings at Birks.

MS: We wanted to get married in the courtroom, but they wouldn’t let us.

Listen: Michael Stark on how one person really can make a difference.

ML: They said administratively, weddings could not be conducted in a courtroom. Here it was, this joyous case that went around the world, and they were going to say we couldn’t get married in an empty courtroom.

MS: So we ended up getting married in, like, a storage cupboard in the old Superior Court building.

ML: It was very democratic. In contrast to the current era of antagonistic, evil populism, this was truly an inclusive, democratic moment. The cleaning ladies were all there, clapping. Our lawyers were our attendants; they gave us away, symbolically. The law firm had an articling student bring my 90-year-old mother from the nursing home. I’m sure she had no idea why she was in a courthouse, but she started beaming when she saw me. The judge started to read our vows, and my mother, God bless her, I think the dementia kicked in, and she started to sing O Canada.

MS: I wouldn’t say it was necessarily a romantic service, but it was exhilarating. After the ceremony, we walked out to the steps of 361 University Avenue, and the press was there, and we spoke. Citytv ran around trying to find champagne glasses. Then they opened the champagne, poured it, and we toasted each other—and we toasted Canada.

ML: For about a year or so afterward, when our faces were really recognizable, people would come up to us. What really touched us was mothers and grandmothers.

MS: We were in the Manulife Centre [a shopping complex in downtown Toronto] one day, a couple of months after the wedding, and an elderly woman came over and said, “I just want to thank you. My grandson can get married now.” We did [get married] for us, but we really did it for the bigger world.  

—as told to Sarah Liss

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Bassel Mcleash (carrying flag) with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at Toronto's 2016 Pride parade: 'Fear made us understand the value of our sexuality' Adam Scotti/PMO


Over the rainbow

In June 2016, wearing a baseball cap and holding a rainbow-hued Maple Leaf flag, Bassel Mcleash attended his first Pride parade . . . and found himself marching next to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Overnight, the Syrian refugee—who’d landed in Toronto only a month earlier—became an inadvertent poster boy and an unwitting target for those opposed to taking in not only displaced Syrians but all LGBTQ2 people fleeing persecution all over the world. Here, Mcleash, now 31, reflects on that moment—and what came before and after.

My sense of my sexuality didn’t come forward until I started going out alone, trying to find people that I could understand. Around 2005 or 2006, I was studying at the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts in Damascus, near Sha’lan district. Close by was the In House Café, an afternoon hangout for gay people. After dark, all of Sha’lan was mainly a gay area. You could meet all kinds of people—poor, rich, in charge, not in charge, businessmen, whatever. We’d stay out till 2 or 3 a.m., walking, cruising, checking people out. We might rent a house with a pool, get a sound system and hire a DJ, and we’d have a rave of 2,000 or 3,000 gay people. Being gay was illegal in Syria, so if one policeman got a whiff of the situation, he could either arrest us or join us. Still, we felt safe. One time we dared a drag queen to go out and buy a CD wearing only a bikini. And she did it. In a conservative country, that was legendary.

In Sha’lan, we had 20 or 25 “families.” Your “mom” was the person who introduced you to the society. He or she would tell you where to go, what to do. We’d have a rap sheet about every person—a list of exes, a list of potentials. Each family took care of its members like they were a real family. That gave our lives as gay people more meaning.

Mcleash came to Canada from Syria, by way of Egypt, with the help of Rainbow Railroad Photograph by Jah Grey

It was like that until 2011. Sha’lan was one of the high-level areas with a lot of embassies, so there were lots of bombs, assassination attempts, gunshots. If we wanted to meet, we would only meet inside, in safe places. Even so, in the community some people got kidnapped, tortured, raped or selected for cleansing.

In 2012, I was working at an aviation services company in Damascus, but after the bombings started and the assassinations increased, the CEO decided we needed to move the office, so we went to Egypt. During our second month there, he went back on his agreement to pay us a proper allowance, so we all left. After that, I worked for a couple of months in a café in downtown Cairo that was owned by a lesbian couple. I used to sleep there also. In order for me to get a work permit, I had to provide proof of my HIV-negative status. When they did the first test and it came back positive, it became impossible to get a job, unless it was under the table. After the second revolution, around June 2013, there were more crackdowns on LGBTQ2 people. During a celebration for Egyptian Valentine’s Day in November, there was a raid where 14 people got arrested. More raids started happening in private places. It’s been like that in Egypt ever since.

I applied to the UN, but they told me, “No country will accept your file.” I applied to Rainbow Railroad [a Toronto-based organization that helps LGBTQ2 people at risk of harm in their home countries]. It took about a year before I learned I was accepted. It was Dec. 1, World AIDS Day. I walked into the Cairo call centre where I worked around midnight, and the first message in my personal email was from Rainbow Railroad. I stood up and gave my two weeks’ notice. It took five months to get my documentation. I arrived here on May 26, 2016.

Listen: Bassel Mcleash on what the situation was like in Syria before he left.

The whole situation in Toronto is hard to adjust to. When I was at the Pride parade, I thought, “Is this really happening? Am I really here? Am I really in the middle of the government of Canada?” It was a rare chance to meet someone in the seat of power. But the celebration of being gay is not really my thing. I mean, yeah, I’m gay, but I’m not only gay. We have a proverb: for each place, its own way of speaking. That is, for each location, you have a certain personality. So for me, I have time to be gay and to be my own self, but I don’t have to apply it 24/7. Things like that [have shaped] my perspective: I think the fear made us really understand the value of our sexuality. There are some people I connect to in the community here, but it’s not like what I had in Syria, not at all.

After me being in the news and all that, I got a lot of death threats. I don’t think that they got to me at that point, but they did later on, when a lot of the people who used to be my friends and support group started slipping away. I was in a neurotic situation where I was not able to go outside. I had a fear of being in open spaces, and in crowded spaces. I still do sometimes. It was especially hard because I didn’t really know who was making the threats. If I had known who it was, I would be able to memorize their pictures and take care. But the anonymity made me really afraid of every face that I looked at.

Do I regret it? No! No, no, no, no. I regret the outcome, but I don’t regret being out, being on the news, doing a TEDx Talk, having all those things. The backlash would happen, no matter what I said.

At the moment I’m working on myself. I have my psychotherapist, I do PTSD groups, I try to do anger management. I try to be a more decent version of myself. I want to be a stepping stone for others. I’ve decided to therapeutically write my life story in a book, talking about the difference between my experiences in Syria, in Egypt and here. And if it has the success I’m hoping for, I can start my own organization. I want to buy a house, and if someone is on the street, or being abused or neglected, they can come stay there. They can learn, they can get rehabilitated, they can get psychological and addiction treatment, whatever they need. Being alone here makes you vulnerable to every kind of abuse. And humans are social animals. If we don’t have that social connection, we are not going to be able to survive.  

—as told to Sarah Liss

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