Canada's new gay coin riles opponents — and some supporters — of LGBTQ rights

The "Equality" coin celebrates the 50th anniversary of the decriminalization of homosexuality in Canada.
Image: Canada has launched a new coin to commemorate LGBTQ rights.
Canada has launched a new coin to commemorate LGBTQ rights.Royal Canadian Mint
By Julie Moreau

The Royal Canadian Mint released a commemorative one-dollar coin (commonly called the “loonie”) Tuesday to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalization of homosexuality in the country. While many Canadians are celebrating the coin’s debut, not all — including some LGBTQ rights supporters — are pleased.

"The Mint plays a significant role in celebrating Canada's culture, history and values through coins,” Marie Lemay, president and CEO of the Royal Canadian Mint, said in a statement.

“Marking 50 years since a landmark decision that began a process of legal reforms to recognize the rights of LGBTQ2 Canadians is a powerful way to recognize Canada's profound belief in equality and inclusion," she continued, adding "2" to LGBTQ for "two spirit," an indigenous concept that isn’t completely translatable into the Western lexicon of gender and sexual orientation.

In 1969, Canada’s Parliament passed legislation that partially decriminalized homosexual activity, specifically activity conducted in private between two individuals 21 and older. Other legal prohibitions were maintained.

Three million of the special “Equality” loonies will be minted and entered into general circulation starting this week. Designed by Vancouver-based artist Joe Average, the coin is a “stylized celebration of equality viewed through an LGBTQ2 perspective.” The image of two overlapping faces, he added, “reflects gender fluidity and the spectrum of genders and is left open to interpretation: They may belong to two individuals or they may represent different aspects of one's identity.”

Randy Boissonnault, a special adviser to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on LGBTQ issues, said the coin’s release is an important day for all Canadians.

"It is an opportunity to reflect on a landmark event in our country's history, and a reminder of the progress still to be made as we work toward inclusion and equality for all LGBTQ2 Canadians,” he said.

Helen Kennedy, executive director of Egale Canada, a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and two-spirit advocacy group, told NBC News that the coin marks “a particular milestone in recognition of LGBTQ2 people in Canada,” and called it “hugely significant and something that we should be proud of.”

“It's a really good thing to show other parts of the world we celebrate diversity and queerness in Canada, and it’s something that should be applauded,” Kennedy said. “There are 70 countries that criminalize homosexuality, and I’m sure the activists in those countries would love to have basic recognition of their existence.”

CRITICISM ALL AROUND

The Morning Rundown

Get a head start on the morning's top stories.

The introduction of the Equality coin, however, is not without criticism and controversy.

The conservative Christian organization Citizen Go circulated a petition opposing the release of the loonie that has garnered just below 55,000 signatures. The petition calls the coin “highly offensive to many Canadians, particularly those who are Christian,” adding it’s “nothing less than an attack on our faith and an affront to our God.”

“When we first heard about it, we were outraged,” David Cooke, executive director of the group’s Canadian branch, said. “This is a moral issue, this is a sin issue in terms of homosexual practices.”

Cooke characterized the coin, which he says has a “very strange look,” as divisive and said it “glorifies” the “LGBT lifestyle.”

“I can’t have it in my possession,” he added. “This is promoting something that goes against my beliefs.”

“Grown adults have a right to do whatever they like in the privacy of their own bedroom, but there is no business for the government putting this on money,” he said.

Gary Kinsman, a longtime gay activist, is also displeased by the Equality coin — but for a very different reason. Kinsman claims that the coin obscures the persecution of LGBTQ people that continued after 1969.

Kinsman is part of the “Anti-69” network, a group of activists and scholars who have come together to counter the government’s position that 1969 marks the decriminalization of homosexuality in Canada. Kinsman called it a “mythical position.”

“What happened in 1969 is two sections of the criminal code were partially reformed having to do with ‘buggery’ and ‘gross indecency,’” he said. This change, he explained, “did not affect any of the other offenses that could be used against people engaging in homosexual sex.” The offense of “gross indecency,” for example, was not abolished until 1988.

Kinsman pointed to Canada’s first lesbian and gay rights demonstration in 1971, which protested the limited scope of the 1969 reform. Kinsman also said that large-scale police raids on gay bars and bathhouses continued throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s in major cities across Canada.

And today, Kinsman said, LGBTQ people remain criminalized in many ways.

“There is still a blood ban and criminalization of people with HIV,” Kinsman said. “There was not equality in 1969 and there is not equality in 2019.”

Bill Morneau, Canada’s finance minister and a member of Parliament for the area considered Toronto’s “gay village,” acknowledged the fight for LGBTQ equality is not over.

“We recognize that there is absolutely more work to be done, but we also know that celebrating the people who've worked so hard, seeing important milestones is critically important in a path that we're going to continue to work towards making a difference,” Morneau said at a press conference Tuesday.

Among his criticisms of the Equality loonie, Kinsman argues its release is politically motivated. In advance of upcoming elections, he said, “the Canadian government is in full mode of trying promote this mythology.”

“Part of it is the heritage that is claimed by the Liberal party,” Kinsman said, speaking of Trudeau's party. “They want to claim a progressive veneer.”

Trudeau’s father, former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, put forth the 1969 decriminalization reforms, and the younger Trudeau issued an official apology to Canada’s LGBTQ community in 2017 for historical persecution by the government.

Helen Kennedy of Egale Canada doesn’t agree with the assertions from critics, such as Kinsman, that the coin is a political ploy.

“This is so not political,” she said. “This is basic human right to be able to exist and that what the mint is acknowledging.”

“I don’t think any government puts their hand up to take on LGBTI issues,” Kennedy said, referring to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex individuals. “I don't think in this election year it will do our government any favors, but sometimes doing the right thing is important to do.”

FOLLOW NBC OUT ON TWITTER, FACEBOOK & INSTAGRAM