After the Treaty of Paris in 1783, which ended the American War for Independence, more than 40,000 people poured into Canada. These were the Loyalists, those who’d chosen the losing side of the American revolution, and many of them no longer felt comfortable in the new nation of United States.
The sudden influx of people created problems, of course. The Province of Quebec was partitioned into Upper Canada and Lower Canada, to accommodate the English-speakers in the area that’s now southern Ontario, and who had a very different culture and way of life from the Québécois. Nova Scotia, too, was partitioned at this time, half of it becoming New Brunswick because the Loyalists and Nova Scotians couldn’t get along.
The differences in culture between the French Canadians and Loyalists aren’t too surprising, but the cultural gap between them and the Nova Scotians tells us something about the immigrants. They had a very different way of life from the people they had joined, even from their fellow Britons.
Before we look at the Loyalists themselves, though, we’re going to look at the culture which they sprang from, and the laws that they inherited. To do this, we’re going to turn to the other half of British North America, now divided from the mother country.
As we turn in this direction, though, I realize I’m stepping on to dangerous ground. The influence of the American gay movement on the Canadian one can be overstated and very often is. It’s the queer history vector of a larger problem: Canadians have trouble seeing ourselves in any way than as a reflection of others. We have trouble believing we could do anything worthwhile without being prompted from the outside. And American sources for Canadian history (such as the entry on “Canada” in the William Percy’s Encyclopedia of Homosexuality is absolutely contemptuous that Canadians have ever managed to do anything on our own).
In one particularly bizarre example, queer Canadians tend to separate our history into pre-Stonewall and post-Stonewall periods. Yet, Canada already had a thriving gay liberation movement before Stonewall, and had already achieved legalization of gay sex – the final rubber stamp on legislation, in fact, happened the day before the Stonewall Riots began. Given that chronology, Stonewall couldn’t possibly have influenced the legalization of homosexuality in Canada, because it had already happened. If there was any influence, it would have to have been the other way around.
Keeping these issues in mind, we now turn to the United States because of the effects this sudden wave of Anglo-American immigration had on Canada. Even if the Loyalists were, by definition, those who didn’t fit in with the majority, they still brought much of their cultural baggage with them, and we need to look at that cultural baggage.
The Puritan Colonies
It probably comes as no surprise that those colonies founded by Puritans took a dim view of homosexuality. Historian Byrne Fone tells us that the possibility that “New England might become a new Sodom was a constant source of anxiety to the Puritans”:
“When the Puritans brought their zealotry to America, they brought as well their antisodomitical ferocity; this crusade became an especially potent symbol in a theology based on the principle that God had offered the Puritans a new and special covenant. Like the old covenant between God and Israel, this new one gave the Puritans a promised land in return for absolute obedience; the story of Sodom clearly pointed out the consequences of breaking the covenant”
Thus, homosexuality was a form of treason to the Puritans, an attack on the New Jerusalem they had founded in New England. Homosexuality was believed to be risk the wrath of God not just on the individual but on the community. As Fone says, “The Puritans would suffer the fate of the Sodomites if the uncleanness that destroyed the Cities on the Plain was allowed to flourish in the city upon a hill.”
“Sodomy” came early to the colony, and it was punished harshly. The first case came nine years after the first Puritans arrived – the five boys involved were sent back to England be executed.
The situation in New England was different than with their French neighbours to the north. New England’s colonies had started 12 years after New France, yet had had their first “sodomy” trial 19 years before New France did, and handed out 5 executions. New France would never hand out any out any executions. In 1635, New Hampshire held a trial for two more men. There was a steady trickle of executions after that.
Also not surprisingly, Puritan laws were unusually strict when it came to homosexuality. When the theocracy of New Haven – now in Connecticut – put together a set of laws, it became the only jurisdiction in the English-speaking world to assign the death penalty to lesbianism.
Of the colonies, only Pennsylvania tried draft a law on male homosexuality that did not include capital punishment. There, however, the death penalty was forced upon them by the English government, which saw the law as too lax. The laws enacted in most of the colonies did not quote English law, however, but drew on the Bible as legal precedent — the only precedent the Puritans felt they needed.
Some of this fervour was diluted as less-extreme immigrants arrived in the colonies, more interested in jobs and land than in religion. Then the Enlightenment came to New England – with its claim that reason, nature, and “natural law” should guide people instead of religion and “superstition.” The Enlightenment became the driving force behind the revolution, and a wave of legal reform that swept the colonies. As we’ve seen, however, the Enlightenment was not exactly friendly to homosexuality either.
The wake of the reform movement did bring some change — the death penalty ended for “sodomy” in most states — and further brought with it an atmosphere of revolution and experimentation. After the revolution, in the 19th century, the homoerotic prose of Herman Melville and the poetry of Walt Whitman could even gain a foothold on the land the Puritans had founded. Gay subcultures began to appear in the major cities, and in the second half of the 20th century, these subcultures began to be exported – like other aspects of American culture – to the world.
Still, the Puritans had left an astonishingly deep mark on their civilization. It’s notable that while the punishments eased, the American colonies didn’t repeal their “sodomy” laws as France would after its own revolution. Connecticut kept the death penalty for “sodomy” until 1822. Even Thomas Jefferson, the strongest voice for the Enlightenment in the US, would suggest castration as a way of punishing sodomites.
Violent homophobia remained so ingrained in American culture that when sodomy laws were ruled unconstitutional by their Supreme Court 2003, 14 states still had these laws on the books. A handful — such as Texas under George W. Bush — were still enforcing them. These were the only jurisdictions left in Western Civilization to be doing so – even Vatican City and the former communist countries had beat them to legalization, as had the last feudal state The Bailiwick of Guernsey.
When the Loyalists left, they left behind that Puritan culture while it was still very conscious and active. The question now becomes, “What kind of culture did they create when they arrived in the future Canada?” How much of the Puritanism did they carry with them into exile?
Before we can ask that, however, we have to take a small detour, to take closer look at the laws of England and New France.
Sources: I’ve relied heavily on Byrne Fone’s Homophobia: A History for this section, though Louis Crompton’s Homosexuality and Civilization was occasionally helpful. I also made use of A History of the Canadian Peoples by J.M. Bumsted for information abut the Loyalists.