American Sociological Association

Section on Sociology of Sexualities

A publication of the American Sociological AssociationASA News & Events
April-June 2017

Sex and the Province: A Short History of Quebec

Poulami Roychowdhury, and Eran Shor, McGill University

Quebec has a long and multifaceted history of intimate relationships and sexuality. Over the past hundred years, the city has witnessed massive changes in the institution of marriage, as well as in the social acceptability and legal rights of gays and lesbians.

The province was long dominated by the Catholic Church, which exercised immense control over social and family life. These days, however, Quebec residents are calling the very foundations of marriage under question. A 2006 study by sociologists Don Kerr, Melissa Moyser and Roderic Beaujot showed that Quebec’s rates of divorce, cohabitation outside of marriage, and childbirth out of wedlock were substantially higher than those of all other Canadian provinces. Similar to Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, Quebec has very low marriage rates and very high levels of cohabitation. In fact, the concentration of unwed couples in Quebec today is among the highest in the world. Thirty-seven percent of people living together as couples in the province are not officially married. Cohabitation is so popular that the term conjoint/conjointe (masculine and feminine terms referring to either a cohabiting or married partner) is frequently applied to all partners irrespective of marital status.

The decreasing popularity of marriage in Quebec can be traced to the women’s rights movements and turning away from the Church, which were integral to Quebec’s Quiet Revolution (La Révolution Tranquille). A period of immense socio-political and socio-cultural change that surrounded the election of the pro-sovereignty national government in 1976, the Quiet Revolution broke the power of the Church and instituted a welfare state with robust family-friendly policies. In 1981, the provincial government went so far as to adopt a policy preventing women from legally taking on their husband’s surname. By making name changes illegal, the government hoped to initiate equality among spouses. The rule applies even to Canadian women who move to Quebec after getting married in other provinces. To this day, exceptions to the law are made only in cases where a person can prove that their last name invites ridicule, prejudice, and psychological suffering or in situations where someone has used their partner’s surname in an official capacity for at least five years.

Legal Distinctions

But even as Quebec has surged ahead with progressive marriage laws and a growing rate of domestic unions, important legal distinctions remain in the treatment of marriages and domestic partnerships. While together, cohabiting partners have the same rights as married couples. But upon separation, divorced partners are granted substantially higher financial claims. In a 5-4 ruling in 2013, Canada’s Supreme Court upheld the notion that marriage and domestic unions are not just different, but unequal. The justices ruled that after a split between unmarried couples, the provincial government could legally continue to exclude one of the partners from getting spousal support. According to McGill University Professor Céline Le Bourdais, a Canada Research Chair in Social Statistics and Family Change, the ruling signalled that while marriage was a formal commitment with rights and obligations, common-law relationships did not necessarily entail similar commitment.1

While marriage as an institution thus continues to be an issue of contention at separation between individuals and the state, Quebec has allowed a growing space for same-sex couples within that landscape. This was not always the case. According to the Canadian confederation of 1867, homosexuality was punishable with up to 14 years in prison. Only in 1969, did Pierre Trudeau’s government amend the law by decriminalizing acts of sodomy between consenting adults of at least 21 years of age. Still, to this day, gay youths (under the age of 18) who engage in anal sex can be prosecuted and punished with up to 10 years in prison. While Ontario recently repealed this law, Quebec has yet to follow suit.

Gays and lesbians have, however, made major advances in both social and legal rights. According to recent estimates, approximately three percent of marriages in the province are same-sex. Same-sex marriage was legally recognized in Quebec on March 19, 2004, a full year before Canada as a whole made a similar move.2 The official recognition of same-sex couples emerged out of a much more established social order. Montreal has long been a center of gay life. The first recorded gay establishment in North America was in Montreal. Moise Tellier established his “apples and cake shop” on Craig Street (now Saint-Antoine) in 1869 as an underground space where men could meet and have sex.3 In 1918, Montreal-based writers Elsa Gidlow and Roswell George Mills launched Les Mouches Fantastiques, a mimeographed underground magazine, the first known LGBT publication in North American history. These days, Montreal serves as a gay and lesbian tourist destination. It is known for its social tolerance and active nightlife which radiates beyond the Gay Village located around St. Catherine Street East, a short walk from the ASA convention centre.


  2. On July 20, 2005, Canada became the first country outside Europe and the fourth country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage nationwide after the enactment of the Civil Marriage Act.