LGBTIQ public servants demand apology for the Canadian war on queers
From the late 1950’ until the 1990’s, thousands of LGBTQ men and women in the Canadian public service and military were targeted by major national security campaigns. Fuelled by Cold War paranoia, these men and women were spied on, interrogated, and harassed by security agents, and hundreds of people lost their jobs.
Gary Kinsman is one of Canada’s leading sociologists and long-time activists on LGBTQ and poverty issues, among other things. In The Canadian War on Queers, Kinsman and co-author Patrizia Gentile take stock of this dark chapter in Canadian history.
Kinsman is now part of a network of former military personnel, civil servants, researchers, and allies who are demanding an official apology from the Canadian government. I sat down with Kinsman to discuss what lessons can be gleaned from this ugly and little-known piece of our past.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
This is a pretty dark spot on Canada’s human rights record but it’s not a well-known one. What do you think people should know about this?
I think the important thing to remember, is that under the guise of national security, lesbians and gay men per se, from 1958 on in Canada, were identified as being a national security risk. We were identified as being a national security risk because we supposedly suffered from character weaknesses that made us vulnerable to the influence of evil soviet agents.
But in the course of our research, what we discovered is that the only people that tried to blackmail these people were the RCMP or security officials themselves, who wanted to try and get people to give the names and identities of other people they knew so they could also be put under surveillance.
There were a number of features to it; people were followed, people were purged, the Canadian government tried to develop what they referred to as the ‘Fruit Machine’ to identify lesbians and gay men so that they could be purged from the civil service or denied jobs.
Really there was a concern that came out of an association between communism and left-wing radicalism and people who defied sexual boundaries and gender boundaries as well. So gays and lesbians sort of got grouped in together with other supposed threats to the state.
What this meant was that national security was used to define lesbians and gays and homosexuals as somehow outside the fabric of the nation. The other side of that is that heterosexuality was constructed as being the national, normal, and safe sexuality.
It’s similar in terms of how national security operates in relationship to other groups. So in relationship to people who are identified as being Muslim or Arab, they are expelled from the nation, where a white, small-c christian character is constructed as being at the center of the state. Or in relationship to the environment, people who are protesting the tar sands and the pipelines, get expelled from the fabric of the nation as some sort of supposed risk to national security, and at the center of the nation-state is constructed the petroleum business and big corporations as being in the Canadian national interest.
Can you say a little bit about what the relationship was between the culture within the public service and policy around policing and surveillance of sexuality?
You have to remember that the public service emerges and expands in the ‘50s and 60’s, and there’s a gendered division of labour within it. So it’s largely women doing clerical and support work and men are at higher levels, where they would have security clearance. So initially, the campaign focuses an awful lot on men, especially men in external affairs — the body that had responsibility for the relationship between the Canadian state and other states — that’s one of the central targets, and the Navy is also a central target early on. But the campaign then extends to all sorts of parts of the public service, that have nothing, at least on the surface, to do with national security; the Post Office, Canada Mortgage and Housing, CBC, the NFB, all of these areas come under surveillance.
The other thing that’s important about the campaign in Canada, as opposed to the United States, which is one of the reasons why people don’t know as much about it here, is that it was very secretive. In the US you actually had these big public hearings — not only about communists but about ‘sex perverts.’ In Canada it was very secretive, so that even when you have the emergence of the gay and lesbian liberation movement in the early 1970s, people are only vaguely, if at all, aware of what had been happening.
It’s also important to point out that because the lesbian and gay movements challenged the national security policies of the Canadian state, that our movement themselves became targets of surveillance for the RCMP throughout the 1970s and into the ‘80s. Even gay and lesbian dances were put under surveillance until 1975.
These campaigns also created this whole notion that lesbian and gays weren’t good workers, weren’t trustworthy workers; there was something suspect about them, and this has helped to create broader forms of employment-related discrimination that queer people have faced and some continue to face to this day.
You mentioned that gendered division of labour. That makes me wonder — were lesbians and gay men targeted or treated differently through this process?
I think if people had been in the same positions it would have been equal, and certainly in the military, especially later on, the targeting of lesbians becomes quite major. In the military you were not only a national security risk, you also were violating the disciplinary rules and regulations of the military, which prohibited explicitly lesbians and gay men. It was certainly experienced by these women as a major invasion into their lives.
Part of the culture of the public service, is that it emerges in a very top down fashion, almost based on military forms of organization. Now, that changes with the unionization that begins to take place in the public service.
Right, so from what I understand the public sector union movement started to roll in the late ‘60s and 70’s.
Yes. So in the public service, the intensity of the campaign begins to die down by the late 1970s, in part, I would want to suggest, because of the growing union organization.
And I think the unions didn’t initially pay attention to this, and some unions were probably quite complicit in it, as they were in the campaign against communists and socialists within workplaces, but by the 1970’s as unions are getting more militant and more organized and people are more concerned about the rights of members, there is a certain pushing back against some of the disciplinary regulations within the public service, and that creates a bit more space for gays and lesbians.
Was there a point at which the unions explicitly took this issue on?
They wouldn’t have explicitly started to take positions until they were asked to support things like sexual orientation protection by the lesbian and gay movement. And one of the things that starts in the 1970s is lesbian and gay workers organizing within their workplaces – within the post office, and within the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), within the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), and that begins to shift the terrain.
So it’s not necessarily explicitly that they say ‘we are going to speak out directly against the national security campaign surveillance of lesbians and gay men’, but they create a context that makes it much more difficult for those campaigns to proceed, because they are now willing to fight for the rights of their members.
You are part of a network that is demanding an apology from the Canadian government for these horrible campaigns?
We Demand An Apology Network is demanding an apology and a recognition of what happened for all of these hundreds of other people who were purged from their positions, who lost their careers, and in many cases were totally devastated. Their lives in some ways were destroyed and the Canadian government has some responsibility in that, but has never officially recognized or apologized for that.
The only small group was Michelle Douglas and a few other individuals in 1992, who had legal action against the Canadian Military at that point in time. And that’s why we are asking for the Canadian government to issue an apology, to take responsibility, to begin to right this major historical wrong that was done to people.
What’s important at this point in time is that the NDP has these motions that are calling for an apology for people purged from the military and for a correction of their service records. And it’s calling for an apology for people purged from the public service, and it’s calling also calling for an extinguishing of the convictions for those people who were charged for consensual homosexual activity during this period of time. And we support them.
So it’s the NDP coming together, finally, with some of the people who have done research and writing on this issue, like myself and a series of people who were directly affected and who are willing to speak publically about this. So we hope that with this new constellation of forces we can actually create a context in which an official apology can actually be produced.
Ella Bedard is rabble.ca’s labour intern and an associate editor at GUTS Canadian Feminist Magazine. She has written about labour issues for Dominion.ca and the Halifax Media Co-op and is the co-producer of the radio documentary The Amelie: Canadian Refugee Policy and the Story of the 1987 Boat People.