The Canadian War On Queer Workers

Imagine getting pulled into an office by your boss and an RCMP officer and asked, point blank, if you are a homosexual. Or being cornered at a party and threatened with criminal charges if you didn't reveal the names of gays and lesbians you know who work for the federal government. How about being fired on the spot based on gossip and trumped-up allegations?

While these scenarios might seem like nightmares out of the McCarthy era, they played out over and over in Canada, from the 1950s until the 1980s. A little-known fact is that the Canadian state purged thousands of suspected lesbians and gay men from the government, the military and the RCMP from the 1950s until the early 1980s, considering them national security risks because of being open to being blackmailed. (Up until 1969, under Canada's criminal
law, homosexuality was punishable by up to 14 years in prison.) This destroyed people's careers and, in many cases, forced them out of the closet, harming their relationships with their families.

Gary Kinsman and Patrizia Gentile's explosive new book, The Canadian War on Queers: National Security as Sexual Regulation, details the RCMP's campaigns against gay and lesbian workers in the federal public service. The following is an interview with Gary Kinsman, a professor of sociology at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, and one of Canada's leading authorities on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues.

AT: In your book, The Canadian War on Queers, you detail the national security campaign that the RCMP used to purge gays and lesbians from the federal public services. Many people have probably not heard about this before. What do you think they should know?

GK:This was a major campaign throughout the public service and the military. Every component of the public service was involved. Thousands of people lost their jobs, or were forced to inform on other people. If the military found any evidence at all that you were gay or lesbian, you were discharged.

In the public service, quite often, after the '60s and early '70s (after homosexuality was decriminalized), they would simply demote you or freeze you; in terms of your position, you would have no possibilities of getting promoted.

The public service associations had a mixed history -- a history of complicity. It was the rise of the Canadian Union of Public Employees and the formation of the Public Service Alliance of Canada that began to make it more difficult for some of these security procedures to be implemented. Because one of the things the new unions challenged was the sort of paramilitary or quasi-military hierarchy that was in the public service, and the various forms of discipline that took place. And that obviously opened up some more space for lesbians and gays who were employed in the public service to begin to organize and,
eventually, begin to speak out.

AT: So, what would typically happen if a worker was suspected of being gay?

GK: You would be called into your supervisor's office, or you would be told that you had to report to the RCMP or to the security service in your particular department. For instance, one of the most hard-hit areas was External Affairs. You would be told: "We have evidence that you are a homosexual -- how do you respond?" And, basically, people would have to think on their feet if they had no sense that this was going to happen to them.

If it was a big surprise, they would have to either admit it, in which case they were probably going to be discharged, especially in the earlier years; or have
their positions frozen for a while. Or else, they could try and deny it. There were people who tried to not answer the questions; to try and simply say:

"Well, how do you possibly know that? What type of possible information could you have on me?" And what the RCMP would usually report is that: "we have reliable information." They would usually have tried to get at least three or four people who had identified this particular individual as a homosexual.

AT: You've mentioned that this had a lasting impact on the federal public service. How?

GK: I think it created a whole notion, for management, that lesbian and gay workers were somehow untrustworthy, unreliable, and morally tainted in some important ways. I think it also had something to do with making Ottawa, the epicentre of these campaigns, a pretty conservative place. Even though that's changed in pretty significant ways, I think that lasted for decades. I still think there are lots of people in management positions who think that lesbian and gay workers are somehow untrustworthy; perhaps prone to being security leaks or still vulnerable to being blackmailed -- which, of course, was the argument that was used by the RCMP and by the Canadian state against lesbians and gay men. Interestingly enough, the people we talked to said the only people who ever blackmailed them were members of the RCMP, trying to get the names of other lesbians and gay men.

AT: What happened when people refused to reveal information about themselves or others?

GK: I'll just describe an interview I did with "Fred" (that's a pseudonym), who was one of the RCMP officers in the Directorate of Security and Intelligence in Ottawa in the 1960s. His job was to purge lesbians and gay men -- particularly gay men -- from the public service. What he described was trying to make friends with gay men who were not in the public service, asking them questions about whether or not they had been at any parties -- gay parties. Could they identify who was there? Could they describe who they were? He would then try to get photographic evidence. If there were a number of people who could identify these workers as being gay then the workers were moved into the "confirmed" category and could be purged or demoted.

AT: How did people resist this treatment by the RCMP?

GK: Remember that, until 1969, all homosexual sex was criminalized. People would be told: "Either we are going to lay a criminal charge against you or you are going to give us the names of all of your friends." That obviously had a type of persuasive power to it. Resistance and non-cooperation took the form of refusing to name names. Individuals who had already been purged would be shown things like mug shots -- a book or card file, with names of suspected lesbians and gay men. And they would be asked, over and over again, questions like: "Is so-and-so a homosexual?" In lots of cases, they refused to reveal any more names.

AT: And how did the union movement play a role in this resistance?

GK: Lesbian- and gay-identified workers in various unions started to organize and I think once that began to take place, the national security police realized that they really couldn't continue this campaign in the same way that they had. In the early 1980s, in most (but not all) parts of the public service, these policies and practices began to be relaxed. Which didn't mean they ended, especially for individuals who had no connections with other people, or for people who were still in the closet. But certainly the people who had the backing of lesbian and gay organizations now felt that they were in a stronger position to be able to challenge these policies.

AT: So when people got politically involved, they were less likely to lose their jobs?

GK: Yes, and they may have been able to pass security clearances by that point in time. The other thing to recognize is how security clearance levels in the organization of the public service have gotten all enmeshed with promotional levels. Oftentimes, higher security levels are associated with promotion. What that sometimes meant was that lesbians and gay men simply tried never to get promoted to higher-level positions, so they wouldn't have to have a more stringent security check. If they had a more stringent one, the RCMP went further into their lives and talked to more people -- and then they would be uncovered and discovered. So, one of the strategies people adopted was to stay in the public service, but to sort of stay below the radar.

AT: Who else was targeted by the national security campaigns?

GK: It's changed a number of times over the years. But if you're thinking of the '50s, '60s and '70s, basically anyone who was associated with the left -- and this could range from the CCF or the NDP, to communist parties, peace movements, immigrant rights groups, feminist organizations, anti-racist organizations, Native studies -- all of these people, at different points in time, came under the scrutiny and surveillance of the RCMP. Different groups of people, at different times, were expelled from the fabric of the nation, to be constructed as sort of "rats" or a "risk to Canadian security." And they had national security surveillance called down upon them.

Early feminist activists were under RCMP surveillance -- even Rita MacNeil! A famous and beloved singer from Cape Breton, when she was involved with the Toronto Women's Caucus in the early 1970s, she was under RCMP surveillance.

AT: You make it clear that this made you question the very nature of national security itself.

GK: National security is always and everywhere used to expel some people from the fabric of the nation and to deny them their civil and human rights and citizenship rights. So, the other side of the RCMP security campaigns against lesbians and gay men was to construct heterosexuality as supposedly the normal, national, safe and secure sexuality. And the general campaign against people who were socialists or radical activists as basically being suspect, or some sort of risk to the nation, was used to deny them their regular civil and human rights.

So, national security itself is an ideological practice. It's very dangerous to people's civil rights; to people's human rights. We see this again and again in the
so-called War on Terror, where people identified as being Muslim or Arab are actually denied their human rights; they are expelled from the fabric of the nation.

AT: You spoke at PSAC's Pride Conference about the legacy of Trudeau's legislation to decriminalize homosexuality in 1969. You also talked about the politics of not forgetting. What should we remember about that period in gay history?

GK: What happened in 1969 was not some benevolent, wonderful thing that Pierre Elliott Trudeau did for lesbians and gay men. Decriminalization actually led to the clean-up campaigns before the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal and also the massive bath raids in Toronto in the early 1980s. So, one of the things I wanted to dispel was the sort of mythology that has been put in place, especially by the Liberal Party, that Pierre Elliott Trudeau did all of these wonderful things for lesbians and gay men and somehow was heralded for our liberation.

The other part I wanted to take up was the idea that some people in the more mainstream part of the gay and lesbian movement sometimes put forward: that, after winning same-sex marriage rights and, with Section 15 of the Charter, that we have basically arrived. We've reached Nirvana; we've got all the rights we need. From my vantage point, that's a very limited perspective. Certainly, we've come a long way, we've been able to win a lot. And Section 15 of the Charter -- the equality rights section -- has been useful to us, up to a point.

But, in a substantive sense -- in terms of what real, everyday, social equality means, we are certainly, by no stretch of the imagination, anywhere near there. I mean, you see this quite clearly when you scratch the surface of tolerance for lesbians and gay men. Even though we have same-sex marriage in Canadian society, you will see overt displays of hatred or even violence against queer people. We still haven't gotten to the roots of heterosexism and what I describe as "heterosexual hegemony" in Canadian society. We really need to continue to advance on that.

The area that I think is really important for us to be thinking about right now is the continuing heterosexist regimes of terror that young people face on the street and in high schools. We haven't challenged the fundamental social form of schooling, which is still based on an entirely heterosexual model. I would also want to suggest that we haven't challenged the fundamental social form that exists in Canadian society more generally -- even though we might be accepted as, to some extent, a legitimate minority group.

How we got to where we are right now is largely because we built alliances with other oppressed and marginalized people. We got an awful lot of support from the trade union movement, and it's important for lesbians and gays in our movement to remember that. We have to return to a politics of building alliances with other oppressed people and also recognizing the support and solidarity that we've got from the union movement, and how that needs to
be returned.

LGBT workers (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) in the union movement are located in a really important place. They are part of lesbian and gay movements, but they are also in the heart of the union movement. And, therefore, I think queer workers can play a major role in trying to reignite or revitalize a more progressive lesbian and gay movement that will push towards our substantive equality. Because lesbian and gay workers know that we are still oppressed and exploited.

Ariel Troster works in the communications department of the Public Service Alliance of Canada. A shorter version of this interview appeared in the PSAC's publication Our Union Voice.

The Canadian War on Queers: National Security as Sexual Regulation is co-written by Gary Kinsman and Patrizia Gentile. It was published in Vancouver by UBC Press (2010). ISBN 978-0-7748-1628-1 554 pages.